Story by Lindsey TaylorPhotos by Jan Ross Piedad
Sharla Megilligan looks like any other coffee shop goer, nestled in her wooden chair, working on her computer after a caffeine fix at Dominican Joe Coffee Shop. Other coffee-drinkers fill the cozy interior, which features pictures of people of the Dominican Republic, those whom the coffee shop aims to help. But Megilligan is not just the average customer—she is the co-owner of Dominican Joe Coffee Shop and founder of the non-profit Makarios International, which aims to help the impoverished people in the Dominican Republic through education and Christian outreach programs.
Dominican Joe, located at 515 S. Congress Avenue, was opened by Megilligan and Mehul Patel in 2006. The idea behind the coffee shop came as a means of sustainable funding for Makarios International: Dominican Joe purchases coffee from Makarios. In turn, Makarios supports education in the Dominican Republic by hosting an elementary school. In addition to education, the school aids the physical needs of students by providing meals, clean water, and medical care while sharing Christian values.
A cup of coffee at Dominican Joe comes with more than cream and sugar—since Dominican Joe buys its coffee from Makarios, the coffee shop supports the non-profit’s endeavors as well as the people in the Dominican Republic. For example, the coffee supports jobs and fair wages for Dominican farmers who grow the coffee beans. “The support we receive from Dominican Joe has been invaluable,” Chris Buster, Makarios executive director, says. “From a financial standpoint it is beneficial to have a steady revenue stream coming into our nonprofit from coffee sales. Not only this, but it also plays a major role in getting people plugged into our cause. Coffee and coffee shops are natural places where people meet, ideas are shared, and things happen … So it is the perfect place for people to catch the vision and get on board with what Makarios is doing.”
Megilligan’s ambition to help the people of the Dominican Republic is as strong as her connection to the country itself. Her relationship to the Dominican Republic developed in her formative years, through her father’s work overseas and through her time at Cedarville University. “When I was a freshman [in college] my dad got invited to speak at a missions conference—he’s a pastor—down there and they had asked me to do the children’s program,” Megilligan says. “The people are really warm and friendly, and I love the culture. Cedarville had a student teaching an overseas program, so my senior year I student-taught at that same American school.”
After graduating from Cedarville University, Megilligan decided to move to the country and taught science for four years at the American school. “That’s where it all started, where I saw the need for what Makarios is doing now,” Megilligan says. “It went from, ‘I’ll help these kids that I know, and I’ll try to get sponsors for other kids,’ to, ‘This is a bigger calling,’ that I’m supposed to actually start a nonprofit.”
Once the idea of starting Makarios entered Megilligan’s mind, she attended graduate school at The University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. “I approached grad school as getting out of it what I needed to start Makarios,” Megilligan says. “Certain students, staff and faculty invested in me and gave feedback on what I was doing… People that I met there impacted me and encouraged me.”
After establishing Makarios, Megilligan opened Dominican Joe as a way to support the non-profit. “In the first year that we were operating Makarios in the Dominican Republic, I started thinking about sustainable funding and what it would look like to export coffee from there,” Megilligan says.
While opening Dominican Joe, Megilligan felt less sure that the coffee shop was the right move, since the initial process took time away from Makarios. However, having a business partner was a huge help. “At the time we started, Dominican Joe, I had been running an internet company for about ten years and was looking for a new business venture or project that had more of an impact,” Mehul Patel, Dominican Joe’s co-owner, says. “Sharla brought the idea to me and it seemed like an interesting and unique fit. While I had a solid business background, neither of us had any experience in retail or the coffee industry, so it was a learning experience for both of us.”
When choosing a location, Megilligan says Austin seemed like a natural choice. "Our mission to make a difference in education has really connected with many of our customers and helped us stand out a bit in the huge Austin coffee market,” Patel says.
Although the businesses run smoothly now, the process was not always easy. Megilligan says she felt certain that she was supposed to start Makarios, but she questioned whether she was working in the most effective manner. To combat this challenge, Megilligan became more comfortable with uncertainty and disassociating her own identity from the business’ success.
When the businesses experienced challenges, Megilligan attributes self-motivation, positivity and focusing on the big picture as a means of perseverance. The relationship between Dominican Joe and Makarios is ultimately rewarding. “My greatest reward has been to see the lives of children and families changed,” Buster says. “We are a Christian ministry and our goal is to demonstrate the Gospel through our educational and outreach programs. When a child comes to our school at 3-years-old, malnourished, and struggles to focus and a year later is a totally different child, I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of Makarios.”
While the journey to successfully operate Dominican Joe and Makarios had difficulties, Megilligan would not change one aspect. “I think that failure and not knowing is part of doing anything and then you learn from your failures,” Megilligan says. “I don’t regret what happened because that’s the way that you learn. If someone tells you this is the way to do and then you follow their steps, you aren’t going to learn it the same way as if you tried it and failed and then value the information.”
After launching successful enterprises, Megilligan now works part time for Makarios, helps run Dominican Joe and started consulting for other non-profits. “I think that everyone needs to find their way of giving back … A way to contribute to society, the world, and not just live their life for themselves,” Megilligan says.