By Ivan Valencia and Laurene Mahe
Everybody likes to read a little something over coffee or lunch, even more so when it’s a story that leaves you chuckling or gets you thinking with a bit of trivia. Add some local flavour with news about events in the neighbourhood you happen to live or work in, and you’ve got Coffee News. As publishers of the Toronto edition, we enjoy delivering uplifting content and local advertising to patrons at more than 350 cafés and restaurants in the downtown area. And while not everyone in Toronto is familiar with this 26-year-old franchise, it reaches more than a million readers each week worldwide.
As a student at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., I spent many an hour at the local coffee hangout. A cup of Joe in hand and a quiet nook all to myself, my attention invariably turned to the local edition of Coffee News, its pages stocked with feel-good news stories, trivia questions, a weekly contest and horoscopes, the latter of which I enjoyed the most, though I don’t believe in astrology. I guess I found it interesting to read what the future supposedly held in store for me, although back then, I could not have imagined I would one day be a Coffee News franchisee and publisher.
For the first 17 years of my life, I called Bogota, Colombia, home. I had a pretty good childhood and was fairly active, participating in everything from karate to soccer to swimming; my parents are both professionals and each helped shape different parts of my personality. I like to think I got my creative side from my father Arturo, who is an architect. My mother Martha is a doctor, and while the perception in Canada is doctors live a privileged life, I grew up watching my mom work three jobs. She is a role model to my brother and me, well, both my parents are. Their examples served me well when I arrived in Canada in 2004. On my own and barely out of my teens, I had to manage my own budget and be self-motivated to get through school, all while improving my English language skills. My parents felt my moving to Canada would help me grow as a person and learn what life was all about outside the four walls of our family home. The plan was to leave Colombia for a year and return with more life experience before starting university there.
Going through an agency that helps place students in schools abroad, we learned we had our choice of Australia, Canada or the United States. Australia seemed an interesting place to go, but ultimately, we felt it was too far. The United States held little appeal for me, which left Canada, and specifically Toronto.
As a student at an international school in Toronto, I studied English and math, working toward getting my Grade 12 equivalent. I was basically on my own, looking after myself and getting a crash course in adulthood. The first year or so taught me a sense of ownership and responsibility. With only three classes on my schedule, I had a lot of free time, which I spent exploring Toronto’s many cultures, mostly by way of its restaurants. I was always attracted to the idea of socializing and making friends wherever I went. This still drives me today. I think I ended up in business because I wanted to understand people.
Although I meant to stay in Canada only for a year to practice English, life presented opportunities that kept me around, so much so that 11 years have passed since then. I suppose it was a matter of meeting the right people at the right time. That’s not to say I didn’t miss my family. In fact, I was homesick after about four months of being away from home. However, I wanted to prove to my parents I could have stayed if I wanted to, so six months after arriving in Toronto, I applied to university. The tough part was deciding whether to stay or return to Colombia after being accepted to Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. I knew my life would change if I stayed—the decision both frightened and excited me about the future. My mother was very supportive, letting me make my own decision, but also offering to help pay for school if I decided to stay. In the end, I figured I could attend Laurentian and return to Colombia four years later. That was the plan, but what I’ve come to realize over the years is that plans don’t always play out the way they’re supposed to.
Life at Laurentian held a few surprises. I thought about majoring in psychology or communications, but then realized marketing allowed me to put myself in someone else’s shoes to try to understand the purpose for creating a product or service. Unfortunately, an uninspiring marketing professor helped change my mind once again and forced Plan B, which happened to be accounting.
I have always been very entrepreneurial, even during my university days. In third year, I bought a painting franchise with a friend and got my first taste of owning a business. Putting up flyers in the area, we landed several jobs and hired painters to help out. That was probably one of the best summers of my life, and really helped me understand what it meant to run a business beyond the number crunching I was learning in school.
Graduating from Laurentian in 2008, I moved back to Toronto, became a certified management accountant (CMA) and landed a job a couple years later as a financial analyst for a multinational consumer packaged goods company. Once again, my plan to return to Colombia got sidetracked, as this was too good an opportunity to pass up.