Business, Coffee and Water: How Two MBA's are Working to Better Water Access

Posted by Cesar Murillo on

           MBA students, as a concept, don’t always bring to mind what we might call selfless virtues. While we can’t speak to whether or not this is justified, the myriad of reasons that people might feel this way are certainly apparent. After all, the elite degree brings with it a considerable range of benefits; for example, Fortune recently reported that the median salary for MBAs graduating in 2015 was $100,000.


            That said, the degree brings with it a great deal of prowess - not only financial knowledge and market strategy but, in some cases, an increased sense of social justice and equality. That’s the kind of story we love to hear about here, and that’s exactly the impression we got when we first heard about Mandela Coffee. Founded by two alumni of the Raymond A. Mason School of Business at The College of William & Mary, Mandela Coffee isn’t exactly what you’d expect from two MBA’s. While the imagined traditional MBA venture might be solely focused on profit, Mandela Coffee has a different goal entirely - trying to create more equality in water access around the world.


            To be clear, water access might not be exactly what comes to mind when you hear the expression said out loud. It refers not necessarily to the ways in which we go about getting drinking water everyday, but rather the much more basic premise of being able to do so at all. While many of us have only to decide whether we’re going to drink tap water or bottled water, the reality for many individuals around the world is exceedingly different.


            As an organization, Mandela Coffee takes a great deal of it’s information from Water Charity, a 501(c)(3) with which they partner. But it’s estimated by WaterAid - another philanthropic organization - that roughly one in ten people globally do not have ready access to clean water at all - from any source. For this astonishingly large group of people - more than 780 million individuals - water access is a luxury. Mandela Coffee, since it’s inception, has found this troublesome fact entirely unacceptable, and has been working to change it.


            So how, one might ask, does a company like Mandela Coffee come together amidst the backdrop of one of the nation’s oldest universities? The story might surprise you, and it all begins when the two co-founds, Cesar Murillo and Lance Zaan, came to know one another.


Cesar Murillo


            One of Mandela Coffee’s two co-founders, Cesar Murillo is an interesting story in and of himself. Soft spoken and kind, he comes across much different than the typical business school student, and there’s certainly good reason for that. Hailing from California, he holds a Bachelor’s degree from California State University at Fresno in Accounting, and had begun a career working in both audit and internal quality control for several companies in the state long before he had hatched the idea for Mandela Coffee along with Lance. What ended up shaping him into the person he is today though, at least in part, was his experiences abroad several years after his college education.

            Looking for a change from his daily routine that would also allow him to explore and do some good in the world, Cesar joined the Peace Corps. Though he couldn’t know then what the experience would hold and what a profound impact it would have on his life, he would certainly soon find out.


            Cesar found himself in Ambohitrambo, a small community within Madagascar, for his Peace Corps assignment. The changes from his daily life back in the United States were distinct and immediate, but perhaps none struck him as dramatically as the lack of access to clean water the villagers there were living with everyday. The well servicing the area, while functional, only provided water for roughly four hours each day. Sometimes the well ran dry, and sometimes the water was entirely too unclean to be consumed. This was the reality these people lived with day in and day out.


            Cesar’s work in Ambohitrambo was nothing if not meaningful. He worked with a to ensure that a functional well was built in the area. Water borne illnesses began to spread less rapidly, thirst was less of a problem, and the quality of life in the area rose significantly. The real impact of Cesar’s work, though, would be felt when he returned to America, moved to Virginia to begin coursework at William & Mary’s MBA program, and met Lance Zaal.


Lance Zaal


            Lance Zaal attended The College of William & Mary for both his Bachelor’s degree in economics and international relations and his MBA at The Raymond A. Mason School of Business. While he initially worked in management consulting with Booz Allen Hamilton and held other roles in project management along the way, business school for him served as a way to realize three of his primary passions as primary areas that he wanted to move towards in his career: entrepreneurship, philanthropy and investing.


            While this might seem like a much more natural move towards becoming the co-founder of a philanthropic coffee company dedicated to providing stronger water access around the world, Lance became involved with the startup community on a much deeper level than just Mandela Coffee. Enter Ignition, the business accelerator that Lance founded nearly two years ago, and on the board of which he currently sits. Ignition, in a nutshell, helps launch businesses in their early stages by providing funding, guidance and mentorship to young entrepreneurs with visions of their own.


            Lance met Cesar shortly after Cesar had begun his MBA coursework at Mason. When he told him of his vision to start a coffee company with a philanthropic bent towards providing increased water access around the world, a match was made that laid the framework for one of the most interesting young entrepreneurial pairs in Virginia today.


The Mission of Mandela Coffee

            First and foremost, the co-founders and staff of Mandela Coffee recognize that in order to make a true difference within water access, they need to be successful. By virtue of that, Cesar and Lance know that they need to do everything in their power to ensure they have a distinct product that customers can rely on from a quality standpoint. To that end, they ensure that all of their coffee beans are rigorously vetted to ensure consistency. The beans they use are 100% Coffee Arabica, offering a smooth taste, and are only harvested during optimal harvest times. Beyond that, all the beans Mandela Coffee harvests are inspected after the fact before they are put into production to ensure a consistent, enjoyable product.


Mandela Coffee, as has been stated prior in this article, has posited it’s mission on two primary objectives: providing delicious, sustainable coffee to it’s clientele and using it’s positioning to better the world through creating more equitable access to water around the world. To make it a bit simpler, they’ve spelled it out in a brief acrostic, found in the ‘Our Story’ page of their website:


Making water
rinkable for


            Seems simple enough, right? Perhaps not. The emerging water crisis - specifically absence of water access in countless communities around the world, is positioned to disrupt the very basis of life as we know it. Agriculture, consumer goods and a plethora of other industries depend on access to potable water to ensure stability in production. As the human population expands rapidly through the beginning of the 21st century, access to water is becoming increasingly scarce, and Mandela is doing everything that they can to get ahead of it. Not only for their own benefit, but for the common good.


Asked about his reflections on the water access crisis, co-founder Cesar Murillo offered the following:


“To put things into perspective, if we were to multiply the U.S. population (323 million people) by two, or 646 million people, there would still be more people without access to safe, clean drinking water around the world than people living in the United States. I find that unacceptable, and more can and needs to be done to address this very real issue affecting millions of men, women and children around the world. Beyond being a specialty coffee company, Mandela is a community of people who want to have a lasting impact through their everyday actions. So join our mission and make your coffee count!”


We’re certainly pulling for them. If this sounds like the kind of thing you’d be interested in learning more about, take a look at their website.












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