Just like in a cafe, we talk about everything. Nothing heavy. Just talk over a cup of coffee.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Want a simple and reliable way to spark creativity and perhaps generate world harmony to boot?

Here’s a hint: think of something that’s shaped like an eye, looks like a brain (as in two sides of the brain), and fuels two billion people every day.

Answer: The small but powerful, coffee bean.

I recently visited an isolated retreat deep in the mountains of central Vietnam, where coffee (along with good food and diverse company) stimulated ideas about how one business firm is trying to change a country and perhaps the world, with coffee at its core.

Dang Le Nguyen Vu, founder and Chairman of Trung Nguyen Coffee, says that coffee awakens the mind and then fuels ideas. Think about the role it plays in many of our lives, every day, and you begin to catch Vu’s enthusiasm. In part because of the success of his firm and the industry in general, Vietnam is the second biggest exporter of coffee worldwide (Brazil is first).  And it’s happened in just over 15 years.

Vu started his coffee company in the middle 1990s, during a period of dramatic change from planned to market economy, when knowledge about how to compete regionally, let alone globally, was nonexistent in Vietnam and everyone was scrambling to learn. Some, like Vu, figured it out better than others.

Tapping into Vietnam’s long and strong coffee culture, Trung Nguyen Coffee employs 5000 people, is Vietnam’s largest coffee processor, and offers a range of choices in over 1000 Trung Nguyen cafes around the country. Watch out, Starbucks.

People all over the world drink coffee, and Vu feels that we may not realize it but we coffee drinkers are part of a coffee culture or coffee spirit that helps us come together, peacefully. He may have a point. Coffee houses are everywhere, from small villages in Vietnam and Botswana to sophisticated cafes in Paris and Helsinki to the rampant shops of the global daddy of them all, Starbucks. When we come together “for coffee,” it’s a chance to stop, recharge, and often be creative.

But Vu isn’t interested in just any old creativity. His focus is “responsible creativity,”  which has two aspects — yin and yang — like the two parts of a coffee bean or two sides of the brain. The yang represents the motivation, creativity and entrepreneurship needed to spur economic development; the yin reflects the motivation and creativity for building harmony and sustainability. Responsible creativity – for both prosperity and harmony, not just in Vietnam, but beyond.

Even his firm’s name follows the thread, as it means the “middle way.” Vu wants coffee to represent the “yin and yang” – the head and heart, the right and left (brain), and the two sides of creativity. If we can build both elements, prosperity and harmony, maybe peace could be close behind.

Coffee stimulates the brain, the brain sparks ideas. And ideas mean life.

Bottom line: No Coffee, No Life. Maybe he’s got something there.

by Nancy K. Napier, Ph.D.

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