Students in Big Red Microenterprise advise local entrepreneurs

By: Katelyn Godoy
Abner Argueta and Manrique Lopez with Maggie in front of their event sign

Each year, the Johnson’s Big Red Microenterprise (BRM), under the guidance of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, connects MBA students with underserved and/or mission-driven entrepreneurs in the Ithaca area. Equipped with a business school education and a love for the local community, students in the program are given the opportunity to apply their knowledge in a way that impacts real small-businesses and supports local economic development.

Spilling the Beans with Argueta

Reflection by Maggie Miller, MBA ’19, and Sarah Theobald, MBA ’19

Starting a business is not for the faint of heart. It takes hard work and rolled up sleeves; but most importantly, it takes passion. Abner Argueta, founder of Argueta’s Coffee, has that in excess. Abner is not just creating a business—he’s introducing Upstate New Yorkers to the high quality coffee beans grown on the Guatemalan plantations where he worked as a child. In doing so, he aims to cut out the middle men, provide better prices to the farmers, and give back to the Guatemalan community through donations to youth education.

Argueta and Lopez behind their table at the coffee tasting event
Coffee tasting with Abner Argueta and Manrique Lopez

His enthusiasm for high-quality coffee from the Huehuetenango region seems to run in the family. Abner’s cousin and boots-on-the-ground Guatemalan business partner, Manrique Lopez, was equally passionate during his visit to Ithaca to host a cupping event last spring. Abner, keen to promote Guatemalan sourcing and recognize key players like Lopez, chronicles his production process as he goes, posting pictures and updates on Facebook (@ArguetasCoffee).

Coffee, coffee beans, and products on the tasting table

Home-grown roasting

Abner’s coffee is unique, not only due to Abner’s story, his close ties to its origin, and the transparency of its supply chain, but also in the way that he roasts it. Abner mainly imports one type of high-quality bean and roasts it in four different ways to satisfy the palates of different audiences. Additionally, he creates limited edition blends, such as the Don Mordequeo (Mordecai) Blend. The latter was created in honor of Abner’s father, who, as described on Facebook, “transported coffee on the back of horses through the steep mountains of Huehuetenango.” Moreover, through labeling he uniquely highlights the temperature at which he roasts the beans, drawing consumers’ attention to this component of the preparation process.

Through BRM, we had the opportunity to work with Abner during an exciting period of growth for his business. Abner started his business in 2015 by importing 6,000 pounds of green beans to be roasted in his living-room-turned-roasting-room. Abner, inviting and eager to share, showed us where and how he roasts coffee beans, detailing the process and the nuances within it that help to generate his high-quality coffee beans that are in ever-more demand every day. The roasted beans are sold at nine locations, including by the pound at GreenStar Natural Foods Market and by the cup at food truck Brew22. This year, Abner has imported 20,000 pounds so farm and is preparing to move his roaster to Brew22’s new location, soon to be open on Dryden Road in Ithaca.

Following a passion for coffee

Abner is not done yet—he wants to expand his reach so he can import even more coffee and increase his impact in Guatemala, while simultaneously building a profitable business for his family. His passion and drive are contagious. While working with Abner, conversations covered a lot of topics: building his brand, telling his story through social media, increasing distribution channels by building out his website with an online store, and identifying new locations to carry his coffee. Many of these topics paralleled those we were learning about in Johnson’s marketing classes as well as our core MBA courses. It was incredibly exciting to see firsthand how these business principles impact a small business and to be able to bring new ideas to the table.

Overall, the chance to strengthen and augment the learning we were receiving in the classroom during our Spring 2018 semester, meet an inspiring business owner, and connect with the Ithaca community, was a true highlight of our semester and time at Cornell. Through learning about Abner’s journey as a small business owner and entrepreneur, we were able to continue feeding our love and knowledge of coffee and learn about what it takes to be an entrepreneur first-hand.

More student stories

Since BRM’s founding in 2009, many MBA students and entrepreneurs have come together to learn from each other in experiences like these. BRM projects differ from year to year, giving students the opportunity to explore everything from energy storage to food delivery.

Here are a few reflections from other teams in the program:

Meal-kits for students

We had the pleasure of working with Debra Walsh, supporting her goals to establish a healthy, affordable, and easy-to-use meal kit service for college students. We helped set guidelines and expectations for the semester, providing feedback via FaceTime, phone calls, and in-person meetings. Additionally, we assisted in providing Debra with examples of menus, other meal kit services, links to food events on Cornell’s campus, and health and wellness services at Cornell and Ithaca College. We enjoyed getting to know and coach Debra this semester. We look forward to learning about the progression of her meal-kit service and wish her the best!”

— Katherine Schultz, MBA ’19, and Janet Wang, MBA ’19

Front row seats

“We had the opportunity to work with Michael Biron, a local entrepreneur with an extensive background in design, deployment, and support of heavy duty electric vehicle fleets. Michael is currently building Next Wave Power Technologies, a startup that focuses on procurement and technical services for energy storage projects. The biggest takeaway from this experience was it felt like we had front row seats in the creation of a budding business idea. We were able to put theory to practice and work side by side to create tangible outputs that could improve Michael’s business.”

—Joseph Abu, MPA ’19, and Jay Roberts, MBA ’19

Three men standing outside posing for a photo
Jay Roberts, Michael Biron, and Joseph Abu

Learn more about the Big Red Microenterprise group.