How Military Experience Helped Me Become A Successful Entrepreneur

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Accion client and Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program participant Alberto Boleres served in Iraq before returning to his native Chicago to start Boleres Coffee, a company specializing in direct-from-the-farm Guatemalan coffee. He took time out of his busy coffee roasting schedule to share his story and his advice for other Veterans interested in entrepreneurship.

In what branch of the military did you serve? What made you interested in joining?

I served in the Army National Guard and the Reserves in Iraq. In 1999, my best friend joined the Army. When he returned from serving, he told me about all of the opportunities the Army provides after service, like paying for school, and I was very interested in those benefits. At the time, I didn’t feel like I had much going on, and I wasn’t doing much to set myself up for success. Joining the Army changed all of that it’s the best choice I’ve ever made.

Tell us about your experience as a Veteran and how it influenced your decision to start a business.

I came up with the idea for a coffee company while I was in Iraq. I had to wait in a long line for coffee out in the heat every day, and that line gave me a lot of time to think. Once I returned from Iraq, I decided to make this daydreamed idea a reality. Starting a coffee company didn’t work out as easily as I thought it would, but the most important thing I learned in the military was to never give up. This lesson helped me to get creative and try different things when I needed to.

Tell me about your experience starting and growing your business. Were there challenges you had to overcome?

When I first started Boleres Coffee in 2011, I faced several challenges that required some creative perseverance. For example, I realized early on that I didn’t know as much about the coffee industry as I had hoped. To learn more about my product, I was trained at an internationally recognized coffee school in Guatemala. Later, I also got certified as a coffee barista. It’s always been important to me to continue learning at every step, and I’ve definitely experienced a lot of hands-on learning as I’ve continued to grow my business.

 

An example of this learning-by-doing had more to do with the actual business than the coffee. I was disappointed to find out that college-level courses didn’t give me the basic business skills I needed to succeed. For instance, I didn’t know about the net 30 rule that my first distribution customers wanted to follow. Net 30 means that payment is due for a product thirty days after delivery, and my new customers were used to this payment schedule with their other vendors. Due to that schedule, I was faced with being out of coffee and money for a whole month! This particular challenge led me to Accion.

What were your reasons for seeking finance for your business? What was the process like?

I needed to add to my inventory of coffee so that I could continuously supply customers without having to wait for payments to come in. I was looking for a way to alleviate this cash flow problem when my cousin introduced me to Accion. The process of securing financing gave me much more than capital, though. I gained a lot of confidence because Accion guided me through the process and I was successful very quickly. I got my loan right away, which showed me that I knew more about business than I thought I did. With this new influx of working capital and this new confidence, I was excited to grow Boleres Coffee even more.

What has your experience been as an Accion client and participant in the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program?

When my cousin first told me about Accion, I never thought I’d gain as much as I have from becoming a client. While we were making the business plan and sorting out my financing, my loan officer was so encouraging that I became even more motivated to push harder for my own success. Once I received my loan, I was quickly introduced to the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program. By taking advantage of that program’s opportunities that I really learned how much potential I had as a businessman.

 

Above everything else, Brewing the American Dream has given me credibility. I’m featured on the website and have collaborated with Sam Adams on several promotions for consumers. It is gratifying to have the respect of a successful craft brewery. That’s an amazing step forward to an entrepreneur like me!

 

In a more tangible way, the Brewing the American Dream events gave me an opportunity to meet partners that I still work with today. These business partnerships are critical to sustaining my business. For example, at a Brewing the American Dream Speed Coaching event, I met Don DiBrita of Beer Dogging, whomade it possible for me to work with Lou Dog Events on several craft beer festivals around Chicago. I also worked with the local Samuel Adams Chicago team to collaborate on several varieties of Samuel Adams beers available only in Chicago. These opportunities allowed me togrow my network and increase access to my markets all at the same time.

We understand you recently were awarded a fellowship with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families. Tell us about that experience.

Two years ago, while taking a Boots2Business course at the SBA, I learned about online business classes for people like me. The SBA connected me to a month-long online course I took through Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. During that online course, I learned about the Institute and the fellowship opportunity for Veteran entrepreneurs. I met faculty members from the Institute through the online course, and they encouraged me to apply.

 

The fellowship program is part of a partnership with universities all over the country, and I did a lot of research about which university I would want to work with. Cornell University is an Ivy League school, and its program has a focus on hospitality, food, and beverage businesses. Only 20 have the opportunity to attend Cornell’s campus in Ithaca, New York for their entrepreneurship fellowship. But I learned a long time ago in Iraq that I should never give up, so I set my sights on Cornell. I was recommended by the Samuel Adams team, since we had worked together closely and they had seen the progress I’d made with my business over the years.

 

I was chosen for the fellowship in September 2016, and it’s been one of the best experiences of my lifetime. What I’ve learned there was priceless, and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families. I am also now a part of Cornell’s alumni network, which opens even more doors for my business. The whole experience has pushed me forward in ways I would’ve never imagined.

What advice do you have for other Veteran entrepreneurs?

Take advantage of opportunities available to Veterans. At Cornell, I learned that Veterans are three times as likely to start a business and two times as likely to be successful with that business. There are programs and opportunities open to Veterans that no one else has access to, so it’s important to take those opportunities. The resources are virtually endless if you’re willing to put in the time to seek them out.

 

Also, get an education! Veterans have access to free higher education in this country. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of that? Honestly, it took me too long to realize how valuable this is, but I’m always wanting to learn, and I know now that you can never stop learning. So far, I’ve done that in lots of different ways, but I wish I’d taken advantage of the opportunities for Veterans in higher education a lot sooner.

 

Last, find something unique about the way you do business. For me, it’s how we source our coffee. Coffee companies usually go out to the farms for a week to choose the beans right as they’re starting up, but I have people on the ground in Guatemala all the time deciding which beans are the best that gives my company an advantage. We can ensure that our product remains the highest quality possible, and that’s our unique value-add to the current market of other specialty coffees in Chicago.

What are your future plans?

I’m taking my own advice about education I got an Associate’s degree this past summer, and I plan to get a Bachelor’s in a field related to marketing or business in the next few years. Because of my great experience with the fellowship, I would love to go to Cornell and get a Master’s one day too.

 

As for my company, I definitely aim to expand. We just started doing some coffee roasting, so now we handle the whole manufacturing process. I want to grow and streamline that operation to get into more markets while maintaining our quality and connection to our coffee farmers in Guatemala. As part of our growth effort, we are rebranding Boleres Coffee as 606 Coffee Roasters. The new name pays homage to our Chicago roots, and it’s more accessible for people who speak all different languages. Check out our Facebook page for more updates as 606 Coffee Roasters continues to grow.

 

People may read this or see my story on the Brewing the American Dream website and think, Wow, this guy is doing big things! But not yet. We’re still growing, and this part of the journey. The military taught me to never give up and never stop trying, so I’ll keep learning, adapting, and taking every opportunity I can.

 

Since 2008, Accion and the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program have been providing business owners in the food and beverage industry the essential ingredients to start, strengthen, and grow their small businesses.