Editor’s note: Walmart recently announced $4 million in support to the state of Colorado to empower the retail workforce. This grant is part of Walmart and the Walmart Foundation’s five-year, $100 million Retail Opportunity Initiative, which aims to make it easier for frontline employees in retail and adjacent sectors to gain new skills and advance in their careers. Here, we look inside Prodigy Coffeehouse, an organization using retail to empower young adults in a Colorado community that has benefitted from a Walmart Retail Opportunity grant.
By Matt Smith, Walmart Corporate Affairs
The perfect hires to make high-end drinks at Prodigy Coffeehouse aren’t highly trained baristas. They’re young adults with little to no experience in the workforce.
“It’s an interesting hiring practice,” said founder and executive director Stephanie Frances. “We don’t have interviews. We don’t have applications.”
If you are an 18- to 24-year-old living in the Swansea or Park Hill neighborhoods of Denver, and you self-identify as disconnected from the workforce – meaning spending any significant length of time unemployed – you can go into Prodigy to be a pre-apprentice. This full-time, two-week training allows young adults to see what the craft coffee trade is all about before committing to a 12- to 18-month apprenticeship.
“We hire those that have the least amount of experience and the least amount of success in work so far,” Frances said. “There is no barrier to entry, so they can start learning from the ground up.”
Learning is something Frances and her staff know well. She and her founding partners have all worked in youth career development. Frances, herself, worked in alternative schools for 10 years before helping to found Prodigy Ventures.
She notes that there are a lot of misconceptions about why these young people drop out of school or aren’t successful in work. Prodigy’s approach is to address these reasons by using cognitive psychology to tap into its apprentices’ intrinsic motivations to learn. This approach immerses its participants in a social group, so they will model the behaviors seen around them. The training allows apprentices to move and grow constantly, so they become excited to learn – all while earning a living wage.
But sometimes being excited to learn is not enough. Obstacles such as depression or substance abuse can threaten to divide even the best learner’s attention. That’s why Prodigy offers free one-on-one mental health therapy and substance abuse counseling at no cost for those that need it.
“We talk about apprenticeship as deep work and deep learning in a culture of healing,” Frances said.
Good Things Brewing
Coffeeshops are places where people naturally socialize, so in a way, they are all about relationships. At Prodigy, terms like customer service aren’t a big part of the vernacular. Instead, new baristas learn about the power they have to positively affect people by talking about “loving on people” and how retail can create “relationships across differences.”
Internally, this kind of mindset helps reinforce an inclusive culture, which encourages everyone to be their own unique and authentic selves.
“I love it, because everyone is treated equally and can relate to each other,” Alonzo, a current apprentice, told me.
Frances says that sometimes these young adults can be unfairly mislabeled as lazy or that they don’t want to learn, but that’s not what she sees with her apprentices.
“You can come to Prodigy and see these young adults killing it at such a high level of professionalism,” she said. “It’s dismantling negative stereotypes.”
Alonzo said that he is dyslexic and wasn’t always successful at traditional schools, but he has excelled learning his barista skills. He recently won third place in a citywide latte decoration contest with a tulip and heart design. “It took me seven months of practice to get right,” he said.
Retail and service jobs are great career starting points for many young adults. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 5 of the 10 most common jobs are in retail and food service, so the skills learned at Prodigy are valuable for young adults at the beginnings of their careers.
“They could go to any of the best coffeeshops in Denver and have access to a career,” Frances said. “It’s a really good place to be working while they pursue what may be their lifelong passion.”
That’s exactly what Alonzo is doing. Recently, a relationship he built through the coffeehouse led to a chance to spend a day with a film editor, a regular customer, to see what it was like to edit a music video.
“We worked on the video for, like, 13 hours with barely a 5-minute break, and I loved it,” Alonzo said.
Now, he wants to be a film editor and is applying to schools. Frances sees this as a prime example of the good that can come from the connections made in a retail setting.
“Over a latte! Alonzo, he’s making coffee, and all of a sudden, he’s meeting someone he would never have had cause to meet.”