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Yerba maté importer steeped in aiding local entrepreneurs

Yerba maté importer steeped in aiding local entrepreneurs

Monday, January 16, 2017

When Giancarlo Vigil studied abroad in Argentina as a junior, his Uruguayan grandmother gave him one piece of advice: “Giancarlo, you have to try maté when you get there.”

“I had no idea what that was,” Vigil (Economics, ’15) admits. But after his first taste of yerba maté, the traditional South American beverage, he fell in love—so much so that he founded The Maté Exchange in Durango after graduation.

The Maté Exchange imports loose-leaf yerba maté from South America, then flavors and packages it in Durango. The company also imports and distributes the hollow gourds and metal straws with which the drink is traditionally enjoyed. This business model is off to a strong start: Vigil’s company won FLC’s inaugural Hawk Tank business plan competition in 2016 and now employs three current FLC students as directors, enabling Vigil to support other fledgling entrepreneurs.

So what exactly is this exotic drink? “Yerba maté is a type of holly that grows in the rain forest in South America,” Vigil says. Its leaves are brewed similarly to tea, though the drink is not technically a tea. Vigil sees the finished product as a caffeinated alternative to coffee, easier on the nervous system and on peoples’ sleep cycles.

The drink has a storied history in South American culture. “The Guaraní people in Paraguay and southern Brazil were the first indigenous cultures to start drinking yerba maté,” Vigil explains. “They saw it as a gift, because it gave them a lot of energy and vitality and kept them healthy.”

In this tradition, yerba maté is a communal drink, Vigil says. It’s often consumed at social events and with social groups. And this communal aspect of the drink certainly helped Vigil build his own communities.

He bonded immediately with his host family in Argentina when, following his grandmother’s advice, he suggested getting a maté together. Drinking it with his peers helped him learn Spanish in local social circles. He drank it with friends upon his return, and their enthusiasm led him to start importing and selling maté. And now that The Maté Exchange is off the ground, it helps him support both the campus community and the greater Durango community.

For example, The Maté Exchange sponsors area initiatives like a recent Animas River cleanup day led by current FLC students. “I really want my company to support a lot of initiatives in the community and help Fort Lewis College students to thrive,” Vigil says.

But most particularly, he is dedicated to aiding other budding local entrepreneurs. As the winner of 2016’s Hawk Tank competition, he is excited to share his experiences with the 2017 entrants.

“A lot of people have great ideas; they just don't know how to get them off the ground or how to use those great ideas to make a living for themselves,” Vigil says. “I definitely look forward to being part of that process again. Educating people on how to be entrepreneurs is a big reward for me.”

He recognizes that sharing his obstacles may help emerging entrepreneurs as much as sharing his successes. “I really want to be present at the Hawk Tank workshops,” he says. “I want to let the students know some struggles that I went through, and things that I didn’t do that I wish I would have done. This was the first time I ever started a business, so there were a lot of kinks to work out.”

And on a daily basis, The Maté Exchange allows him to make that direct educational impact with potential entrepreneurs. The company has four directors: Vigil as President and CEO, and three other current FLC students.

Senior Math major Maxwell Dielman handles all the accounting, the financial modeling, and the product pricing. Owen Spalding, a junior Philosophy major, undertakes all the flavor development and research. And Ray Benton (English & Economics, ’16), who graduated while working with The Maté Exchange, does the company’s marketing.

“I have a responsibility to put my money where my mouth is,” Vigil says about choosing to employ current students. “I want my values, as owner of the company, to shine through.”

With this team, The Maté Exchange is expanding its reach and its product line. Vigil is in the process of establishing sales reps throughout Colorado and in other states. In addition to a line of flavored loose-leaf yerba maté, he recently started selling the traditional gourds, from which you drink maté with a filtered straw. And he says that all the growth is possible because of his education at FLC.

“Every part of what I was doing at Fort Lewis plays into my business,” Vigil says. “I’m taking a lot from my international business classes into consideration, especially dealing with all of my suppliers from Uruguay and Brazil. And connecting with my professors really helped me engage with what I was learning. If I didn’t have that connection with my professors, I wouldn’t be as passionate about what I was learning.”

The “FLC effect” continues to energize The Maté Exchange to this day. “My team right now, we all come from different sides of campus,” Vigil points out. “The fact that we can bring together such diverse minds to a common goal, that’s what makes our company thrive.”

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