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Just a Little Bit Bigger

Just a Little Bit Bigger
Willy Foote, CEO of Root Capital and Fatima Isamel, general manager of SOPPEXCCA

Morning coffee in northern Nicaragua with Fatima Ismael, the amazing manager of SOPPEXCCA

I’ve just returned from a trip to northern Nicaragua, where we were visiting SOPPEXCCA, a 750-strong farmer coffee cooperative managed by an extraordinary leader, Fatima Ismael. Fatima and I have worked together for a decade, and I always look forward to talking to her about the history of Fair Trade and the cooperative movement in Nicaragua, in which she’s played a key role. Fatima is the lifeblood of SOPPEXCCA, and I’m always in awe when I see her in action. She’s one of very few leaders able to straddle that fine line between leading with tenacity and leading with humility.

After visiting SOPPEXCCA, my colleagues and I made our way to Costa Rica. One night, huddled around a table at a restaurant overlooking the entire valley of San Jose, our conversation turned to the news of Mandela’s passing. We were spending some time—as I think everyone did that day—reflecting on him, his life and his leadership when one of my Costa Rican colleagues said something that struck me as profound: “He was just a little bit bigger than everyone else,” she said. “He wasn’t a ton bigger, just a little bit bigger.” The magic of Mandela’s leadership came from the fact that he was, indeed, just a little bit bigger.

I thought about that for a while after dinner had ended, and realized that Fatima—the humble, powerful leader of SOPPEXCCA—is, also, just a little bit bigger than everyone else in her community. Watching her lead almost takes your breath away. There’s not a drop of arrogance or officiousness or entitlement in her leadership. It’s this enlightened, profound leadership that has allowed her to have such a powerful influence over the coffee lands in Nicaragua and the Fair Trade movement. She’s just a little bit bigger.

When I asked Fatima last week about managing through her second massive coffee crisis, she responded: “Ha, those who are freaked by this dollar per pound market (down from $3+/lb in 2011) surely didn’t experience 45 cents a pound in the early 2000s. We’ll see this through as well, don’t worry.” And with Fatima at the helm, I have every reason to believe that they will indeed.

As we move into 2014 and Root’s 15th year, I feel light on my feet knowing that we have leaders like Fatima who are just a little bit bigger to bring us through the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. 

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