From LearnServe Ethiopia to Cambio Coffee Shanghai: Interview with Sebastian Martin

Sebastian Martin is a proud alum of LearnServe Ethiopia 2004, the very first LearnServe cohort of students and teachers to travel and serve abroad. That journey inspired his next decade of travel, community service, political activism, and eventually his calling for social entrepreneurship. In 2013, he founded Cambio Coffee – an organic, direct trade, specialty coffee company based in Shanghai, China. As a social enterprise, Cambio Coffee offers price premiums to small farmers and cooperatives, and reinvests 5% of its gross profits into development projects in coffee producing communities. As an emerging coffee brand in China, Cambio also offers spaces for cultural events, community empowerment, and charitable fundraising in its cafes. Sebastian has been a mentor and adviser to dozens of early stage entrepreneurs, a teacher of leadership to high school and university students, and the President of Fresh Start Shanghai – a Rotary club dedicated to empowering NGOs and social entrepreneurs in China. At LearnServe International’s 15th Anniversary Gala: Social Innovation Starts With You, he will be honored with our Entrepreneurship Award.

We recently spoke with Sebastian about his time with LearnServe, founding Cambio Coffee, and advice for young social entrepreneurs.

Did the LearnServe Ethiopia trip change aspects of how you interact with the world?

Absolutely. It’s hard to pinpoint one experience… the whole trip was transformative for me, and the collection of memories, and places, and people that I encountered all were important in changing my worldview. Some experiences are more poignant, and I can still recall them clearly… playing with children and holding the most innocent infants at an AIDS orphanage, seeing a 6 AM sunrise and the most beautiful sprawling valley atop of one of the highest mountains in the area, witnessing the chaos of a food distribution center with people lined up around the block, being humbled by the quiet dignity of Ethiopian farmers toiling in the countryside, being welcomed into the home of a local villager to offer us potatoes, the dedication of local teachers in the schools we assisted, the beaming smile of a kid who wanted to know where I was from, getting to know Addis Ababa with local residents… all of these experiences helped crystallize my desire to dedicate my life to helping others. After Ethiopia, part of me wanted to start a movement, a revolution, some world-changing innovation; and another part of me was incredibly humbled and content with starting a small initiative, convinced that if I could improve even one person or family, my work would be meaningful. The trip opened up my mind to the realities of developing countries beyond the Bolivia of my youth where I visited family. It made me aware of a global human narrative, of a commonality between all people, and of a struggle that involved all of us – facts that many people in the US seemed unaware of. It made me more empathetic and helped define my life’s purpose of wanting to create change and improve the lives of others. I hope a positive and empowering legacy continues long after I’m gone.

What inspired you to found Cambio Coffee in Shanghai? 

After finishing my studies, I wanted to start a social enterprise that could empower communities globally. I chose to focus on the coffee industry to tackle some of the environmental and humanitarian issues at it’s core. I wanted to create a business that didn’t exploit poor farmers and poor countries, as is unfortunately the norm in many industries including coffee. I wanted to create a direct supply chain that could empower small farmers and cooperatives that were already having a positive social impact in their communities through social programs. Like with my LearnServe Ethiopia experience, it was international travel and direct exposure to the realities of rural coffee farming regions – particularly experiencing the lives of coffee farmers throughout Latin America – that fueled my desire to start Cambio Coffee. Visiting farms and interacting with farmers – witnessing their desires, passions, and struggles – was the inspiration and early conception behind Cambio Coffee’s mission. I completed my entrepreneurial masters program partly in China, which informed me of a much larger and more dynamic emerging market beyond the US for a potential coffee venture. I was convinced that my future was in Shanghai, so that became my foundation for creating a commercially successful global social enterprise.

What would you like young change-makers to understand about social entrepreneurship?

  • Every product and value chain has the potential for social impact. Think deeply about where your product is from, what resources it uses, and who is needed to create it. Then think about how you can change or improve your value chain so that it has a greater impact.
  • You can be a social entrepreneur in any sector, whether you have a non-profit, government, or corporate job. As long as you identify social problems and are innovative and creative about solving them, you are a social entrepreneur.
  • Embrace what others interpret as your weaknesses, and turn them into your strengths. Your social mission, empathy, and passion for helping others are what will differentiate you in a competitive global market.
  • Leverage your ability to work in between the blurred lines of non-profits, government entities, and corporate sectors. Share resources and translate messages from all sides to maximize your success and impact.
  • Your social mission and integrity will keep pushing you, getting you through the darkest times and uncertainties inherent in any form of entrepreneurship.
  • Identify what makes you mad. The issues that affect your life personally, and the injustices you can’t bear to see in the world, those are the problems that you must solve. Never give up on solving them, and never forget about the fuel that started your fire.

What advice would you give current LearnServe students?

Allow yourself to be transformed by LearnServe programs. Apply your learning to your everyday actions, and be mindful of how you interact with your world and the people around you. Social entrepreneurship can be a very fulfilling and rewarding career path. Take it seriously… and if you feel authentic fulfillment never give it up.

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