She’s only 26 years old, but Kate Novotny’s résumé already includes a three-year stint as CEO and founder of a socially conscious company with international ties.
She’s quick to point out that Buena Vida Coffee is a team effort, but there’s no doubt Novotny, who earned an undergraduate degree in Latin American studies, Spanish and economics from Marquette University in 2010, and a master’s certificate in entrepreneurship in 2012, played a key role in getting the business started.
Novotny, loan officer for Accion Chicago, turned over the reins as CEO of Buena Vida last June to Daniel Klingelhoets, a Marquette sophomore, knowing that the company, in four years, has experienced steady growth, and perhaps, more importantly, has provided nearly 11,000 meals to children at the Honduran orphanage it supports.
Her introduction into the world of specialty coffee roasting came during a January 2008 trip to Honduras. A Marquette sophomore at the time, Novotny was a part of a team of about 30 students and six physicians participating in a Global Medical Brigades medical mission. Fluent in Spanish, Novotny was along to help with translations.
The group stayed at an orphanage run by School Sister of St. Francis Maria Rosa Leggol, a Honduran-born nun who professed her vows at the School Sisters of St. Francis motherhouse in Milwaukee and has since returned to Honduras to found Sociedad Amigos de los Niños orphanage, a network of projects that have provided care to more than 40,000 Honduran children in the past 40 years.
Buena Vida Coffee can be purchased at Sendik’s Food Market, 10930 N. Port Washington Road, Mequon, and the Milwaukee County Domes gift shop, 524 S. Latyon Blvd., Milwaukee.
The group brought medical care to remote areas and in the tiny village of Hoya Grande, Novotny met a Honduran coffee farmer who shared the struggles of coffee growers in dealing with fluctuating prices and producers who exploit the farmers, paying minimal prices for the beans.
Later that evening, as Novotny described in a reflection posted on archmil.org, during a Mass for the celebration of the Epiphany, she experienced an epiphany of her own.
“I was not exactly sure what it was, but I felt a call to be a part of Sister’s work,” she wrote, describing how over the next two years, she and a team of people including Charles Ries, Toby Peters and John Peterson from Marquette University and Eric Resch, founder of Stone Creek Coffee, created a brand of organic, fair-trade coffee made from beans of the Honduran coffee farmers, sold in the United States to raise money for Sr. Maria Rosa’s orphanage.
“After that initial trip in 2008, I came back and knew I wanted to do something,” she said in a telephone interview with a Catholic Herald myFaith reporter, describing how, after the trip, she wanted to find a way to provide fair prices to coffee farmers, and support the children at Sociedad Amigos de los Niños while providing Marquette students with a hands-on entrepreneurial learning opportunity.
With Resch’s expertise in importing, roasting, packaging and shipping coffee, and the Marquette students’ sales and marketing skills, the Sister Maria Rosa Coffee Company recorded its first sales in 2010.
Seed money provided by Marquette donors interested in supporting a student-run business helped the company get off the ground, according to Novotny, who explained the nonprofit company, housed in the Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship, sells coffee as a fundraiser to university clubs and organizations through Global Brigade, an organization that provides international service learning experiences for students.
In fall 2011, in an effort to widen its appeal, the company rebranded itself as Buena Vida Coffee, Spanish for “The Good Life,” said Novotny, explaining its mission is to provide a good life for people in Honduras.
“It’s been incredible to see how we have been able to grow,” said Novotny, explaining that in its first year, the company did about $5,000 in revenue, but by last year, revenue had increased to more than $71,000.
The company sent its first check for $2,000 to the orphanage in 2011, followed by $3,465 in 2012 and $7,861 in 2013.
As part of its marketing approach, the student-run company says that “for every bag of coffee purchased, Buena Vida Coffee provides one meal to one child at the Sociedad Amigos de los Niños orphanage.”
Recently, the company extended its outreach beyond fundraising to office sales. With the help of Marquette University business alumnus, Jim Sartori (1977), CEO of Sartori Cheese, Buena Vida Coffee expanded its sales to Sendik’s Food Market in Mequon, according to Novotny, known as “the coffee girl.”
What’s unique about Buena Vida, according to Ries, is not the coffee, rather it’s the story. “People love something with a story and something with a soul,” he told Catholic Herald myFaith in a telephone interview. “We believe the reason people buy and will continue to buy this product, is because it’s more than quality coffee at a price, is because it comes with a story and most coffee in retail spaces don’t have our story.”
Calling Novotny, “the queen of coffee” and “a powerhouse – she’s a little, sweet diminutive, kind-hearted powerhouse,” Ries said the team started “with a good base idea and a good recipient and we knew we wanted to help the orphans, we just had to think how to make money.”
Like many businesses, however, Ries said the company reinvented itself and will continue to adapt.
Ries said the company has only begun to tap its fundraising potential and is also experimenting with corporate and retail sales.
“I’m so proud of Dan (Klingelhoets) and the student team that’s been running the company,” said Novotny. “They’ve done a fantastic job of maintaining its growth, which has superseded expectations and overall is making an impact in Honduras and in the students’ lives,” said Novotny. “To support Sister and the kids, to support coffee farmers and to support Marquette student growth, I’m so happy and proud that we are able to accomplish those three things.”
Years of Catholic education, along with her parents’ example of concern for others, inspired Novotny to act on behalf of those less fortunate, she explained.
A graduate of St. Mary’s Visitation School in Elm Grove, Novotny said she gained an awareness of global issues through her parish’s connection with the Working Boys Center in Quito, Ecuador, a site she visited for the first time in summer 2012.
“I felt like concern, really an awareness of global issues, came from our parish’s connection to Quito. That became part of parish life and that was the initial spark that piqued my interest,” she explained.
As a student at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, Milwaukee, Novotny said she was introduced to many more opportunities to become involved in service projects both locally and abroad. Finally, at Marquette, Novotny’s desire to make a global impact was fostered through experiential learning, including trips to Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Chili.
“At the core of my faith and belief is the passion for social justice,” said Novotny. “I really try to live it on a daily basis through interaction with others and my work.”
That passion did not go unnoticed by Klingelhoets who was introduced to Novotny in fall 2012, his first semester at Marquette.
Ries, senior director of development design and innovation at Marquette, and one of the designers of Buena Vida Coffee, introduced him to Novotny, and immediately Klingelhoets caught her enthusiasm for the project.
“Sitting down and first meeting Kate was exciting and I was kind of overwhelmed in a good way with how driven and excited she was,” he recalled. “To see what can come out of hard work and a passion, and I never really realized that before, and to follow what you really believe in and are passionate about was relayed to me and is where I get my inspiration from in continuing to move Buena Vida Coffee forward. It was the perfect thing to get me started in my journey at Marquette.”
Klingelhoets, a marketing and human resources major, said he entered Marquette “wanting to make an impact,” and after meeting Novotny, he said he was “floored by her story of what she was doing already and seeing what is able to come out of her passion for something.”
Stepping into Novotny’s shoes as student CEO of Buena Vida Coffee, Klingelhoets, a member of Divine Savior Parish, Fredonia, not only oversees the day-to-day business of the company, but has been to Nicaragua with Novotny, along with the Marquette Global Brigades chapter, searching for good coffee suppliers.
It’s a trip he never would have guessed he’d have taken, admitted Klingelhoets, explaining how they visited coffee farms looking at the growing process, the quality of the farm, the picking styles, the milling process in order to select a coffee to add to their line.
“I mean, I wouldn’t call myself an expert (on coffee),” said Klingelhoets, “but as a college student, this is taking college and coffee to a whole new level.”
As Buena Vida Coffee – comprised of six students and John Peterson, a faculty advisor – develops future business plans, Klingelhoets is grateful Novotny is still on board in an advisory role as a member of its board of directors.
“Kate’s always been readily available, really supportive of my decisions. It can be kind of hard to give over the reins – it was her baby; I know the transition had to be hard, stepping back from the project she grew and developed and spent so much sweat over,” he admitted, “but I definitely appreciate all her continued support and guidance and her trust in what I’m doing.
“The biggest thing I get – and I can’t stress this enough to anyone I talk to on campus – is the awesome experiential learning component of Buena Vida Coffee. I always wanted to make an impact and I can do that; for me what I enjoy most is knowing we’re making an impact, and going through the day to day business in tandem with my classes allows me to apply what I learn in class to help others.”
As Ries sees it, Buena Vida Coffee epitomizes what Marquette is all about.
“At Marquette, we are all about service to others. The question is can they do good and do good business and answer is absolutely, positively yes,” he said. “It’s great to have a business like this on campus that students are running and they see the struggle to make a profit and also see the objective to feed the poor…. It’s a wonderful laboratory where sustainable businesses and socially responsible businesses grow and that is exactly what Marquette is all about, it’s all about service to others.”