Chancellor Woodson Talks Mission-Driven Entrepreneurship With 321 Coffee Founders
Chancellor Woodson sits down with alumni Lindsay Wrege and Michael Evans to talk about how NC State helped them launch their mission-driven coffee shop in episode six of Red Chair Chats.
From folding tables and the farmers market to downtown Raleigh and Durham, 321 Coffee has quickly become a beloved Triangle brand. The mission-driven coffee shop and roaster aims to provide meaningful employment to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
In episode six of Red Chair Chats, Chancellor Woodson sits down with founders Lindsay Wrege, a Poole College of Management alum, and Michael Evans, a College of Sciences alum, to talk about how their NC State experience and the Wolfpack community helped turn Lindsay’s longtime idea into a reality. Plus, barista Sam teaches Chancellor Woodson how to make a dirty chai latte.
Chancellor Woodson: Hello, Wolfpack Community. It’s Randy Woodson, chancellor at NC State, here for another edition of Red Chair Chats where I get together with amazing people from our community, alumni from NC State, and just people that care deeply about our great university. And boy do I have a show for you today.
Today, I’ve got Lindsay Wrege and Michael Evans, the co-developers of 321 Coffee. Coffee with a mission. Coffee with a mission for supporting people that have intellectual and developmental disabilities. And it’s such a great story of your time at NC State as students. So talk to us about how 321 Coffee came to be.
Lindsay Wrege: So for me, my story dates back to when I was in elementary school. I switched schools, didn’t know anyone, and my first friends were some girls in the classroom that each had different disabilities. But, I mean, when you’re 8 years old, any of the labels of Down syndrome, autism, DiGeorge syndrome, they don’t mean anything to an 8-year-old, right? These girls were just my friends and growing up we stayed really great friends. We’re still really great friends today. And so I firsthand got to experience first, how amazing they are, all that they have to give and to contribute, followed by the unfortunate realization as we got through high school of the lack of professional opportunities that exist for adults with disabilities.
I remember early in starting 321, in the very beginning days, we just had volunteer opportunities. Everything we did, people volunteered with us. And one of my friends from way back when, Emma — like I said, we’ve been friends since fourth grade — she had a job at a local grocery store and she also volunteered with 321. And every time we put out a new opportunity, she was the first to pick up a shift. And I loved that, but I was surprised that she continued to pick up shifts with us when she could have theoretically picked up shifts at the grocery store job that she had and gotten paid for her time. And so I essentially asked her about this and she said, “Yeah, all they let me do is clean bathrooms.”
And it was this realization that not only is it so difficult for adults with disabilities to get jobs, but even the ones that are getting jobs aren’t always being challenged, aren’t always being given meaningful or fulfilling work, aren’t always being given the opportunities to take on additional responsibility and grow within a team when they’re deserving of all of that, just like anybody else.
So got to college at NC State, met Michael, we met our freshman year very early. We were both part of Park Scholarships. So that put us in the same room physically and realized the importance of, hey, we should do something about this. So shared the idea with each other, with friends that, let’s try this. Let’s start a coffee shop that could employ people with disabilities. And the real meaning behind it is to create a place where everyone can contribute and can belong and can grow together. So we started off with renting a folding table from Talley Student Union.
Chancellor Woodson: Wow. Big time.
Lindsay Wrege: Big time, yep. We bought a coffee maker from Target. We bought aprons and some iron-on transfer paper from Amazon. My suitemate at the time was living in Sullivan. She was a graphic design student, so she came up with our first logo. We ironed it onto the aprons, got a bunch of friends from growing up and other people that we had met in the community that had disabilities and said, “Let’s try this.” And there was a college Special Olympics … Special Olympics college …
Michael Evans: Unified Rivalry?
Lindsay Wrege: Yes. Yes. Unified Rivalry game with the Special Olympics college team. So it was between NC State and UNC. And we set up in the lobby of the practice arena and served coffee to all of the athletes and the families and the people that showed up. And it was awesome.
Michael Evans: And it was one thing that brought UNC and NC State together that day. I mean, I remember that picture that we have of all of us with some of the NC State players and some of the UNC cheer team and you don’t see that, kind of.
Chancellor Woodson: Not often, but you know, when it happens, it’s magic.
Well, Michael and Lindsay, I’m really interested, I know you guys were together as Park Scholars. That’s a wonderful community at NC State. A group of students so committed to giving back to their community. So talk about NC State as a community, how the university and the NC State community came around to support 321 Coffee.
Michael Evans: Yeah, totally. I think that, I mean, first and foremost, Park Scholarships was such a huge, it was what brought us together, but it was also what brought together so many other people that helped us build 321 Coffee. When we opened our shop at the State Farmers Market, it was groups of Park Scholars students that we were friends with that were willing to be there until 2 a.m. in the morning trying shots of espresso as we dialed in the machine and paint the walls when we needed it. So there was so much support from that program, but from so many other programs too.
I mean, NC State Entrepreneurship in particular, we received a lot of support. We were part of the Andrews Launch Accelerator. We were both Miller Fellows. We competed in any competition that NC State Entrepreneurship offered. And along the way, we also developed a really cool relationship with the NC State football team, and that was from Sara Doeren reaching out to us our freshman year, sends us an email out of the blue. Couldn’t believe that.
Lindsay Wrege: We thought it was spam.
Michael Evans: Yeah, couldn’t believe that Sara Doeren knew what we were doing. And she was like, “Hey, I saw what y’all are doing. We’d love to find a way for NC State football to be really involved with this.” And that was the beginning of our relationship with NC State football. And ever since, we’ve gone every morning during football season to serve coffee to the football team and staff. So all sorts of different levels of support that we’ve had from the university, from programs to scholarships to just people being true champions and being really invested in what we’re doing.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, and you mentioned two incredible programs, Andrews Launch Accelerator and the Miller Fellows. And both programs, the Andrews Launch Accelerator provides funding for companies that are just getting off. And the Miller Fellows, that’s a great program because everyone that’s starting a new business, where you’re graduating from a great university, you could go and get a job and make money, and you’ve gotta somehow convince your family that not having a salary and going into this amazing opportunity is something you should do. So talk about the Miller Fellows program and how that helped to provide support to allow your family to allow you to do this.
Lindsay Wrege: Yeah, you’re spot-on with just how … it’s a big decision and it’s not an easy one and it was really scary to trust yourself and your gut and you’re putting yourself on the line that, “I wanna give this a shot and I don’t know if it’s gonna work out.” But Miller comes in and it gives you a runway, right? And it puts you in the middle of, beside other people that are in the same position. And you have people that you can lean on on the hard days when it’s not certain and it’s hard work and it’s a lot of work and it’s scary and it’s unknown but it’s sort of like, OK, but if you’re crazy enough to think that this is worth trying, then I’ll do it too.
And I mean, especially, I know we were in a really fortunate situation to be graduating debt-free because of Park Scholarships program. But I think that is something that, like I said, we’re very fortunate that on day one we didn’t have the burden of student loans to start paying back. And then you insert some funding for six months from Miller, and you had some wiggle room that, OK, even if this crashes and burns, we’re OK. And that I think is the comfort that so many people need in order to take the leap and put themselves on the line and try it. And that’s where you can really see some people get enough traction that it can truly serve as a jumping point.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, you guys are both inspirations to the NC State community. Let me talk a little bit about the location we are in. So 321 Coffee, this is a physical location near downtown Raleigh on Hillsborough Street just right down from NC State’s campus. Walk down, buy a coffee, buy a latte. You’re gonna meet Sam in a while and he’s gonna make you an amazing latte. So we’ll get to Big S in just a few minutes. So come to the Hillsborough location. You also have a location in Pendo’s headquarters downtown. One in Durham. So talk a little bit about your plan, where you are in terms of facilities and where you see 321 Coffee headed.
Michael Evans: Yeah, so the very first location that we opened up was over at the State Farmers Market, so super close to Centennial Campus. Felt like home for us. It was a quick walk from the university. That was our first location and we had that location, still have it today. We’ve grown in that location, expanded it a couple of times. We even started roasting our very own coffee from that location. So that location is really cool. We built it ourselves.
Lindsay Wrege: We designed our class schedules around like, I didn’t have class on Wednesdays so, like, I could be in the shop. Michael didn’t have class on Thursdays. One of our other partners, Liam, he made sure he didn’t have class on Fridays. Yeah, that was our testing grounds.
Michael Evans: My freshman year roommate, he was a construction engineering major so he helped sort of, like, GC the project for us when we were sophomores. A lot of really cool stuff that started from that space. And then as we were getting closer to graduation and figuring that we were gonna work on this full time, we really did start to look at, OK, how do we really grow our footprint? And that was when Pendo reached out to us and said, “Hey, we’re looking for someone to operate an in-office cafe in this beautiful new headquarters that we’re building in downtown Raleigh; would you all be willing to do it?” And that connection was instantaneous and perfect and they’ve been so great to us.
At the same time, we found the location that we’re at today which is super cool, little standalone spot in the middle of downtown Raleigh. And that was then also when the person who we were working with on this space said, “Hey, how about a shop in Durham?” And we said, “Why not? We’ll give it a go.” And then like we had said, we started roasting our own coffee along the way. So we’re really also starting to get into really developing that side of the business as well, supplying coffee for offices, getting the coffee into grocery stores and really growing our footprint start beyond the Triangle. So how do we get 321 Coffer on the shelves of every grocery store?
Chancellor Woodson: Well, speaking of roasting your own coffee, I had your own coffee this morning.
Lindsay Wrege: Love.
Chancellor Woodson: Because you’ve roasted and are distributing a coffee with Sam’s picture on the back, for the Greater Good, that gives back to the Wolfpack. Talk a little bit about the coffee that you’ve roasted and are contributing to scholarships as a result of your generosity.
Lindsay Wrege: Yeah, and there’s so many things I want to dig into, but you bring up Sam, who is featured on the back of this coffee bag and that is probably for us one of the most special parts of the coffee bag. So we’re really big into representation and finding ways to showcase all that people with disabilities have to offer. And a big part of that is who they are and serving as an inspiration for others in the disability community to see people with disabilities in a position of influence and recognition. So we’re really proud to have Sam’s face featured on the back of the coffee bag, and some of the stories that we’ve already brought up today. That first-ever event in the practice facility, Sam was there. Serving coffee every Monday morning to the NC State football team? Sam’s there. Every single part of our journey, building the shop at the farmers market, Sam was there. Opening this location, Sam was there. And I mean he’s been such a huge part of 321’s success and story but he’s also been such an inspiration and has exuded so much leadership in bringing together 321 and NC State. So in addition to us obviously being students and now alumni of the university, Sam has found so many ways to embed his person and self and joy within the university and making it such — especially with the NC State football team — such a true partnership that just goes beyond a traditional vendor relationship.
So when we had the opportunity to create this coffee that was to signify all that 321 and NC State have done together, we were so proud to incorporate Sam into that story. We’re so proud. I mean, being on the receiving end of support from the university to have a portion of all sales going back to university scholarships.
NC State as a whole has basically been the reason why we are sitting where we are sitting right now. I did come to school with this idea, but at that point, it was just an idea. I’d had it for a while. It wasn’t until meeting Michael and having friends say, like, “Yeah, let’s do this.” I mean, even professors loaned us nail guns and air compressors to build that shop at the Farmers Market.
Chancellor Woodson: Oh, that sounds dangerous.
Lindsay Wrege: It’s so many people contributing so many different things and I’m just so proud that we have this bag of coffee that signifies all that has happened since that very first cup of coffee.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah, it is a source of great pride for us as well at NC State. So on the bag of coffee that you’ve developed that is supporting NC State and our students, where does the term “Greater Good” come from? How is that woven into that bag of coffee?
Lindsay Wrege: Definitely. So we were really excited. Obviously, there’s so much synergy between the two brands and we are big on having names that do have meaning. So for example, our name 321 Coffee, it represents Down syndrome, when someone is born with three copies of the 21st chromosome. Then when you look at the names of our standard core coffees: Elevate, Uplift, Rise. We’re always looking for symbolic names that really do speak to the testament of our core values of helping people be the best versions of themselves, lifting people up, et cetera.
So when it came time to pick the name for the NC State coffee collaboration, we really wanted something that represented the shared values and that really was in pursuit of serving the greater good. There’s so much that NC State is doing to investing in students, creating opportunities, giving back to the community. We’re obviously a huge believer in inclusivity and recognizing the unique abilities that everyone brings to the team. And so it just felt right.
Chancellor Woodson: It does feel right. And it is consistent with everything we think about at NC State and giving back to our community for the greater good of all North Carolinians. And frankly, everyone around the world. So it’s a great story, and thank you both for sharing it with us today.
Lindsay Wrege: Thank you.