Mike Vehar picking coffee cherries in Santa Elena, Honduras.
Recently I made a major life decision to leave my engineering job with a large corporation, to join a startup coffee company. The best way to explain this decision, which was a difficult one, is to share the conversation I had with my parents about the new job opportunity, and why I finally decided to make the leap to join 3-19 Coffee. Sometimes you have to head directly into the unknown, but when it's good people and a good cause, the unknown feels more like where you’ve been heading for a long time, you just didn't know where it would lead..
*Note: The conversation below happened back in August of 2016 between my parents and me. I have been extremely lucky to have amazing parents who have remained supportive throughout my life and all my not so normal decisions on what to do with it.
Friday, August 26, 2016 - 7:00PM EDT - Cleveland, Ohio
Me: So I might be taking a new job with Mike (Weaver - my best friend from college). He's starting a specialty coffee company with another partner and they think I would be a good fit for the team.
Mom: Specialty coffee, like Folgers?
Me: Well, not exactly.
Dad: But you have a great job in engineering, which is what your degree is in.
Me: Yeah I know.. Trust me I have put a lot of thought into this and I'm thinking it might be the best decision for me and my family.
*Note: This conversation happened when my wife was seven months pregnant with our first child, and I was ten months into my new engineering job (and enjoying it, it's not like I was unhappy with my current work).
Dad: So why do you think this would be a good move for you?
*Note: This isn't the first time a conversation like this has happened. I convinced them it was a good idea to do a stove project in South America years back which kept me in Bolivia for more than a year, to move to Denver with no job in sight, to spend a year in the South Pacific working for the American Samoan Government. This conversation wasn't new, just, a newer version of it.
Me: It seems like a “dream come true” type opportunity to me. Once in a lifetime. If I don't take it, I think I'd regret it the rest of my life.
*Note: This is the same thing I said six years ago when I started a small scale solar company with the mission to get solar lighting solutions to rural Guatemalan families with no access to electricity. Kids could study at night! No more burning candles and sitting by smoldering fires in the kitchen area. It was a can't miss. Unfortunately, it was bad timing for that region of Guatemala and the market value of their cash crop plummeted - the buying power of the families was significantly affected. The business failed, and the capital we raised for it was never to be seen again. A year and a half later, my wife and I toasted and sipped wine on a cool night in Madison, celebrating the final payment to the last investor. It took me 5 years to get the money back to them. Most of them told me, “Mike, it was a risky investment, I knew I might not see this money again.” To me it wasn’t about making them whole, but more about making myself whole. How could I financially penalize the friends and family that believed in my cause at a moment's notice. I have never regretted any decision with that company, and I hope the market filled the gap left by us to get quality solar lighting solutions to Guatemalan families who won't see electrical lines in their villages for decades to come.
Coffee plants in Santa Elena, Honduras.
Mom: So will you have a coffee shop? Who will be buying your coffee?
Me: Well, no.. not at first. We will sell everything online at the beginning, e-commerce.
Mom: So how will this company work?
*Note: Up to this point, even now, these are great questions. Some things are still uncertain. Questions arise every day between Mike, Chris, and me. But I knew there were an answers. I knew enough from them that we were not going into this endeavor blind.
Me: So there is a growing trend that people are willing to pay a little more for their coffee when they know the farmers are being paid fairly for their high quality beans. We would be sourcing great green coffees, roasting them with care and attention so that each bean's flavor profile is at the peak of its natural potential, then selling and shipping the freshly roasted coffee to people all throughout the US.
Me: People's willingness to pay more for better coffee allows the farmers to make more money which in turn allows them to get better education and medical care for their families, reinvest in their farming operations, and save money for their children's futures.
Honduran baristas teaching youth in Santa Elena ways to brew coffee.
Mom: And what is the name of the company again?.. 3-19?
Me: Yes, 3-19 Coffee. Chris and Mike's wives both share the birthday of March 19th, and they named the company in honor of them! They have already started doing some work with the branding and what I have seen has been really cool.
Dad: So that's it?
Me: No, there's more to it than that, and this is hopefully where I can use more of my expertise in development work. Mike and Chris want to always, from the beginning, put a portion of every sale towards social good projects. They want to make a positive impact on any community that takes part in our coffee from seed to cup. Their first project will be doing an art program with Catracha coffee in Santa elena Honduras, where they are sourcing their first batch of green coffee. The community has identified that the youth of Santa Elena does not have many opportunities at art or being creative. Just like here in Cleveland, in Honduras public schools are always struggling with funding and usually art programs don't even make the budget. Kids don't have art or music classes. So Chris and Mike decided that since the Santa elena community is now part of our story and 3-19’s community, funding an art program would be the first social impact project.
A day of art with the youth of Santa Elena, Honduras.
Mom: That seems like a cool project, but how does it help you sell coffee?
Me: Well, it doesn't really, but it's not about that. I truly believe Chris and Mike have their heart in the right place with this. By funding this art program, it's their way of showing future customers that they are serious about their commitment to social good from the beginning, even before the first sale. They hope that everyone who buys from 3-19 embraces the great coffee as well as the commitment to the farmers and communities they work with.
Mom: What about your dad and I? Is Cleveland part of your community?
Me: Exactly! Honduras would be the first of many social projects. In anticipation of this job, I already started working with an artist here in Cleveland that does these types of projects with kids within Cleveland neighborhoods. The idea would be that 3-19 supports communities at home and abroad.
Dad: You keep talking about art. Why this focus on art?
Mike: 3-19's mission is coffee, art, and community. They believe that every person has unique talents and strive to always inspire the individual creativity in others. This doesn't mean every social impact project will be about art, but they want art to be an intrical part of everything they do.
Mom: And you met with an artist here in Cleveland?
Me: Yes, We met and talked for a while and I explained what 3-19 Coffee was and our mission. She's actually going to be one of our 3-19 Coffee featured artists!
Dad: Featured artist?
Me: Did I not mention that yet? Oh. Well Chris and Mike want to partner with artists to create unique artwork for our packaging. They hope that it's a completely mutually beneficial relationship. We commission art from the artist and allow customers to select the art they want on their coffee tins. And, we put a bio on our website for each artist so people can get to know them and possibly buy some of their art. We would promote the artist and links to their work on our website. I’m going to develop video bios for each artist too!
Cleveland artist Linda Zolten Wood.
Dad: Well it sounds interesting. I still don’t fully grasp who will be buying your coffee, but it seems like your heart is in this opportunity.
Mike: Trust me, with our website and social media we should be able to find people that share our beliefs and LOVE great coffee too. I know they’re out there.
Mom: Would you have to travel? What about your future daughter?
Mike: Yes, and that's one of the reasons this excites me, I will get to use my spanish again! We (my wife and I) I have already been working out how we could make it work if I had to leave the country for several days, so I think that aspect will be fine. Most trips will be related to social impact projects and origin trips to meet our farmers. We want to be honest with our customers that we have seen, first hand, the operations on the ground.
Dad: Well I have to say Michael that this is a big decision.
Mike: I know. I agree.. My feeling right now is that I’m excited to have this new challenge in front of me. Things like this don’t just come along everyday. Even though I like my current job and the people I work with, I think they will understand my reasoning to leave engineering and follow my dream to impact communities through our social projects - and sell some good, quality, coffee from farmers that we know have been compensated well for their product. This will be a journey, no doubt. It’ll be busy, confusing, stressful, a struggle at times, but I have faith that taking this risk will be worth it in the end. And I love the idea that I would be working with video production. I’ll learn, get better. I want to bring stories from around the world to people’s living rooms and smartphones. When I sip a cup of coffee, it used to be just a sip, now it's a story. I know Santiago personally, and how hard he and his family work on their farm in Honduras. I know that the future of these small farms is in the hands of people like Mayra and Lowell with Catracha coffee who are fighting for fair prices for small farmers’ quality beans. I know climate change is threatening areas of this industry, and I would love to capture those stories, the lives affected, and publish them to the world - or at the very least, share them with our 3-19 community. You guys will support us by ordering a coffee subscription right?.. We have de-caf!
*Note: Two months later I put in my two weeks at the corporation. My co-workers and bosses were great, they wanted me to share my next journey with them. I promised them I would. Two weeks later, I cleared my cubicle, drove home, packed a bag, kissed my beautiful wife and daughter, and boarded my flight to Honduras..