On an unusually sunny day in Amsterdam, I sat across Dennise Yeh, a Taiwanese-born, internationally-bred businesswoman. Dennise is currently the Chief Growth Officer at a coffee consultancy start-up that provides training to stakeholders throughout the coffee value chain, in addition to having their own line of sustainable and innovative coffee. She has previously worked with some of the most recognised brands in the world. Originally trained as a journalist, Dennise’s non-traditional pivot towards data analytics and now sustainability has allowed her to embark on a continuous journey of self-discovery and to accumulate a breadth of fresh perspectives.
For those who may not know you, who are you?
My name is Dennise, and I am the Chief Growth Officer of Vuna Origin Consulting, a coffee consulting company. I was intrigued by Vuna as I personally did not have any knowledge of the coffee business. However, my mission throughout my career has always been to learn something new and to make an impact. Rewinding to five months earlier, right in the middle of the pandemic, I had a job with a mobility service company. I was their data person and the head of digital, and my job was to predict what people were doing and how to sell things at a lower price. However, the pandemic made me think ‘what do I really want to do?’ I am a digital person, but is that it? Is my whole career just selling cars to sneakers to dresses to underwear? So I thought about a career change. I knew the CEO of Vuna very well, though I have always thought there was not much I could contribute. But, the more and more I talked to the CEO, the more I was hooked!
What do you do every day as a Chief Growth Officer? Take me through a day in your life.
We at Vuna define very specific goals to be completed in a time period. For instance, if the goal is to launch a landing page, then we write what we have to do to achieve that goal. At Vuna, we do that for operational efficiency, especially since we work from everywhere in the world. My day consists of swimming between different business units, looking for bottlenecks and finding out what I need to solve. I jokingly say that I am the plumber! I am the Chief Plumbing Officer!
You mentioned that before your current position, you worked in digital analytics. Have you always specialized in that throughout your entire career?
Not really. I actually ended up in data by accident. I was very intrigued by data, and this was the time I was doing e-commerce. I got hooked on the analytics aspect of it, so I pursued it further – little did I know that it would be a career.
What drew you to data analytics?
Right now, the big things are artificial intelligence and big data. Back then, it was just trying to understand what people were doing on a website! How could I make them buy things, and how could I market at a lower price point? When I started, what was really fascinating was knowing there was a background. By that I mean, you typically get information by talking, but with digital analytics, you can understand the market trends through aggregated behaviour. It is through a click, through a tweet, it is through browsing. For myself, I found trying to understand a pattern and making predictions of what could happen fascinating. It is quite fact-driven, but you also need to have a personal touch to it.
Typically, digital experts tend to leave their industry because they believe it is too intrusive. What is your take on that?
That is maybe a part of why I wanted a change. I jokingly say to my friends that my job is basically snooping around on the Internet. That changed drastically with the introduction of GDPR. On the American side, the regulations are less stringent, but on the European side, it is pretty strict. Still, you’ve heard of all the data leaks – the data regulations are not up to speed. You have probably had experience with it yourself – you talk about something to your friends, and the next thing you know, there is a Facebook ad on it. I personally love the convenience and being served all the information. On the other hand, I do not like the fact that I am treated as an asset. So, there was a little bit of a dilemma in my career because I was the enabler, and now I think that I do not want to be part of it anymore.
Definitely, there is also another dilemma – you do not want to protect all the data because otherwise, everything will be so generalised.
Yes. You may have heard that Apple has the option of whether or not you want to share their data. Now, we have the choice to say, ‘I do not want you to use my data for marketing purposes!’ For us as consumers, it is a double-edged sword – how do you walk the line? As a data person, I would say that consumers should read the data privacy guidelines and be very intentional about where they want to share their data.
How did you take your knowledge of the digital world into your role as a Chief Growth Officer?
The coffee virtualisation model that we are working on mostly focuses on how we help the digital literacy of coffee producers at origin. We are talking about people who may not have the internet where they are or if they have it, it is mostly for personal usage. Something that you and I are very familiar with, such as digital education, they have not experienced enough of. They rely a lot on coffee consultants who come from different parts of the world to train them on the most updated things. Once Covid-19 came, the whole chain was broken. We are not a non-profit, but we do have the mission of really wanting to help. How do we do that while respecting the GDPR? We do so by sharing with them what we will do with their data and making it very simple for them instead of hiding it in pages of text.
How do you find these farmers and producers? Do they only produce coffee for Vuna?
There is a donor organisation that refers us to them because these farmers lack access. These producers do not only produce coffee for Vuna. The coffee chain is very long – we first have the coffee farmers, producers and organisations like co-ops, then we have the importer and exporters, then cafes roast the coffee beans before it is ready in the form that you and I are drinking now. We offer coffee services for all stages of the value chain by providing training. Before the pandemic, it was in-person training. Right now, we are focusing on the Vuna Coffee School, which is the digital training, but we are also thinking of how we can have more connection with the coffee people. We hear a lot in the school and the coffee industry that consumers do not care about sustainability. We at Vuna think that is not true – people care a lot about sustainability. The question is, how do we tell the story? How do we communicate it? How do we create that exchange with the consumers?
You talk a lot about sustainability in the value chain. It is a stereotype, but typically these products are higher priced. How do you strike a balance between your values and staying competitive in the market?
I think we were trained to pay between one to three euros for coffee, nothing more than that. You have to understand that someone is getting exploited at the other end of the coffee value chain and not being paid fairly. Understanding that is the first part, and now it is a matter of choice of how much we want to change the behaviour to contribute to the improvement of the value chain. It is funny that consumers want everything to be produced locally and close to home. To make coffee in Europe, though, it is going to cost three times more. On the other hand, if you do produce it here, the manufacturers will follow the sustainability guidelines more strictly. Will you make that change? I think most people are going to be on the fence. We are looking at early adopters as our target customers. I do feel like there are more and more people who are willing to look into the sustainability information of the brand and really pay attention. Any company can say that they are sustainable, but we need to understand what that means and the contribution of that particular brand towards sustainability. To give you an example, at Vuna, we make sure everything sourced is biodegradable. It costs three times more. Can we pass down all the costs to the consumer? No. There are parts that we have to absorb, but it is our choice not to use plastic.
Sustainability is becoming the norm in the Western world. But on the other side of the world, not everyone has the means to contribute to the cause, for example by supporting Vuna Origin products. What is your perspective on that? Is sustainability inherently privileged?
Our lab is based in Taiwan, and we have lots of discussions about sustainability. Sometimes we get told that sustainability is not so important in Taiwan. I think each country and each region has a different maturity. That being said, even in Asia or Taiwan, I do feel like they do care. The obstacle at hand is how do we reach them? Within the value chain, manufacturing needs to take a cut, cafes need to take a cut. It is about value redistribution. It is not about adding all these premiums – if we give it to the customer for six euros, they are going to say ‘no way!’
Coming from a background where the main goal is to sell more for less, how did you shift your mindset?
I think I have always cared. How I have gotten to where I am today is by actively looking for information about it. I feel that the information is out there – whether it is presented in a way that is dry or intricate is up to the company. I feel like I belong to a generation that cares. The younger generation cares as well. So actively educating myself is one. Second is since being part of Vuna, I have learned more about the value chain. Being a part of a smaller company, I interact with everyone in the company, including manufacturers, which is not something you can do in a larger organization. Just try to understand this world with curiosity!
How was your experience moving from a multi-national corporation to a start-up?
It was very weird. I moved because I wanted to make more impact, and I wanted to feel more impact. Not that there is anything wrong with selling shoes. Everybody will feel impact differently. When we work at a big company, we have this protection of the big ‘umbrella’. You are standing on a giant’s shoulder – the giant being the corporation. When you are part of a start-up, you are on your own. You make a wrong decision, and you fall on your face. Although, being in a small team, you can make changes really fast. To be honest, I am still scared every day! But it is very rewarding. One thing that I considered when I took the plunge into the start-up world was that I was bored in a protected enterprise. Now I am living on the edge every single day. When I wake up, I have to tell myself, ‘you wanted this!’ Today you might fall on your face, but you need to just continue doing your stuff.
It may be a stereotype, but data analysts tend to like having numbers to support decision-making. How do you find working in an uncomfortable environment where you have to take it day by day, especially when there is barely any data because Vuna is a pioneer in the field?
I think that stereotype is true for the most part. Most of the people I have worked with at least are very fact-driven. I am an outsider in the sense that I am not very technical; I learned my way around it. So now I am in a completely new world with no data because there is no data whatsoever. It is a challenge, but it is also rewarding for anybody who wants to start their own business. I like to turn it the other way around and think, ‘how can we use the data to make it better?’ Not just in terms of profits. A lot of that is to wake up, do something, learn, and be very open towards other people, especially to their objections about what you are doing or thinking. If you are open-minded, you will come along with something that is much better. As long as you listen, you will be okay.
Do you think the start-up environment is similar to your early journalism days?
I think data is journalism-ish in a way. In the data world, quantitative and qualitative data are equally important. Right now, I feel like I am doing my own investigative journalism in the business world by listening to what the customers or businesses want and interpreting it. The outcome is not an article but rather a product or service that you can interact with. I went into journalism at the time to try to find the “whole picture” and that is very much like being a data person because you see what the data tells you, and you look up why the data is why they are.
Out of curiosity, why did you switch from journalism to data analytics?
This is a really interesting story. I took a non-traditional internship as a journalism student. At the time, I made a somewhat rebellious choice and interned for a paparazzi magazine. My teacher thought I was crazy. It was a trendy magazine and newspaper, founded by a tycoon in Hong Kong, and they were very much in their beginning phase. Within the first 12 months, they rocked the Taiwan media world, and I thought that was really cool! I realised that these so-called mainstream media are relying on this paparazzi magazine to give them their leads. All these people are buying copies of this paparazzi magazine and circling the stories they wanted to follow. I learned so many things in that one month – even hiding in the van, following the photographers and the celebrities, changing the van every other day because we can’t be stuck with the same plates, writing stories. It was very fun, very rewarding, and you learn how the media works behind the scenes. When I came out of that internship, I decided that I wanted to be much more open. Now that I understood that the media and the business are very intertwined, I decided to switch from being a journalist to being more business-oriented.
That is a really cool journey. If you look at your career from a birds-eye view, it’s not just a linear path, like most people. Why did you decide to leave Taiwan?
I wanted to see the world. I wanted to prove and disprove my own ideas. I left when I was 22 to the United States to study. I went to university and studied sociology – I chose sociology and not journalism because sociology is a really wide umbrella; you can do a lot of different things with it. At 24, I was also starting to be an entrepreneur – just selling stuff on eBay and figuring out how digital marketing works.
One of my best memories during that time was driving from Texas to California, trying to find out what I wanted to do. I ended up living in California for good after my sociology degree. As you can imagine, there are not a lot of opportunities for sociology graduates! I had to hustle my way in to get somewhere to get a working visa and stay in Los Angeles. I ended up at this agency. After four years there, I left with a lot of good connections and during this time, I was going back and forth between Los Angeles and New York but decided that no, I did not want to move to New York. I tried to look for an environment that I liked more. So that was when I joined Adidas and moved to Portland. I ended up being here in Amsterdam because of Adidas. Going back to your question, I tried to stay true to myself. Like I said previously, I have always wanted to see the world, and if I am being honest, I probably will not stay in Amsterdam forever either.
When you say you wanted to find an environment you liked more, what do you mean by that?
I went through some personal challenges and lost a dear person during that time. It made me reflect on what was important to me. At that point, New York was not me. I had really really good memories in Portland. I would not say that I chose Portland – Portland chose me! It was the place where I calmed down and figured out what I wanted in life. Portland has a prominent outdoors scene, so I did a lot of that. And if you spend a five-hour bike ride by yourself, trust me, you are going to have a lot of conversations with yourself!
I think it’s a really important thing, to set your priorities straight. I know people my age, myself included, who have such a hard time doing so. Do you have any advice that you would have appreciated while navigating life?
If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I would tell myself that most of the restrictions you think about yourself are not there. Stay very true to what you like and what you do not like – your instinct will always be there. For instance, when I went to Los Angeles, my gut instinct was that I did not like it, and I fled that city after four years – and I have not been back since. Those choices are going to make you. You need to have a balance between your responsibilities and who you are as a person.
You can find out more about Vuna Origin Consulting by visiting their website here: https://www.vunaoriginconsulting.com/