Have a Cuppa

The coffee-based networking group 1 Million Cups could be a good fit for New Orleans.
Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.


Could a cup of coffee be the key to your entrepreneurial success?

An innovative entrepreneur support program from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation thinks so. Launched in 2012, 1 Million Cups is a “mostly weekly networking program where local entrepreneurs gather over coffee and tell their stories,” in the words of Matt Fischer, director of new entrepreneurial learning at the foundation.

Now caffeinating more than 160 communities across the country, 1 Million Cups brings together all manner of stakeholders in the entrepreneurial opportunity. This can include various potential funders and investors, entrepreneurs at every stage of the journey, people still incubating their initial ideas and even government and nonprofit staffers.

The format is the same regardless of the setting: Each week, people come together, enjoy their coffee and listen to two entrepreneurs tell their stories.

After the speakers are done, the audience asks questions and provides feedback. According to Fischer, “presenters tend to be pre-launch or in their first three years of operations. Past that time, most people are pretty good at telling their story.”

Fischer emphasized that 1 Million Cups “is not a pitch practice, it’s a storytelling opportunity.” In truth, entrepreneurs need to be able to explain their big ideas in any number of situations. Pitch contests are one example, but other examples include meetings with potential investors, marketing and media people – even potential customers. While practicing in front of a mirror can help, the opportunity to tell your story in front of a live audience and get an immediate, honest response is invaluable.

In addition to bringing together a good cross-section of people within the entrepreneurship realm, 1 Million Cups also attempts to connect entrepreneurs with the larger community. While supporting startup businesses is the primary focus of the program, it has larger goals related to diversity, equity and inclusion. This goes two ways: It can inspire people who might not have thought of themselves as having entrepreneurial potential, while also shining the light on new business opportunities in often-neglected communities.

Although the program is housed within the Kauffman Foundation, it is not foundation-driven. In each city, an individual or organization takes the initiative to reach out to Kauffman. The subsequent partnership is led by the local organizers and volunteers, with foundation support.

“We don’t actively seek new communities so much as respond to requests,” explained Fischer. “Once a new city is ready to roll out, we work with the local organizers to help get the word out.”

This hands-off approach helps each city run its version of the program in ways that make it most effective for its particular participants. In the process, it subtly supports entrepreneurial innovation.

1 Million Cups is not presently operating in New Orleans, though Fischer felt that the program would have very strong potential here. “New Orleans has a lot of grit, which is incredibly critical to entrepreneurship and success,” he observed.

Given that the Kauffman Foundation’s approach could be described as “please call us, we won’t call you,” getting 1 Million Cups brewing in New Orleans will require some individual(s) or organization to take the initiative. The program’s website, 1millioncups.com, provides more details along with foundation contact information for those interested in opening up the conversation.

“1 Million Cups is about building a stronger and better entrepreneurial community,” Fischer said in closing. Considering that New Orleans is both a growing hub of entrepreneurship and a city with a rich coffee tradition, it could be a perfect match. Pass the cream and sugar!