The conversation between student and adviser began as a routine check-in: “How are classes going? Is your schedule manageable?” It ended in an intense discussion about the common good, a wounded Marine, and what it really means to be alive.
What Collin Graves, a 24-year-old entrepreneurship and computer science major shared about his life perspective was wise beyond his years and “remarkable,” said academic adviser Drew Puroway. “His response was this: ‘The common good is making sure that your benevolent footprint encompasses more than just you.’ I have heard a number of inspiring responses,” Puroway said. “With Collin, I was struck by the concrete action behind his force of character.”
Graves, who has traveled to more than 40 countries, already has started a company, become a certified personal trainer, and served five years in the Air Force. But that’s not all. He has dedicated his business ventures to a common theme: make money, but be generous with it.
“I was the kid who was always starting little companies, you know, the lemonade stand,” he said. After enlisting in the U.S. Air Force in 2008 after finishing high school, he started Graves Capital LLC, a company focused on product acquisition and early-stage investment. His dad, a former engineer for Medtronic and a self-employed electrician and engineer, was his role model and a guiding force during the process. “Everything I learned is a derivative of what I learned from [my dad], paired with my own research,” Graves said.
His business ventures and efforts to give back began with Bodsculpt in late 2011. As a personal trainer, Graves found that women clientele expressed the need for a wellness product created exclusively for their busy lifestyles, and many had to resort to taking supplements intended for men. He created Bodsculpt to fill this gap in the industry. Importantly, while the product benefits its users, it also benefits veterans across the United States. Graves donates 20 percent of his profit to the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides post-military resources such as employment help and physical and mental wellness programs. “Guys who do walk away with disabilities often feel very ostracized and alone,” Graves said. “Vet unemployment is huge, vet homelessness is huge, so we think that contributing to the Wounded Warrior Project is our way to give back.”
Puroway was floored by this policy. “[Collin] told me a story about what happened at the end of last quarter,” he recounted. “He called up Wounded Warrior and said, ‘I really want to make a difference for one guy this quarter. Can you tell me one guy that has needs my money could meet?’ The money typically goes into a pot and is divided up among several projects and [veterans]. The next day, Graves received a call from a tearful Marine who lost limbs in Afghanistan for whom his donation was buying a wheelchair.
“I never expected to hear such a profound story from asking my ‘common good’ question,” Puroway said.
Graves’ benevolence doesn’t stop there.
He is also in the process of developing Vitalane, a monthly subscription service that delivers vitamins and supplements to meet individual needs. But a 30-day count of multivitamins isn’t all that is being packaged and delivered. Vitalane’s second mission is to provide at-risk communities with access to nutrients. Vitalane’s “Buy One, Give One” promise ensures that for every package shipped, two children under the age of five receive two years’ worth of vitamins. Research shows that just two doses of vitamin A per year can reduce child mortality by one-third. In the past year, Graves and his team have been able to donate vitamins to 1,200 kids.
Yet, Puroway’s commentary on his conversation with Graves still begs the question, “How did this 24-year-old college student come to realize his mission and call to benevolence?”
Graves response is short and sweet: “It has to be Emily.”
During his time in the military as an aircraft mechanic, Graves had the opportunity to lead several humanitarian efforts and provide aid to people in Third-World countries. He noted that he has seen both some horrible and some life-changing events. “It definitely forces you to grow up, that’s for sure,” he said.
Among these difficult but rewarding events was a mission to Ghana. “There was this little girl, Emily,” he said. “She was 5 years old, a total sweetheart. She was the only girl, the first time we visited, who was brave enough to come and talk to me. The parents were scared of us, because we flew in on this big gray bird that just fell from the sky, got out in camouflage, and we had guns. Wow. Yeah. If I didn’t see that regularly, I’d be terrified. This little girl came right up to me and started talking to me. It was crazy.”
He mentioned how the experience began to put things into perspective for him, especially when his unit returned to the same village three months later. Surprisingly, Emily had remembered who he was. “You know, I think of this girl every day,” he said.
“She came up to me and [gestured for me to come closer]. She said, ‘My mom and dad said that my baby brother would have died without your guys’ help.’ I cried like a baby, you know? So you look back on things, and my life has been so backward. I joined the military, then started a business, and then went to school to learn about starting a business. But I think it was important that it happened that way, because it kind of gave me a better overarching view of what business should be about.”
The proof is in his actions. “We’re trying. We’re making small dents, slowly,” he said of Vitalane. “We’re hoping to help a lot more kids than we’ve helped so far.”
Graves is both humble and candid about his own personal development, saying that if you were to talk to him four years ago, he would have said that when you die, the important thing is however much money you could leave your grandkids. Today, that is the furthest from his perspective.
Graves’ unique sequence of life events led him to the early realization that selling products is one thing, but helping people is the ultimate goal. It also led him to St. Thomas. “If you’re in the Twin Cities area, and you are in the entrepreneurial world, in every conversation the University of St. Thomas comes up. This is the powerhouse for Twin Cities entrepreneurship,” he explained. Having been “dead set” on attending the University of Minnesota after leaving the military, some of his friends got in touch with faculty in an effort to change his mind. “Give us 30 minutes of your time and we’ll convince you, [the faculty] said,” Graves recalled. “The rest is history, I guess. I fell in love with the school. I’m glad I’m here.”
So is Puroway. The two meet more frequently than most students meet with their adviser, Graves said.
“[Drew and I] were talking about what it really means to be alive, you know?” he said of their initial conversation. “At the end of the day, you can only do so much with money. I think it’s better to try to benefit people in some way.”