Product, Service & Design Innovation
THRIVE Farmers:
Beyond Fair Trade to a Truly Sustainable Coffee Industry

A Costa Rican coffee farmer’s son, an ex-lawyer turned coffee farmer, and a successful entrepreneur came together and created a partnership built on the idea of making a difference in the coffee community. By cutting out the middleman, putting a brand around it, and selling quality coffee direct to businesses, THRIVE Farmers is making it possible for farmers to receive ten times more profit than even Fair Trade standards. We asked founder Michael Jones what inspired him to leave his $40 million healthcare company to start THRIVE and how it is disrupting the coffee industry.

SB: Could you describe your background, specifically your history of entrepreneurship and the path to THRIVE Farmers?

Michael Jones: I've always been someone who's willing to take risks in order to accomplish a dream. Prior to starting THRIVE Farmers, that dream centered on a specific definition of success: money, awards and a lifestyle. But once I accomplished and had those things as the president and founder of another very successful company in the medical device field, I was left wanting something more fulfilling at a spiritual and human level. So I took a year off to explore other opportunities and came across the coffee industry, a highly volatile commodity with very little economic reward being passed back to the farmers who produce such a beloved product.

SB: How is THRIVE's business model different or unique from others focusing on fair compensation for labor in the supply chain? What unique features did you feel were missing in other models?

SB: Do you see or describe yourself as a social entrepreneur? An environmental entrepreneur? A triple-bottom-line entrepreneur? Do you like using any of these terms and do you have a favorite? Why or why not?

MJ: I understand why this terminology exists today, but I honestly think it’s simply the way we should think about and treat other people every day and everywhere, so why wouldn’t the principles be part of our businesses just as they are our personal, charitable and spiritual lives? THRIVE's structure and mission are very intentional — we wanted to prove from day one that a company can have a positive impact on the lives of people and also make money on the scale of any other for-profit corporation. Bringing economic sustainability to the farmers in THRIVE's system through our platform helps the farmer invest in future crops and produce better-quality coffee, which simultaneously helps us achieve better brand recognition and scale in the marketplace.

SB: Beyond farming and coffee, what other industries do you think are particularly ripe for disruption or major social and environmental innovation?

MJ: I think coffee farming in and of itself is a big industry to tackle, and one in need of major social, environmental and economic innovation. There are dozens of other agricultural commodities outside of coffee that have a similar supply chain and lack of benefit to the farmers. Having previously worked in healthcare, I also believe that industry remains in need of people willing to take risks and break the status quo we've come to expect. And if I were looking for the biggest challenges, then I could point to government spending, but that isn’t a “can of worms” that I’m willing to open!

SB: We look forward to welcoming you to SB '14 San Diego as a speaker and first-time attendee in June, where you'll be part of an exciting lineup of responsible entrepreneurs dissecting the novelty of their business models. What do you hope to get out of the experience?

MJ: I'm excited to share the THRIVE story with others in the hopes that it inspires them to think bigger in their own businesses. Similarly, I'm looking forward to learning from the stories shared by other likeminded brands and opening the entire topic of social, environmental and economic sustainability up for a bigger discussion.

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