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Rooted in Coffee

How Fernando Diaz ’12 Is Building A Business, A Farm, and A New Way of Giving Back

Time was running out for Fernando Diaz ’12 and his coffee company, Proyecto Diaz. Diaz didn’t know whether Proyecto Diaz was going to be able to achieve its goal of raising $30,000 on Kickstarter, the online fundraising platform. There were six days left until the June 8 deadline and Proyecto Diaz had only raised $11,000.

“It was nerve-wracking,” Diaz said. By Kickstarter’s rules, if a project does not reach its goal by the deadline, none of the money that has been pledged will go to the project; that meant that, even if Diaz and his company were able to raise more money in the next few days, if they fell short of their goal, they wouldn’t receive any money at all.

“We were putting all our eggs in one basket,” Diaz said. “Doing Kickstarter was definitely a tough choice, but I was confident that it could happen. The theme of the year for our team has been ‘double-down.’ Most of the decisions that I’ve made and that we’ve made as a team have been with that theme of being really aggressive. That’s why we went with Kickstarter. We knew if we didn’t make it, it would force us to pursue other financing methods. But the point was that we didn’t want to take the easy route.”

Then, on Thursday, June 2, after Diaz had resigned himself to the fact that Proyecto Diaz wouldn’t reach its goal, one of his closest friends told him that, if Proyecto Diaz was able to reach a certain amount in its fundraising efforts, he would help out with a big pledge. “Then there were a lot of other people from our close network and from our community who kept cheering us on, and they were the ones who financed a lot of it,” Diaz said. “It’s kind of mind-blowing, the generosity that people showed.” Over the course of the weekend, Proyecto Diaz reached its goal and ended its Kickstarter campaign with $32,491 raised from 262 backers.

That sense of community, of bringing people together to support each other, is central to the idea of Proyecto Diaz. When Diaz founded the company, he did so with the aim of providing high-quality, sustainably sourced coffee and, more importantly, of reinvesting profits to help coffee farmers maintain and rebuild their farms.

Proyecto Diaz’s Kickstarter goal was determined with the company’s mission in mind. Of the $30,000 goal, $20,000 was allotted for a used coffee roaster, $3,000 for three months’ rent in a warehouse space, $3,000 for sourcing green coffee, and another $4,000 for both Kickstarter’s fees and perks for supporters. The roaster, dedicated space, and coffee supply would allow Diaz and his team to concentrate on one of their first rebuilding efforts: the rejuvenation of El Carmen, the Oaxaca coffee farm run by Diaz’s grandfather Juan Leovigildo Diaz.

It was El Carmen that inspired Diaz’s interest in coffee in the first place. He explained that, during the time he was working at an immigration law firm in the city, he became intrigued by coffee and coffee craftsmanship. He also noticed that there weren’t any coffee roasters who claimed to come from coffee-growing families. As Diaz put it, “All the leaders [in coffee roasting] liked coffee, but they couldn’t really say they were rooted in coffee, historically and culturally.” That was the key for Diaz—so he decided to do his own thing. “I bought some of my grandfather’s coffee, roasted that, and then started popping up on 24th Street in the Mission [in San Francisco] at different storefronts that let me post up.”

How does one learn how to roast coffee— especially while working at an immigration law firm? Diaz did not hesitate to reveal his secrets when asked. “So the world wide web is a beautiful thing,” he said, laughing. “I started roasting at home, doing YouTube tutorials, and getting an idea through that.” Diaz explained that, some months later, he and his team were able to get access to better facilities and equipment and began roasting larger batches.

Now that Proyecto Diaz has the necessary capital to move forward, Diaz will work on purchasing a used roaster and finding a more permanent home for the company. In addition, Diaz, his team, and his family in Oaxaca will soon focus on the long list of repairs and renovations that are needed to restore El Carmen to full functionality. While the Proyecto Diaz team recently completed the construction of a new coffee fermentation tank at El Carmen, Diaz mentioned that the coffee plants on the farm have to be maintained—intrusive plants and other shrubs must be removed—a roof has to be rebuilt, and the old drying patio, which has become cracked and broken, will have to be repaved.

Once El Carmen has been restored, Diaz said the plan for the company is to extend assistance to other farms—not only in Oaxaca or Mexico, but throughout Latin America. Diaz expects the Proyecto Diaz network to grow through relationships and through community. “In the Latin American community, it’s not uncommon for someone you know to have an association with someone who has a farm,” Diaz said. “So sometimes I make a delivery and I meet a worker at a grocery store who says, ‘Hey, my family has a [coffee] farm in Nicaragua.’ So it’ll probably start off that way. And then we’ll start developing a relationship, based on friendship, based on people approaching us, and just seeing where the biggest need is at from our point of view.”

If Proyecto Diaz’s emphasis on building community sounds familiar to HNU alumni, that’s because the company’s mission is, in part, an extension of Diaz’s HNU experience. When asked about his time as a student, Diaz spoke eloquently about how he remembers the pervasive sense of closeness that existed among the student body and the faculty. “It was very tight-knit, very supportive, a very close network,” he said. “So that’s definitely an influence—in the way I relate to other folks and in maintaining a close network of friends and even business associates that help one another out. What I enjoyed the most was the closeness and how small it felt, the attention that the teachers gave—the professors knew your name. You knew who people were; you saw them in and out of class. You don’t get lost, you’re not just a number. You’re actually a person rather than just a number.”

Diaz majored in Latin American studies and minored in international relations during his time at HNU, and he said that, besides the exceptional sense of community that he felt on campus, he also appreciated the fact that his professors were always approachable and willing to help. “Sister Sophia Park [assistant professor of religious studies and philosophy], Robert Lassalle-Klein [professor of religious studies and philosophy], Martivón Galindo [professor of Latin American and Latino/a studies], and Sister Chris Patrinos [associate professor of political science]—they’re the ones I was most fond of, and I was always checking in with them. I know I tapped Robert Lassalle-Klein’s shoulder a few times and he gave me some book recommendations—same with Martivón.”

When asked about what advice he would give a new HNU student, Diaz reiterated what he’d said about the value of the HNU faculty. “I would say to really tap into the faculty. To really find some sort of mentorship and guidance from the faculty, because, as I’ve been saying, that’s really where I bounced around a lot of my ideas and found a lot of encouragement. There are people there who have been in business or another area for ages—they’ve been working at that for a long time, so you can get a lot of your support from them.”

The future of Proyecto Diaz—especially with the success of the Kickstarter campaign—looks bright. Diaz said his plans include establishing wholesale partnerships with markets, cafes, and offices; building out the company’s production space and offering opportunities for visitors to observe what they do; sourcing all their single-origin coffees from farmers that the company directly supports; opening up storefront locations in California and beyond; and, most importantly, becoming a specialty coffee company that is a leader in social impact.

Going from HNU student to innovative entrepreneur in a handful of years is no small feat, but Diaz offered an insightful summation of his journey at the end of the interview. “If you want to do anything well, it takes a lot of hard work, a lot of time, and a lot of patience, regardless of where you’re at. It’s not dependent on the place, but on the person.”