What has your journey since Williams looked like?
Going into Williams, I had been tempted to take a gap year, which was kind of unheard of at the time. I decided not to do that but, having considered that, I had already allowed myself the luxury to say, ‘when I finish with Williams, I’m going to take a year off.’ I wanted to do some traveling and knew I wanted to go to Australia. For me, graduating from Williams – in a big picture way – was the last big goal I had set.
I had some vague plans for my return to the US to move to New York. I’d grown up in Des Moines, Iowa and had no intention on returning to Iowa. During the time I was traveling abroad, my girlfriend who was living in New York took a job in Japan so there wasn’t anywhere for me to drop my bags in New York so I moved in with my sister in Southern California instead.
I decided to start pursuing a career in international business and figured I would end up somewhere on the east coast or west coast. Meanwhile, I needed to start contributing to some of the living expenses and get a job. There was a coffee shop I had gone to a few times. In 1989, coffee shops like we know them today were not very common. They had a help wanted sign so I decided to apply. When I took the job, two things came to mind. One was that I would just do this job until I find a real job. The second was that I’ve always enjoyed this kind of coffee – I’d love to know how to make it. I was still really struggling with putting together a resume and figuring out what I was going to do – I didn’t even know what field I was looking for.
I went from part-time to full-time at the coffee shop as I continued on this false journey searching for a “real job.” It came to a head when I had to two customers from the coffee shop who were planning on opening a shop and wanted me to run it for them. I wasn’t interested because I enjoyed the work I was doing, and I liked the people I was working for. But then, it occurred to me that there were aspects of the environment that I didn’t like so much but running someone else’s shop wasn’t going to be the solution.
I had been working for the coffee shop for a year when I started thinking about the possibility of opening my own place. Part of it was the motivation of looking around and saying, ‘if this place were mine, I’d do it like this or I’d change this, and it would be so much better.’ Then I got reinforcement from the fact that other people thought I could run their shop. So I figured, ‘if I can run there’s, why can’t I run my own?’
The real paradigm shift came in addressing the question of whether it would be legitimate. Is this a real job? Is it valid of valuable enough to go from a school like Williams to running a coffee shop? That was an internal challenge. I decided I could do it and also thought that I wouldn’t have to do it forever – I could do it for a while and then get a real job.
The transformation in my mind from not real job to real job is what made the whole thing possible. Part of that was a realization that, ‘I like what I’m doing. I’m essentially a waitress – I’m a counter server – and I like what I do. I like how this makes people feel. I liked that the quality of the product is so fantastic. I like learning about the coffee.’ So the exposure to specialty coffee as an industry and as a product was compelling to me. What is ironic is that I landed in international business, I’m just doing it on a local level. I’m having to pay attention to the international market and doing aspects of any international business job doing what I’m doing in Des Moines.
But it really was about allowing myself to be ok with becoming good at serving people and thinking of that as a viable profession because in our culture we don’t extend a lot of appreciation to that line of work.
I’m interested in this idea of a ‘legitimate job.’ Where was the pressure coming from and what did you think of as a ‘legitimate job’?
The obvious things are doctor, lawyer, banker, consultant – things that you either had to get a graduate degree. That also predated some of what today’s graduates have to look forward to. The word entrepreneur was not part of the common language – somehow by putting it in the academic arena and giving it a title legitimizes entrepreneurship as an endeavor. That wasn’t part of the culture in 1970 or 1980 and unless you were hugely successful, your effort wasn’t thought of as viable – you were just being risky and irresponsible.
I think some of the pressure comes from being in a culture that has unstated expectations or definitions of success. Even what I’m doing, which arguably is successful – I just passed 21 years running a profitable business, to some people my success if minimal or short-sighted. I don’t have multiple locations. I don’t have a fleet of trucks making deliveries. I’m not also involved in city council. I’m not also on the boards of big companies. I’m not making so much money that I can make major contributions to any of the causes in the area. Which isn’t to say that I’m not making efforts or making contributions, but I’m not seen as a powerful business broker in the community, which tends to be how are culture views success.
Once you got over the hurdle of defining starting a coffee shop as being a legitimate business, was there a second hurdle resisting the pressure to expand?
Absolutely. Again, I think those pressures are more internal than external. There is an external presence by nature of the role society plays in how we perceive ourselves and how we think others perceive us and then we internalize it however we choose to. They’re not dissimilar to the pressures one thinks about when applying to college. Everyone says, ‘you would be such a great lawyer,’ and you grow up hearing, ‘you would be such a great lawyer,’ and then you decide not to be a lawyer, part of you thinks that you’re not living up to your potential.
Or, if you grew up in the era of ‘you can be whatever you want to be – you can be President of the United States,’ all of a sudden even if you didn’t want to be President, you’re thinking, ‘but, I could be President and maybe this path isn’t taking me there.’ But you didn’t want to be President to begin with so get over it.
When you were 23 and living in Southern California, did you think about those more traditional paths?
Enough so that I took the GRE. Law school had been a possibility, but I knew enough about myself that I wasn’t sure that I could bear the burden if I represented a client and lost, but I thought that was an unjust result. I’m not sure I could live with that.
What were some of the other things that you were thinking about doing when you were 23?
Unfortunately, most of the jobs that came across my plate were entry-level administrative jobs. I spent a few months working as a cold-caller in the financial industry, but I didn’t like it at all.
Eventually, I realized that I really liked my work in the coffee shop and thought, ‘why am I fighting this?’
What aspects of your job as a server have you been able to carry over to your work as an owner?
It’s actually one of the reasons we’re still a one-shop operation. When I think about expansion, one of the things I have continued to revisit is: why did you get into the business in the first place and what do you find value you in the business? I ask myself, would expanding support or hurt those things. Certainly, expanding would bring in more revenue and increase brand recognition – all the things that would meet the cultural notion of success. How did that reinforce of interfere with why I was doing this in the first place? And if why I was doing it is no longer satisfying, then let’s revisit this. It’s about checking back in with myself about what I like about what I’m doing and what I don’t like.
What are the reasons you started the shop in the first place and have those changed at all?
Most of those are still pretty relevant. One is the connection with the community – that sense of providing a place where people gather, a place that’s comfortable and filled with engagement, and where people can experience a really good cup of coffee. The coffee is the easy part.
Were there any moments when you moved back to Iowa and realized that this is what you really wanted to do?
I was so focused on getting this business open that other than the thought that I wouldn’t have to live in Iowa forever, I wasn’t really thinking beyond that. Although I kept talking about only doing this for five years, I didn’t really have a plan for what happened after five years. Once the business opens, all of your energy is consumed on a daily basis on getting to the next day. The next thing you know you’re hitting your 10 and 20-year marks. Running a business is a maintenance program – it’s not the highstakes excitement of opening a business. Luckily I get great pleasure out of what I do because I don’t have that sense of working hard and then moving on. There is a level among those of us who are thinkers and dreamers that we need to move on, and I’ve been able to transfer that to my personal life. It doesn’t have to all be about the work environment. This becomes a job like so many people who go on to become doctors and do the same thing for 20 or 30 years.
Do you still love it or has it become a means to fulfill the more exciting aspects of your personal life?
It’s a little bit of a mixed bag. It is a means, and there’s nothing wrong with that because we all need something to support our livelihood. The pieces that fall into what drives me are the creative aspects and those are less frequent. We’ve been here long enough, and though we make some changes, a lot of our clientele would be put out if we made too many changes. This is their little place, and they feel as much ownership as I do. My biggest challenge is transitioning from running the business to leading the business. If I were to spend my time differently, I could bring some new things to what we do here.
Do you feel now that what you do is totally legitimate in the doctor, lawyer, banker sense?
Yes I do, but I don’t think that Williams was putting upon me that I should do certain things. It was something I put on myself. I don’t think about myself in terms of how it stacks up to Williams, but I think what I do adds value. I think that’s true for most people if they do what they do well and care about what they’re doing.
How have you come to define success?
My sense of success is linked critically to the notion of: is what I’m doing and how I’m living sustainable. Can I do this and maintain my health and happiness and economic viability? You’ve got to have the full picture. Part of my definition of success here is that I add value to my community, I add value to my own life, and I’m living a sustainable existence. Embracing that idea really helped me get over the fact that I’m not living up to some external standard of success.
What advice would you give for Williams students preparing for life after graduation?
Part of it is to remember that you’re very young and still learning. To think that you’re going to graduate and be ready for anything is unrealistic. The world is going to throw all kinds of things at you that you’re not prepared for. Any job you take is going to provide you entre into what it’s like to live in the world and be outside of an academic environment – that’s personal skills, it’s professional skills, it’s about recognizing what life is about. Any job is going to provide that for you. The first 2, 3, 5 years of your life out of college should be an exploration. Hopefully one of the things you do along the way will fit, and you’ll get a sense that this is what you want to do longer term. But don’t be afraid to step away – don’t be afraid to start down a path and say, ‘what was I thinking?’ There are a lot of ways to get where you’re going. Give yourself the space to explore. We get in a panic that we’re supposed to be doing something important. Do something – that is important. Don’t do something important.