How this Founder and 'Shark Tank' Veteran is Fighting to Create a More Inclusive Coffee Category

With Copper Cow Coffee, Debbie Wei Mullin is on a mission to bring Vietnamese coffee culture to the world. Here are three lessons she's picked up along the way.

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By Mita Mallick

Copper Cow Coffee

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Over the past year or so, I've developed a number of obsessions. I have become obsessed with simple routines like making my bed, unloading the dishwasher and finding all of my kids' missing socks. I have become obsessed with a number of series on Netflix, including discovering Broadchurch. And finally, I have become obsessed with drinking cups of instant coffee with heavy doses of milk to get me through these pandemic days.

While friends and colleagues will joke about my obsession with instant coffee, it reminds me of my visits to Kolkata, India. My mashi (aunt) would always have a cup of Indian-style instant coffee ready in the morning. She would mix the instant coffee and sugar in a cup, then pour hot milk on top of it. The smell of the coffee transports me back to my childhood days.

On a journey to expand my coffee palate, I stumbled across Copper Cow Coffee. These single serve filters come packaged in an elegant box with an embossed copper cow logo and brew a rich Vietnamese-style cup of coffee in 90 seconds. My favorite part of the experience is adding the sweetened all-natural creamer that comes with the kit.

Image credit: Copper Cow Coffee

"Vietnamese coffee is known for its creamer," says Debbie Wei Mullin, CEO and founder of Copper Cow Coffee. "The creamer is the super power. It completes the cup."

When many of us think about where the coffee we consume comes from, we think of Brazil, Colombia or Ethiopia. Often overlooked is Vietnam, which is the second-largest producer of coffee in the world. The global coffee market is expected to expand at a substantial CAGR over the next several years. According to the National Coffee Association, more than 70% of consumers prefer preparing coffee at home to buying it from a shop. Consumers are also increasingly looking for certified products that are good for coffee farmers and all of our communities. Copper Cow Coffee's flagship product, a single-use, pour over format that fits into a coffee mug, addresses exactly what more and more consumers are searching for.

With Copper Cow Coffee, Mullin is on a mission to bring Vietnamese coffee culture to the world. Here are three lessons Mullin has picked up on her journey to create a more inclusive coffee category:

1. Build a team culture where all can participate

As a child, Mullin was always competitive and loved taking on new challenges. In high school, she decided to join the wrestling team. "The team was looking for smaller weight wrestlers, so with no experience, I signed up," she says. "I was the only girl on the team."

From that experience, Mullin ended up starting a women's wrestling team so more girls and women could participate, and she went on to captain not only the men's team, but also the women's team her senior year. "I learned a lot about team dynamics from those early experiences. I am constantly thinking about how I can create a competitive and supportive environment where all women can thrive," she says. Today, Copper Cow Coffee is women-owned and women-led, with an all-female board as well.

For Mullin, the ongoing challenge as a leader is building a team culture where there's space for everyone. "You need to create space for everyone to succeed and where it's possible for everyone to be a star. You don't just choose favorites; you must recognize people for their contributions."

Related: How This Entrepreneur Is Changing What We Put on Our Kitchen Tables

2. Build relationships with those who understand your mission

"Sure, fundraising is a really tough journey," Mullin acknowledges. "I remind myself that you can always find cash. More important is finding people who are aligned with your mission."

Some of the early feedback Mullin received in her fundraising journey made it clear to her that investors didn't understand the market opportunity. One investor suggested that Mullin expand her line with Guatemalan coffee. Another investor thought it was too narrowly positioned as coffee for Vietnamese people.

"Greek yogurt isn't just for Greek people," Mullin says. "What we are building is a beautiful expression of brew. Our mission is to share the vibrant heritage of Vietnamese coffee, all while elevating the coffee-drinking experience."

Although Mullin knows the market opportunity is huge, she acknowledges that it's hard for investors to see something as investable when "you and what you are building are so different from them and their life experiences. We need more investors from all different backgrounds and life experiences writing checks."

Being a female founder can be a lonely journey, but Mullin has been lucky to build key relationships with investors — her cap table is primarily women shareholders. Roger Chen of Silverton Partners was one of the first investors who understood the market opportunity and has been a champion for Mullin and other female founders. "I didn't have to explain it to Roger; he immediately understood where this business was headed given his background and life experiences." Cultivian Sandbox Ventures rallied to get Mullin a term sheet the week her baby was due. To date, Copper Cow has closed $8.5 Million in Series A funding.

Related: This Founder Is Disrupting How We Consume the World's Most Popular Beverage

3. Build sustainability from your brand's inception

After building her career at the World Bank and the Asia Foundation, Mullin realized that entrepreneurship was a better way to make an impact in the ecosystem. "I realized the system wasn't built for me to succeed. I felt so constrained and like I was no longer effective."

As she brought coffee back from trips to Vietnam and started building Copper Cow Coffee, she knew she had to find ways to support Vietnamese coffee farmers. From its inception, Copper Cow has been dedicated to sourcing ethically and sustainably from Vietnamese farms. Its farms practice organic agricultural and processing methods. This means using polyculture and organic matter compost and abstaining from pesticide use.

"Our farmers are paid two times the market rate to ensure a higher quality of life and the most delicious coffee we can produce," Mullin says. "This is the reason why I started this company. I want to lead by example: We can build sustainability into the way we do business and also be successful and make an impact in the world."

Related: These Sisters Relied on Side Hustles to Pay the Rent While Bootstrapping Their Food Business: "We Were Pinching Pennies Then Would Walk Into a VC's Office and Act Like We Didn't Need Their Money"

Mita Mallick

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Head of Inclusion, Equity and Impact

Mita Mallick is a corporate change-maker with a track record of transforming businesses. She gives innovative ideas a voice and serves customers and communities with purpose. She is currently the head of inclusion, equity and impact at Carta and is a top LinkedIn voice of 2020.

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