Building Community, Creating Jobs, One Cup at a Time – Holly Gray, CUPS Coffee House

Holly Gray saw promise where everyone else saw problems. In her neighborhood in Baltimore she says, “You continually see individuals who are hanging out on the corners. Everyone asks, ‘Why don’t they have a job?’ Well, there’s no opportunity.”

So Holly decided to create the opportunity. “I threw together the two things I love,” she says, “which is my caffeine addiction and kids, and created a coffee house with just the small idea of hiring a couple neighborhood kids.” Holly put a help wanted sign on her door and within a week, 150 kids applied for work. Instead of no one wanting to work, it turned out everyone wanted to work. Today CUPS (Creating Unlimited Possibilities) Coffeehouse is a social enterprise that employs youth in Baltimore ages 16 to 24.

In short order Holly had six employees and her entrepreneurial instincts kicked in. Sensing greater demand she started a mentor program for the entire neighborhood. She followed that up with a community services program. To provide even more opportunity Holly opened a second location in East Baltimore.

Being part of REDF’s Accelerator has enabled Holly to focus on strengthening her organization: on programming, budgets, and funding her expansion efforts. The learning is paying off: Holly says, “Today, at the Accelerator, we’re working on double bottom line accounting and dual budgets. That wasn’t even a concept for me six months ago. I had one budget. Now I’ve got a tool  that helps me present to funders in a way that speaks to them, in a way that I had no knowledge of just a few months ago.” Thanks to the double bottom line accounting workshop, which showed Holly how to measure and track her business costs and her social costs, she now has “concrete ways to separate our budget. It’s more applicable to the funding world. I learned that by separating the two, you can really see where you’re being successful. That’s super important not only from a business standpoint, but obviously for funders to see that we’re allocating things in the right direction.”

Beyond the statistics and the bottom line, Holly believes there’s a value the Accelerator provides that isn’t easily tracked with a metric. The Accelerator, she says, “allows us the time to be reflective, to collaborate with other people.” The sense of camaraderie creates “a real synergy where we feel supported. We are given the time to reflect on the things that are working and not working and most importantly find solutions to fix it.”

According to Holly, one of the greatest challenges faced by social enterprise leaders is the feeling of isolation. The Accelerator changed that. “The Accelerator brought three of us from Baltimore. Even though we were within a mile distance from each other we had never met. It gives us the opportunity to not only represent Baltimore, but it also gives us the opportunity to collaborate, to see who are you working with, to learn about the tools that are working for each of us, and how we can share each other’s best practices.”

About Holly Gray
While attending her final semester at the University of Baltimore, Gray enrolled in a Social Entrepreneurship class. Challenged by an assignment to write a business plan that utilized something she was passionate about to solve a community problem, Gray wrote a business plan for a  coffeehouse that would hire youth living in some of Baltimore’s most under-resourced and underserved communities. Gray graduated from the University of Baltimore in 2012 with a BA in interdisciplinary studies.  On the day she graduated, Holly and her husband, Brian, signed the lease for a storefront in southwest Baltimore that would become CUPs Coffeehouse.

About CUPs Coffeehouse
Based in Baltimore, Maryland, CUPs Coffeehouse is a social enterprise that provides a full coffeehouse experience in Baltimore’s most challenged neighborhoods. CUPs believes that everyone deserves a good cup of coffee in a warm and welcoming environment, regardless of the zip code they reside in. CUPs also firmly believes that everyone deserves a first opportunity and a second chance. Committed to this belief, CUPs only hires youth with employment barriers. In addition to hands-on work experience, youth are provided with one year of leadership development and life skills classes so that they have the necessary skills to be successful in any career choice.