Matt GrabenMatt Graben. Photo courtesy of Randy MartinFive years ago, Matt Graben dropped out of college. At the time he was a junior at UAB studying finance, but he was more interested in actively launching a nonprofit than he was in his business courses, so he dropped out. During the next five years he worked with other local self-starters to create more than 10 businesses in the Magic City, businesses that focused on everything from housing development to coffee sourcing and production.

But while he was navigating his way around Birmingham’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, he met Patrick Murphy, Ph.D., UAB’s new Goodrich Endowed Chair for Innovation and Entrepreneurship who was developing a new undergraduate major in entrepreneurship at UAB.

After talking with Murphy, Graben felt something was missing in his path of education. He had practical experience from his start-ups, but he didn’t fully understand how business worked.

“I knew how to build the structure of a home, but I was missing my contractor’s license,” he says, likening building a business to building a home. “I had grown an appreciation of how businesses work and wanted to learn the theory behind it all.” 

Graben returned to UAB and immersed himself in Collat’s entrepreneurial classes. He worked with Murphy to take all of the courses that, once approved, would be required by the major. The University of Alabama Board of Trustees approved the entrepreneurship major in June, and this week Graben will become the first graduate of the program.

“Matt is the quintessential entrepreneurship student: fiercely independent, open to new ideas and experiences, intellectually sharp, and driven by curiosity and purpose,” says Murphy.

The entrepreneurship program met all of his expectations, Graben says. He didn’t need to be sold on the value of being an entrepreneur – he already was one. He wanted to learn how to think on his feet and how to apply conventional wisdom to his entrepreneurial ideas.

His classes validated his experiences as a business owner, he says, and he learned from his professors’ experiences. “My professors weren’t just teachers; they were practitioners. They are business owners themselves.”

Ultimately, he says, the program taught him how to be a better thinker.

For the past four years Graben has served as creative director of Seeds Coffee Company, developing and implementing the Birmingham coffee shop and roaster’s marketing strategies. While there he developed a new strategy for the business’s coffee subscriptions and increased growth 70%.

Now, he’s focused on building new venture Co-Trade Imports, a coffee importing company that focuses on creating fair and equitable partnerships between coffee producers and roasters. Co-Trade works with Central American coffee producers to determine fair pricing, market access, and support needed to promote sustainable farming practices that benefit both buyer and producer.

Although the COVID-19 global pandemic has impacted the coffee industry, Graben says he’s staying hopeful, combining his business experience with the lessons he learned in UAB’s entrepreneurship program to propel Co-Trade forward.

As UAB’s first entrepreneurship graduate, he recommends students interested in entrepreneurship to jump in and take a class in the program.

“My biggest recommendation is just do it,” he says. “It’s one thing to have a good idea or story, but it’s another to know how the market works and how to turn your idea into a profitable business. The entrepreneurship program teaches you how business works.”