We all look up to strong, independent women. And Sunalini Menon is one of them!
by Urvashi Malhotra
Motivation – it’s a multi-layered word, full of depth and emotion. It’s what keeps us going, what propels us forward and gives one the inspiration to meet the challenges that come our way.
Just as without motivation, life would be barren, the world of coffee would surely be barren without the inspiration that coffee guru, Sunalini Menon brings to the world of coffee. In a way that only she can, she has touched the lives of an entire generation of coffee professionals, cutting across countries, age and place in the coffee value chain by providing knowledge, education, support or guidance. Be it a coffee grower in Kenya, a producer in Brazil, a student in Italy or a coffee connoisseur in the USA – they have all received the Midas touch.
It is surprising then that throughout her childhood, Sunalini was a reserved and introverted child, believing that she had no skills at all. She did not as shine in school like her sister, was the worry of her family and teachers alike, and spent her time only in playing with the neighbourhood children, including the children of cowherds and flower pickers!
The turning point came in grade 5, when she was hit on her hand by her principal, for the red marks on her report card. She decided then that she would top the class exam of grade 5. In this difficult time, it was her grandfather who instilled faith in her abilities. “Sunamma, you can do it.” To everyone’s surprise, play time was substituted by studies, and every morning after sneaking a few drops of coffee into her morning milk, she would read out the English newspaper to her grandfather who would gently correct her English and gave her the encouragement she needed. Little Sunalini looked within herself and focused on her strength with the goal of topping her class. And top she did! The utterly shocked school principal was overheard asking the class teacher, “Did she copy?!” The class teacher, however, had noticed the light in the little girl’s eyes and from then on there was no looking back. She took her grandfather’s words to heart – dedication and efforts are a basic requirement, but in order to achieve something, you must be willing to share your knowledge. She also absorbed his keen observation of people, which went beyond the obvious – discerning a person’s background, their need and their motivations.
Another remarkable gentleman who inspired her was her Swiss mentor. She made her first international journey to learn from him with trepidation. A foreign country, a foreign language, but the 75-year-old surprised her. Months before she was to arrive, he spent 3 hours every day preparing to teach her by learning her language – English. These two kindly gentlemen were the ones who built the code that Sunalini lives by; perseverance, diligence and depth of knowledge.
It was a coffee grower who walked into her coffee laboratory one day and challenged her to do something she had never done before. “You have so much knowledge,” he said, “Why don’t you train and teach?” This was uncharted territory, but for Sunalini, a challenge was always hard to resist. It was an opportunity to share her considerable skills and knowledge, and she ensured that she taught in a way that was unique; drawing on the everyday experiences of people and helping them connect to the learnings that coffee has to offer. With each skilling workshop, the methods were made more innovative, ensuring that the trainee learnt what they would never forget. Combined with an acute sense of observation, this unique approach to imparting training in all aspects of coffee means that Sunalini has transformed the lives of many people and touched many more.
It was her intervention and skilling that gave Merlin, a young boy from a village from South India, the chance and the confidence to represent India in the World Barista Championship in Vienna in 2012.
And Shwetha, who was at the lowest ebb of her life, a single mother, received the inspiration and opportunity to complete successfully a 6-month Master’s degree in Coffee Economics and Science in Italy.
Innumerable people in the coffee word would bear testimony to the fact that they have experienced her Midas touch – encouraged and inspired to achieve beyond what they thought possible – Sunalini is motivation personified!