A Life Abroad, with Coffee

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Nancy Joseph 01/30/2018 January 2018 Perspectives

Julian Fellerman (BA, International Studies, 2011) grew up in a family of coffee lovers. Bags of beans and a dizzying array of coffee-brewing gizmos crowded his childhood kitchen.

“One of my fondest coffee-specific rituals was sitting with my parents out on our back porch during weekends home from college, discussing the awesome rollercoaster of university life over a steaming pot of Sumatra,” he says.

Now Fellerman has taken his appreciation for coffee to a new level, managing regional operations for Vega Coffee in Bogotá, Colombia.

Julian Fellerman (left) with Marlon Villareyna, a Nicaraguan teacher, community leader, and coffee farmer who was among the first to work with Vega Coffee.

The company holds a unique place in the coffee market. After buying coffee from farm cooperatives across Central America and South America, Vega trains coffee farmers to roast, grade, package, and sell their finished product directly to customers via their online store.  Fellerman spent the past 18 months overseeing day-to-day roasting and export of the product as Vega’s operations manager in Nicaragua. Earlier this month he relocated to Colombia, where he will provide on-the-ground support for a pilot project to expand Vega’s reach.

“I think Vega’s success has been the result of forming very authentic, reliable, and direct relationships with our farmer roasters and their families,” says Fellerman, who spends about one-third of his time visiting farmers. Having the roaster located near where the beans are grown “affords us multiple touch points and ultimately richer relationships with our farmer roasters.” It also benefits the farmers tremendously: since participating in this new model, monthly incomes have increased up to fourfold in some cases. 

There’s something so fascinating about interacting with the world through your vocation.

Vega sought an operations manager with a variety of skills, including financial acumen, knowledge of coffee, fluency in Spanish, familiarity with Central and South America, and a willingness to work abroad. The role was seemingly tailor-made for Fellerman, tapping into skills he developed at the UW and beyond. 

Fellerman’s first experience living abroad was a three-month program at an international university in Perugia, Italy, during his junior year at the UW. “I was the first UW student to attend the school since Amanda Knox was there in 2007, so a lot of eyebrows raised when I mentioned my Seattle provenance,” he says. The experience whet his appetite for more travel, and led him to major in international studies. The following summer he participated in a three-week UW Exploration Seminar in Costa Rica, and — after a post-graduation internship with the Global Indexes unit at Russell Investments — he headed to Chile for a year to learn Spanish and teach English.

Julian Fellerman holding — what else? — a cup of coffee

“By the time I graduated, my regional and language interests had shifted from Europe to Latin America and Spanish, and I wanted to engage with that part of the world in a substantive way,” says Fellerman. “That year in Chile was a game-changer for me. I learned a lot about myself through the lens of another people and another country. My host family became a second family, as cliché as that sounds, and I developed a proficiency with the Spanish language and Latin culture that has helped me navigate future professional experiences in the region.”

Fellerman still needed to bolster his business expertise, so he headed back to the U.S. and joined Linksbridge SPC, a consulting firm with an international focus. For nearly three years, he worked on global health analytics and strategy, supporting teams at the Gates Foundation and PATH. He followed that up with a fellowship with Kiva.org, the micro-lending website, where he served as an intermediary in Nicaragua to help manage the complex relationships between Kiva and its various in-country partners. Soon after, he was hired by Vega Coffee.

Along the way, Fellerman not only developed the business savvy and Spanish proficiency necessary for the job, but also an understanding of the roasting process. “A few years ago I took my enthusiasm to a new level and started home-roasting, starting out tinkering around with a popcorn popper,” he says. “I would experiment with different roast profiles and offer them to my friends and colleagues for feedback. The equipment and scale of roasting at Vega are obviously much different, but conceptually I already had a foundation from which to work.”

Nicaraguan organic coffee farmer Dona Ramona with Julian Fellerman. 

Though Fellerman has now moved to Colombia to focus on Vega’s pilot project there, he will continue in an oversight role for Nicaraguan operations. The ultimate goal is to empower the Nicaraguan team to become entirely self-sufficient. “Phasing out my full-time Nicaragua-based role is a big step toward achieving that,” he says.

Eventually Fellerman plans to move back to the U.S., closer to the friends and family he has seen less frequently while living abroad. Missing loved ones’ big events, including weddings and birthdays, has been the most challenging aspect of international work. But Fellerman wouldn’t trade the experience for all the coffee in, well, Nicaragua.

“There’s something so fascinating about interacting with the world through your vocation,” he says. “Not just through taking a vacation or sitting in your armchair theorizing about it, but actually involved with contributing to the positive economic outcome of a people or a country. It’s exciting to be a part of that.”

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