Drink Cart Origin Story


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Last April 10, hundreds of Upper School students spilled onto the Quad on a typically brilliant blue North Carolina afternoon, made even more special because they were able to grab a fun drink –from popular mainstream choices like tea, coffee, root beer floats and fruit punch smoothies to the more exotic like boba/bubble tea, frozen hot chocolate, and matcha — and hang out with friends.

This was the first of a two-day entrepreneurial contest called “The $100 Drink Cart Challenge.” Armed with their creativity and spirit, teams of students were given $100 in seed money and challenged to produce, market, and sell as much as they could.

In the end, 13 teams comprised of more than 50 students took us up on the challenge. About half the teams turned a profit, which in total topped more than $1,000. Along with the fun, students learned some basic entrepreneurial skills through a voluntary “boot camp” prior to the contest.

We are excited to bring back the contest this month, with an extension. This year, students will be able to sell snacks alongside their beverages, and we’ve invited 8th graders to form teams as well. This year’s challenge will take place on April 18 and 20. All participating students will get a t-shirt.

 The Origin Story

The story behind the Drink Cart Challenge is almost as interesting as the contest itself.

It started with a creative exercise with the San Francisco design firm IDEO and a group of 12 schools from around the world, sponsored by MISBO, a regional organization supporting independent school business offices.

Planning in Baltimore

We had come together in Baltimore to meet with the creative team at IDEO to “disrupt” school business models. In short, we were there to explore interesting ways to bring revenue to schools beyond tuition. The IDEO model is to use Design Thinking to prompt rapid prototyping of ideas.

Going into the meeting, our Chief Financial Officer Debby Reichel and I had thought we might explore the expense side of the business model, but we found ourselves gravitating to ways we could extend valuable services for the community, such as the school store and adding a snack bar and coffee shop.

Of course, we immediately dove into the weeds. Where would it go? Who did we need to hire? What would be their job description? What would we sell? Would students buy coffee? Should students buy coffee? Would adults pay for coffee if we have it free in the lounges already?

We shared our ideas with Becky and Miki from IDEO team, and they encouraged us to come up with something we could test right way. The problem, from their perspective, was that business too frequently get caught up in trying to anticipate everything and thus spend all their time talking and little time doing.  

Bias Towards Action

Design Thinking has what IDEO calls a “bias towards action.” What could we do the week we got back?  What could we test to help us learn something right away?

We supposed that the first question about opening a coffee bar would be: Do people want coffee? We decided this should be our test. Becky and Miki patted us on the back. “Get planning,” they said. 

Shortly, though, Debby and I were wondering:

  • Should we rent a mobile “Starbucks machine?”
  • How would we store the milk? 
  • Where would this fit?
  • How much should we charge?
  • Should we take a poll?
  • Did we need a permit?

“Mmmmm,” Becky and Miki said the next time they stopped at our table. “You two are back in the weeds. What can you do right away? What can you test in a day or two, without needing to answer all these questions.”

Debby and I clearly were having a hard time at this creative genius thing. Everything idea got sucked into some kind of administrative vortex. Finally, exhausted by Becky and Miki’s relentless pushing to “go small,” we decided that we’d ask somebody to sit in the library with a pot of coffee and offer it to people for free, for one day.

“Now you get it,” Becky said when we announced our idea at the concluding presentations.

Big Idea lands with a thud

Things didn’t go so well when Debby and I returned to Cary Academy and shared our “big idea” with the school’s Leadership Team. Everybody had been pretty excited for the potential of this collaboration, and some members were unable to contain their snickers when I described the pot of coffee at the desk.

Presenting final idea at IDEO

We had a Skype call scheduled with Becky and Miki the next day.

I told them about the reaction I got from my colleagues, who are usually very nice to me. Becky said the Leadership Team was right: The coffee pot idea stinks.

“But when we left the retreat, you said we had it,” I said disheartened.

“You did have it. You finally got the bias towards action, but that doesn’t mean what you wanted to do was fun and interesting. You’re a school. Why are you not including the kids?”

Cue the slaps to the forehead.

After adding our store manager Sheila Hall to the team and a few more brainstorming meetings, the Drink Cart Challenge was borne.

As we hit year two, we are still interested in learning about what types of food and drink might be good to sell in a school store, but we are also learning about ways we can promote an entrepreneurial spirit outside of a traditional classroom setting.

We’ve also seen ways in which a “bias towards action” can help us move ideas forward and model the innovative spirit we think is a part of what makes this school such a special place.

So get your tummies (and wallets) ready for April 18 and 20. Learning never tasted so good.