Female Disruptors: Shonali Paul of Paul John Indian Caffeine Company On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine
Published in
9 min readApr 1, 2024

--

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. This is my favorite quote to live by as an entrepreneur that I apply to my business every day.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, we had the pleasure of interviewing Shonali Paul, Founder of Paul John Indian Caffeine Company.

Born in Bangalore in the South of India, Paul discovered her love for coffee at a very young age while visiting her grandparents’ estate in Coorg. Shonali had a chance to savor a coffee that was bold, yet creamy; uplifting, yet relaxing — a complex set of emotions topped off with a light and airy “froth” from the blended, sweetened milk that sat atop the overnight brewed “decoction.” This was the very definition of South Indian coffee, a brew so unique to the western world that it became her ambition to introduce it to the U.S., where she now resides.

Following in her father’s footsteps of being an entrepreneur, Paul set out to establish the Paul John Indian Caffeine Company in 2022. Only the finest, single-origin coffee beans are imported from her home in Karnataka, then they are roasted, ground, and packaged in the United States. Paul found the opportunity to bring the slow living of Indian coffee to a world where everything was instant. It was a chance to savor a coffee brewed slowly with love. Driven by the desire to share the unique flavors of South Indian coffee, Paul envisioned a space where every sip invites you to pause, breathe, and immerse yourself in the rich, slow experience of savoring caffeine.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I had just finished my MBA and was thinking about what kind of business I wanted to start. Being an entrepreneur was simply a given for me. There was never any other thought but to start my own business, and while my heart will always be in hospitality, I wanted to start something I could create right off the bat and get the ball rolling.

I have lived around the world, and while I did, I would always take Indian filter coffee powder and my little South Indian filter that serves just one with me. I could never find Indian filter coffee easily in other countries where I was living, and when I finished my MBA and came back to the States, I realized there were no Indian coffee brands here. The only ones you would find were brands imported from India with beans that would have been roasted ages ago and were low-quality (and found only in your Indian grocery store).

That’s when I realized there was a whole coffee drinking market that had never experienced the amazing Indian Coffee that I loved. I really want to be able to make Indian coffee stand out on a global level — not just as a filler coffee, but rather that premium, high-quality coffee that you can expect from any other coffee-growing country.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

No one else brings in the variety of speciality-grade Indian coffee the way we do. Most people I meet don’t even know that India grows coffee, but we are the sixth largest producer of coffee in the world. Somehow, a country like the United States where a large part of the population drinks on an average three to four cups of coffee per day has no idea about Indian coffee. Our goal is to bring Indian coffee to the world to enjoy a really great cup of coffee.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started out, I remember taking everything at face value. I expected the professionals that I hired for their expertise to guide me in the right direction. Since they are experts, they would know best right? Well, the short answer is no. Someone told me that the lead times on custom hot cups and cold cups for drinks would be 10 to 11 months — and that if I wanted them, I should order them as soon as I can. I went ahead and ordered them, only to realize that they would come in two months, leaving me stuck with hundreds of cups that I had no need for at the time.

We have fortunately found a use for the cups now, but it was something I really could have waited to buy instead of listening to bad advice at that time. I’ve realized that you have to evaluate everything yourself, with valid reasons behind them all, and if something goes wrong it’s not the end — it’s just a not problem that needs solving. There is always a solution.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My biggest mentor has been my father. He has always encouraged my family to live life to the fullest, take chances, and aim to achieve great things. Seeing him be so passionate about every business he opens and really enjoy every minute of his life helped me prioritize finding something that I too can enjoy every day. He always says you have to find a job that you absolutely love because then every single day doesn’t feel like a chore, but rather something you look forward to in life. He is a very successful business man and that expertise and mentorship is invaluable to me in my journey as an entrepreneur.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I think that some industries and practices need to have structure as you say, like perhaps professions such as lawyers and doctors. But in most other cases, I think that questioning the status quo can be good for growth and inclusivity. What may have been normal shouldn’t always stay the status quo. Take the coffee industry, for instance: We always think Columbian, Ethiopian, and Guatemalan coffees to be the best of the best, until maybe you try an Indian peaberry and your perspective on coffee changes. Maybe you always brewed your morning cup of coffee in a drip brewer, but you try a new brewing method like South Indian drip and you find a whole new world of texture and flavor to that same coffee you always had.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. This is my favorite quote to live by as an entrepreneur that I apply to my business every day.
  2. There is always a solution to problems you think you can’t solve, you just have to be creative. In business, there is always something — that is the job. Putting out fires is a core capability that is challenged as a business every day. The sense of satisfaction you get when you find a solution to a problem you thought you would not be able to fix is something nothing else can give you. Very early in my journey, we had imported coffee from India ourselves. The whole process was completely new to me, but I learned as I went and thought I had covered all my bases. Fast forward, the coffee arrives stateside and my coffee storage facility tells me that I was supposed to notify them 24 hours in advance in order for them to receive the coffee. Prior to this, they had told me to just call them when the coffee came. Now the coffee is on a truck from the port, already on its way to the facility in Florida where you can’t store coffee outside in the heat. I called the owner of the facility and asked him what he could do, and worked it out with him to get him to receive the coffee that was already on its way. I remember those few hours being the scariest point in this business journey, but I also remember how proud I was of myself for finding a solution.
  3. Mediocrity is a slippery slope: While sourcing beans and going through SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) certifications, one of the trainers and my chief coffee consultant would reinforce this in his classes all the time. And that really stuck with me. There are many average cups of coffee in this world. We aim to set ourselves apart from that, and to do so, we must make sure that we excel at every step.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I have a few things brewing, most of which are ways to bring quality coffee to our customers faster. In today’s day and age, everyone’s time is so valuable and I know that grinding coffee and brewing it is not always the most convenient way, but I want to have a concentrate and various brewing techniques for our blends so the country can fall in love with Indian coffee.

We are also constantly looking out for unique beans from India to source and showcase to the world. There is a whole range of opportunities with different processing methods, drying methods, and even unique roasting methods.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

It is a little sad to say, but many people don’t think women are capable of starting something revolutionary. When I am at events and have my male employee with me, more than a few times they speak to him directly while completely disregarding me — as though they could not even comprehend that a woman would possibly be the owner of the business instead of a man. It’s as though the thought doesn’t even cross their minds. People also tend to think that women can’t scale a business. People expect the business to stay small and not grow and become scalable, when in fact women are amazing at multitasking. However, I do think that society’s mindset has changed considerably and is continuously changing in a positive direction for women.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I have always felt extremely blessed to have the family support that I have. I don’t think I could have even thought about starting a business if it wasn’t for that support. If people could take a little time and effort and pour their energy into someone less fortunate and give them an opportunity to dream big, imagine all the dreams that could possibly come true. In turn, those people will pay it forward and create a chain effect, multiplying over generations. I would love to start a foundation one day dedicated to helping the less fortunate young individuals actualize their dreams through export mentorships.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote would be: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” As an entrepreneur, there are so many “what ifs” — and you can imagine that being multiplied as a female minority entrepreneur. But if you don’t even try, you’ve already lost. When you are starting a business that is totally new with no direct competitors, no one else has done what you are thinking of doing, so you are taking a shot in the dark to a large extent. Unless you try, you would never know. It’s really easy to talk yourself out of doing something scary, but talking yourself into that is so much harder. You just remember that the first step is to try and half the battle is won. After that, you rely on your skills, hard work, and God to take it from there.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find our delicious coffee at https://pauljohncaffeine.com/ and follow our journey on Instagram @pauljohncaffeine.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

--

--