Last fall, Billy Gene Easton, a member of the communication degree-completion program at Goshen College, undertook a PR project in the course Principles of Public Relations.Easton focused his project on Importin’ Joe’s, an Ethiopian coffee importation business based in Mishawaka, Indiana.
After the initial assignment, Easton expanded his hypothetical marketing plan beyond the classroom.
He began interning at Importin’ Joe’s at the request of the owner and continued his course-based PR, servicing the company itself.
Easton, raised in South Bend, has been invested in marketing for a while.
A musician himself, he worked with several other independent musical artists, such as WiLey West and October London, collaborating through various creative services before his education at GC and his work with Importin’ Joe’s.
“I have been fortunate to be in collaborations with a lot of different artists in the area,” Easton said after outlining his natural promotional ability to come up with artist names.
“The name of my band was The B.E.A.T. I came up with that name … I’ve helped artists find names,” he said.
The aspect of close community with his fellow artists has also been a cornerstone of Easton’s work: “We all grew up together. We all come from the same area.”
In 2018, while living in an artist’s community, Easton was selected out of thousands of applicants for an entertainment and tourism grant from the state of Indiana Art Commission to help start his company, Northernlore Entertainment.
This business was designed to help international artists acquire work visas in the United States, and vice-versa for United States artists working overseas.
“I’ve been in marketing and public relations for a couple of decades now … so I’ve got a knack for marketing,” Easton said.
“I like to work closely with companies like in public relations, but also like to simply create marketing ideas and strategies and tactics … whether it’s presentation or product functioning,” he said.
Following his successful freelance PR endeavors and the creation of Northernlore Entertainment, Easton began studying psychology at Goshen College before changing into the field of communication.
It was in this department that he found what he was looking for. Easton expressed that learning the industry, academic and career sides, to communication has been “profound.”
Anna Groff, assistant professor of communication, taught the Principles of Public Relations course where Easton began his work with Importin’ Joe’s.
Groff said, “That class culminated in creating a public relations plan or campaign for what I was calling an ‘off campus client.’”
She continued, “I had some contacts with nonprofits and organizations in the area that I offered to students as options, but I said that they could also come up with their own ideas.”
“Billy Gene named Importin’ Joe’s as an up-and-coming and really promising company, but they’re kind of slim. They don’t have a large staff,” Groff said.
She went on to say that the coffee company was looking for someone to “help them with getting their messaging out, with building their brand and reputation and with relating to lots of different audiences, which is the purpose of public relations.”
Easton’s relationship with the founder of Importin’ Joe’s began via a phone call right before Easton returned to the United States from his Study-Service Term in East Africa.
“I met him not physically, but we had a phone conversation right before I left Africa … mutual friends have put me on and like, ‘you need to talk to him,’ ‘he’d be going to Africa, he’s got a coffee business,’ so that was my introduction to him a year ago,” Easton said.
“When this class project came up, I thought about him immediately … not necessarily thinking it would turn into continual work,” Easton said.
The Mishawaka coffee importation business was co-founded by Joseph and Afomia Luten.
The “minority Black woman-owned third wave company” centers around offering “the delivery of an impactful, culturally diverse, experiential coffee encounter.”
The Lutens have passion not only for business, but also for the “overall improvement of any marginalized, disadvantaged or impoverished communities,” Easton said.
“The mantra of Importin’ Joe’s is ‘coffee with compassion,’” he continued.
A portion of all Importin’ Joe’s profits are allocated to social change and equity, ranging from coffee donations to local teachers to contributions to the eradication of child homelessness in East Africa.
At Importin’ Joe’s, Easton’s PR work consisted of midwest brewing industry partnerships and “specifically targeting Black media to expand the awareness of the brand through a larger base audience and further away platform,” he said.
“So I’m developing a database of various Black outlets and coffee outlets … specifically a lot of the minority outlets because … we want to get to our core audience,” he said.
When asked about the significance of Importin’ Joe’s and what it represents in the community, Easton said, “It is an Ethiopian based coffee ran by someone who came out of the urban community.
“So we want to really get to that community as quickly as possible. You know, spread the word as a small company.”
Although currently small, Importin’ Joe’s is growing.
The Ethiopian coffee company has contracts with Meijer, Walmart and (recently) Notre Dame. “They have a lot of potential,” Easton said.
“No matter what I do, I’m always tying in community, so it’s just a natural rhythm,” Easton concluded, his personal mission statement not dissimilar to that of Importin’ Joe’s.