LIFT Speaks Ep 25 with Martin Rojas: Growing a World-Class Coffee Company to Build Schools in the Jungle

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Martin Rojas is founder of Alas de Dios, Wings of God, and President of US Roast, Coffee with a Cause.  Energetic. Adventuresome. Generous. Martin has experienced the adventure of saying “yes.” Martin’s “yes” started with a last-minute trip to the jungles of Nicaragua and over a 10-year period, has led to starting a school for children who live on the trash dumps. And, oh yes, in the middle of all this, he has started a coffee plantation to support this work . . . which led to a “yes” to being President of US Roast.  It’s a “you just can make this stuff up” type of story. 

I started the non-profit, Alas de Dios, because . . . we were given this amazing land to steward and we felt that we needed to affect children’s lives, not just two or three times per year when we could visit them in the jungle, but every single day through a school where we could feed them physically, spiritually, and mentally.

The thing I find most rewarding is . . . watching the kids grow up and knowing that their minds, hearts, souls, and bodies are being nurtured and cared for by our loving Christian staff.

The biggest surprise for me as a founder of a non-profit is . . . I had to relinquish trying to control every aspect of an organization that is 1500 miles away, and delegate authority on day-to-day decisions to trusted staff members. Being a double A type personality (disorder-LOL), this was surprisingly difficult, but absolutely essential to my sanity, and theirs!

In my current role at US Roast I am responsible for . . . I call it profits, procedures, policies, and people planning. The last is the most critical – hire better/smarter/etc. people than yourself and get out of their way.

 The biggest surprise for me as a businessman is . . . success is relatively easy and predicated on three things – Quality, Price, and Service.  Most people and companies only do two out of three well, so do all three, and success should follow.

My older self would coach my younger self to . . . value people over profits, travel the world when you are young and care free, invest in Amazon, Microsoft…etc. (LOL)

One thing I wish I knew when I was younger is . . . I wish I knew, but more importantly, understood and accepted, that God knows everything that I am going through, and He has allowed it to happen so that my character is honed and refined to be more like Him, and to rely more on Him, so that others can see more of Him, and be drawn to Him.

Introduction

Catherine Miller: Welcome to LIFT Speaks. Today I’m visiting with Martin Rojas. Martin is a fellow Grapevine resident. We were trying to figure out what we call our citizens. Grapeviners?

Martin Rojas: Grapevinites?

Catherine Miller: Something like that. He’s a fellow Grapevine citizen.  Martin is the President of US Roast, which is a new company, a couple of years old and they’re roasting fabulous beans. He is also the founder of Alas de Dios, which means “wings of God”. It is a school in Nicaragua that Martin founded in 2014. Welcome.

Martin Rojas: Thank you very much.

Catherine Miller: I’m so glad that you’re here.

Martin Rojas: Thanks. Likewise.

Catherine Miller: One of the things that I love about Martin is that Martin knows how to say yes. His first yes happened in 2007 when he decided spur of the moment to take a trip to Nicaragua. A friend said, “Hey, you want to go to Nicaragua with me?” and two weeks later, he was on the airplane on a 30-hour journey into the jungle of Nicaragua. Years later, he said “yes” to owning a piece of land in Nicaragua. He said “yes” to founding a school. He said “yes” to providing medical support to kids in the jungle and at the school, he said “yes” to feeding these kids who didn’t have food and he has said “yes” to numerous opportunities.

His “yes” has led him to a lifetime of adventure. I wanted Martin to share his story today and what it means when you say “yes” and to step into things that aren’t necessarily straight lines.

First, I would like to ask you is, how did you say that first “yes” that started you on this whole adventure? It was a “yes” to a vacation to the jungles of Nicaragua and two weeks later you left on a long trip. Most of us can’t say yes and leave on a trip two weeks later. Where were you in life at that point that you could say yes to that first adventure?

Martin Rojas: Well, you know what’s interesting is I’ve had a lot of different businesses in my life. I’ve been self-employed a lot of different times and worked in Corporate America for a few different Fortune 100 companies.

But at this particular time, I was in the mortgage industry and as we all know, in 2007, going into 2008, there was a huge mortgage meltdown and being that I was a mortgage broker, yeah, my business went to nothing overnight. So, I had an opportunity to say yes to going into the jungle and it just sounded really interesting to go.

Catherine Miller: So, the curious part about that, just even that yes, a lot of us freeze. When the bottom falls out, a lot of us are frozen. We really could say yes, but we don’t say yes. What pushed you to say yes even in the middle of watching your business disintegrate?

Martin Rojas: I have an incredibly supportive wife of 20 years, and without her, I would not have been able to say yes to a lot of things. We just always make sure that we are able to have a little cushion in the bank and being that we had that cushion, it allowed us to – it allowed me to go into the second largest biosphere in the Western hemisphere next to the Amazon.

Catherine Miller: Cool. That was in 2007, but the school didn’t start until 2014. Tell us just briefly between 2007 and 2014, what work you were involved in. You made several trips there, right?

Martin Rojas: Right. Yeah, 2007 to 2014. I fell in love with going down there – the trip down to Central America.  And once there, taking these dirt roads and crossing rivers and water coming up to the door, over the door, over the hood and driving almost two days. Then we rode eleven to twelve hours in a hand dugout canoe.

We traveled two days in a row just to get into the heart of the jungle. We would take kids that needed surgery – cleft lip, cleft palate, hernias, whatever issues they had – to a clinic where US doctors would perform necessary surgeries. I just fell in love with being able to help these kids, and that’s what drove me to keep going back there.

Catherine Miller: That’s cool. You obviously have a real heart for children.

Martin Rojas: Right, I do.

Catherine Miller: You do have a heart for children. In 2014, what happened that you ended up acquiring some land and starting the school? What catapulted that?

Martin Rojas: So, over the years, I started taking friends that were doctors and friends that were in different fields, like optometry, and trying to get help in the jungle. There’s no electricity. There’s no water. We take a little generator in there with us.

We have 2000 people coming in out of the jungle. You would see them with their little flashlights because other people had been there and given them flashlights. But there are no roads there and so just going in there and being able to take toothbrushes and emergency food and seeds and parasite medicine. We would also take a lot of bibles in there and it rains nine months out of the year.

Some of them couldn’t read in two different languages, indigenous languages. So we ended up buying some solar powered, waterproof little recorders that we found out of Scotland.

Catherine Miller: Oh, wow.

Martin Rojas: We started bringing those and the whole village could listen in to the Bible. It was really cool. One of the doctors that went down there, he bought some property, and he passed away, unfortunately, in 2014. His son, knowing that we had the same kind of heart to help others there in Nicaragua, he ended up saying, “Hey Martin, is this something you would be interested in?”  I said, “Yes, let’s do something with that property.”

Catherine Miller: OK. So, how much land is it?

Martin Rojas: It’s 106 acres. But it’s right on the lake. It’s a beautiful. The doctor wanted to construct his medical mission clinic there. I wanted to help, and unfortunately got sick and died. It’s 106 acres, but it grows to 130 or 140 because the lake will swell during the rainy season, which is seven or eight months out of the year, and then it recedes for four months and it will grow to 140 acres.

Catherine Miller: OK.

Martin Rojas: Yeah.

Catherine Miller: OK. So, you now you have this beautiful piece of land.

Martin Rojas: Right.

Catherine Miller: And how did you decide to start a school? Where did that come from?

Martin Rojas: So, in Jinotega, which is about two hours north of Managua where you land.  There’s only one airport there in the capital, and so you take a two-hour trip north heading into the highlands, getting into the mountains to go into the jungle. That was a staging point for us to get supplies and everything right before we get to No Man’s Land, and get on a boat and going out into the jungle.

So that’s where he decided to buy that piece of property. We have been going to Jinotega as a staging point and we visited a trash dump for years and years. In 2012, I was there and just visiting with this gentleman and a few other friends of mine from – here from Grapevine and Houston and I looked across this – it’s surreal how you got – you see buzzards in this trash dump and the stench coming off the debris and fires everywhere and smoke and there’s this – and people picking through trash and there’s this little boy walking across, running towards his mom and he was crying.

He had a little blue shirt on. I remember like it was yesterday and that was in 2012. A little blue shirt on, a little yellow stripe across it and he had these little boots that were all torn up and at that time, I didn’t know his name because I’ve been visiting for a while. But it’s Brian and he’s two years old at that time. We didn’t have property then. I didn’t even know we were going to own property at that point.

But when I saw him crying, running across that – you know, dogs that were half-starved out there and it’s a real landscape. Something in my heart leapt out and said there is no hope for that child. Where’s the hope for him? Who’s going to take care of that child? So that’s something that I remember very vividly like it was yesterday.

Catherine Miller: I can see how your heart is moved. So how does Brian’s story connect with starting Alas de Dios?

Martin Rojas: So, we kept going back and I kept visiting the trash dump along with my sister and along with other friends, and we would visit Brian and his parents and the brothers and sisters and take them food and help them and other people. There are 37 families in that trash dump that we started to help besides going into the jungle.

Catherine Miller: OK.

Martin Rojas: So, when we got the land, it was just a very easy thing to say, “OK. Now we can take care of Brian in a real long-term manner, not just coming down here and visiting four or five times a year.”

Catherine Miller: Right. So, Brian was four at the time that you started the school.

Martin Rojas: Right.

Catherine Miller: So, you have this beautiful piece of land and you looked at it and said, “Boom! There’s a school,” or how did that happen?

Martin Rojas: Well, it’s interesting because David the neurosurgeon that passed away had a chicken coop on this piece of property. It was about 1500 feet and it housed about 2000 chickens because he was going to help the people and graze chickens and eggs and give them away. He just had an incredible heart.

You imagine a chicken coop. It was on a slab. It was great, and it had a metal roof and I thought to myself, let’s make that a school and Brian and his brothers and sisters and other kids from the trash dump, there’s zero chance of them being able to go to school because there aren’t school buses there. You have to pay to actually be transported to school and the trash dump is pretty far away from the main downtown because they don’t want to smell the trash.

Catherine Miller: Right.

Martin Rojas: They just couldn’t afford it – the bus fee.

Catherine Miller: Right.

Martin Rojas: That’s how we started bussing them in into this school. We rebuilt this chicken coop and put sheet rock up and put in windows and doors and electricity and – actually it already had electricity, so yeah.

Catherine Miller: Wow. OK. Do you have a mission statement for your school?

Martin Rojas: We do. The whole impetus for us is to feed these children physically, spiritually and mentally, and to educate them and show them the love of Christ.

Catherine Miller: Wow, that’s cool. So where did the name Alas de Dios come from?

Martin Rojas: That’s interesting because we took that chicken coop and I was thinking, OK, chicken feathers, and always thought about under the shadow of your wings, the refuge in reference to God. In chickens, they protect their little chicks under their wings. So not only are they protected by those wings, but they’re also under the mother’s authority. For us, it was just real simple. Alas de Dios means the “wings of God”. So for him to be covering us and protecting us and for the children to take refuge under that and to be under his authority. It was just real easy.

Catherine Miller: That’s beautiful. I love that. I love that the first building was a chicken coop.

Martin Rojas: Yeah.

Catherine Miller: It’s so perfect with the name.

Martin Rojas: Yeah, you can’t make that stuff up.

Catherine Miller: Yeah, no. You can’t make that stuff up. So, you also started a coffee plantation on this land and you have big plans. Tell us a little bit about that.

Martin Rojas: So we knew that we wanted to be able to sustain the school long-term because we – our plan was to continue to add one classroom per year. So that first year with Brian, we started that classroom with 19 kids. Every year, we had a classroom. We add a class and we backfill. So that first year was a pre-K and we backfilled with kindergarten. Then kindergarten, pre-K and then first grade, and now we’re up to second grade. First grade, kindergarten, pre-K and we have 67 kids.

So next year, we will have third grade and we will continue to add a classroom per year, add a teacher per year until – as long as we have funding, and part of what we were trying to do is to make it sustainable by growing coffee. It’s a great coffee-growing region and we want to sustain without having to go and raise a lot of funds all the time.

It takes three to five years for a coffee plant to mature. We planted trees immediately because we knew that was just a beautiful place to grow coffee.

Catherine Miller: Right. That was really wise of you to – even before the school started. You had planted some trees. You had thought, “We’re going to need to sustain this and this is a way to do that.”

Martin Rojas: We actually did it at the exact same time because of the way the school year runs, February to November, late November and we started germinating 25,000 plants.

Catherine Miller: Oh my.

Martin Rojas: So, we found the right seeds. We already had friends there because I had been visiting forever.

Catherine Miller: Yeah.

Martin Rojas: I had friends that were in the coffee business there. They gave me some really high-end varietals and really high end seed. We germinated those seeds and we grew them in a nursery. It was almost like – as we’re growing the coffee, we’re growing the children. So that’s kind of an interesting thing that now it’s – four years later, we got our first crop of coffee.

Catherine Miller: That is so great, which is a great segue to US Roast.

Martin Rojas: Yes.

Catherine Miller: Because you start the school in 2014 and then in 2016, you meet a gentleman who wants to start a coffee roasting business. Again, you can’t make this stuff up, right? So, you meet a gentleman. You’re introduced to someone who wants to start this business and you have beans that you want to provide and roast. Marry those two together for us.

Martin Rojas: So, we have a mutual friend that went to college with him and is also my neighbor, who knew that he wanted to start a coffee roasting business. He said, “Well, you got to talk to Martin.” He’s a coffee farmer.

Catherine Miller: Yeah.

Martin Rojas: And …

Catherine Miller: And there’s not too many of those in Texas.

Martin Rojas: Yeah, especially in Grapevine.

Catherine Miller: Yeah.

Martin Rojas: So he put us together and we just really hit it off. We have very similar hearts in terms of what we want to do with what God has given us in terms of talents.

Catherine Miller: US Roast is called Coffee with a Cause, right? Because it supports Alas de Dios. It also supports a museum, right? An air flight museum?

Martin Rojas: Right.

Catherine Miller: Tell us a little bit about that.

Martin Rojas: The Coffee with a Cause is the part of the mission. Scott Glover owns US Roast and he also owns, or he started, Mid America Flight Museum. It has a mission as well and he has over 60 historical war planes that actually fly. He has four mechanics, full staff and –

Catherine Miller: And where is this located?

Martin Rojas: It’s in Mount Pleasant.

Catherine Miller: OK.

Martin Rojas: Yeah, in East Texas, exactly.

Catherine Miller: OK.

Martin Rojas: He wanted to be able to continue to support Mid America Flight Museum and this 501(c)(3) Mid America Flight Museum, it has a fourfold mission. It’s to honor veterans, preserve aviation history, to support the community and then to mentor kids.

The mentoring kids, supporting community, all that ties in very, very closely with what we’re doing with Alas de Dios. US Roast buys all of our coffee. That’s helping with the mission in Nicaragua.

Catherine Miller: Right. But you use more beans than just Nicaragua beans.

Martin Rojas: Right, yeah. We buy beans from all over the world. We’re a speciality coffee roaster and so we buy beans from Ethiopia, Kenya, Brazil obviously the largest, Mexico and Sumatra and Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, Costa Rica, Guatemala. You name it.

Catherine Miller: You name it. You buy the beans.

Martin Rojas: We’ve got about 16 different single origins and I’m extremely meticulous about quality being that I’m a farmer. I know what green beans should be and what they should taste like. We cup every single roast to make sure that quality is there across every roast, every bag, every single week.

Catherine Miller: Yeah. He’s not kidding. He knows the way the beans taste. He will eat the coffee beans. I’ve watched you crunch on a coffee bean to see what that bean tastes like. You’re serious about your coffee.

Martin Rojas: I am.

Catherine Miller: What sets US Roast apart from other roasters?

Martin Rojas: I think there are a lot of excellent roasters out there. I really do. We’ve run across quite a few. One of the things that I like to tell our customers is we’re not really looking for clients. We’re looking for partners. We want to partner with them. The more we can share in their success, well, it helps us be successful as well.

We not only deliver incredible quality coffee, you got to have that, otherwise, there’s no reason to even talk to us.

Catherine Miller: Yeah.

Martin Rojas: We must be there in terms of quality, and we’re getting really, really great reception on that piece.

Catherine Miller: Good.

Martin Rojas: So, great quality and then we’re fairly priced. We go to the market, buy in volume and then we make sure we pass that volume savings from an economies of scale perspective onto our clients. We don’t keep all that money for ourselves.

Then the biggest piece is in terms of partnering with customers is we like to provide excellent service that no one else is going to be able to do. We print T-shirts for our customers for free. We do things like etch – we have a laser etcher that etches water bottles and coffee mugs.

I just did a banner for a full storefront for American Tea and Coffee here in Coppell. We did a three-foot by ten-foot poster in the vinyl.

Catherine Miller: Yes.

Martin Rojas: Yeah. So, we do things like that for them and we promote them on Instagram. We promote – so we’re looking for partners that we can help.

Catherine Miller: So Martin, in addition to those differentiators, your mission really sets you apart. I mean I know of no other coffee that’s called “Coffee with a Cause”. Can tell us about that?

Martin Rojas: Well, that’s probably one of the biggest things. I mean from going in and talking to a coffee shop owner or restaurant or whoever we’re talking to, I can speak very passionately about what we’re doing. Not only are we bringing that incredible quality to the table but when I talk to the businesses I am able to share with them . . . I’m a coffee farmer. I understand quality. From the time we germinate seed all the way through the time I bring it to you in a roasted bag, milling, processing, all those things.

But more than that, it’s more than having a direct relationship with a coffee farmer. We have this incredible, wonderful school that we’re raising these kids and we’re feeding them and we’re taking care of them and we’re loving them. That’s the big thing. It’s just given – loving them, educating them with a US-based curriculum and we have 67 kids. We’re doing that. We’re growing that every single year. So, when somebody comes on board with us like this great coffee shop in Fort Worth called Vaquero, he loves our mission.

He wants to continue to help us. He thinks it’s incredible and that’s one of the biggest things that we have a passion about. But on the Mid America Flight Museum’s side, we honor veterans. We just put up 400 veterans and their families for a World War Two reunion. It was actually last October, and the year before that we paid for everything for them to be there for three days.

We do things like that on the Mid America Flight Museum side. We’re able to talk to people about the veterans that we’re supporting. We’re able to talk to them about the children that we’re taking care of. It resonates with them. So that’s a huge, huge differentiator.

Catherine Miller: Yeah. You know, I agree. Toms Shoes was the first company that made conscience capitalism famous. Not only are you buying a great product, but you’re supporting children who didn’t have shoes. I love the story of the way that you are supporting others through your business, and that you have a great business. You have a great product and you’re supporting other people. I love that.

I love your heart and I love the way you support veterans and the children in Nicaragua. Long term vision. If you were just to paint a picture for us, what would that be?

Martin Rojas: There’s nothing like getting people engaged where they can get hands-on and actually go and visit. There are two passions with anybody who’s really passionate about coffee besides drinking it.

Catherine Miller: Yeah.

Martin Rojas: It’s actually going to origin or going to the country where it’s produced. I can see bringing my partners in coffee who are buying my coffee and buying US Roast coffee, and taking them to Nicaragua, showing them hey, here’s where your money is going. So not only do they get to go to a coffee farm, pick cherries if they want to and then bring them back, roast those and then sell it or drink it themselves. But they go and get to interact with these beautiful kids.

So long term I see doing those kinds of trips with the people that are actually supporting US Roast.

Catherine Miller: That’s cool. I love it and the impact that you’re already seeing. You’ve been doing this four years now, and you are impacting the children, their parents and even the employees. You have several employees now, correct?

Martin Rojas: Right, right.

Catherine Miller: So what impact are you seeing?

Martin Rojas: Well, it’s less money we have to go and raise, which is fantastic, and that was the whole impetus for us getting into coffee is sustainability. How do we make something sustainable long-term? How do we continue to secure these children’s future without having to worry about the economy like in 2007 when I first went down there? Or how do we continue to be able to feed the organization, so I can feed these kids long-term?

Catherine Miller: Yeah. Yeah, that’s cool. One of the things I started with, and I want to wrap up with this, that you are a man who knows how to say “yes.” You “yes” to each of the steps along the way has led to really impacting thousands of lives. So, if someone says, “Man, I want to figure out how to say “yes” and how to live that kind of a big “yes” kind of life,” what would you say? What would be your encouragement to someone else who wants to follow their “yes”?

Martin Rojas: Be open to people – be open to change. Be open to opportunities around you. Invest in those things that you can be excellent in. But even if you can’t, there’s excellence in whatever it is that you’re attempting to do.

So, if someone calls you to be better than yourself, or to be able to go and serve and help others, that has got to be an easy one, right? If we can just sacrifice a little bit of who we are and love others, then that’s what compels me. So just give up yourself and go for it and make time. People do what they want to do, and they make time for what they really care about.

Catherine Miller: I love that. Was there anything in your background that drew you to be generous and giving, that formed that within you?

Martin Rojas: Yeah. I grew up extremely poor. My dad was a drug dealer. So, at 11 years of age, I didn’t have a dad, and I have seven brothers and sisters. My mom was a single mom working at the airport, pulling night shifts, working during the day, cleaning people’s houses and we were never on any kind of welfare because my mom was just a hard worker. Get out there and do it, and she instilled that in us.

I had someone, by the grace of God, a gentleman named Jeff Emmett, who got interested in helping me, and more than 35 years later, I’m going to go down to go fishing with him this weekend and take my son who’s named Luke Emmett after his last name. He is a great inspiration to me, and he’s like my dad.

Catherine Miller: That’s cool.

Martin Rojas: Yeah.

Catherine Miller: So, your “yes” comes from a man who first stepped into your life.

Martin Rojas: Right.

Catherine Miller: He said yes to helping a boy and then you understood what poverty –the edge of poverty looked like. You have a real heart for these kids. I love it.

Martin Rojas: And the biggest thing though is not just the – this gentleman stepping into my life and – but it was Christ, our savior, stepping into my life and his life and that bringing us together.

Catherine Miller: That’s great, that’s great. So, either US Roast or Alas de Dios. If someone wants to reach out to you, get connected with you, hear more about your business or how they can support you either – on either side, how do they reach you?

Martin Rojas: So on Instagram, US.Roast and then you can go to www.usroast.com. Go to the “about us” page and there’s a little link there for the website. If you want to go to the website, it’s a little difficult because it’s in Spanish. It’s www.alasdedios.org. So that’s kind of the way to go.

Catherine Miller: Well, your story is inspirational, and I know it took a lot of grit and hard work, but also enthusiasm and a lot of love. I love your story. Martin, thank you for being here. I love your story. It’s inspirational. It’s encouraging for me to look for the opportunities that cross my path to say yes. I really appreciate it. Thanks for being with us.

Martin Rojas: Well, Catherine, thank you for having me. I really appreciate you inviting me and being able to share this great story with all those around us that do care.

Catherine Miller: You’re welcome.

Martin Rojas: I appreciate it.

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