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Whitworth Student, Mentor Continue Relations After Business Startup

Meg Maclean

Up Monroe Street from the Spokane Public Radio studio, a couple of miles away, is a coffee shop called Vessel. It’s popular among college students and, no wonder, it’s owned by former Whitworth University student Sean Tobin.


The story of Vessel’s creation is interesting not just because the business was founded by a student who loves coffee, but also because of the close relationship between Tobin and his business mentor.


Sean Tobin was 18 when he first met Whitworth business professor David Sloan. At the time, Tobin was roasting coffee in his dorm. He loves coffee.


“I started roasting out of my dorm room and after that it didn’t go so well due to it being structured as a dorm, and not being allowed to roast in doors, I moved off campus, I moved all the roasting off campus,” Tobin said.


Sloan was Tobin’s instructor during a freshman seminar class. At the time, Tobin was also selling coffee to his friends. He roasted on weekends -- which is where the seed of what is now Vessel Coffee Roasters started to grow.

Credit Meg Maclean
Vessel features a sleek, modern look with cement floors and unfinished ceiling. On a quiet Monday, Vessel patrons can be seen reading on the couch or working on their computers at one of many tables.


Sloan encouraged Tobin and his business partner to take their idea for Vessel and compete in the 2015 Inland Northwest Business Competition. And so they did; they finished third place. From there Vessel took off. After two short years, it grew from just a class business plan to what it is today — a sleek hot-spot for college kids to do homework and a meeting place for friends. Tobin was only 19 when Vessel really started. It grew quickly, and David Sloan was there for almost every step.


“That, for me, is what’s really rewarding,” Sloan said. “The students just get to figure out how to write their own ticket. They realize really quickly that it’s harder work than it is to go work for a company, but it’s also very rewarding to see the fruits of their labor and they get to write their own vision and kind of dream about how their company impacts society, their community, their family.”


As Vessel grew, Sloan and Tobin’s relationship grew with it.


“No longer was David just a professor, he was also, like, a deep friend of mine,” Tobin said.


“And over the last couple years, that’s really become an awesome relationship that goes both ways. That we both share into each other’s lives, as well as we’re vulnerable with one another.”


While Tobin was thinking about a second location for Vessel, Sloan was right there to help.


As Vessel is revving up to expand to the Perry District, Tobin recalls a particular moment with Sloan that stands out. He sets the scene for me -- it’s December of 2017, both of them are walking through the snow in the Perry District.


“I remember getting out of his car and deciding we’d go grab a cup of coffee, then walk over to this location that I was potentially looking at,” Tobin said.


“David, he’s an amazing guy because one of the things he does is he’s kind of like Fred Rogers. He pauses when he asks a question or when you’re talking and he waits for you to finish the sentence, and he never interrupts. He’s always listening," he said. "I must’ve been rambling on about all the reasons why I think this would be a great location and David said zero. I was mildly afraid that this friend/mentor is not responding to anything that I’m excited about.  At the end of the day, we’ve been hanging out for a few hours, he says ‘Well I can tell by seeing the excitement in your face and your emotions, it’s similar to what you experienced and what you shared with me when you first started Vessel. So I can tell you that I think this is right.’ ”


As Vessel continues to grow, both Sloan and Tobin look forward to seeing their friendship and mentor relationship develop.


“Part of the reason I wanted to do this job was to be able to make an impact, but it’s been surprisingly rewarding in how wonderful it feels to be a part of their story in a real way,” Sloan said.


Sloan has helped Tobin go from a motivated college entrepreneur to business owner with lots of responsibilities.


“One stress as a young person is when every single employee you’ve ever had

work for you is older than you,” Tobin said. “You have to think about how if your

decision gonna affect them and their family and their livelihood. So I think every

day I am blessed with the opportunity to wake up and help people pursue their

dreams. At the same time it’s definitely scary and frightening when it doesn’t feel

like it’s happening as fast or as quick and you have to just rely on time and

patience to get through it.”


Tobin says the second Vessel location will be opening soon in the Perry District.