Sip on That
Max Keilson ’13 and Jonathan Epstein ’14 are bringing energy back in an all new way
After picking up a book about coffee, Max Keilson ’13 came across a short paragraph describing how coffee grows inside a fruit on a tree.
Intrigued by the fruit that most people had never heard of, Keilson reached out to a friend who happened to be living on coffee farms in Peru and began the process that would eventually lead Keilson and Jonathan Epstein ’14 to co-found the Nomad Trading Co.
Since August 2016, Keilson and Epstein have worked to build a company on a foundation of sustainability, ethics and health, starting with their first line of coffee fruit teas called Cascara.
The Cascara beverages will be the company’s first products, though the pair hopes to include other drinks and snacks in the future. In their first line, Keilson and Epstein utilize the outer shell of the coffee bean, which is called the coffee fruit or ‘cascara’ in Spanish. Using this part of coffee, the pair is able to produce a drink full of caffeine and antioxidants, as well as improve sustainability.
“Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, with 10 billion pounds a year,” said Epstein.
“Every time you want another cup of coffee, a farmer in Costa Rica will cut down parts of the jungle, rain forest, to plant more coffee trees. … You should use all the pieces of the coffee tree for some beverage. So hopefully if someone who takes two to three cups of coffee a day drinks with coffee fruit, you’re getting the same amount of caffeine, with a lesser amount of coffee tree. And so it slows down deforestation.”
As the name of their company suggests, Keilson and Epstein are nomads who constantly pursue ideas while traveling.
So far, they have traveled to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Mexico to meet local farmers and learn about water pollution, climate change and labor conditions that affect coffee farms of all sizes. They’ve also been able to taste some amazing coffees, the pair said.
“It’s actually a waste product, lots of people just dump it in the river, [and it] has a lot of negative impact. But it makes a delicious tea, and you would think someone would be doing something with it but no one was,” said Keilson, “And the more I thought about it, it just makes total sense: Using a waste product of the agricultural process, you could help these people monetize waste products, help farmers in Latin America/north Africa with this waste product and produce an awesome drink for people in the U.S., and also fight the environmental impact that the fruit has.”
And although both Keilson and Epstein always wanted to give back with their careers, neither of them originally planned on pursuing business while at Brandeis.
“I was pretty into the idea of studying [politics] and going into law school. And then last minute decided to take a business class my junior year and loved it,” shared Keilson. Keilson then continued to study politics with minors in legal studies and business.
And through a professor’s recommendation, he was able to intern with a small company which he would continue to work with for three-and-a-half years before quitting to create his own start up.
Meanwhile, before co-founding the company, Epstein had been working at a private equity firm in D.C., where he specialized in real estate and investing. Epstein shared that through starting Nomad, he was able to make many of the important decisions and become an independent thinker; things he had been unable to do at his previous job.
However, both Epstein and Keilson admitted that the most difficult part in running a start-up was the uncertainty.
Epstein shared, “The hardest thing was I might spend a year or two years doing this and most startups shut down after a couple of years … So it’s really the unknown, a huge risk factor to your personal career and your lifestyle.
We have been living very frugally since August; we have two of the cheapest rents in New York, and definitely have the lowest food and going-out budgets of anyone we know in New York. But it’s okay because we love the company and it’s worth the sacrifice.”
And through their start-up Epstein and Keilson have been able to learn many lessons, from how to start a business without outside investments to other little details that come along with starting a company.
“My favorite thing is learning so much, it’s not just the end product. Learning so much about obscure things you never thought about and also just making decisions every day,” said Epstein.
Keilson also shared, “Every day I get to wake up and work on exactly what I want to work on, and it’s something I really believe in and get to have a lot of fun with. [I’ve probably learned more in the last nine or so months than any period in my life.”
Epstein also revealed that other experiences were key in helping him along the way and growing his interest in sustainability.
“I rowed for a year, and my Brandeis teammates remain the hardest working folks I’ve ever met. When I hit a wall with Nomad I remember 4:45 in the morning outdoor workouts in the dead of Waltham winter — I’ve done this before,” shared Epstein. “And in summer 2013 I did research with a professor at Oxford … the goal was to innovate a line of business that was both profitable and socially sustainable. … I spent a month in Johannesburg, South Africa, along with a month between London and Oxford ... The takeaway was that there’s myriad opportunities for doing good and making a profit in developing countries.
Both shared how Brandeis offered them the opportunity to experience many different interests and benefited them by exposing them to different methods of thought.
As they both try to live the company mission by leading healthy and active lives, they also shared that an important thing to remember when starting your own company is to not take things too seriously and have a lot of fun.
Keilson advised future entrepreneurs at Brandeis by sharing, “We are by no means experts, we are just people who are trying something new ... I don’t have any great wisdom. [The] biggest thing is just to try.”
Epstein shared, “Know what you know but most importantly, know what you don’t know. Be humble … [there is] lots of hubris in start ups where the founders are really smart but make mistakes when they think they know what they don’t know.”
With future hopes to improve the planet around them, with a focus on how people are treated and how people treat their bodies, Epstein and Keilson are working to make Nomad Trading Co. a company that has their desired impact.
The sale of their first line of Cascara beverages began on May 18, 2017.