How Bitty & Beau’s Coffee Is Pivoting with Purpose

How one small business is succeeding by leading with purpose during COVID-19.

By Crime Art/Shutterstock
By Crime Art/Shutterstock

81 percent. The first time I heard that number, it stuck in my head. That’s the unemployment rate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in this country – how could it possibly be so high?

The answer is simple. There was a sore need for Action Leadership. There was a need for someone to challenge the notion that “this is just how it is.” That is why I have become an avid supporter of of Amy and Ben Wright, and why you should as well. Four years ago, they founded Bitty & Beau’s Coffee in Wilmington, North Carolina. So much more than a cup of coffee, it’s a movement challenging and changing these statistics in real-time.

And then COVID-19 happened. These magical coffee shops, staffed by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, are known as much for the unique and heart-warming service experience as they are for the coffee itself. But now they’re struggling. In the span of one crazy week last month, Amy and Ben had to close their five coffee shops and furlough 120 employees temporarily.

“I think the whole world is going through this time of figuring it out,” Ben Wright said in a conversation we hosted with him as part of Salesforce’s “Leading Through Change” series. “It’s what we do on a daily basis. When we started the coffee shop, we just had to figure it out. With this COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is just having to figure it out.”

That’s hard for anyone, but especially so when your employees may not fully understand why they are being laid off at this time.

“[We] have to be very careful to do our best in explaining that it’s temporary – it’s not their fault. And we’re going to do everything we can to remain viable and bring them back to work just as soon as possible,” Ben said.

“The majority of our employees, 120 of them, for them it’s their first job ever working at Bitty & Beau’s Coffee,” Amy added. “So to have the excitement and the ability to start saving and planning for their futures and then have to put all of that on hold, it’s been a scary time for everybody.”

As such, the Wrights are continuing to make accommodations for employees with disabilities and without disabilities, knowing this approach will bring out the best in employees, as it always has.

“I look through the eyes of being a mother when I have conversations with my employees,” said Amy Wright. “I think about them as family members and treat them as such. It really does make a big difference.”

As we come out of this crisis, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves. Can we make sure our new normal is a world where there is opportunity for everyone? I like to say that everyone deserves a seat at the table, not because it sounds good, but because it is truly the only way forward.

We need more people like Amy and Ben. What they have isn’t just a business model – it’s a business purpose. And thankfully, I’m not alone in believing their mission is too big to fail.

It is these stories – stories of real people driving change – that inspire me and I hope they inspire you to start #leadingthroughchange.

Whether you’re helping hundreds of people like Amy and Ben or just one, we can all do more to make the future accessible for everyone. And enjoy some great coffee in the process.

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