When business and justice collide – an interview with Blue Bear Coffee

While I was at the Justice Conference, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bryn Frere-Smith, the founder of Blue Bear Coffee Co. – a new business enterprise working to end human trafficking. We sat down over lunch while he shared his story…

So, Bryn, where did it all begin? Let’s roll back your story! 

Sure. I grew up in a strong Christian family and ended up taking a gap year in Bolivia prior to university. This was such a formative experience for me, as I not only saw poverty, but people who were giving their lives help others and it kicked started my passion for justice. I ended up at Chester University studying Sports Science and Drama (although studying wasn’t much of a priority) and from there developed a real conviction that I wanted to join the police. I’ve always felt hypersensitive towards injustice, even as a kid I hated bullying and wanted to affront it as best I could. After I graduated, I worked as a bouncer in nightclubs, while pursuing a place within the police. My first shift as a copper involved dealing with two dead bodies as part of the emergency response team. I later went on to work in a proactive unit targeting some of the borough’s most prolific criminals. 

Wow that sounds like a crazy start to your career! So, what happened next? 

Definitely. I never wanted to live a safe, pedestrian life. I feel somewhat compelled to live life on the edge! After five years in the police, I ended up reaching a point of stress and burnout, so I decided to take some time out (in Mexico of all places), praying and seeking God as to the next step. I arrived back in the UK and had the most unsuccessful season of my career thus far! I envisioned and set up two businesses: a landscaping service aptly named ‘Can’t Be Grassed’ and a security enterprise. Both epically failed. So, I moved on and worked for five years as a close protection bodyguard, and then as a security consultant for an investment firm in Mayfair. However, it was during this time when my life appeared the most successful, that I was questioning what I was really living for, in the midst of so much greed and riches. 

And after that breakthrough you wound up working for the IJM (International Justice Mission)? 

I’d known of the work of IJM for a long time, but I suddenly felt driven to volunteer for them and use my skills and experiences from the police to combat human trafficking. Before I knew it, I was bound for the Dominican Republic as an Undercover Investigator working on the streets engaging with women and girls involved in prostitution. I found this a pretty hard time working a double life, needing to collect evidence but wanting to show God’s love for these people. It felt like I had to fake it to make it, as a tiny oversight could completely blow my cover. But when you collect evidence that leads to someone being freed from a life of suffering, what could possibly be better than that!? I also learned a lot, especially what it was like to live and work in a God-centred team, celebrating the wins and marking the losses. 

So, would you say that your time in the Dominican Republic was the moment that opened your eyes to the world of human trafficking? 

Absolutely. I came back with this idea for a coffee business. I took a job back in London working as a bodyguard, while launching a start-up on the side, named Blue Bear Coffee Co. with a double mission: to sell ethical and transparent coffee while using the profits to combat human trafficking in partnership with other organisations. 

Would you position yourself as a charity then? 

No. We are 100% a business – and proudly so. Charities do amazing work, but they need to be multifaceted to achieve their aims. Whereas a business is much more binary; the simple aim is to make as much margin as possible. What you end up doing with the profit is up to you. We sell coffee to churches, restaurants and coffee shops from direct trade arrangements with farmers across the developing world, at a rate that we consider to be truly fair. Last year, for example, we paid on average 156% above the fair-trade price of coffee. We then use our profits to reinvest in organisations like Justice and Care, IJM and Unseen to allow the money to go further and be involved in the reach and restoration of survivors of human trafficking.

That is so great. But how do you deal with the inevitable pushback that comes from starting up something with huge amounts of personal investment? 

I’ve had devastating conversations with churches and businesses who failed to see the vision and when the response is negative or apathetic, it can be hard not to take it personally. If I take a negative response personally, it’s easy to become bitter, and bitterness is ugly. I especially find it hard from churches who claim to be pro justice, but see it as an imposition or hassle to just change their (non fair-trade) coffee supplier. In those instances, I’ve learned that losing is part and parcel of business, and the key’s to lose quickly. Don’t waste time on it, but dust the sand off your sandals (as is Biblical) and move on. If I can’t convince them to get involved in Blue Bear, I leave the rest up to God. Instead, I prefer to develop relationships with people who really ‘get it’ and focus on celebrating the wins. 

It sounds like you’ve encountered both the joys and challenges of merging business and social justice! What would your advice be to someone who dreams of doing something similar? 

Do research – and lots of it. Ask to take someone out for coffee who has had a lot of time and experience in the industry and glean from their knowledge. It’ll cost you £2.50 and an hour of your time, but the benefits could be life changing. There’s a certain empathy that comes from most entrepreneurs who’ve endured the hard graft to understand what it’s like to start out. They’ll usually be happy to give you a steer. You also need to be as flexible as possible; your business plan will probably fluctuate around thirty times before it’s set. That’s all part of the process. Focus on your mission but keep an open mind.

Solid advice. Just one more question before we wrap up. If you could go back to your student days, what wisdom would you want yourself to know? 

Change your course! Sports Science and Drama is not for you! But in all seriousness, I would say to learn to be authentically you. I have always been riddled with fear and insecurities, and they never go away, you just discover how to deal with them better. Even now, when I hit publish on a blog post or release the latest episode of our podcast, fear can attack from all angles whispering discouraging nonsense. You have to learn to resist it. Don’t let fear dictate your decision making. When you let fear have the final say, you will miss out on so much. Have the courage to stick your head out above the rest and do what God’s placed on your heart. Be bold, be brave and be the first to try something new, challenge the parameters of your life. Who knows where it could lead. Think Big.

Amazing, I love that. Thank you so much for sitting down and sharing with us!

To find out more or get involved with the vision of Blue Bear, including their new podcast ‘Justice and Coffee’ check out their website.

You can also hear more of Bryn’s story right here on the Together Podcast.

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