Aspire CoffeeWorks: a Paradigm of Social Entrepreneurship
So how can a brand of coffee change lives?
The recession has forced many nonprofits to think creatively in order to stay afloat while not abandoning their mission. In light of these fiscal challenges, some nonprofit leaders have elected to take the route of social entrepreneurship. And of these, one successful example is based right here in Illinois: Aspire CoffeeWorks (www.aspirecoffeeworks.com).
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the organization, here is a brief introduction: In 2008, like many states facing massive budget deficits, Illinois was planning to aggressively cut its aid to social services programs. Aspire, a 50 year old organization with 400 staff, relied on that government support for 85% of its funding. Needless to say, it was facing serious financial problems. However, after a chance reading of an article about the Chicago-based Metropolis Coffee Company (www.metropoliscoffee.com), Aspire President Jim Kales reached out to Metropolis’s CEO and cofounder Tony Dreyfuss to see if he would be interested in partnering up. Dreyfuss’s response was an enthusiastic “Where have you guys been? We’ve been looking for an opportunity like this!” And Aspire CoffeeWorks was born in 2009.
Aspire CoffeeWorks now offers craft-roasted coffees while also providing much-needed employment for people with developmental disabilities. Currently the unemployment rate for people with developmental disabilities is over 75 percent. Additionally, all the profits from the sales of the coffee funnel back to the nonprofit Aspire (www.aspireofillinois.org), a leading provider of services for children and adults with developmental disabilities and their families, allowing the organization to continue in its efforts.
Despite an uncertain economic climate, Aspire CoffeeWorks has continued to grow. This begs the question: how has it managed to be successful? What has made this project work and can (or should) other nonprofits looking for additional means of raising funds try something like this? In my interview with Aspire’s visionary leader Jim Kales, he answers these and other important questions.
Do Well Do Good: Aspire was looking to bring in funding while also promoting your mission and you decided to go the route of social entrepreneurship. So how did you choose this way of doing it? In particular, why did you choose the coffee industry?
Jim Kales: We really wanted to do something big, something that would take Aspire to the next level. We also wanted to something that was visible but was still going to provide employment for people with disabilities.
With the help of a grant from the UPS Foundation, Aspire was able to look into different forms of social entrepreneurship. We had discussed several options, but at one particular morning meeting we were all drinking coffee, and I don’t remember who, but one of us said, “what if we did something with coffee?” So from early on we looked into coffee as a possible direction to pursue.
However, one aspect of this venture that separates it apart from others out there was that we didn’t just dive into it. We really researched the market as a whole, analyzing low and high-end coffee brands, looking into current and projected trends in coffee prices, and so on, and it seemed to be a market we could get into. Also, if you think about it, coffee is a product about elevating yourself. You drink it to lift yourself up, and that is what Aspire is all about. This idea went on to form the foundation of Aspire CoffeeWorks.
DWDG: After you had chosen the coffee field and had partnered with Metropolis, you had to actually get people with developmental disabilities into their workplace. What are the actual jobs people with developmental disabilities are doing there? Was it difficult to get people into those jobs?
JK: The adults who work on the Aspire Coffeeworks team are grinding the coffee, weighing it, packing it, calculating inventory, shipping it, and so on, really doing every job possible, all side by side with the Metropolis staff. The only job I know of that they don’t do is roasting, but Tony [Dreyfuss] hasn’t ruled that out! He is very open to not pigeonholing our employees and expanding the boundaries of what they can do. Much of our success is because of his enthusiasm for this project. We are lucky to have found him.
But there are more dimensions to our approach to employment than just providing jobs. We are also bringing adults that have never worked in a community job. I need be clear that I mean a job where they are out in a real community, not in a sheltered place where the only other people working there also have developmental disabilities. We are then exposing them to what it is like to work beyond those areas. As you can imagine, this can be a very daunting transition but Aspire Coffeeworks provides a safe place for this transition and also helps them develops some key job skills that they can then take to another employer.
We are also providing a training component to demonstrate and inspire other companies to think beyond their label and outside the box to hire those who have developmental disabilities. Through the example of Aspire Coffeeworks, we want to show companies that integrating people with developmental disabilities into the work force is not some daunting task, but is easy and beneficial to the company. As Tony has said, several people Aspire has brought to his team are some of the best employees he has ever had, they just happen to have a developmental disability. Like all employees, they may face challenges in some areas or tasks, but excel in others. Balancing these skills and weaknesses is at the core of effective teamwork for any company.
As a case in point, one of our Aspire team has actually been hired full time by Metropolis. Tony jokes that he stole her from us but I would say that this is exactly what we are going for. Aspire cannot hire everyone with a developmental disability so when a member of our team develops a skill set that is desirable by an employer and is then hired, that is a real success story.
DWDG: Despite the good work Aspire is doing, I can see a pitfall for this process in the final price of the product. Does creating these training programs and using workers with developmental disabilities impact the overall cost of the coffee?
JK: Yes. There is a premium, but it is not as much as people would think. Our coffee is actually priced very competitively. If you go to a Whole Foods, you’ll see Tony’s traditional Metropolis coffee next to Aspire Coffeeworks’s, and ours is only a dollar more.
DWDG: If this venture is so successful, does this mean that you are looking to replicate it in other industries?
JK: Absolutely. Actually, right now Aspire is working with another large Illinois-based company to help them determine in what areas they can employ people with developmental disabilities, how they can create a system of support so those future employees have a high retention rate, and also lend our expertise directly to the hiring process itself. We are actively looking for other employers with which we can tailor a process to create an employment situation that is ultimately a win-win for people with disabilities, the community, and the company.
And this is new. The old model would be for an organization like ours to go to a big company and say, ‘hey, buy some raffle tickets or give us a donation to support us, and we’ll deal with the issue.’ The new model is getting organizations and companies to address issues and causes directly. Our vision and direction for the future is all about working business partnerships and we hope to be able to play much more an educational or consulting role for these partnerships down the road. We have the demonstrated expertise to help companies with diversifying their work force, building and enhancing their community image and impact, and actually generating some real ROI.
Another example of expansion is in the works now as well: Down the road we may do something with Groupon. They have been incredibly helpful in lending us their expertise to shape our website and enhance our internet sales. We will be incorporating their advice to our website over the next few months and then in the fall of 2011, they are going to help us further our product sales through a joint effort promotion.
DWDG: Overall, would you say then that Aspire Coffeeworks is a success? Is it successful to the point that you would recommend it to other nonprofits as a way to generate funding?
JK: Absolutely, with the caveat that they stay out of the coffee business. It’s competitive enough as is!
In all seriousness, I would encourage people to do social enterprise. It has been very successful for us not only in terms of growth, but also in bringing visibility and awareness to Aspire’s mission. Not only is Aspire getting revenue and helping people with developmental disabilities get jobs, but people who drink our coffee are becoming advocates for our cause.
DWDG: Perhaps the most important question: what is your favorite blend of coffee?
JK: Aspire Bold, no questions asked.
Jim Kales is CEO and President of Aspire of Illinois. Aspire Coffeeworks blends are available at select Whole Foods stores in Chicagoland, Milwaukee and St. Louis and online at http://www.aspirecoffeeworks.com