An empowering brew

Veronica Swanson teams up with a basketball superstar to empower female coffee farmers.

Veronica Swanson, vice president of marketing at Cajary Majlis, pictured at Northwest Coffee Roasting. Photo by James Byard

Veronica Swanson, EMBA ’03, first met NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo in the mid-1980s while they were undergrads at Georgetown University. He was a rising basketball star, and she was dating one of his teammates, with whom he shared a flat. “He would wake me up in the morning, yelling ‘Veronica!’ at the top of his lungs,” she remembers. “I have no idea why he did that.”

Swanson stayed in touch with the Hall-of-Fame center, famous for his “finger wag” at opponents whose shots he blocked. (You’ve probably seen his funny Geico ads.) They reunited over dinner in 2019 when he visited the city where she lives, Abu Dhabi, not long before COVID-19 descended. Soon after the dinner, she lost her job as the head of marketing and communications for an engineering consultancy there, before he called out of the blue. 

About Veronica Swanson

Sheepskin: Executive MBA ’03

Company: “Cajary” comes from Mutombo’s children’s names — Carrie, Jean Jacques and Ryan — while “Majlis” is an Arabic term for a salon where people might enjoy coffee. 

Life in the UAE: “I’ve gotten used to the heat; your body acclimates. And I love raising my 14-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter there. It’s so diverse. Their friends look like the United Nations.”

“He said, ‘Why don’t we start a company?’” Swanson recalls. The resulting enterprise, called Cajary Majlis, launched in the fall of 2020, with Swanson as the vice president of marketing. Mutombo Coffee, their first offering, debuted four months later, taking advantage of the fact that many suppliers were shut down because of the pandemic — but everyone still wanted coffee.

Their “Starbucks-quality” arabica beans are sourced from Mutombo’s country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though home to delicious coffee, the DRC has major infrastructure and supply chain issues, causing most beans to die on the vine.

To solve this problem, Mutombo Coffee works directly with women farmers. Trained by NGOs like the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, many of the farmers are widows from the country’s years of armed conflict, and they serve as the glue in their communities. “If we can’t trace the coffee back to the farm and talk to the farmer on the phone,” Swanson says, “we’re not buying the beans.” 

It’s been an incredible journey for this East St. Louis native, whose father was a fire captain and training officer and mother an executive assistant. Inspired to work abroad by books she read from the bookmobile, Swanson got that chance in the 1990s as a news assistant in the Wall Street Journal’s Brussels office.

A love interest brought her back to the St. Louis area, and as a newlywed in 2002, she entered WashU’s Executive MBA program while working full time for Illinois Power Company. The next 18 months were incredibly intense, but she thrived in an environment that included standout professors like James T. Little and fellow students who were already luminaries in their fields.

“It was the most transformative experience I’ve ever had, learning from CEOs and entrepreneurs who were actually running companies,” she says. “I was just an account manager at the time, and they were showing me how to run my own business.”

“It was the most transformative experience I’ve ever had, learning from CEOs and entrepreneurs who were actually running companies.”

Veronica swanson on the Olin school of business executive mba program

Swanson comes across as someone who could get any job, anywhere, any time. She credits the EMBA program for teaching her transferable skills. Indeed, following her graduation, she took positions in everything from corn commodities pricing to nuclear communications. 

She sees her current role as an opportunity to give back by empowering historically marginalized female farmers. Her priorities align with those of Mutombo, who, since retiring from basketball, has become a renowned humanitarian, helping fight Ebola and opening a hospital in Kinshasa, also in the DRC, that has served hundreds of thousands of patients.

“Veronica is a longtime friend, and given her level of experience in marketing and branding, it only made sense for me to partner with her on my coffee brand,” Mutombo said of Swanson at a recent promotional event at Black-owned St. Louis cafe Northwest Coffee. “She’s brilliant, and she’s super passionate about our mission to raise awareness of the African coffee industry and help affect positive change for so many women and families.”

Though most companies would barely have business cards so soon after their launch, Cajary Majlis is already profitable, Swanson says. She credits the ideals and acumen of her old college friend. “It helps that we have a 7-foot-2-inch billboard,” she says, “with great connections and an outstanding reputation.”

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