Vanderbilt University

How can the power of ideas shape the future of an entire sector? Learn more about how Vanderbilt University used Wazoku software to engage students, faculty, and industry professionals in a program of change

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Sustainability is at the top of the agenda for countless companies, NGOs, public and private stakeholders, and NGOs in the coffee sector. The Coffee Equity Lab in the Wond’ry Innovation Center at Vanderbilt University aims to challenge this topic, while also confronting the social, economic, and environmental inequities and injustices.

Mounting pressure around inequities of all kinds led The Coffee Equity Lab to introduce a program, based on social innovation and systems change, to better collaborate and coordinate for a brighter future.

Convening concerned coffee professionals and Vanderbilt students and faculty, across conversations, workshops, publications, mentoring, and the Coffee Equity Design Challenge, the Lab focused on three direct areas of action:

  1. Providing Systems Insight & Thought Leadership
  2. Convening Brave Spaces for Dialogue & Shared Understanding
  3. Co-creating Meaningful Innovations for Sustainable Future


Participants over all programs


Countries represented in the coffee actors


Contributors and mentors

Systems insight and thought leadership

Challenges in the coffee sector are often as a result of several interacting historical and modern inequities and injustices. From climate change to racial injustice, these factors are highly complex and interrelated: meaning they cannot be resolved by one-off solutions.

Through the Lab’s systems change approaches, members advanced their understanding of the root causes and effects of these social, economic, and environmental challenges. By better understanding the background, Vanderbilt participants and external stakeholders alike could discuss and map the roles that they could inhabit to lead meaningful change and bringing about a different future for the sector.

Outcomes of this section of work were especially seen in a better understanding of sustainability issues and opportunities, and an increased awareness of where people involved in the sector can help: from planting to distribution. Students also led 4 systems research projects around climate change, inequitable value distribution, gender inequity, and racial injustice.

Convening brave spaces for dialogue & understanding

Creating meaningful change can often start with a conversation. In order for these conversations to happen, the Lab facilitated concerned stakeholders with spaces to talk and discover the challenges they face, why they exist, and how the sector can begin to resolve them.

The Coffee Equity Lab created public access educational opportunities in order to listen to and engage with a broad range of people. Through this effort, the Lab enhanced opportunities for cross-cultural understanding that led to further trust and collaboration among students, staff, and coffee professionals.


public webinars held


cross-sector panelists sharing their expertise


attendees of the talk series

Co-creating meaningful innovations for a more sustainable future

Current challenges may even transcend the value chain, meaning that they are beyond any one single root cause. In the same way, individual actors cannot be blamed for the existence of a particular social, economic, or environmental challenge.

At The Coffee Equity Lab, programs like the Coffee Equity Design Challenge are useful to reflect upon current challenges and collaborate for the future. Participants from Vanderbilt and sector professionals imagined, iterated, prototyped, and co-created meaningful innovations that might help bring more sustainable and just futures for all coffee actors and communities.

Participants were asked to respond to and develop solutions around standardizing and advancing the coffee sector’s sustainability priorities through creating a visually compelling educational resource.

Over a 12-week program, powered by Wazoku, 19 student teams and 30 coffee sector mentors created plans for business models, products, services, and partnerships that could change the world of coffee for the better. 13 coffee sustainability prototypes were created and a field trip to Guatemala was held courtesy of the generous, collaborative support of the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equality (CCRE) and sponsors of the event.

The role of Wazoku and future plans

After two years’ progress, The Coffee Equity Lab is reflecting on its priorities and impact to develop a strategy for the future. The Lab is actively looking for collaborations and partnerships that will unlock the pathways to meaningful impact across the coffee sector.

As part of this reflection, the Lab is asking reflective and innovative questions internally: around whether the Lab needs to exist, or could its model, IP, and concepts simply be shared? How can the program better prepare other leaders in the sector for transformative action? How can successful endeavors like the Coffee Equity Design Challenge bring more value to the sector?

This introspection is necessary to bring the model’s value to the world, and for participants, sponsors, and stakeholders alike to ask “How can we, as a sector, bring people together to imagine and co-create coffee’s just future?”

The answer? Through the power of people, underpinned by innovative technology, and united by a single aim.

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