Mark Thompson ’08. Photo by Jesse Winter.

Business Is Brewing for Mark Thompson ’08

Eight years after graduation, Mark O. Thompson ’08 is beginning to execute his long-range plan.

When he moved to New York City soon after graduation to work as a financial analyst on Wall Street, he did it knowing that he wanted to start his own hospitality-related business, in time.

That time arrived this winter, when the flagship location of the Harlem Coffee Co. opened its doors at 117th Street and Lenox Avenue in upper Manhattan’s storied Harlem neighborhood. “It’s a great location for capturing the morning commuter traffic,” he noted.

The young entrepreneur has put his heart and soul, as well as some of his cash, into the new venue, and it shows. The place beckons to passersby with a blend of comfort and sophistication. Rich, dark-wood finishes, exposed brick walls, and an industrial, rustic aesthetic resonate with the neighborhood’s vibrant history while also welcoming newcomers. The walls display photographs of Harlem luminaries like poet Langston Hughes, and the music of Duke Ellington and other jazz greats plays softly in the background.

The WiFi is free, of course, and the staff is ready to cater to the customer experience. But first there is the soul-warming aroma and savor of Harlem Coffee Co.’s premium house blend. “We’ve worked with our supplier to formulate our marquee item, a deep, rich, smooth Harlem roast that embodies the vibe and rhythm of the surrounding community and people,” said Thompson, who chose to use the abbreviated form of “Company” in his company’s name in order to bring out all the social mutuality conveyed by the prefix “co”.

The store also serves espresso-based beverages as well as teas and iced drinks and, of course, a rich array of warm pastries and sandwiches to go with them.

Photo by Jesse Winter

If all goes according to plan, four more stores will open within the first five years, and from there Thompson hopes to see the Harlem Coffee Co. grow exponentially to become an international brand.

Hospitality, said Thompson, was part of his upbringing. Born in Jamaica, he accompanied his parents and older sister to the United States in 1990 at age three. His mother, a registered nurse, and his father, a middle-school special-ed and math teacher, settled the family in Vineland, New Jersey.

“My parents are very hospitable people, and whenever we had guests, they would roll out the red carpet,” Thompson recalled. “Everything had to be its best, and they always gave their best. They really imparted to us that same selflessness and attentiveness to the needs of others.”

His parents also instilled in him and his sister the values of discipline, hard work, and ambition. “Coming here and starting over was a big risk for them. That makes my venture pale by comparison,” said Thompson.

Starting his own entrepreneurial venture straight out of college was never part of Thompson’s game plan, he said. He accepted a position in 2008 with the foreign exchange arm of Goldman Sachs, where he’d interned for two summers as a student.

“It was one of the worst times ever to begin working on Wall Street,” he noted. “I remember hearing on TV, on the Sunday at the start of spring break my senior year, that Bear Stearns had collapsed and was being sold to another bank. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ I had friends with offers to work there. What made it really tough for our class was that we’d gone to school in ’05, ’06, ’07, during this boom time.”

Nevertheless, the Goldman Sachs job turned out to be a great opportunity to “acquire skills, network with very smart, driven, talented people, establish credibility, and eventually position myself to go out on my own,” Thompson said. It also gave him a bit of capital that he hoped to use later on to launch his own enterprise.

After a subsequent stint at Bay Street Advisors as a research associate, Thompson joined Credit Suisse Securities, where he is an assistant vice president in the chief risk office. “I’m on the risk management regulatory side, an area of business that’s seen growth, largely due to the regulatory environment,” he explained. He likes the chance to look at the industry from that angle. “Plus, risk management is an important skill for anyone to have, but particularly entrepreneurs. And the more you can apply job-specific training to real life, the better off you are, I think.”

He plans to stay with Credit Suisse while also running the Harlem Coffee Co., and he remains unruffled about the balancing act. “I tell people I leave my nine-to-five and go to my six-to-ten.” And right now, he said, he is learning so much and having so much fun that “it really doesn’t feel like work.”

Thompson had not yet focused his entrepreneurial aspirations on creating a coffee company and brand when he decided to take a different kind of plunge a few years ago — skydiving.

“It was eye-opening, to say the least. You’re falling to the ground from 15,000 feet at freefall speed. You’re looking at the ground getting bigger and bigger by the second, feeling the wind flapping your face, and you think to yourself: ‘In a few seconds I’m going to pull this ripcord, and in the event that it doesn’t open and these are the last moments of my life, how am I going to feel? Am I going to feel like I maximized every single opportunity, took advantage of every day and every moment that I had on Earth, and accomplished every goal I set out to? Or am I going to say, ‘I wish I had’ or ask, ‘Why didn’t I?’”

A book Thompson read, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, also motivated him to recalibrate his life. “When Bezos was deciding to leave his job at a Wall Street hedge fund and start his own online retail store, he came up with a decision-making framework he called ‘regret-minimization’ that really resonated with me,” explained Thompson. “You imagine yourself at age 80 looking back over your life and ask yourself what you regret most — the things you didn’t do, or the things you did? Bezos realized that knowing he could have started Amazon but didn’t would be more painful for him than taking the risk to make it happen, even if it failed,” explained Thompson, who came to a similar conclusion about jump-starting his own venture.

His time at SHA — which he called “literally the best years of my life” — had shown him how much he liked hospitality. He loves to cook, too, and has hosted and catered several spectacular fundraising dinners for young alumni at his Harlem apartment, including two that honored Michael Johnson while he was dean of the school.

“Mark impressed me from our first meeting, when he was a resident advisor on West Campus and I was a faculty member in residence,” recalled Johnson, who is now the provost of Babson College. “I was pleased that he accepted my invitation to join the school’s Council of Young Alumni after he graduated. We need young leaders like Mark. He is personable and smart but also modest about his abilities, ambitious for the future but also prudent in his actions. Above all, I’ve observed that he is extraordinarily well prepared in everything he attempts.”

Despite the praise, Thompson was well aware of the high failure rate of restaurant startups and was not going to go in that direction — or was he?

In March 2015, he sought advice from the hospitality entrepreneur he now calls his mentor, John Meadow ’02, the CEO of LDV Hospitality and founder of such heralded high-end restaurant concepts as Scarpetta, American Cut, and Dolce Italian as well as Corso Coffee. He said about that first meeting, and subsequent ones, “I was most impressed from the get-go with Mark’s willingness to engage with the realities and the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the restaurant space, because it was clear that he saw more than just the upfront romance of the idea. Instead, Mark’s approach from day one was to learn as much as he could about the reality of the process. He was approaching it from the right perspective, and I found that to be both humble and encouraging about his chances for success.”

“When I told John my situation, he laid out three possible scenarios for me,” recalled Thompson. Scenario one was to quit his day job and become a chef in a restaurant, with the upside of always being able to cook but the downside of punishingly long hours and having to reestablish himself. Scenario two was to become a franchisee, with the upside of having an established business model but the downside of being tied to a parent company that would likely claim a significant portion of the profits and limit creativity.

The third scenario Meadow offered Thompson was to leverage the brand appeal of his Harlem neighborhood by opening up something accessible and proven like a specialty coffee shop, one that would evoke the history of the neighborhood while appealing to its current, broadened demographic. Most importantly, it needed to be scalable.

Option number three was the only one that appealed to Thompson, but it certainly didn’t sound grand. But Meadow had some more advice for him. “‘Never despise humble beginnings,’ John counseled me,” said Thompson. “‘A lot of people without any experience want to start out with a fabulous, gourmet, high-end, fine-dining restaurant, and often it’s too much for them to handle too early, and it doesn’t work out.’ He’s a big advocate of starting with something simpler, less complex, that people are familiar with, and establishing a brand and a reputation for yourself,” he continued. “When I left his office, I remember thinking, ‘That’s a great idea — I love it!’”

He ran back to his computer and learned via a Google search that coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world, behind only crude oil. “I bought some domain names, and a few days later I submitted a trademark application to form my own coffee company,” he said.

Thompson also bought Starbucks founder Howard Schultz’s book, Pour Your Heart into It. “What really impressed me was his focus on authenticity and the customer experience,” he said.

Devoting a chunk of each day to growing his idea, Thompson went to coffee trade shows and talked with people in the industry. “My goal was to acquire as much knowledge as I could,” he said. Over time, he developed and fine-tuned a highly detailed business plan and commissioned a stunning logo, through a crowd-sourcing website, that reflects the rich history of the Harlem community as well as its bright future. The biggest step was to lease a commercial space, which he then renovated to become his first coffee lounge. Would it work?

In a parallel challenge, he decided to train to run in the New York City Marathon in 2015. “I wanted to see if I could devote myself to an ideal, commit to a goal, and put in the time and the effort to make it happen,” he said. (He could and he did, coming in at a respectable 4:16.)

“Mark is an incredibly driven individual with a clear vision of what he is trying to achieve with the Harlem Coffee Co.,” said classmate Kirk Kelewae ’08. “But what impresses me most is his humility. He’s incredibly comfortable asking for guidance from the experts.” Kelewae predicts that Thompson will succeed in anything he puts his “energy, enthusiasm, and work ethic” into.

Despite his many Hotelie virtues, Thompson did not begin his Cornell years as a Hotelie. He first enrolled in the ILR School, which he chose with a thought toward preparing for law school. He soon felt weighed down by the heavy reading demands, however, and reconsidered.

Gazing across the street at Statler Hall, he was impressed by how professionally dressed the students were and how much fun they seemed to be having. He checked out the curriculum and was immediately sold. “I liked its practical nature,” he said. “It was finance for the hotel industry, marketing for hospitality, culinary theory, and so on. That really stood out to me. I knew at the end of the day I would have a hard skill, plus a degree from the world-renowned, top-ranked Cornell School of Hotel Administration.”

He transferred in the middle of his sophomore year and thereafter carried a hefty 21 credits a semester so that he would still be able to graduate in four years. Along the way, he squeezed in two seasons as a defensive lineman for the Big Red varsity football team and a semester in Hong Kong in spring 2007, where he took business courses, became conversationally proficient in Mandarin Chinese, and met SHA alumni from throughout Asia.

“I was really privileged to have the opportunity to go to the Hotel School, and I enjoyed every single minute of it and every course,” he said. “All the professors were passionate about what they were doing, and that passion radiated from them every single time they stood up in front of the class.” Barbara Lang, who taught Restaurant Operations, impressed him with her passion and enthusiasm for the subject and with the focus that she placed on the guest experience, Thompson said, and they’ve stayed in touch.

“Mark has always known the man he wants to be,” Lang observed. “Not only was he incredibly curious and engaged as a student, but he also is aware that he has a personal responsibility to give back to the hospitality community as an alumnus. He has been involved in C-CAP [the Careers through Culinary Arts Program] and has volunteered at the New York City Ronald McDonald House, cooking for the families of cancer patients. And,” she added, “he’s a really good cook.”

Craig Snow, a former senior lecturer in managerial communication, was another influential teacher. “My biggest takeaway from him was this notion of structure in writing and in life,” said Thompson. “He told us, ‘Once you establish the structure, the message writes itself. Structure is what separates a message from a mess.’ I’ve applied that framework, not just in writing, but also in this business venture.”

“Mark is careful, thoughtful, smart, disciplined, articulate, humble, insightful, and analytical,” said Snow. “He saw the communication concept I teach as a life concept. Like the best students in the Hotel School, he has taken the foundation that my class and others gave him and used it to continue to do great things.”

About his new venture and its chances for success, Thompson said: “I believe that, once you start, the universe will open up for you. I know that sounds supernatural, but what I mean is, once you have your mind focused on a goal, you’ll notice things you didn’t notice before; you’ll see talent in people and opportunities you didn’t see before.

“I like the saying: ‘You don’t have to be great to get started, but you have to get started to be great,’” he said. “The key is starting.”

By Linda Brandt Myers

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