Like many of us, Stephen Coffey, BA '97, JD '01 was deeply affected when, as a college sophomore, he first learned about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. It wasn't until Coffey sampled one of the country's native exports a decade later, however, that he discovered a way to help the rebounding African nation.
"Africa is the birthplace of coffee, and Rwandan coffee has an unbelievable aroma," Coffey says. "That's always the first sign of a fantastic coffee." Not long after falling in love with the region's Arabica beans, Coffey founded Thousand Hills Coffee Company. Its dual mission: introducing Rwandan coffee to the United States, while also supporting local Rwandan coffee farmers and subsidizing the construction of the Maranyundo School, an independent middle school for girls.
So how did a local kid from South Boston go from practicing law at a small local firm to building schools in Rwanda?
"I always knew that I would be running my own business," says Coffey, "and this job is perfect for me."
The Maranyundo School was the brainchild of Sister Ann Fox, director of the Paraclete Foundation in South Boston (www.paraclete.org), which sponsors the Rwanda Middle School Project. Coffey, a friend of Sister Ann's since childhood, heard about her plans to start a school in Rwanda modeled on her after-school program in Boston. "I called her and asked how I could help out," explains Coffey.
With Sister Ann's guidance and Coffey's assistance, the Paraclete Foundation began construction on the school in 2005 in the town of Nyamata. The school is scheduled to open in February 2008.
Meanwhile, Coffey decided to seek out a business venture that would combine his entrepreneurial instincts with his desire to further Sister Ann's efforts. When she mentioned the region's coffee, he ordered samples from the few companies importing Rwandan coffee to the United States. After sending samples to some professional coffee tasters, called "cuppers," their enthusiastic responses intrigued him. "I ended up going to Rwanda, and that's when I realized that I had something," he says.
In fact, Coffey's trip proved overwhelming on levels far beyond those he anticipated. "After visiting genocide memorial sites and talking with victims, many of whom are the sole survivors of their families, I was deeply moved," he recalls.
In 2004, Coffey cobbled together enough capital to launch his business, and soon Thousand Hills Coffee Company (www.thousandhillscoffee.com) was up and running in South Boston. (Rwanda is known as the "Land of a Thousand Hills.") The company was, and remains, a small operation minimally staffed by a few employees, some volunteers... and Stephen Coffey. "You can find me sweeping the floors and bagging coffee at midnight during the holiday rush," he says with a laugh.
Local restaurants, including Haley House and Avenue Grill, have begun to serve Thousand Hills Coffee, and Whole Foods has expressed interest. And, in a possible sign of his company's future prospects, even the venerable Starbucks has begun to sell Rwandan beans. While building Thousand Hills Coffee Company is still an up-and-down venture-"one day's tough, the next day I'm shaking the president of Rwanda's hand"-Coffey ultimately feels confident about the future success of his business.
"When people have the choice of drinking great coffee or great coffee with a great cause," he says, "most people are going to choose the coffee with a great cause."
- Dan Tobin
ALUMNI PROFILESLance D. Clarke