WARREN, Pa. – Erin Willman continues to change the world one cup of coffee at a time.
Willman, the CEO of White Cane Coffee in Warren, has been recognized by CEO Monthly with a Global CEO Excellence Award for Best Organic Coffee Manufacturing CEO (USA).
Willman lost her vision at 15 and at 22 founded White Cane along with her father Bob Willman and mother Vicki Willman, providing jobs, hope, and inspiration to the blind and disabled.
“I’m still kind of processing it,” Erin said. “It’s very surreal. We are a small business in a small town and to be recognized globally is, it’s cool in its own way because big things don’t just have to come from big places. It can come from small companies. Sometimes the smaller voices can make the larger impact.”
Erin first started White Cane with the goal of helping to normalize disabled people in the workplace. White Cane has long since done that, with their shop on the corner of 3rd Ave. and Conewango Ave. in Warren currently employing eight disabled workers.
“This came a little bit out of the blue,” said Bob, the company manager. “We kind of got a hint that she was nominated, and then you get that notification that says congratulations. This isn’t who made the most money. What her company stands for is innovation – putting the braille on all the packaging is a big deal globally because that’s something that hasn’t been done. She brought that inclusiveness.
“The things she’s done for other organizations, whether it’s a school for the blind or the Helen Keller Institute, Perkins School, it’s all these things that she does to show people that there is hope.”
The goal from the beginning was to allow disabled employees to have the freedoms everyone else enjoys but they are often denied. White Cane is doing that, and in the process changing lives for the better.
“If you can change one person’s life, you are changing the world,” Erin said. “When I first lost my vision, it was hard. I would stay in my room and cry for days on end, trying to figure out what I’m going to do next. Then you learn to get around with the cane, learn braille and no one will hire you. That’s crushing. To start this and tell people you are good enough, that is worth more than any award I could be given.”
Apart from her duties at White Cane, Erin is also active in working with schools and organizations that specialize in teaching the blind and disabled. She has worked closely with the School for the Blind Children in Pittsburgh and has been a keynote speaker at a number of functions, including the National Federation of the Blind.
“They (CEO Monthly), are looking at the whole picture of Erin and White Cane Coffee and the impact that it’s having on business and society as a whole,” Bob said. “That’s what we want to see from the CEOs, are they making a change in the world for the good.”
And people are seeing what she is doing not just in Warren, but now nationally and internationally.
“When we first started the company, we said we were going to be strictly an online store, we’re going to do it out of the house, and then we kind of blew up,” Erin said. “Now I’m getting all of these awards and it’s like ‘what is happening?’ This was never part of the game plan.”
And Erin does it all with humility, inspiring people along the way.
“The impact is incredible,” Erin said. “It is incredible to know that there are other disabled people, not only just in this country but around the world who are going ‘I can be something more than I was always told I could be.’ That is incredible to me. There is probably some young blind person struggling to get through and getting told what they can’t do and they hear about this award and they believe they can make a difference. That is probably one of the greatest things that I feel personally that this company is doing.”
As for the product itself, White Cane offers a wide variety of coffee choices, from Colombian Supremo, Columbian Supremo Decaf, Donut Shop, Dragon Roast, High Octane, Breakfast Blend and so much more.
“I can tell you in the past week we’ve had people come in from Ohio, New York, Wisconsin, they’re coming here, saying they have to come and see this place,” Bob said. “These are families who have kids with autism and different disabilities. They come here because we show them hope for their child and their family. That is the one thing Erin can give that there is no price tag on.”
So what’s next for Erin and White Cane?
Her goal is to expand to the United Kingdom, to work with the Royal National Institute of Blind People and local roasters across the UK to bring White Cane Coffee and jobs to the blind community at large.
That will be a challenge, but an exciting one that they are looking forward to.
“Our phones have gone off the hook from the UK since this award,” Bob said. “We’re trying to find a way for us to put White Cane Coffee in the UK. The Royal National Institute of Blind People is actually a government agency and they what to bring White Cane Coffee to the UK. There are going to be some headaches that come along with that, but we get it. That is a big move for any American company to be able to get into another market such as that.”