Women in Coffee: Sara Olson

Sara Olson

The first profile in a series highlighting Women in Coffee

Sara Olson, General Manager of Visions Espresso Service, Inc.

When I was asked to reflect on my experience a woman in the coffee industry, I first thought I wouldn’t have anything to add to the conversation. I think about myself a professional, a team member, a manager, and a trainer, rarely as a woman in the coffee industry. Upon reflection, however, gender equity in expectations and performance is a challenge that is ingrained in our industry as a whole. The more we discuss the challenges it causes, the sooner we can overcome them and move past them.

I began my career in coffee fresh from college with a liberal arts education and very few qualifications for the job market. I found an enclave of similarly liberally-educated and liberally-minded professionals working for a coffee roaster and café in Providence, RI. There I learned that coffee is a path of learning itself, one that challenges each person who begins the journey to travel as far as they are willing to go. My journey down that path as a person and as a woman has been challenging, but if it were easy I would be doing something else. I love the challenge of learning new aspects of the industry. My biggest challenge has been overcoming expectations, both my own and those of the industry around me.

That first job in coffee was where I was promoted to café leadership. I continued to manage cafes across the country and open a few of them over the years. I worked for a couple coffee roasters both in production, roasting and managing accounts. I spent four years in corporate coffee managing teams and learning corporate structure, systems and everything I could from the masters of customer service. I joined the Tech side of the industry to manage a service company in the Bay Area. This path has now taken me to Seattle, where I run the largest coffee equipment sales and service company on the West Coast. 

Each stop along this path has been an opportunity for learning and growth.  I am thankful that the lessons I’ve learned in each previous role have made me more successful in the next. The structure and service standards I learned in corporate cafes help me implement standards for customer service and employee accountability when managing a company or a team of technicians. I have experienced first-hand the challenges café managers face so I am better prepared to help them diagnose their equipment problems over the phone or understand the urgency to getting them a technician.

However, none of my experience prepared me for the challenges I have faced over the last five years on the equipment service side of our industry. For someone who still has to think “righty tighty…” every time she has a screwdriver in her hand, learning the ins and outs of solenoid valves, open and closed circuits, automats, and a never-ending array of o-rings and gaskets has been daunting to say the least. Learning the logic behind troubleshooting or the right parts to stock a service vehicle along with are all the other parts of the overall job of running a sales and service company, but learning them has challenged my expectations of what I can learn, and shown me that I still have years of learning ahead of me.

Regardless of how much I have learned from the people I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years, my biggest challenge has been overcoming the expectations of what a leader in this industry is.  Of all the leadership hats I’ve worn over the years, I cannot think of one where I have not been challenged to prove that I have earned my role. The expectation in this industry, like many others, is that the most senior man in the room is the one who is in charge and the one who has the answer. As a young woman in a managerial role tasked with training and inspiring men and women who were many years more experienced than me in many different café settings, it was a challenge to earn their respect and loyalty. I’m often the youngest or smallest person in the room or the only woman, the benefit of the doubt that the advice I gave was correct was be hard to come by.  

Of course, on many occasions, you may get the best advice from the most senior man in the room, but it could also come from someone you don’t expect. It’s these assumptions that I work hard to change. Likewise, a man can be expected to be a strong leader and hold employees accountable to established standards. The expectations of a woman to be a strong leader can look very different, and when she holds employees accountable to the same standard she can be seen as aggressive. This dichotomy is long established in our culture and across all industries, certainly not unique to my experience or any of the roles I have filled over the course of my career.

Unlike many industries, the coffee community is small, nimble, and embraces change. As quickly as a new roast profile, extraction method or barista tool can change our expectations of what coffee is, so too could the notation of gender equality in leadership, in service and in the technician community. The more women who advance into leadership or technician roles, the more commonplace they will seem. When you are just as likely to receive direction, training or tech advice from a woman as a man, women will begin to enjoy the benefit of doubt and the respect they deserve for what they can contribute as individuals to the industry as a whole. I look forward to the day when women in leadership or service are not the exception to the rule. Until then, I will continue to learn, defy my own expectations, and try to live up to the expectations of what a great leader should be.