The Resilience of People: Inspiring Hope with Coffee (Part Three)

For an organization to be truly resilient, its people must be courageously resilient. In our work alongside clients, we experience this truth every day. Within this blog series, we’ve set out to tell the stories of resilient friends, family, and colleagues who inspire and motivate us to persevere in the face of challenges and do good in the world and in our work.  

In Part Three of “The Resilience of People” blog series, North Highland Senior Consultant Katherine Wooten sits down with client Kitti Murray, founder and CEO of Refuge Coffee. This non-profit organization is one of the flagship members of North Highland’s Social Impact Accelerator pilot, and delivers employment opportunities and job training to refugees settled in the city of Clarkston, GA.

Refuge-Coffee-Co-Web-Logo-SDKatherine Wooten (KW): Refuge Coffee has a tremendous impact on the community of Clarkston today.  Looking back, however, the success of the organization may have been hard to conceive when you started in 2014.  It may surprise people that you had no experience as a business owner prior to starting Refuge Coffee. What sorts of challenges have you overcome as you look back on the last several years?

Kitti Murray (KM): Learning that I don’t have to know everything has been a big challenge for me. Nothing in my former life, at least on paper, prepared me for starting Refuge Coffee. The challenge for me personally has been shifting from, ‘I don’t know anything and I don’t think I can do this’ to, ‘I know what I don’t know, so this is who I need to have a conversation with to learn, or this is who I need to partner with.’ It really comes down to having confidence, and humility, and being realistic that not everyone knows everything (and the ones that say they do aren’t very much fun to be with, or work with).

From the organization’s perspective, when we started there was a challenge of identity. We had a general idea of our identity, and it was a good one, but we couldn’t keep going with this general idea. It took work to truly figure out who we were. During that first month, we laugh that we had an identity crisis every day. Knowing who you are also helps you to figure out who to partner with, and who to have a conversation with. Just saying ‘yes’ to everything and trying to be everything to everyone runs you into the ground, both as a company and as individuals. So learning who we are, and paying attention to that, has given us wisdom about what to do.

KW:What does being resilient mean to you?

KM: I think it means the willingness to take reasonable risks, so that the end goal can be achieved without losing sight of that goal. I have also learned from my son, Stephen, that resilience means creating a cadence of preparedness and protected spaces. To me, resilience isn’t just hard work. It doesn’t just mean, ‘I have energy and I can go out there, and I’m not going to hit my snooze button, and I’m not going to stop.’ It means that I have created a rhythm in my own life and in our organization’s life that recharges. Everybody has to have some kind of cadence, where you evaluate and plan for what you want to get done. It means being aware of yourself and what you need, recognizing the need to stop and reflect periodically, and then figuring out a way for your organization to do that.

KWWhat does Refuge Coffee do that enables refugees to overcome hardship and be more resilient?

KM: There are different kinds of hardship. With refugees, many of those needs are urgent, and about survival (and we don’t really address that – there are NGOs here that do a great job of addressing those immediate needs upon arrival to the U.S.). Overcoming hardship is a given for anybody who’s here. But as you know, surviving is not living. What we do is help people make a jump to a more sustainable and enjoyable life. We’ve hired several people within a few weeks of arriving here. We’ve also hired people who were self-sustaining, but who really weren’t thriving. One of our employees didn’t enjoy speaking, because she was afraid to talk to people in English. Now she can tell a joke in English and make customers laugh—a level of health in her ability to communicate that she may not have achieved otherwise. Another employee had never been outside of Clarkston until she came to work with us, where she got to go downtown, go to movie sets, and experience a broader life. She would say before this experience, she was depressed because she just didn’t know anything else.

We have a curriculum, we have training, we have skill sets that people have to learn, but I think what we do best is create an environment where relationships can form. Every one of our trainees has at least one relationship with someone in the community who doesn’t speak their language. When we started, we didn’t know if that was going to happen. You hope it will, and you have this idea that it will. And it helps to realize now that it has happened.