Bald Guy business model is platform for giving back

Don Cox ’93 is a man with a passion for doing good deeds.

He is also, as he boisterously claims, “committed to brewing the best stinking cup of fresh roasted coffee” his customers have ever tasted. For Cox, as proprietor and head roaster of Bald Guy Brew Coffee Roasting Company in Boone, these aspirations are not mutually exclusive. They are the motivating principles that drive him to accomplish his life’s work.

“I’m like that kid running up and down the beach tossing star fish back into the sea,” said Cox. “One of his buddies yells out, ‘You can’t save them all.’ But the kid picks up another starfish, tosses it into the water and yells back, “Maybe not, but I can save this one.’”

Dreaming up ‘Bald Guy’

Several years ago, Cox and his wife, Shannon, dreamed of creating a business that would feed their souls as well as their checking account. They wanted it to be ecologically friendly, socially responsible, and provide them with an opportunity to help those “starfish stranded on the beach.” They chose coffee as the vehicle for their business because of the exploitation of coffee-growing communities they witnessed firsthand.

“We were doing medical relief and mission work with the Anglican Church in coffee-growing countries like Mexico, Peru and Rwanda, and saw how the poor in these communities are exploited,” Cox said.

Next to oil, coffee is the most-traded commodity in the world. “But the farmers who grow it don’t make money on it, and neither do the women and children who pick it,” he said. “It’s the shareholders who make the money.”

Through the establishment of Bald Guy Brew in Boone in 2005, the Coxes found a way to empower members of coffee-growing communities and make a difference in the world – both globally and locally. The company purchases organic, shade grown beans, ensuring farmers who use sustainable practices a better price for their product and an agricultural commodity that is ecologically sound.

“Most business models these days look at people as a credit, a transaction.” Cox said. “There’s a dignity in humanity that has been lost in pursuit of the almighty buck.”

“The platform for our company is ‘you don’t give to get, you give for the sake of giving,’” he said. “It’s not really a business model. It’s more how we choose to live our lives.”

Words to live by

After graduating from Appalachian State University in 1993 with a history degree, a religion minor and a knowledge of biblical Hebrew, Cox strapped on a carpenter’s belt to work in Boone’s construction industry.

“I had to make a living,” he said. But it wasn’t long before he began to question that choice.

“I thought, ‘What am doing on this ladder?’ I had learned biblical Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament. I found a system of living and giving there that offers hope,” he said.

“Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God – this message is at the heart of how I choose to live my life,” he said. “Stewardship, sustainability and social responsibility are all part of the answers I found in that message.”

Guided by these words and a desire to “do right by others,” Cox entered the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Pittsburgh. He graduated with a master of divinity in 1996.

Over the next 13 years he served as a priest with the Anglican Church in Pittsburgh, worked as a youth minister in the city’s ghetto, and began doing medical mission work and leadership development with Shannon in countries like Mexico, Peru, Rwanda and Uganda.

“I picked up the ‘Bald Guy’ moniker when I was working with street kids in Pittsburgh,” he said. “We focused on developing social and interpersonal skills, core values, and sometimes just keeping kids from getting beat up or shot. They could never remember my name. ‘Yo, bald guy,’ they’d say. ‘What’s up?’ I guess it stuck,” Cox said with a laugh.

Beans for Bikes

In early 2000, nearly six years after the mass murder of an estimated 800,000 people in Rwanda, Cox was invited by the nation’s Anglican Archbishop to work with an emerging leaders program.

“Our goal was to equip Hutu and Tutsi genocide survivors with skills to lead and serve others in their parishes, schools and missions,” he said. “The work was incredibly moving.”

“What we ended up doing was reconciliation work, dealing with issues of trust and the horrible pain of the mess,” he said.

During the trip, Cox became familiar with the sight of Rwandan farmers pushing coffee on bikes with wooden wheels through the countryside. Bicycles are the primary method of transportation for these farmers.

Through a group called Project Rwanda, many coffee farmers now have access to modern, purpose-built bikes that cut in half the delivery time for their fresh berries.

“The bikes serve as a tool of economic development and a symbol of hope,” said Cox. “When I learned about project Rwanda’s Coffee Bike Project I decided to get behind their efforts.”

Getting behind the effort meant starting the Beans for Bikes initiative – delivering coffee to Cox’s local wholesale accounts by bike. To date he has delivered more than 2,150 pounds of coffee pedaling the steep hills and streets of Boone and Watauga County.

This spring, Cox will mount a purpose-built cargo bike packed with 100 pounds of Rwandan coffee from a distributor in Atlanta and ride 300 miles to Boone – his first long-distance Beans for Bikes trip.

“My goal is to have riders along the route join me in carrying coffee to raise awareness of and money for project Rwanda,” said Cox.

“The initiative puts into action the environmental stewardship component of my ‘love mercy and do justice principles,’” he said.

“By riding a bike I’m being eco-friendly and reducing my carbon footprint. I’m being socially responsible by raising money for Rwandan coffee farmers. And I’m doing this out of love for my Rwandan brothers.

“The fact that I’m losing weight is just an added incentive for a guy who’s doing his best to ride from point A to point B without falling or getting hit.”