Arts & Sciences, Education, Marquette Business

Advising student coffee entrepreneurs, Dr. Gabriel Velez spills the beans on family history

The College of Education professor reveals his ancestral link to the Colombian coffee industry while brewing excitement among Marquette Business students who have their sights set on a potential future in the coffee business.

Marquette students collaborate with Stone Creek Coffee and Dr. Gabriel Velez to learn more about the coffee industry.

Dr. Gabriel Velez jokes that coffee is in his blood. Despite not drinking java until his college years, he’s not far off. The assistant professor of educational policy and leadership in the College of Education has a deep family connection rooted in the South American coffee industry.

Manuel Mejia shown on a postage stamp.

“My great-grandfather Manuel Mejia was the head of the Colombian National Coffee Federation from 1937 to 1957,” Velez explains. “It was a bit of a golden time in Colombian coffee, and so he was given the nickname Mr. Coffee. He began his career as a coffee trader and then was a businessman. He ended up going bankrupt multiple times due to the depression before being chosen to run the national organization.”

His great-grandfather’s lifework has been a “driving force” in Velez’s own life. So, it comes as no surprise that he would jump at the chance to mentor students involved with a new student-run coffee venture at Marquette that partners Blue & Gold Brewing LLC with Stone Creek Coffee.

Strong family roots

Dr. Gabriel Velez

Growing up in New York City, Gabriel Mateo Francisco Velez did not speak Spanish at home, and despite being half-Colombian on his father’s side, he felt disconnected to his heritage. It was his special relationship with his grandmother that helped bridge that divide and bring him closer to his roots.

“She was such an important presence in my life and would always talk about her father. She had books in Spanish about him,” Velez says of his grandmother. “I studied history and literature of South America during my undergraduate years, and I drafted my thesis about how Manuel Mejia was depicted in Colombia media. As I’ve gotten older, it’s something I talk about with pride and have felt more connected to as I lived in Colombia (as a teacher) for three years, wrote my dissertation based on youth there and now consult with universities in the country.”

Through Velez’s education and conversations with family and others, his great-grandfather’s legacy lives on. Mejia is even memorialized on a Colombian postage stamp.

Teaching kids about coffee

This past June, Blue & Gold Brewing LLC, a student-run business endeavor launched as part of an undergraduate applied learning program in the College of Business Administration, announced that it would begin partnering with Stone Creek Coffee to develop a year-round product line.

Velez has since served as an adviser to this new group of aspiring business leaders branching into the coffee industry. 

“My role is to be a support and provide feedback, a place to share thoughts or worries and an advocate for the students,” Velez explains. “So, I am in all the meetings and providing thoughts and asking questions. I also like to think I just bring joy and energy. This project to me is so innovative and applied, and I think it’s a wonderful learning opportunity.”

Senior Stella Quinlan works as the director of graphic design on the project. She says being a longtime coffee lover, working in the industry has always been something she’s been interested in.

“Working on the Blue & Gold team has given me real-world work experience where I got to create the package design for the coffee,” Quinlan says. “Dr. Velez offered incredible support throughout the entire process. His extensive knowledge about coffee and the roasting process helped guide our team in selecting which coffee roasts we wanted to offer and brainstorming unique narratives for each coffee that embody Marquette through storytelling.”

Students on the Blue & Gold teams are involved in every aspect of the business, leading market research, product selection and naming, supply chain and logistics, finance, graphic design, advertising, marketing, distribution, and entrepreneurial/start-up processes. Even revenue from product sales is split among the student-run venture and the industry partners, with proceeds benefiting Marquette’s student-run ventures program.

“I think that the biggest thing I’ve learned so far is all the time and work that goes into running a small business,” Quinlan says. “It’s very deadline-driven, making it important for everyone on the team to step up and play a role. Our entire team, including Gabe, has been incredible in distributing tasks and offering each other support where we need it, allowing us all to contribute to the unique stories behind the coffee.”

John Knapp, executive director of Innovation Alley, which supports Blue & Gold Brewing LLC, says mentorships like the one Velez is offering fit with the Jesuit tenet of cura personalis, or “care for the whole person.”

“Learning at Marquette has and continues to extend beyond traditional academic boundaries,” Knapp says. “Having a faculty member like Dr. Velez contributing not only to students’ intellectual development, but also these other important professional competencies show the extent of the support and care our faculty has for our students.”

Blue & Gold Brewing LLC recently released its first products with Stone Creek Coffee, just in time for the holiday season. There are three coffee blends — light, medium and dark — called Brew the Difference, Santa’s Revenge and Jesuit Joe, all available in a limited-edition holiday box. There are only 600 boxes available for purchase with a portion of proceeds going back to student-run businesses and helping support future students to experience the benefits of applied learning opportunities.

Velez says Stone Creek Coffee has been so open, supportive and welcoming throughout the coffee development process. He might even have some coffee business aspirations down the road.

“Part of their mission is about community engagement and to never stop learning, and I feel like they are really living it out through this project,” Velez says. “I also have to admit that I have a retirement dream of opening a coffee shop on Wells — possibly called Bendecido, employing Marquette students and formerly incarcerated folks — so this is a chance to learn more about the coffee business as well.”

Purchase a limited-edition holiday box online while supplies last.