The idea for 321 Coffee emerged during a lunchtime conversation among Park Scholarships freshmen: a business that promotes inclusion in the workplace and is staffed by adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Since fall 2017, 321 Coffee has grown from a pop-up shop to the go-to coffee spot at the State Farmer’s Market, and plans are brewing to expand to multiple locations.
Co-founder and CEO Lindsay Wrege ’21 explains that leveraging the responsive, engaged community of Park alumni has played an integral role as the business has grown.
“Having people that we can rely on — who you know will respond if you email them, who are willing to share their experiences — has been instrumental to us as first-time founders,” Wrege shares. “It doesn’t feel like we’re in it alone.”
Wrege says Jennifer Biggs ’11 reached out to Wrege, co-founder and CFO Michael Evans ’21, and COO Liam Dao ’22 last summer to connect just as the team was beginning to explore developing a new product line by roasting their own coffee. Biggs is the CEO of Ampogee, a software company specializing in manufacturing productivity, and provided guidance at a crucial time.
“A big part was figuring out manufacturing operations, going from raw materials all the way through to finished goods,” Wrege says. “Jennifer met with us and was willing to think through what we were doing, recognize areas for improvement, and come up with ideas for how to make processes more efficient.”
Biggs’s assistance went beyond the offer of manufacturing operations insight.
“For me personally, she’s been an incredible mentor,” Wrege says.
The two now have monthly phone calls. Wrege explains that Biggs has a valuable perspective on both business operations and the position Wrege holds as a young female CEO. “She asks questions no one has ever asked me. To know that someone like that is thinking about me, looking out for me, and willing to talk through things with me is really refreshing.”
“She has been a great resource throughout different challenges we’ve faced and she’s such a good role model.”
Another Park alumnus who connected with the 321 leadership team is Wortham Boyle ’03, a managing partner at Jones Insurance.
“This is a prime example of how the Park community is connected,” Wrege begins. In early May, Boyle reached out to Wrege and offered his expertise from an HR and insurance perspective.
HR and insurance are not usually top of mind when starting a coffee shop, and Wrege says that meeting with Boyle was “huge.” Before they connected, 321 Coffee had a standard policy with liability just like any other company in the restaurant industry, “but no one had ever sat us down to teach us.”
“Wortham was willing to sit down with us and do an insurance 101, talking about needs specific to the coffee industry. He had experience with the world of disability employment and how that influences insurance, and he was willing to devote the time to educate us from an HR/insurance perspective,” Wrege shares.
“Now we’re working with his company to revamp some of our internal policies and we’re going to use them for our insurance needs. It is awesome to be able to support another local company that we know is doing business the right way.”
A Collaboration is (Re)born
Wrege lists Emily Neville ’20, CEO of Reborn Clothing Co., as another Park alumna influence.
“Having Emily just a year older than us has been awesome for me and the team. It’s especially helpful to watch her go through the process of growing her company because she’s often just a couple of steps ahead of us,” Wrege says.
Wrege explains that she has been able to learn from Neville as she navigates important business milestones. “How does she transition from student to full-time CEO? How does she take on investors? How does she start scaling up operations and distribution?”
“We were friends on campus and now, as our respective businesses have grown, we will go out to dinner and talk about what we are dealing with,” says Wrege. “It’s awesome to have somebody that you can text about things that are probably boring to other people, but important, such as ‘are you LLC or C-corporation?’ Instead of going to Google, it’s great having somebody to talk to about how they made that decision a year ago.”
Wrege and Neville talk candidly about topics that come up when starting a business, from determining pay and benefits, to working through the challenges of being first-time, 20-something CEOs.
Wrege says this peer-level relationship offers mutual benefits. “Michael, Emily, and I have sat through a bunch of different meetings, we’ve whiteboarded out different situations, and worked on pitch decks together.”
“With Emily, I’m really proud to also be able to help her and support her with what she’s working on.”
Recently, 321 Coffee partnered with Reborn Clothing Co. on a collaboration project upcycling original 321 Coffee t-shirts into bears.
“There is also another product coming soon that I’m excited about,” Wrege starts. “In the coffee industry, burlap sacks of 150 pounds of raw coffee beans get shipped from farms in countries like Honduras and Ethiopia to roasters in the U.S. After that, the giant bags have no use. But they’re cool, so we’re working with Reborn to turn them into purses, wallets, and straw pouches. We are really excited to come up with another use and repurpose some of that textile waste from within the coffee industry.”
Growing Community of Entrepreneurs
In addition to the partnerships with Biggs, Boyle, and Neville, Wrege says she has benefited from conversations with Chasta Hamilton ’07, owner of Stage Door Dance, Jasmine Flood ‘12, owner of Riada Adair Design Co., and Wade Colburn ’14 about entrepreneurship, marketing, e-commerce, and more.
“If your goal is to climb the corporate ladder and become the next VP of sales at a Fortune 500 company, there are plenty of people you can talk to who have done that. In the entrepreneurship space, there’s no career fair. Park Scholarships has been able to provide a community of entrepreneurs to us and what we’ve been able to leverage has been substantial.”
Wrege also describes taking part in the Andrews Launch Accelerator through the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic during summer 2020 with Ritika Shamdasani ’23, the co-founder of Sani. “It was very collaborative and we were both helping each other where we could in determining how to pivot and navigate the onset of the pandemic.”
In addition to growing 321 Coffee, Wrege aspires to provide support and mentorship to future Park entrepreneurs.
“It’s encouraging to know that we have this support system as we take this next step. Like Wortham and Jennifer, I hope that I’m able to offer somebody help and pay this forward.”