Student Series: Hector Castillo Carvajal, making impact one cafecito at a time

To continue with the Student Entrepreneur Series, I am super excited to share the story of Hector Castillo Carvajal.

I came across Hector’s profile a year ago when I was researching about the experience of minority entrepreneurs. As someone who considers herself a “coffee addict”, I was amazed by the idea of a fellow Yellowjacket (University of Rochester) starting a coffee brand. Moreover, as a proud Latina myself 🇺🇾, it was great to see a young Latino 🇩🇴 making his way into the coffee industry.

Hector is the founder of Don Carvajal Cafe, a specialty coffee brand based in South Bronx that brings the flavor of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Costa Rica, Colombia and Brazil while being environmentally friendly and community oriented. He is a Business Marketing student at the University of Rochester who decided to take a leave of absence to focus on his business.

In 2019, I was interning at an office in the Bronx and at that office there was a guy who used to brew coffee every morning and offer. It was really good coffee so one day I asked the guy “where can I buy this coffee? it’s really good and I want to bring some back home.” He said that it was a brand that the office used to work with but they didn’t sell it anymore. It was the first time I was having specialty coffee, I’d never had it before and you could taste the difference. So out of curiosity, I started researching the coffee industry. I was very intrigued, I looked at the numbers and they were huge. To me, it wasn’t about the money but it was about the opportunity.

During the school year, Hector was taking Marketing 203: Principles of Marketing where he was assigned to work on a semester-long group project. The professor told the class to work on the creation of a business and marketing plan of either a company they come up with or one that already exists. Hector asked the professor if he could work on his coffee idea and once the professor was good with it, he pitched it to his group partners. The group didn’t have any other ideas in mind so they decided to move forward with it. Similarly to Shelley’s story, Hector’s classmates saw the project as an assignment only. However, he was serious about it.

We researched the coffee industry, the demographics, how the market looked like and how we were gonna get out there. The strategy, what product we were gonna offer, what the pricing is and why we were gonna price it that way. We did all that. While I was doing all that (for the class), I was also doing personal stuff. I was going to the Ain Center and work on the Business Model Canvas. Also Simon (Business School) and the Center were having workshops on how to raise capital and how to pitch your idea. I would always go to those. I was also part of the Rochester Business Association and would learn about financial literacy too.

Hector was going above and beyond for the class project. He wanted to make it a reality so he and the team applied to the Ain Center’s grant to build a prototype. That grant allowed them to buy some coffee beans, bags, and get them locally roasted. On top of that, the collaborative space at the University of Rochester “iZone” was hosting an event called “What’s your Big Idea?”

I pitched my idea. No logo, no presentation, just 2 minutes of the idea. I pitched it, people loved it, judges had great feedback and they connected me with people who roast and are in the coffee game. Some people mentored me. That’s kind of how I started. It was the class, the Ain Center, and the iZone that took me to develop the idea and process it.

After all the work Hector and the team put into the assignment, they got the highest grade and the best business plan. Impressively, after they presented the project, the class was eager to buy some coffee bags from them.

Somebody was like “You guys have real coffee at the table, can I buy one of those?” and I was like What!? That’s crazy, she just wants to buy a bag. She asked me how much and I said “Well, the presentation said 17.95, that’s how much it costs.” So she gave me 20 and I didn’t have any change because I wasn’t expecting that but then she told me to keep it. And then other people started buying for 20 too. After that presentation, I went to my dorm and checked if the name Don Carvajal Cafe was available. I literally reserved it and then I did it; I started selling coffee.

After reserving the company name Don Carvajal Cafe, Hector started advertising his coffee bags on Instagram. He encouraged his friends and acquaintances to support him and also get good quality coffee. As people started buying, Hector was able to save enough to build a website and expand the outreach. His goal? Supermarkets.

During the summer, when I was interning for the College Board, I came down to the City. I was interning from 9–5 and then from 5–10, I was literally working on my coffee business. I would spend every weekend pitching to supermarkets and coffee shops. Coffee shops didn’t go too well but then when I got my first supermarket, it went really good. Then I got another one, and another one, and like that. Then it was the week before classes started again and I decided I was just gonna stay.

Starting and managing any business is a lot. Particularly, for the coffee industry, the roasting, packaging, and distribution is very tied to the physical labor and it is very intense. Given that Hector didn’t raise capital to hire a full team, he knew that coming back to Rochester would make it impossible for him to continue running Don Carvajal Cafe. In his words, “when you are bootstrapping, you don’t get that luxury.”

Advice for students

Properly do your research. Do something that you are passionate about. If you are not passionate about what you do, if you are just doing it for the money and not for the passion, as soon as something like COVID-19 happens, you are gonna give up. When something wrong happens, you might quit because you are not thinking about the passion and the long-term. It’s the idea of leading with passion and actually researching your industry very well, make sure there’s an opportunity out there too. It might be crazy to a lot of people but the idea is that if you really think it’s worth it, and you believe in yourself and your passion then that’s it.

Hector is a wonderful young man. Every time I talk to him, I learn a new perspective and a new way of looking at entrepreneurship. I hope you enjoy his story and I hope you get to try his coffee at some point!

21 | 🇺🇾 | @UofR | innovation & impact ✨ | coffee addict, in love with movement, feminist, and geek 👩🏻‍💻