UAH alumna brews successful business

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What is the best degree to have if you plan on opening your own mobile coffee shop? If you ask Leah Sparks, it's a marketing degree. "I chose UAH because it's a great school academically," says The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) alumna. "But the fact that I have always wanted to open my own business was why I chose marketing." Today, she's the proud owner of Southern Girl Coffee Roasting Co. " I started this business with my Pawpaw and now every time I roast or drink coffee I get to remember him," she says. "I get to do what I love, and I also love to share it with others."

To this day, Sparks relies heavily on the guidance she received from her marketing professors. "They taught me what marketing was and how important it was to apply it," she explains. "They stressed that I could have a great product, but if I didn't market it right, it wouldn't matter." She also incorporates the valuable real-world skills she learned through her extracurricular activities at UAH. "I worked for the University Fitness Center, which really helped me develop my people skills and customer service ability," she says. The best business advice she received, though, was to build a business plan. "I still use it to set goals and just as a general guide."

I chose UAH because it’s a great school academically. But the fact that I have always wanted to open my own business was why I chose marketing.

Leah Sparks
UAH alumna

That isn't to say that it has always been smooth sailing for the Oxford, Ala., native. "There are always challenges in opening a new business," she says. "I think the biggest one for me was trying to get information about how to even open a small-batch roasting company." While some in the industry were helpful, others "weren't that open to talking." Sparks also had trouble when it came to ascertaining who would be in charge of inspecting her facility once it was up and running. "We weren't sure if the Health Department would handle that or if it was the Agricultural Department," she says. "But we got there in the end."

Now she's making plans to expand. "With our mobile business, it's nice to be able to move to different events - we can set up at farmer's markets or rent it out for weddings or parties," she says. "But in 5 years I hope that we have a shop open in downtown, and in 10 years, I hope that our business is growing and sustaining." It helps that she's been able to target a niche market. "I realized when I was writing my initial business plan that the fact that I would be roasting my own coffee set me apart from the competition." This has enabled her to hold her own against coffee giants in the Oxford area, such as Joe Mugs and Starbucks.

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Yet despite all the hard work she puts in on a daily basis, Sparks still manages to keep her focus on what's most important: her relationships. "You have to be able to disconnect from your business when you're not working," she says. "Business is important, but family and friends are more important. You have to build your business around your life and not your life around your business." For her, that will always include her beloved Pawpaw. "He supported me in everything I did and continues to even though he is not here," she says. "He always pushed me do better and to keep setting goals to reach, so I think of him when it gets tough and can hear him telling me to keep pushing. I think he would be very proud of me."


Contact

UAH College of Business
 256.824.6735
cba@uah.edu

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