2020 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Empower Coffee Roasters, Arizona State (W. P. Carey)

Empower Coffee Roasters

MBA Program: W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University

Industry: Food & Beverage

Founding Student Name(s): Denise Napolitano

Brief Description of Solution: Empower Coffee Roasters provides high-quality specialty coffee for consumers while working to empower women through education and opportunity.

Funding Dollars: We are primarily funded through owner’s equity and aided by a grant from Arizona State University’s Changemaker Central.

What led you to launch this venture? My husband and I developed a passion for roasting our own coffee beans at home. I also had a strong desire to help young girls become interested in STEM education and career opportunities but found that girls from low-income areas often lacked resources to achieve their dreams. While completing a Ph.D. in chemistry, I realized that there were not many businesses with a focus in this area, and the ones that did donate money to this cause did not make it central to their business. I wanted to start a business that viewed empowering women and girls as not just a nice thing to do, but fundamental to the core of what the business was about. Every aspect of our operation incorporates our mission, from the charitable organizations we partner with, to the vendors we hire, and especially to the beans we source.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? We recently partnered with an organization called Go With the Flow, which provides menstrual hygiene products to students throughout Arizona. I learned through the founder of Go With the Flow, Demetra Presley, that teachers often buy menstrual hygiene products for their students at their own expense because many students don’t have another way to get them. In fact, one in five students in the U.S. misses school because they do not have access to menstrual hygiene products. We were able to promote Go With the Flow through our social media account, get friends and family to support them, and raise money that will go to purchasing period supplies.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? The MBA program at W. P. Carey has furthered our venture in almost every aspect of the business, with the exception of actually roasting coffee! The program gave me the tools necessary to determine price points for our products, know how to properly account for expenses and revenue, find the best methods to determine and market to our target customers, and efficiently organize our inventory to account for variations in farming seasons. I also developed an incredibly strong and supportive network which I have utilized to its fullest potential. This network has supported our business both through direct sales and through developing connections to further our goals of supporting women-focused nonprofits and organizations.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? I had been considering starting this business for several years, but I encountered a lot of skepticism when I started the MBA. My metrics for success were never measured in dollars, but by the impact that we could make in our community and in the communities of coffee farm owners around the world. I did not plan on pitching for funding, finding investors, or growing a business to sell for millions, but this is what most people expect from entrepreneurship students. Then, in early 2019, MBA students at W. P. Carey founded the first academic chapter of Conscious Capitalism, which helped expose me to entrepreneurial ideas centered around selfless service. I finally no longer felt alone! I saw Jonathan Keyser, founder of the Keyser commercial real estate firm, speak at several Conscious Capitalism events. He inspired me with his personal story of leaving the cutthroat commercial real estate industry to start his own firm rooted in the principles of collaboration, truly selfless service, and patience in yielding a return for your work. His journey showed me that I could still be successful in my mission without compromising my principles and helped me reframe my executive summary to focus on the impact we wanted to have.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? As someone without a background in business, it’s difficult to choose just one! Building foundations in marketing, finance, strategy, and negotiations were all essential. However, the course with the most lasting lessons was B2B Marketing, taught by Thomas Hollmann. This class focused on building customer and supplier relationships and ensuring that we thought from the perspective of the customer. It is so critical to meet their needs and focus on improving their experience instead of trying to bring the customer into our minds. This is a lesson that I use every day in creating every social media post, email, and digital experience for our customers.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? Doug Olsen, my professor for Customer Centric Research and Analytics, has made a significant and lasting contribution to my venture. When I took his class at the end of my first year of the MBA, my team did a research project on consumer buying behaviors for specialty coffee. Along with my amazing team, Professor Olsen helped me to carefully consider the types of questions I should ask potential customers to gain the most value when building my brand and product offerings. When I worked on starting Empower Coffee Roasters during my summer internship, Professor Olsen guided me as I created a new customer survey that was tailored to my business. This exercise helped me understand the customer segment we were targeting and helped me learn to effectively communicate with consumers. Professor Olsen has remained engaged in our progress and regularly checks in to see how we are progressing. He genuinely cares about his students’ success and demonstrates it though intentional thoughts and actions.

How did the pandemic impact your startup plans? Our original growth strategy depended on farmers markets, pop-up coffee stands, and in-person coffee sensory and education workshops to spread the word about our company. We had also planned on an early expansion to B2B sales to small businesses through in-person meetings and relationship building. The pandemic prevented us from implementing any of these plans, which has impacted our ability to grow and achieve our vision in the way we had hoped. However, we have adapted by relying more on online sales, creating different promotions, and launching new products as a way of generating excitement. We also sought out organizations we could partner with without the need to host in-person events, thus enabling us to continue our mission to support and empower women and girls.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? We would love to be able to support more organizations on a larger scale, including creating a scholarship for girls to attend college to study STEM. We hope to open a brick and mortar café, where we can host events for women and girls to pursue educational and career opportunities. Of course, we want to produce some of the most exciting coffee in Arizona.


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