Héctor Carvajal

“Coffee is culture,” Guttman Community College alum Héctor Carvajal says with all the bacanería that makes you feel like you’ve known him forever. “And it’s also the second-most traded global commodity after crude oil,” he adds with a knowing smile. 

The founder and CEO of Don Carvajal Café, an ethically sourced, fair and inclusive coffee brand, Héctor is a proud Liberal Arts graduate of New York City’s Stella and Charles Guttman Community College. Raised in Bani, Dominican Republic, he moved with his family to the Bronx at age 8, speaking no English. It was in high school that he became interested in business—outside of class. He created a brand called Dream Chasers and sold hats, T-shirts, patches and candy on the subway. At 16, Héctor started skipping school, truant for mostly everything but gym. 

“My mother was working all the time, cleaning tables at McDonald’s, whatever she could get. She wasn’t having it. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ So, she decided to teach me a lesson. She sent me to my uncle’s onion farm back in Baní.” 

There, Héctor worked the fields from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the scorching sun, alongside children much younger than him, wondering why they were working instead of at school. He learned that their families couldn’t afford to eat if they didn’t work. “I realized I had everything I needed through the struggles of my mother. I wasn’t taking advantage of my opportunities in New York.”  

In six months, lesson learned, Héctor returned to the Bronx. He graduated high school and enrolled in CUNY’s newest community college, taking interdisciplinary, experiential courses that wove community-based learning with social justice and the workplace. He became president of Guttman’s student body and graduated with an A.A. as a Kaplan Leadership Scholar. 

With the scholarship, he transferred to the University of Rochester. In a Business Marketing class, he was assigned a project around a brand. Héctor remembered what he witnessed in the D.R., technology steering farmers away from traditional practices, increasing the use of additives and toxic chemicals. From the Bronx, he knew that the demand for healthy food and ethical business was also increasing. “I wanted a bridge between the campo of the Dominican and the streets of New York. I thought, ‘Coffee can do that.’ There’s little representation of D.R. coffee in the specialty coffee market. An independent brand could build equity in the Bronx, create opportunities aligned with my community’s values and change how coffee production and distribution can lead to deforestation, chemical runoff and child labor,” he says. 

So, Héctor launched his brand, named after his grandfather, with a commitment to “The 3 C’s—Coffee, Community and Culture.” He reached out to various networks he knew as vice president of the Rochester Business Association and got some small grants. After 50 pounds of green coffee beans were delivered to his dorm room, a local supplier generously opened its doors to him, teaching him how to roast and package his product, which quickly sold out. 

Today, the Dominican-American entrepreneur is revolutionizing the specialty coffee market not only in New York City, where the mayor and a Yankees infielder are among his loyal customer base, but nationally and internationally as well. And, as of May 18, at his brand-new café in the Westchester County village of Irvington, NY nestled on the banks of the Hudson. Héctor hires locally, leads product development, marketing campaigns and sales, and with uncommon authenticity and integrity, he makes personal connections at farmers markets, national conventions and small coffee farms in the D.R., Costa Rica, Colombia and Brazil. He’s secured impressive contracts with Montefiore Hospital and Whole Foods and sells through Fresh Direct and Amazon, partnering with companies including Nike, Adidas, TikTok, MasterCard, Oatly and Miir. 

The thing is—he makes it look easy. What you don’t see with this first-in-his-family-to-earn-a-degree, out-the-door-at-2-a.m. businessman (picking up his beans at a port in New Jersey and getting them to the roasters for the cheapest time slot) is the grind. Ask him, and he’s not afraid tell you: His storage unit flooded during a hurricane; his roaster burned down; his delivery minivan was broken into three times; a deal for his first brick-and-mortar location fell apart. And—there’s ageism and racism. 

These are things Héctor shares with dozens of paid interns he’s mentored, with the graduating classes of Bronx Science and Bronx Compass High School and with the Guttman students who gather around him at Conexiones, the college’s annual career networking event.  

“When I’ve succeeded is when I had mentorship,” he tells them. He understands mentoring as giving back—and as a strategic move he can “pay forward” as well. He started Carvajal Cares, successfully fundraising to build a kitchen at Escuela Basica Graciosa Elvira Cueves, an elementary school in Bani. The Consulate General of the Dominican Republic honored him in 2023 with an award for his sustainability work with coffee farmers and his representation of the diaspora/culture/agriculture sector, noting that Héctor’s leadership and guidance builds a skilled local workforce and his commitment to fair and direct trade practices helps workers in the countries where his company sources its beans. “Sustainability, like community, like culture, is not just a buzzword for us,” says Héctor. “It’s at the forefront of our operations, our relationships and our future planning. Focusing on these connections, we’re not only offering an exceptional cup of coffee but fostering a sense of belonging and equity within the industry.” 

Héctor is a chévere communicator, and people want to hear what he has to say. After countless interview requests from broadcast and digital media such as Allegra World Coffee Portal, the industry’s leading global information platform, CNBC’s Millennial Money, The Smartest Guy in the Room podcast, NBC New York, CUNY TV, Telemundo and Univision, he decided to start his own podcast, The Don’s Table. On it, Héctor talks with CEOs, creatives and desk jockeys—and really listens, too. Just like his coffee, he pours his rich and down-to-earth cultural legacy into his commitment to empower, inspire and awaken vibrant connections and memorable experiences.