- Photos by Jodie Jackson Jr.
- This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue of COMO Magazine.
The local chapter connects entrepreneurs with experience.
You have one of those light-bulb ideas that sparks your entrepreneurial inspiration, but you need a place to present the budding business idea to others who have successfully cultivated their own “aha!” ideas to reality. Or, you’ve been in business a while and made an unexpected pivot to a new level of success, and your story may benefit and inspire others.
Where do you have those conversations and share those stories? That’s where 1 Million Cups comes in at 9 a.m. on Wednesdays in the Regional Economic Development Inc. hub downtown in Suite 102 at 500 E. Walnut.
Columbia was one of the first 12 cities that launched 1 Million Cups chapters nine years ago; there are now more than 200 chapters around the world.
“We have to lean on each other to grow” our businesses and community, says Jay Sparks, who is REDI’s entrepreneurship program coordinator. “If you try to go off in a silo and do it yourself, it’s often too hard. The hill is too steep.”
Supporting startups and entrepreneurs.
1 Million Cups was created by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in 2012 and is a free, national initiative that helps educate and connect entrepreneurs and business owners. The local community of entrepreneurs can share their experiences and wisdom with startups and existing businesses by making a short presentation about their businesses and the challenges they face. The program fosters a safe culture of inclusivity and support.
The idea of grabbing a cup of joe and having an informal conversation with a group of friends is at the heart of the 1 Million Cups philosophy. In Columbia, the REDI hub seems an ideal place for hosting those “pooled resources and fertile ground,” Jay says.
The list of myriad presenters is evidence of the diverse menagerie of startups, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and nonprofits that dot Columbia’s economic and cultural landscape. Presenters have included: Life and business coaches; media and technology businesses; pet sitting services and services focused on kids; event and party planning; digital and virtual training and education; “boutique” bookkeeping (services tailored for niche businesses); marketing and consulting for small businesses; and dozens of other topic areas.
“There are amazing connections that happen here,” says Nickie Davis, who is the executive director of the Downtown Community Improvement District. “It touches a lot of different areas in our community.”
The experiential learning format is consistent for each 1 Million Cups chapter. The presenters get six minutes to share their stories and challenges with the audience, followed by a question-and-answer session. The weekly session is scheduled for one hour, though the conversations often continue either at the hub or in coffee shops and other locations as fellow entrepreneurs, mentors, or other peers help traverse the business terrain.
“There are going to be conversations beyond what happens here at 1 Million Cups,” says Lisa Driskel Hawxby, REDI’s business development specialist since January 2022. Her primary focus is business retention and expansion. While she now emcees most of Columbia’s 1 Million Cups Wednesday morning sessions, she was already familiar with the organization and the format.
“I’ve presented here a couple of times myself,” Lisa says. She and her husband, Van Hawxby, have been co-founders of DogMaster Distillery since 2014, and Van was one of the earliest presenters at 1 Million Cups.
“Being part of the entrepreneurial community really helps me understand how to approach businesses that are already running,” Lisa says. “We do have a rich business community, and there is room for everyone.”
It’s also a learning environment for everyone in the room. One of the hallmarks of a 1 Million Cups presentation is the question-and-answer period.
“We’re going to drill down with some good questions for you, because we want to see you thrive,” Nickie explains. “It’s always fascinating to see who’s in the audience, where those questions are going, and where they are leading the business that’s presenting.”
‘Have you thought about this?’
Lisa also vouches for the “richness” of the questions and responses.
“You might gain a lot of good information or questions that you may be thinking about for your own business,” she says.
Jay, who joined the REDI team in September 2020, is often among the first with tough questions.
“It’s never to call them out,” he says. Those questions, ranging from “have you thought about this?” to “how do you manage the pitfalls that have derailed others?” reflect how he coaches business owners and entrepreneurs through his work at the REDI hub.
Nickie doesn’t want the question-and-answer description to frighten anyone away, adding, “It is our ultimate goal to be a completely safe, interactive, inclusive environment.”
Allyson Imhoff is among the group of nine community organizers responsible for planning Columbia’s 1 Million Cups presentations and events. She echoes the value of the presentation and question-and-answer session format and networking.
“It’s just a lot of good information for business owners,” she says. “Even people who don’t know anyone will gain a lot of connections.”
‘A very dynamic crowd.’
Allyson is evidence of that connection process. As a journalism student, she was assigned to write a story about a local entrepreneur, which led to 1 Million Cups and now her position as social media manager for the local organization.
Allyson marked her 21st birthday at a recent presentation that was also attended by 40 University of Missouri students, skewing the crowd to an overall youthful composition.
“We have a very dynamic crowd — young and also a wide variety in mid-life and retired,” Lisa says. “They want to stay in the game and provide resources and information that they have. The beauty of an older presenter is the rich life experience that brought them here.”
Jay recently spoke at a University Extension-sponsored entrepreneurial conference in Hermann, talking about Columbia’s catalysts for creating a positive environment for entrepreneurs.
“1 Million Cups was first on my list, with three exclamation points,” Jay recalls. He turned his speaker notes to show the audience, adding, “This is how important 1 Million Cups is.”
Two weeks after that conference, Hermann applied for and was granted a 1 Million Cups chapter that will begin in 2023.
“1 Million Cups is that oasis that links some of our silos and opens doors” to expanded knowledge and resources, Jay says. “That happens when everyone starts to pull together.”