A future for sustainable businesses

August 1, 2015 - 12:00am -- Living City

A future for sustainable businesses
How positive attitude impacted a student-run fair trade coffee initiative

By John Mullins

As a business student in my senior year of college, I did an internship at my university’s Sustainable Enterprise Accelerator, designed to take innovative ideas and grow them into solid businesses by balancing three elements: people, planet and profit.

Pretty soon, I was made project manager of an exciting project called RockRoast, a fair trade coffee business initiative that supports sustainable agricultural practices, as well as being designed to fund student education through experiences abroad.

I love the fact that RockRoast is more than a single group of students with a bright idea. It is part of a movement to change the way people think about and consume coffee. We want to promote a system that upholds the dignity of each link in the supply chain: the families and communities growing our coffee, the roasters, and our marketing and sales teams. That also includes the community around us which wants to make a difference by choosing to buy a cup of coffee whose story they believe in.

“Love everyone” is a motto I try to live in all aspects of life, so knowing I would be the manager, I tried to think of ways this attitude could help me be “servant leader,” not so much a boss but a fellow team member.

With the other students on my team, I tried to help make room for each one’s talents in marketing or advertisement or film development or finance and listen to their suggestions. When we did hit bumps in the relationships in our student team, we tried to address them with patience, a willingness to listen and adjust the course when necessary.
Then as we orchestrated daily operations, we tried to reach out with this attitude toward our customers, suppliers and faculty mentors. We learned a lot from key stakeholders and business contacts in the community who shared their time and experience to help us develop strategies for growth.

Customers were very excited about our message, loved our coffee, and we even ran out of it because it was so popular! Though our revenue was modest in our first year, we were able to cover most of our expenses. Our supplier, who also supports similar projects at other Pennsylvania state universities, was so happy with our student-run strategy that they would like to share it with others.

By the end of the school year, 20 students were involved, and we were a finalist in the state university system’s 2015 Student Business Plan Competition, gaining us start-up funding through the university. And there is a core team of students that will keep the project going next year and involve other students in the Fall.