Liza Elena Pitsirilos and JD Stier

Our day jobs are founding chairman (JD) and CEO (Liza) at Mighty Peace Coffee.

(JD) The story behind Mighty Peace Coffee has been shaped by many things. 

One was the time I spent in prison as a teenager for marijuana. It was a horrible, scary and dehumanizing experience but it taught me we need to take action every day we’re here. We can be so comfortable while others are suffering and I hold that with me: There’s an urgency and pressure to act because of that suffering. It also showed me the paradox of light and dark; that there is space for good and bad to co-exist.

Because of this history, I met my college roommate, Kou Ayuen.

When I got out of prison, I was on parole, sporting a monitoring ankle bracelet and going to classes at Madison College, bound for UW. My mentor Luke Matthews told me there was another student coming to Madison emerging from an a-typical journey and he thought we should meet each other. Kou was a refugee from the African Great Lakes region, which is a rich, beautiful region, at it’s center is the eastern DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) that’s also a functionally failed state and home to the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission.

Through my friendship with Kou I came to realize the horrible realities an innocent, dignified people was dealing with. And I learned a lot about African resource conflicts and their affect on humans—back to that in a minute.

The third element that shaped my life was the time I spent in D.C.

In 2008, I was a Madison guy working for the Obama for America campaign. I was deeply motivated by the possibilities of making the world a better place. We won that campign and I landed at the White House by 2009. We passed healthcare; we made headway around the funding streams addressing mass incarceration. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

And then I met Liza in 2012.

We fell in love at first sight, but she was in Miami and she wasn’t moving for a man. I couldn’t imagine leaving D.C. to do anything else.

But time passes. Liza’s still in Miami, but we’re together. I’m in New York City making documentary films. I saw during my D.C. days how policy can come to life through storytelling and how decision makers shift their thinking and their action because of stories, movements.

I start telling the story of Congo with the goal of getting tech companies to commit to cleaning up their supply chain—the resources I mentioned earlier. Intel spends millions mapping and certifying their supply chain and open sources how they did it. I work with Robin Wright and Aaron Rodgers to create and promote a documentary, When Elephants Fight, and it’s picked up by Netflix. Apple commits to a certified supply chain.  We’re seeing exciting changes. And all this is happening because of a handful of activists right here in Madison.

We’re out showing our documentary in the Congo and a man named Gilbert Makalele contacts me, with a desperate but dignified plea for a chance to meet with the team. He was from a coffee cooperative and he had a request.

Gilbert tells us, “You’re great at sharing stories and we want you to share ours. We have the best coffee on earth and no one will come do business with us.”

I left the Congo with his story. Moved to Miami and started thinking about what he’d asked of us. I knew nothing about coffee, nothing about selling. But Liza and I began to see we might be able to help.

With my documentary experience and her work in leadership development and coaching it was all lining up. I said, “Liza, let me tell you a story.” And at the end she said “Yes.”

(Liza) There’s so much resilience in the Congolese people. There are horrible atrocities and yet there are also peace cooperatives, formed in response to that. They grow their coffee on the island of Idjwi, which is their word for peace. How they had responded to a cycle of conflict and poverty resonated very deeply with me from the very beginning. As a woman whose parents are immigrants from Puerto Rico and Greece and whose grandparents were in Auschwitz, I felt a generational responsibility to stand with Congo.

I saw creating this company as an opportunity to live in ikigai, which is the Japanese concept of finding your reason for being. It was an overlap of profession, vocation and mission that I could feel passionately about. A way to help create the next generation of companies in response to problems around the world—not just to build profits.

Mighty Peace brings together a diverse community of humanitarians and entrepreneurs. For instance, my Congolese counterpart, Linda Mugaruka, our chief quality officer, is a leader and model for women to see their future in coffee.

We’re bringing a human face back into this billion-dollar industry. Having one ear listening to the growers, the community and the impact having continuous business means to them. We’re hearing their pain points and struggles and sticking with them throughout bad times.

(JD) The Madison community has embraced us. Every dollar raised has come from Madison—family, friends, local leaders including the Sensenbrenners, and the Madison Development Corp.  The UW Business School adopted us. Merlin Mentors shared so much of their business expertise.

We’ve also had exceptional support from the UN. This year we’ll have a “coming out” party at UN headquarters in support of our efforts, and our launch of the peace trade, which has three pillars: fair trade, organic and peace cooperative-farmed. We created a complex model created in conjunction with the UN that ensures a depth and breadth of local leaders are involved. It also ensures cooperatives get the support they need as they move through periods of tough economic transformation. The political support, social support, a reliable income.

(Liza) This process creates a feedback loop and engenders respect and understanding. Some people have told us you can’t focus on the people or the coffee never gets better. We reject that philosophy. The harshest cuppers (the people who observe and rate coffee) have rated our coffee and given us high scores. But we’ve done it in a way that supports the people too.

Our most memorable caffeine is the entire experience of creating Mighty Peace.

Our current caffeine of choice is black coffee (Liza). Historically I wasn’t much of a coffee drinker and added cream and sugar to mask things I didn’t like. But the first time I had specialty coffee, I didn’t put anything into it and loved it.

Our favorite place for caffeine is Barriques.

(JD) This is our Madison home. Matt and Finn, the owners are two of the most decent people you’d ever want to meet and they helped us launch our company. To this day they have “Mighty Peace Mondays” and brew our coffees at their locations.

(Liza) Their head roaster, David Wheatley, has been invaluable. We connected him with Linda, in the Congo, and together they’ve elevated our coffee.

The person I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with is Karen Gordon, co-founder of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance. She isn’t just about coffee being fair trade and organic, she also works with women to help them own their land and take control. I’d love to have coffee with her and hear her journey and the lessons she’s learned and introduce her to our Congolese farmers.

(JD) And I’d love to introduce Mighty Peace Coffee to Jeffrey Wright. He’s a bad ass actor, activist that I had the pleasure of working with while I was living in DC. He’s involved in peace efforts across Africa, and he means impact!

World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine:

(JD) Realizing the impact we have as Americans. How we vote, how we buy, affects so many people around the world.

(Liza) I’d encourage people to ask questions about supply chain and traceability and how the things they consume are produced. If we each challenged ourselves to be the connection to the supply change and were conscious and transparent, think of the clarity we could achieve.