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It all began with a gift—a small Vietnamese coffee brewer that Holly Migliaccio bought for her friend Shawn Kingsley in 2009.
The moment she gave it to him, he spilled the beans about a business idea he'd been percolating: The two should team up and open an East Coast coffee bar. Kingsley's plan: Specialize in the finest-quality coffees from around the world, made with a classic pour-over method.
Of course, neither of them had any real coffee experience other than sharing countless cups of the beloved brew over the years. The friends met when they were about 10 years old and kept in touch throughout college and their early careers. Kingsley spent nine years on Wall Street at JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley, while Migliaccio worked mainly for Yahoo in sales, operations and marketing.
But at the time she handed him the little brew pot, they were both unemployed—having quit their high-paying careers in pursuit of something better.
Read MoreHigh-paying career without college
"It just stopped being about money," Migliaccio remembered. "I needed to see what I wanted to do with this life. I needed to do something different for me."