MIDDLEBURY — To many it might seem daunting to head straight from classes at Middlebury College to designing a business model and outreach campaign for an established business, but Allen Hoffman doesn’t think so.
For eight weeks this summer, Hoffman is working with the owners of Café Alta Gracia — a nonprofit, fair-trade coffee company — to create a new business plan for the firm, which buys and processes coffee beans from the Dominican Republic.
Hoffman is one of a handful of Middlebury students who are taking the college’s business-oriented Winter Term MiddCORE class a step further this summer through MiddCORE Plus, which placed them in internships with businesses in Addison and Chittenden counties.
For his part, Hoffman said after two weeks in the internship he is learning a lot. “There’s been exposure to all the different dimensions of the business,” he said.
He is based at the Middlebury offices of Vermont Coffee Company; Paul Ralston, owner of Vermont Coffee Company, also owns a stake in Café Alta Gracia along with his wife and Weybridge residents Julia Alvarez and Bill Eichner.
Hoffman, who graduated last month with a degree in English, said it’s been a relief to find that strong communication skills are needed in the business world.
He met Ralston through the winter term MiddCORE course. Students in the class tackle real-world scenarios over the course of four weeks, learning from work with local businesses and organizations, plus from guest mentors who teach seminars in everything from persuasive speaking to crisis management. This winter, the class worked with Ralston to brainstorm new ventures and marketing techniques that could push the company forward.
The students work four days a week, and on Friday they assemble for a seminar in the morning — business models and social media have been the topics of the past two weeks — and do outdoor activities or take trips in the afternoon.
But these students aren’t completing a standard intro-level internship: Much like during the winter-term course, there’s a project with a clear goal for each student, and an emphasis on innovative thinking and problem-solving.
These projects include working with the downtown business organization — Better Middlebury Partnership — to come up with ways to increase its membership, or working with various organizations to create a sustainable social media plan that can be carried on past the intern’s tenure.
Hoffman is working with Ralston and Vermont Coffee Company employees to develop a long-term business plan for Café Alta Gracia. Ralston said Vermont Coffee Company manages the day-to-day workings of Café Alta Gracia, but that since he and his wife invested in the company 10 years ago, there’s been no long-term business plan.
“A lot of it was ad-hoc, as inspiration happened,” he said. “When we look back, any one of those endeavors could have benefited from a plan.”
At a certain point, it was clear that the business needed a new direction.
“We were at a crossroads — we needed to be reimagining the company,” said Ralston.
But planning for a nonprofit, community-oriented business is more difficult than a standard business, he said.
“It’s more of a social venture, there’s more entrepreneurship and more effects on people in the two communities, in Middlebury and in the Dominican Republic,” explained Ralston. “You want to make sure you’re not projecting your values but also find ways to let them (employees in the Dominican Republic) tap into our financial markets, and into Middlebury as a center of learning.”
Still, the company’s commercial side is robust: last year, Café Alta Gracia purchased and processed $500,000 worth of beans.
Ralston said his work with MiddCORE this January provided the spark he needed to start thinking hard about Café Alta Gracia’s sustainability as a business.
That’s where Hoffman met Ralston, and Hoffman said it was an illuminating experience.
“For us, with very little business experience, it was learning all about how a business runs.”
So Hoffman chose Café Alta Gracia as one of his internship choices for the summer, and last week, he jumped right into research about how the company operates.
“It’s great, because you get immersed in a lot of vocabularies you haven’t been exposed to,” he said.
Hoffman will be helping to write the business plan and a sustainable action plan, as well as writing about his own experience with the company and developing a range of presentations on the business for company stakeholders and other nonprofits.
Ultimately, said Ralston, Hoffman fit right into the planning process, since one of the things the company needs is to tell its story.
“We knew we had to end up with a story,” he said. “So a writer is the perfect collaborator.”
The small group working on the business plan is aiming to finish up by July 26, a week before Hoffman finishes his internship. So far, they don’t know where the process will take them.
“We’re trying not to predict the end,” said Ralston. “But we want to come out of this with a clear and focused direction (for the company),” said Ralston.
And for his part, Hoffman said the MiddCORE experience has already given him a great deal, and that he’s interested in continuing to work with socially responsible businesses after the summer is over.
“MiddCORE has given me a lot of self confidence, experience in all different scenarios, and a network of resources,” he said.
Catherine Collins, MiddCORE research associate, said all of the MiddCORE Plus interns are already finding connections between their projects and ways that they can help each other succeed. The small group and the Friday meetings, she said, offer an opportunity to find that common ground.
“It’s a space for collaboration,” she said.
Jessica Holmes, the economics professor who heads up the MiddCORE program, said so far, it’s been great to watch the students jump into their internships with energy and enthusiasm.
“They’ve got some tools in their tool kits already. You give them a challenge, and they’re ready to run with it,” she said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.