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Before He Became a Revolutionary Coffee Roaster, He Photographed Revolutionaries

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August 31, 2020 7 min read

It might be a stretch to call Red Bay Coffee “revolutionary” for simply being a Black-owned specialty coffee roastery that sells to communities of color — but not by much. It’s a real departure from the norm in a niche industry run mostly by, and for a certain flavor of, white folks. And while Red Bay’s founder, Keba Konte, never envisioned that coffee shops would be the stage for his societal disruption, he was certainly prepared for the venture. 

Konte grew up in the Haight-Ashbury district of  in the 1960s. He was the child of an interracial couple — his mom was a photographer, and his dad was a carpenter with a background in philosophy. He wrestled at San Francisco State while studying photojournalism, and in 1994, Konte went to South Africa to cover the country’s first all-race election. He photographed the newly elected president, Nelson Mandela. Then he went to Cuba and photographed Fidel Castro. 

Image Credit: Courtesy of Keba Konte

In the late ’90s, Konte was part of a San Francisco artist’s collective that opened Guerilla Café in Northern Berkeley. They hosted art shows, and were the first café to serve Blue Bottle Coffee. At that time, Konte didn’t know much about coffee. But after opening a second café, Chasing Lions, he began to feel uncomfortable with the “colonial” breakdown of the specialty coffee industry — with farmers, primarily people of color, doing the hardest labor and getting the smallest cut, while the roasters and coffee shops were run by young white urbanites (“hipsters,” in other words).

So Konte built a “garden room” off his garage in the Fruitvale section of Oakland, and started roasting beans — teaching himself from YouTube videos. A year and a half later, in early 2014, he founded Red Bay Coffee. Konte was determined to employ an “anti-hipster cast of characters.” He hired people of color, people with disabilities and formerly incarcerated people. Women make up 65 percent of the company’s leadership positions. For that, and the quality of their coffee, Red Bay has built a passionate customer base. 

These loyal customers — and a few other well-timed ventures, like a mobile café van — helped keep the company afloat when the pandemic crashed onto the scene in early March. They hit pause on opening a roastery in Los Angeles and three new San Francisco locations, and pivoted to meet unprecedented ecommerce demand. Then, the George Floyd protests happened. Konte says the “Buy Black” initiative that swelled up alongside the movement has had a “profound impact” on Red Bay Coffee, and all Black-owned businesses. But he reminded us that shining a light on injustice has also cast shadows of fear and anxiety over African-American communities as they watch police violence and backlash to protests playing out on the national stage.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Keba Konte

Konte is one of the 137 entrepreneurs we put on our July/August cover, because we think that what he’s done this year, and will continue to do, is invaluable to the entrepreneurial community. Since the issue came out, we caught up with him to hear more about how Red Bay has responded to the events of this year.

Before the pandemic hit, what did your hopes and plans for Red Bay Coffee look like for the year?

Before “the rona” came to visit, we had planned to scale our business to Los Angeles by establishing a new Public Roastery and a couple of mobile coffee vans. We also had three new cafe operations slated to open in San Francisco.

Related: 6 Ways You Can Support Black Businesses Long-Term

Can you talk a little bit about your decision to introduce the mobile van, and what kind of role that has played throughout the pandemic?

The mobile van was something that had been in the works for a year. Once the pandemic hit and we were forced to close our retail shops, we rushed to complete and launch the van. We were able to get it in service by early April when most other coffee retail shops were still closed. It played an important role by increasing revenue when we needed it the most and signaling that Red Bay Coffee was adapting to the current conditions. The van also helped build brand awareness. Although, as I write this, the Bay Area is inundated with smoke from the surrounding wildfires, creating unhealthy breathing conditions for anyone outside, forcing us to close the van service. 

Image Credit: Courtesy of Keba Konte

I understand that your ecommerce sales spiked 350 percent. Were there any hurdles or innovations that cropped up in response to that kind of demand?

Three-hundred-fifty percent growth is what most businesses dream of. But to have that level of growth in a matter of hours can pose an interesting fulfillment challenge. We did our best to handle the rapid increase, and I am super impressed with our production team for their execution. We have since invested in a better shipping software and employed scan-and-pack technology. We are ready for another increase.

Related: A Brief Guide to Letting Black Entrepreneurs Be Entrepreneurs

Can you talk a little bit about the role supermarkets and other retailers have played in your business plan, and the difficulties of breaking into those markets?

At a time when retail coffee shops, restaurants and offices are closed and closing rapidly, we experienced an uptick in our current grocery channels. However, if you were not already in relationships with the various grocery stores, it was a hard time to establish a relationship because they were inundated with increased demands and had little bandwidth to onboard new vendors. Although in the last 30 days or so, we have made inroads with a few of the nation’s largest online grocery retailers — Good Eggs, Thrive and Trade Coffee.

As a Black-owned specialty coffee company that markets itself to the Black community, how have the protests and forward strides made by the BLM movement impacted your business?

The rising of the Black Lives Matter movement has had a profound impact on Red Bay Coffee and most Black-owned businesses. In June 2020, most Black-owned businesses in the U.S. and beyond experienced historical levels of support in response to national “Buy Black” initiatives. One point to keep in mind is that even though we may experience a spike in revenue, we are also experiencing a spike in anxiety, anger and fear for our lives and the lives of our loved ones as we witness the mounting killings of unarmed African-American citizens.  

Image Credit: Courtesy of Keba Konte

Looking forward to the immediate and more distant future, what’s the focus for Red Bay?

Our short-term plans include introducing a line of unique, ready-to-drink coffee beverages that we hope the public will love as much as we do. After that, we will build more local, Covid-friendly coffee retail concepts and continue our national expansion to become the most relevant coffee company in America. That expansion will take us first to Los Angeles and then Atlanta.

Related: How Fair Trade Went From a Crazy Coffee Concept to a Global …

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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