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Sharing Success Through Cups of Coffee

December 11, 2017

by Courtney Cheng ’16

Kateri Gutierrez ’14 was just a 14-year-old living in Lynwood, California, when she began to envision starting her own business. Once she took a trip to UC Berkeley campus through the Raza Center, her vision solidified and she became intent to SIR. “After having seen the business program at Berkeley, I wanted to apply to Haas [Business School],” she declared.

Now a Cal alumna seven years out from her senior year of high school, when she wrote her personal statement about “starting a business for the community benefit,” Kateri has accomplished the goal her 14- and 18-year-old selves set.

The Coffee Lady

Kateri is one of the co-founders of Collective Avenue Coffee, LA’s first cooperatively-owned coffee shop. A cooperatively-owned, or a worker-owned, organization is one that is owned by and benefits the same people who work in it. Everyone is a candidate to work at the business. Individuals are “voted in” and each of them can influence how day-to-day operations are run through a democratic system.

Collective Avenue Coffee has been popping up around Lynwood for the past two years. Currently, Collective Avenue runs pop-ups about six to eight times a week at schools, fundraisers, local private events, and weddings. In its early days, the co-op served only pour-over coffee. Now, the menu boasts over 15 items, and several customers are already loyal patrons, asking in advance about upcoming locations so they can make the drive over to get their morning cuppa. Some of the younger customers—often students of Kateri’s, who also works as a substitute teacher—fondly call her “the coffee lady.”

“We’re the only coffee shop in the area that uses organic milk, and we make our own syrup in shop,” Kateri boasted. “We use actual vanilla bean and actual lavender flower.”

Her current business partner, Jonathan Robles, had already been in the coffee scene for more than five years by the time Kateri, searching for a business partner, connected with him through mutual friends. He showed Kateri the ropes to coffee-making, and now the two—along with their staff—aim to establish a brick-and-mortar location in early 2018.

“[The community center’s concession stand] was offered to us by the city, but we’re just trying to figure out payments and getting approval by city council,” Kateri explained. “We’re in the middle of communicating with our city, community members, and our customers, so the city council can see the impact we’ve had in Lynwood and neighboring cities.” Collective Avenue Coffee, with its worker-owned foundation, provides “employment to a low-income community and…leadership experience in owning a business.”

“We can stay waiting for companies to come to our communities, or we can create companies that our community can call our own,” Kateri stated plainly. “More than just a coffee business, we’re a community effort for a third space, a space for everyone to engage in.”

Collective Avenue Coffee staff members
Photo by Collective Avenue

This past summer, Collective Avenue Coffee made an effort to further expand its community influence by hosting nine interns, aged 16 to 27. Each intern was tasked with a specific goal ranging from community engagement and cooperative education, to financial analysis and internal operations—on top of developing leadership skills, learning how to make coffee, and managing the daily activities of a coffee shop.

Leaving the Hood

The motivation to establish this cooperatively-owned business came in part from Kateri’s recognition of Lynwood’s need for economic development and community engagement. “In our community,” Kateri recalled, “a lot of people determined success by, ‘leaving the hood,'” and never coming back. And I know, at some point, I felt that too, but after going to Berkeley, I learned about…the socioeconomic opportunities we can create if only we come back to our hometowns. You can be from Lynwood, and start your own business. You can go to college and come back and make your community better.”

When Kateri finally became a Cal student, she didn’t begin her path to becoming the “coffee lady” by formally becoming a student at Haas as she’d first imagined, but rather at Alumni House, through The Achievement Award Program (TAAP) from the Cal Alumni Association. “I don’t know if my Cal experience would have been the same without it,” she admitted. There, Kateri made many of her closest friends, finding her first home away from home.

“You can be from Lynwood, and start your own business. You can go to college and come back and make your community better.”

“It does help that it’s called the Alumni House, because it is coming to a home,” she reminisced. “And the staff is welcoming. So, it was seeing not just fellow students who were trying to get into the Berkeley experience, but already-experienced Berkeley grads and people already established in the Berkeley community giving back.” Constantly engaging with and receiving the financial and moral support from the collective Cal community gave Kateri a sense of responsibility “to make the most of my Berkeley experience.”

“Just as they left their legacy and they still come back,” Kateri added, “I felt, and still do feel, this responsibility to give back to Berkeley students as I learned from early on. If I can’t do it by contributing to a scholarship right now, I want to do it by supporting a current Berkeley student or students who want to go to Berkeley.” Under Kateri’s supervision, Collective Avenue Coffee will be sponsoring a Cal student—who, like Kateri, has established strong roots in Berkeley’s co-op program—this winter for the Externship Program, where students can learn about and get a sense of the work experience to come after graduation.

Coffee bar with customers at an event
Photo by Jeff Mercado

The work that awaits at Collective Avenue Coffee isn’t “glamorous.” Kateri is honest and upfront about this. “I want to let [youth and students] know that entrepreneurship is not glamorous. There is a lot of everyday grind in order to make your dreams come true. It’s not an overnight thing.”

This is a point she hopes to impress upon the students and youth with whom she can now mentor, as Berkeley alumni have mentored her during her years as a TAAP scholar. “Put in work, don’t give up, and make sure what you’re doing is for the betterment of society. We never do things alone,” Kateri said. “Success is shared, and we have to keep the community in mind. We only get so far with the help of our experiences, whether positive or negative, so why not be a positive experience for everyone around us?”

If you’re in the Lynwood area, please look for Collective Avenue Coffee at one of their upcoming pop-ups. If you’re too far to drive over for a cup, you can follow them and show your support online. Find them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and of course, Yelp.

Learn more about The Achievement Award Program that helped Kateri get her start.

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