We talk to Sarina Prabasi and Elias Gurmu, the married cofounders of Buunni Coffee. The company brings world-renowned Sidamo, Yirgacheffe and Harrar coffee beans directly from Ethiopia.
The company, based in N.Y., was initially created as an online business in 2012 and launched its first brick and mortar location later that year in September.
LIONESS: Why have you chosen to dedicate yourself to this particular industry?
PRABASI :My husband and I lived for many years in Ethiopia, a stunning country in East Africa with a rich history. Howeever, when most people think of Ethiopia, they think of drought, famine and poverty. These problems exist, but there is so much more to the country, too. We wanted to focus on something positive, something that Ethiopians are proud of – and decided on specialty Ethiopian coffee.
LIONESS: What makes your product unique?
PRABASI: The focus is on specialty Ethiopian coffee. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and it still grows wild in many places. There is a rich history and culture of coffee in Ethiopia.
In addition to Buunni’s Ethiopian roots, it is also rooted in the community of the Northern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City, where our café is located and where we live. Most of the Buunni team are so local that they walk to work. We give priority to small and micro-businesses when we choose suppliers and vendors, and display the work of local artists and we contribute to and participate in community events. Café Buunni has a particularly global, and local feel at the same time.
LIONESS: You could have worked for anyone and would have been successful, why become an entrepreneur?
PRABASI: My whole career before Buunni was in international non-profit work. I have been really blessed to have an interesting and rewarding career working on education, health, and global water and sanitation. I have traveled and lived all over the world, and had the priviledge of working with community members in remote villages, negotiatingwith governments and the speaking to the United Nations. However, when my husband and I started Buunni it was the first time I had ever directly worked on a for-profit business. We approached it as a partnership, combining my expertise in social issues with his entrepreneurial background, and creating a business with a strong social conscience. What surprised me the most was how fun it was. Hard, hard, work, but it’s the hard labor of love and tremendously gratifying.
ELIAS: I decided at 18 that I didn’t want to work for anyone else. Since then, I have started a number of successful small business in Ethiopia, including a popular restaurant catering to office lunch-time crowd in the capital city, and a taxi service.
LIONESS: What was your last, “why did I go into business for myself” moment?
PRABASI: Honestly, we have never once regretted the decision. Yes, there have been stressful and difficult times, but never regret. It was a fantastic decision.
LIONESS: Every female professional should have …
PRABASI: Other female professionals she can talk to.
LIONESS: If you could steal some business mojo from another mogul, who would it be and why?
PRABASI: I wouldn’t because it wouldn’t be mine. It wouldn’t be authentic and my customers would feel it. There are many business leaders that I admire, but I don’t try to emulate anyone. I’m a strong believer in learning from everyday experiences and people that I meet from all walks of life.
LIONESS: What is your business motto?
PRABASI: Do well by doing good.
LIONESS: If you could give other entrepreneurs three tips, what would they be?
PRABASI: For those thinking of starting a business, whatever it is:
- if you don’t love it, don’t do it.
For those with kids:
- make sure you have a support system, particularly during the start-up phase, you will need it.
- find someone who will give you honest, constructive feedback.
LIONESS: Has there been a piece of technology or software that has been a lifesaver to you?
PRABASI: It’s remarkable how much of our business we manage and run from our phones. We can check and manage sales, orders, trouble shoot, manage team, suppliers, security and so much more.
LIONESS: What is your goal for the next year?
PRABASI: Grow and deepen the social components of the business while adding two locations and doubling online sales.
LIONESS: When someone is telling their friend about your business, what do you hope they say?
PRABASI: Buunni is a small business with a big heart.