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Posted under: Culture

Young Black Creative Discusses Launching A Business That Prioritizes Purpose And Profit During A Pandemic

'We want to inspire our community to be more than consumers.'

While businesses around the globe struggle to outlast the COVID-19 pandemic, two young Black entrepreneurs have inserted themselves into the multi-billion dollar coffee industry. Nathan Araya and his business partner Dagmawi Tesfaye launched Ground Zero Coffee in the midst of global chaos. But with a stable market and projected $30.22 billion value, coffee remains an appealing enterprise.

As fruitful as the coffee industry appears, money is not the sole motivating factor for Araya and Tesfaye. The pair has created a brand that is committed to uplifting Black creatives around the world via professional resources and practical tools. Araya shared with Blavity how the new East African coffee company is helping other members of the diaspora build their dreams from the ground up.

Blavity: Tell us a bit about yourself -- who are you, where are you from and what do you do?

Nathan Araya: My name is Nathan Araya. I am a filmmaker, entrepreneur and college professor living in Austin, Texas. My parents are from Ethiopia. I was born in Dallas, Texas. My business partner is Dagmawi Tesfaye. He is an entrepreneur and electrical engineer manager in Dallas. He was born in Ethiopia and came to the US when he was 10 years old.

Photo credit: Dagmawi Tesfaye (business partners Araya and Tesfaye pictured).

What inspired you to create the Ground Zero Coffee and Podcast brand? When did it officially launch?

Ground Zero is an East African coffee company passionately focused on community impact through storytelling and social enterprise. We launched Ground Zero and opened our virtual doors on April 12, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic with a purpose to help keep our community motivated in quarantine with East African coffee, educational resources and empowerment tools while working from home in comfort.

My business partner Dagmawi Tesfaye and I started this business because we saw a need for representation and ownership within the coffee retail space for Black diasporas. We wanted to create new narratives and close the wealth gap within our community. A large percentage of Black diasporas are coffee consumers and customers but not many are owners. We took on the responsibility to represent more of what we own and less of what we consume. We want to inspire our community to be more than consumers of culture, but active owners and high-level contributors within it. So, we entered into the coffee retail space in order to offer the representation needed on the other side of the counter - to inspire and build our community as owners and conscious coffee contributors.

Photo credit: Dagmawi Tesfaye

As a company, we want to model and prioritize purpose as well as profit through a social impact business model centered around coffee by harnessing our buying power as conscious coffee consumers. What we buy is just as important as where we buy it from and what we are buying into. Every dollar we spend today is like a vote we cast for the type of world we want to live in tomorrow.

So far, which coffee is the consumer fave (your fave)? Why? What feedback have you received about it?

The most popular single-origin coffee from Ground Zero is the Ethiopia Harrar coffee. People love this coffee because it is organic and accented with berry, honey and chocolate flavor notes. The coffee beans come from family-owned farms, fully natural and sorted by hand. The best brew methods for this coffee are pour-over, cold brew or automatic drip.

Photo credit: Dagmawi Tesfaye

How do the proceeds from the coffee benefit young members of the Black diaspora?

Within the past two months of launching Ground Zero, we've donated 20% profit from coffee purchases to help and protect front-line healthcare workers in Ethiopia's fight against COVID-19. The contributions from Ground Zero, our extended global partners, and non-profit organization EDTF Emergency COVID-19 Mitigation have helped provide 6.6 million exam gloves, 1 million surgical masks, 19 thousand protective clothes, 42 thousand respirator masks, 10 thousand nasal oxygen cannula, 2 thousand face shields, and 420 thermal thermometers!⁣ 

We have also produced two free online community empowerment events that have reached over 30,000 people on Facebook focused on raising awareness on COVID-19 relief non-profit organizations and providing free education on practical tools for improved living within financial literacy, tech, enterprise, brand building, creativity and health & wellness. 

Our hope is to help our community remain healthy and hopeful through this pandemic - to see this moment in time as something we can all grow through together. We want our community to leave this pandemic better than the way they came into it.

How does your company measure up, when it comes to social responsibility ?

Our social impact business model is centered around a global commitment to improving Black lives and underrepresented communities between coffee farmers and coffee consumers. 

Photo credit: Dagmawi Tesfaye

We invest in programs that provide economical and agricultural empowerment towards our coffee farmers in East Africa. Our Ground Zero Tanzania Coffee is sourced from family-owned farms organized around Tembo Coffee, an export company that operates in the southern highlands of Mbeya, Tanzania. Tembo generates quality premiums and passes the profit along to individual producers. Tembo has increased the number of participating producers with cash advances that help farmers invest in farm inputs. Tembo has also built washing stations to support producers who are too small or lack the capital to process their own cherry. Tembo has 15 full-time agronomists in the field to provide technical support. More than 5,000 small producers have been able to improve quality as a result of Tembo’s programs.

We also provide our community with access to educational resources through impactful content and programming. Our Ground Zero podcast service offers tips and tools for better living through art, culture and enterprise. Each guest on the show reveals how they started from ground zero ⁠— explains their creative process, shares stories on their past/on-going struggles, and provides practical tools for their success.

Ethiopia -- and East Africa as a whole -- has a unique history when it comes to coffee. What is the role of coffee in Ethiopian culture? and what value could it bring to other members of the diaspora?

The birthplace of coffee is Ethiopia and it is revered for its beans. Ethiopia and the greater East African regions produce some of the best single-origin coffees in the world. Coffee is so important to Ethiopians that they will literally spend hours each day drinking it. The coffee ceremony is the Ethiopian culture’s most important social connection. To be invited is a sign of respect and friendship. What happens in Ethiopia impacts the world. We see coffee as a cultural treasure, economical tool, and social vehicle that brings people together and builds community. Globally, coffee is integrated into everything we do. Coffee is centered around our business meetings, our social gatherings, our romantic interests, our creative market, and entrepreneurial initiatives. Ground Zero is a representation of all of those beginnings - an offering that symbolizes the start of something new and great.

Photo credit: Dagmawi Tesfaye

What do you want to accomplish with this brand, and what hopeful message do you have for young Black creatives who want to start building from ground-zero (especially during these monumental times)?  

We want Ground Zero to be a vehicle that drives cultural, social and economical change within the coffee retail space. Many of the largest coffee chains owned by big corporations have closed their physical stores due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so we see this as a great opportunity for small businesses and local entrepreneurs to innovate the way people make and consume coffee within the comfort of their homes and create social impact. Ground Zero is currently a socially charged coffee company, podcast service and virtual event series created to fill the gap.

Access is the cornerstone of power. We want to provide as much access to help turn Black creatives of culture into equity owners of culture. We are here to educate and contribute tools that will help our community build an enterprise around their art. We want Black creatives to continue being innovative with how they monetize the connection that their art produces between them and their audience, mobilize their community towards their own created [plus] curated retail experience, and create a vertically integrated economic system around their story, culture, and art.

Right now, we are navigating a global pandemic, an economic downturn and a historical revolution of systemic racism. Though there is so much to process and overcome, it's important to remember that every great destination involves a difficult journey. Keep moving forward through the uncertainties and doubts. What is perceived to stop you is designed to shape you. Great things are birthed when we own our story, create space, and build community around common concerns and shared experiences.

Follow Ground Zero Coffee on Facebook and Instagram or visit its website to learn more.

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former culture editor for Blavity. Olympic blogger, Storyteller and Fufu + soup connoisseur.