Growing up in Guatemala, Jorge Guzman (IE 2009) was always aware of Georgia Tech’s excellent academic reputation and dreamed of someday studying at the Institute. This desire was cemented when, at age 11, Guzman flew to London on a family trip and had a conversation with the businessman seated next to him: Ivan Ochoa, then a vice president for American Express, who had earned a degree from the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) in 1980.
“There was this allure about it,” Guzman recalled. “This was someone who had actually gone to the school I imagined myself attending, and he had gotten a degree in the major I was most interested in.”
Guzman eventually made his own way to Georgia Tech, received his bachelor’s degree from ISyE, and began his professional career — as so many ISyE graduates do — as a banker and consultant. A few years later, he began thinking about starting his own business back in Guatemala. Together with fellow ISyE graduates Taylor Virgil (IE 2009) and Jack Spehn (IE 2010), Guzman and team opened the first craft brewery, Antigua Cerveza, in the Guatemalan colonial city of Antigua in 2015. He discusses this experience in the following interview.
Did you have any exposure to entrepreneurship while growing up?
Both of my parents are entrepreneurs. My dad runs a Spanish school located in Antigua’s town center. Tourists come to visit, take classes for a few days or weeks, and then go out to explore the surrounding area. My mom is a ceramics artist, and she began giving lessons on how to make and paint ceramics. That led to opening a small business selling her work to tourists, and then eventually supplying her pieces to the Guatemalan equivalent of Bed Bath & Beyond. Now she’s exporting ceramic tiles to the United States and Europe.
How did you decide to open your own business?
After graduating from Georgia Tech, I worked as an investment banker for several years. Part of what was great about that experience was getting to talk with so many company founders about how they got their start and what they had learned in the process. I was literally making notes about all this as part of my job, and eventually I had enough enthusiasm and motivation to take that step myself.
I spent some time talking about various business ideas with my friends and fellow ISyE alumni, Taylor and Jack, with whom I had studied abroad and still traveled with. Initially we thought we might start a travel business and headquarter it in Guatemala. That’s where I’m from, of course, but they had also visited and loved the country. We were sitting in a brewpub in Portland, Oregon, having a freshly poured Mirror Pond Pale Ale from Deschutes Brewery, when I spontaneously asked, “What if instead we start a craft brewery?” Taylor said, “I love it, but what do you know about beer — besides drinking it?”
What was the process of educating yourself about brewing beer?
I began reading as many books about brewing as I could find, and I attended a one-week intensive on the subject at the University of California, Davis. The weekend after I flew back from that, I randomly happened to meet and play pool with the head brewer of an Atlanta brewery — I never play pool! — and he invited me to come take a look at his brewing setup. I eventually started working at Jailhouse Brewing Company (unsalaried) and began to learn that there’s a real science behind brewing quality and tasty beer. So much goes into the moment when someone cracks open a beer to make it a fantastic experience for the drinker.
On the topic of creating beers, what does Antigua Cerveza offer its customers?
We barrel-age some beers. We have an American-style amber, an India pale ale (IPA), and a stout, among others. We recently won the gold medal in a local competition for our saison.
Some breweries hone in on one particular style, such as sours or IPAs, but we don’t do that. We serve a little bit of everything, and that’s because we’re trying to educate our customers that there are, in fact, different types of beer out there. Although it’s not yet the industry in Guatemala that it is in the States, craft beer is becoming more popular here. We’ve been able to double our sales year over year since we started.
How did your ISyE training, as well as the friendships you made at Georgia Tech and in your major, contribute to starting and running your own business?
I can’t overstate how impactful it was to graduate from ISyE and Georgia Tech. Out of 33 investors in Antigua Cerveza, about 15 of them are Tech alumni, and I went to school with seven or eight of those people. We would study together for an exam and then go have a beer afterward, and they’re the ones who have trusted me with their investment. You get close to the people who experience Tech’s challenges alongside you.
What has the past year been like in terms of managing your business during a pandemic?
We managed to grow a business year over year and have now survived Guatemala’s multiple countrywide lockdowns because of Covid-19 by deciding to double down on the business instead of scaling back. We built a beer garden in Antigua’s town center so people could come have a beer in the open air, and by December 2020 we were able to bring back most of our employees at full salary. It was risky, but it was the right move.
What entrepreneurial advice do you have for current ISyE students or young alumni?
The best advice I can offer is to make sure you choose your partners right. I’ve seen so many friends start companies without really knowing the other people with whom they’re going into business. It’s a kind of marriage: If things get dicey — because with startups they will — you need to know that you’re in there with someone who understands and supports you and who can help you solve problems.
I have been incredibly lucky to have Taylor and Jack as my two business partners. Their strengths are where I’m weak, and vice versa. And here we are, almost nine full years from that moment in Portland — we’re still here, and we’re so excited about what the future holds.
H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering