NC State, Entrepreneurship, and a Mission of Neurodiversity Inclusion, with 321 Coffee’s Linsay Wrege

What started as Lindsay Wrege’s school project has turned into her full-time job. Her nonprofit, 321 Coffee, is dedicated to creating an equitable employment space for adults with developmental disabilities.

In this episode, hear why inclusion has been important to Lindsay throughout her life and her dreams for 321. Plus, hear Donald answer some of her questions as she navigates being a young leader.

Important mentions:
NC State Entrepreneurship Center
Raleigh Founded

Transcript

Donald Thompson: Welcome to the Donald Thompson podcast. I am really excited about today’s episode, a good friend of mine and partner, Ms. Lindsay Wrege. Lindsay, how are you? 

Lindsay Wrege: I’m doing great, Donald. How are you?

Donald Thompson: I’m doing well. One of the things that, you know, we like to do is we’re talking with folks– why don’t you introduce yourself? Not so much the business. We’ll talk about 321 Coffee a bunch in a few minutes, but where are you from? Brothers and sisters? What are you studying in school? Why did you pick NC state? Give us a little bit of background on you as an individual. 

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah. So, I’m from Cary, North Carolina. So, right down the road from Raleigh; born and raised. So, I love North Carolina. I love the area. I am currently a Senior at NC state. I actually graduate next week, which I’m super excited about. And yes, thank you. Go pack! I’m studying business entrepreneurship. Actually came to stay in the Biomedical Engineering world, wanted to go to med school, met Lewis Sheats, who Don, I know you’re familiar with. And he was, ultimately, the person that sophomore year, switched my drive and passionate over to the entrepreneurship world.

I’ve been there ever since; loving it. I’ve got two younger sisters. Family’s really important to me. Neighbors are my whole world. So, love, love the people in my life, love my grandparents. And yeah, that’s, that’s a little about me. 

Donald Thompson: That is really, really exciting. And one of the things that, you know, as North Carolina continues to blossom, a lot of times when you’re young, you’re like, “All right, I need to go adventure and find something new.” With the Apples of the world, the Googles of the world that are coming in, North Carolina, and in particular, the RTP, is really starting to hit its stride as a hotbed for large corporations, but also innovative firms like yourself. So, my first question is, in terms of environment to build a business, right? Why the research triangle park? Why Raleigh to launch your firm?

Lindsay Wrege: Totally. I mean, so being both in Raleigh and on NC State, NC state’s motto is “Think and Do.” And I love that. And I see it at NC State and I see it in Raleigh, and I think that it just completely summarizes the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the business world that we have here. Because there are people with great ideas thinking, but they are taking it one step further and they’re executing, and they’re doing, and they’re ideating, and they’re collaborating. And it’s so energizing to just be a part of that community and to be, you know, sitting next to people who are doing their own amazing things and getting to talk to them and ask them questions and collaborate. And it’s just an amazing environment to get to be a part of. 

Donald Thompson: Oh, that is phenomenal. One of the things that I notice in your backdrop, right? You’re at one of the premiere coworking spaces in town. Tell me a little bit about Raleigh Founded and how you can co-locate on NC State’s campus downtown. Give a little shout out to, you know, where entrepreneurs can reside and grow and thrive.

Totally. So, Raleigh Founded, they’ve got a number of locations and one of the things that’s really cool is their collaboration with NC State and NC State entrepreneurship. And it’s being driven by the E Clinic at NC State. It’s totally championed by a lot of entrepreneurs in Raleigh, but yes, it’s a coworking space.

It’s bringing in people from all levels of entrepreneurship. So, students to people who are just starting to serial entrepreneurs, and it’s putting them physically in the same space and virtually in the same zoom calls. And it’s letting people share ideas, leverage each other, you know,” I’m struggling with this trademark issue. Oh, I just went through that and here’s the perfect lawyer to connect with.” And it’s, I mean, as a student, it’s been a phenomenal experience to physically get to be in proximity with people who are doing what we’re doing, but just who are a couple of steps ahead. 

Wow. That is phenomenal. And, and I appreciate that, that answer. Let’s now transition to your business, your journey, your dream. Talk to us a little bit about 321 Coffee, and how the idea turned from an idea to an organization, to a company. 

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah, so there’s a lot there. So, first the high level of 321 Coffee. So, we are a coffee shop that’s really built on neurodiversity inclusion. So, 80% of adults with disabilities are unemployed and we’re really out here to change that. So, we have a completely inclusive staff, we work with– employee individuals with Autism, with Down Syndrome, with Cerebral Palsy. You name it, they have a place at our company. And we’re really showcasing what these people bring to a team, what these people bring to a workforce, and what they bring to society.

And it’s been an amazing journey for myself to see us transition from our beginning, really scrappy days on folding tables and using Starbucks coffee, to where we are now, to where we hope to go. And it all came about– like I said, I started this from my Freshman year in college, I came to school with that med school world in my mind, you know? The next 40 years of my life were set out with med school and residency and dah, dah, dah, dah. And then eventually, hopefully I’ll pay off loans.

And just completely 180’d from that. Now, you know, who knows what we’re doing tomorrow?  But I had the idea of wanting to create this space where individuals with disabilities could have a role in the workforce because I grew up very involved in this community. My first friends in elementary school were actually three girls that each had a disability.

And at the time, I mean, that meant nothing, right? We just all liked to play hide and seek at recess and we all liked the color purple. So, we were just friends. And that really inclusive upbringing showed me what these people are capable of when you don’t put that limitation of, “Oh, so-and-so is in a wheelchair, so they can’t do this.” 

Instead it’s “Oh, so-and-so’s in a wheelchair. So, here’s how we’re going to let them play tennis,” and you know, this completely eye-opening world of modifications. And so, I grew up with that awesome experience in the recreational world, followed by the disappointing realization that, professionally, inclusion isn’t there yet. And so I figured I could do something about this, built a team, and have gone for it. 

Donald Thompson: That is phenomenal. I want to unpack a few things that you said. Run is your proximity to people with disabilities and building those powerful relationships has given you a lens that’s different than many. And a lot of times, when we look at the professional perspective is things haven’t changed because nobody has pushed the envelope to describe how powerful that change can be. 

Right? It’s so easy for people to work in the status quo based on their perspective and experience. But when we open up, right? Or broaden the way that we look at the world, so much more can be accomplished. And you just created several powerful examples of that. Now, being an advocate for people with disabilities is different than growing a company.

So, talk to me about why you think 321 Coffee deserves to exist in the marketplace. I can buy coffee anywhere. Why do I want to buy coffee from 321 Coffee?

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah. So, you’re spot on. 321 Coffee, what we say, we really want to pride ourselves on two things: Great coffee and great people.

So a big part of this is that we want to be an awesome coffee brand that you’re going to want to come buy from us because you love our coffee. You love how it tastes, you love how it’s sourced, you love that you know the supply chain that– you know, we’re working with Nelson, our coffee importer, whose grandfather is growing the beans over in Honduras.

You trust what we are doing and how we are approaching business. So, that’s a big part of what we’re standing for. We want to have an awesome product that stands for itself. Then on top of that, the great people. So, number one, great coffee, number two, great people. This is our secret sauce. This is what makes 321 Coffee unique.

You’re coming to 321 in person, you’re interacting with our staff, you’re getting to meet them, you’re getting to learn what their favorite coffee is, what type of doughnut they like, you know, just how friends are and you’re building that relationship. And you’re knowing that by buying from 321 Coffee, you are supporting directly the employment of these individuals. And you are saying, “I support you, I want you to have a job, and I believe in you.” 

Donald Thompson: That is powerful. I think one of the things that people are struggling with when they hear diversity, equity, inclusion, and they say, “Okay, that’s good. But what do I do to be helpful? What can I do to be a true supporter?” Right?

Not just someone that’s clapping on the sidelines, but opening my wallet, right? And spending money with organizations that have social good as a part of their fabric. And that’s–

Lindsay Wrege: Totally.

Donald Thompson: –Definitely what you all are doing. So now, you mentioned getting to know people being in the coffee shop. Well, that’s a little difficult in the age of the pandemic. How can I experience your brand remotely? How can I buy your coffee without physically going to your location? 

Lindsay Wrege: Totally. So, I guess it was what? 14 months ago, we were all sort of faced with that, “Crap. What do we do now?” Because we were in the middle of opening our second, again, just traditional brick and mortar retail location.

We were about to sign that lease. When COVID hit and sort of forced us to think creatively. Because a big part of what we’re doing is that collaboration. It is seeing and interacting with people with disabilities to really make that societal change. And when everyone’s at home, how do you do that?

And so, our pivot was to begin roasting our own coffee and shipping and really building out the brand and the social media. And the videos and the stories that are going to keep that interpersonal experience present, just in a new virtual way. So, we’ve done a bunch of fun things. On our bags of coffee, we’ve got– this is sort of an insider tip, but when you buy it and you unroll it, there’s a secret QR code that takes you to a spot on our website, only accessible by that QR code. 

And every month we’ve got a new video up there that’s a two minute, “Hi, my name is Matthew. I work here, this is why I work here, here’s my favorite part about working here, here’s what I do outside of 321 Coffee.” You know, a really big “Get to know you” about the baristas. And it rotates every month to keep, keep those new faces and those new personalities highlighted. 

So, that’s part of it. We’ve started doing– Matthew actually, you’ve got to meet him at some point, Donald. He’s got his own show called, “Matthew’s Minutes,” which is a bi-weekly show on our– it goes up on all of our social sites and YouTube.

And it’s a three minutes, weekly series, that just sort of– about whatever he wants to talk about with 321. It can be interviews with other staff members, it can be, let me tell you about some of our partners, and when we were doing the expansion, sort of behind the scenes. So, he does a great job at again, keeping the awareness and about what we’re doing, and again, really that interpersonal experience. 

Donald Thompson: Oh, that is awesome. Companies across the land, whether they are in the coffee business, like you are, whether they’re in the marketing business, or in retail, have to figure out how to extend their brand digitally. And that’s just something that is a new table-stakes for doing business in kind of, the next economy post-COVID.

One of the things that I would like to get your perspective, tell me some of the things that you are learning or have learned as a new CEO. Right? You’ve been– and I’ll make an assumption, right? This is your first company.

Lindsay Wrege: This is. Yes. 

Donald Thompson: Right? You’ve been working at it for now three years? 

Lindsay Wrege: Yep. 

Donald Thompson: Right? So, you’ve learned a lot in those three years. Tell me some of the things that you’ve learned that you would share with emerging entrepreneurs about starting and leading your own firm?

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah. So, I would say I’m learning something new every single day from– what is insurance? To, what do you do with coffee? I’m not a coffee drinker. So, I literally remember on day one, my uncle had to sit me down and say like, “Okay, you start with a coffee bean, and then you grind it, and then you pour hot water over it. And that’s how you drink coffee.” 

And it was like, you know, we started from ground zero here. Business and coffee, but yeah, I think a big thing that I’ve learned about being a young entrepreneur, being a new CEO, is that it never hurts to ask. And you can ask a hundred questions and you don’t know what you’re going to get a yes to. When Morning Brew came out with their new email spin-off, the Sidekick Newsletter, that was highlighting local products and things, I sent an email to Rachel, the person, the editor, and just said, “Hi, my name’s Lindsay. I do 321 Coffee. Would you be willing to highlight this?” And I got a response. And it didn’t happen instantly, but, you know, I was sort of telling my team like, “Yeah, I’m going to try this.”

And they were like, “There is no way she is going to give you the time of day.” But she did! And you never know who’s going to say yes and who’s going to respond. And then sort of on top of that, you’re going to make a lot of– ask a lot of questions. Odds are you’re going to get a lot of “Nos” because it’s just easier to say no than to say yes, unfortunately. But I would encourage people, you just have to then ask a different question. You know? “Oh, will you follow me on Facebook? No? Okay, fine. How about Instagram?” You know, you keep going and you change the question because there’s, there’s opportunities and people are willing to work with you when they realize that you are driven and in it. 

Donald Thompson: That is super powerful because most people stop with the first “No.” 

Lindsay Wrege: You can’t do that. You’ll never get anywhere. 

Donald Thompson: It is amazing how simple it is to just keep going if we don’t let the “No” be the determinant of whether we’re successful or not. It’s the persistence of it. 

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah. 

Donald Thompson: And your point of ask a different question, that’s beautiful.

Lindsay Wrege: Thank you. 

Donald Thompson: That, I mean, because–at the end of the day, when I make a phone call as a salesperson and someone doesn’t call me back, I don’t think they’re rude. I don’t think they’re too busy. I don’t think any of that. I think my message wasn’t compelling enough. So, then I’ve got to fix my message so that they will call me back.

If somebody doesn’t return my email, I think about it the same way. Then my subject line wasn’t compelling enough. That’s why they didn’t open it. It’s not that they’re too busy. It’s what I can do better. And the one thing that you said, Lindsay, that is really important is when you take that personal responsibility to hone your message, to ask a different question, to be more compelling, you keep the power.

If you’re waiting on someone else to change in response to your business, you’ve got to hope that they’ll change and love what you’re doing one day. One thing that I would like to get your take on, and let’s now fast forward a little bit. Paint the vision for what 321 Coffee will be. Take me out a few years. Tell me what you’re doing all this work for in terms of what you’re trying to build, bigger picture. 

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah. So, big picture, the problem that we’re trying to solve is that people with disabilities do not have a place, a meaningful place in the workforce. Some– there are some examples out there, I mean, some of our staff even have other jobs, and, you know, it’s sometimes at grocery stores, it’s sometimes that, you know, pet stores, whatever it may be. But oftentimes when you sit down and you ask the questions, you know, “Oh my gosh, I’m so proud that you’ve been working there for five years. How is it?”

You then learn that, you know, all I’m doing is cleaning bathrooms. They are capable of a lot more. So, that is the problem we’re trying to solve. Individuals with disabilities don’t have a role that is meaningful and fulfilling in a lot of different companies. So, the solution is not to have this monstrosity company 321 Coffee, where if you’ve got a disability, you can work at 321, but all you can be is a barista. 

Because that still doesn’t resolve the problem of the lack of choice. You know, it’s not a true solution if the only option, if you have a disability is to be a barista at321 Coffee. Or really learning– leaning towards and trying to lead towards this general overarching societal inclusion of neurodiverse individuals, of individuals with disabilities, and then other forms of diversity on top of that. And so, when I think about what I want 321 Coffee to accomplish, I want to be a leader in activating this change towards systemic neurodiversity inclusion.

Donald Thompson: That is powerful. And that’s a big vision, which is required for the work that we have to do. There’s got to be something that gets us up and drives us and keeps that positive attitude. What are some of the things that when you look back, that you’re proud of that’s happened so far? Tell me some of the success stories that you’ve seen that really say, “You know what? That’s why I’m doing this.”

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah, so probably the biggest success story that comes to my mind when I think about 321, is from one of our baristas named Sam. So, Sam was with us literally day one of 321 Coffee’s first ever event. We were over– it was at NC State’s campus. We were serving coffee, there was a unified football game between NC State and UNC. And it was unified in that it was– the teams were made up of half special Olympics athletes and half football players from the respective college teams. 

So, super fun event, very in line with our mission, and we got to serve coffee there. And Sam was there. So Sam livesoriginally from Rocky Mountain, North Carolina. And at the time, he was still living in Rocky Mount with his parents. And would drive to and from Raleigh, which is about an hour, hour and a half strive, to, at the time, volunteer at 321 Coffee.

So, we did that first event. The NC state football team ended up totally embracing us and taking us in. We ended up serving coffee every Monday morning to the NC State football coaching staff, team players, all of it. It was awesome. And Sam, I should mention, is like a huge NC State Football fan. 

He watches all the games, he knows all the players. Doesn’t matter if they’re, like, on the starting line or on the bench. He’s a huge fan; loves it. He calls– he considers Coach Doeren  his second dad, which just is the best. So, every Monday morning, Sam would do that drive to and from Raleigh to volunteer at the Monday morning coffee services because he wanted that opportunity that was not in Rocky Mount, but it was in Raleigh.

It was with the NC State football team and it was with 321 Coffee. So, about a year later of doing that, we were growing, we were opening our shop at the farmer’s market and we were getting ready to take on employees. And so, Sam moved to Raleigh to grow his involvement with 321 to be able to work more and to be more of a part of the 321 Coffee community that we were growing. 

So, I mean, that statement in and of itself was like the most heart-warming thing ever. That, like, Sam and Sam’s family believed in us and the community that we were growing, the company that we were building, and that he saw value in it and wanted to be a part of it. So, then to take the success story, like one step further, Sam continues with 321.

He’s now one of our first paid employees. We’re going back to the Murphy Center that following year. Every Monday morning, Sam is there, he’s now getting, like, sideline tickets to all the games, he’s going to Monday night team dinners, like, he is in it. And Sam gets a job offer from the NC State football team to be a part of their food service team because they saw what Sam was bringing to their community every Monday morning with the coffee service.

Donald Thompson: That is phenomenal. I think–

Lindsay Wrege: Thank you.

Donald Thompson: You know, the story and I can’t wait to meet, meet Sam, and I can’t wait to see this three-minute– Matthew’s Minute, right? I need a link to that. Like I, I need that in my life, right?

Lindsay Wrege: Yes you do. 

Donald Thompson: I mean, so– I’m super, super encouraged about that. But it also goes to show when people that have disabilities get exposure to opportunities, people can see their greatness. And so, we just have to create more opportunities and connections, right? For that to happen. And so, what a wonderful story, not simply for Sam, but also what that NC State community, the football team that embracing, right? Of somebody that’s a champion, right? But just may have a different path than you or I, right?

But they still have that championship mindset of what they want to be and grow to. And I think everyone can cheer for people with those kind of dreams. We just have to expose them. Tell me a little bit about your team. You have several co-founders, I believe. Right? Talk to me about the team and how you all met and got together and, and the roles, a little bit of your squad.

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah, I feel so lucky. And I mean, I’ve gotten to work some with Walk West, so I’m sure you feel the exact same way, but that I get to work with the team that I do every day. Like, it is so fun. We are just so lucky. So, yes. I’ve got two co-founders; Michael Evans and Liam Dow, the three of us at NC state.

We actually met through the Park Scholarships program. And Michael and I are the same year, so that Freshman year when I decided I wanted to start something like this, it was him and some other students that said like, “Yes! This is something that I want to help start and I believe in. And I’m willing to give my time to get this off the ground.” 

And then, sort of over time, Michael and I just kept saying, “You know? We can also do this,” and, “What about that?” And, you know, just kept building it up and pushing it. And really came together with, “We could do this.” Neither of us came to school with the idea that this would be– that the goal of starting a business, with the goal of having 321 Coffee be the after graduation plans. But I’m so excited that that is where it’s gotten to, and that we are going to get to commit all hours of the day to this after we graduate.

 Liam’s a year behind us. He came on. When he got on campus Freshman year, we were sort of in the midst of taking 321 Coffee. We were graduating from our folding tables to our first shop. And he was like, “This is cool. I’m willing to get in on this.” And Michael and I said to each other, you know, like, ‘Liam’s awesome.” Like, he’s a problem solver, he’s willing to self-teach, knows how to use YouTube, which is like huge for us. And we were thrilled when he said like, “I want in, if there’s a spot for me.”

So, that’s, that’s our leadership team. We’ve got an amazing staff of baristas who have been involved. Many of them from those very beginning days. They’ve got tons of great ideas, you know, even down to like, “Could we do something with whipped cream and Lucky Charms marshmallows for a St Patrick’s day drink?”

And it’s like, “Yes, we can, because that is fun. And it is delicious.” It’s like, you know, it’s just this community of people excited to have a platform to contribute to. And when you have that opportunity and let people, it’s amazing what we’re able to accomplish together. 

Donald Thompson: That is so powerful. One of the things that, you know, as I listen to your story and I listen to 321 Coffee, you know, one thing you buried the lead a little bit, right? Are you a Park Scholar? 

Lindsay Wrege: Yes, I am. 

Donald Thompson: So, tell us a little bit, like– and for those in the audience, I mean, I’ve worked in and around NC State for a number of years in terms of partnering with the computer science department and different things. So I’m aware that being a Park Scholar is not, like, some simple thing, right?

It’s one of the most prestigious scholarships, right? In, in the country. Tell me a little bit about what it means in that process of becoming a Park Scholar? 

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah. Thank you. So the Park Scholarships is a full-ride merit scholarship on NC state’s campus that’s built on four pillars: Scholarship, Leadership, Service, and Character. And, fun fact, you always have to say them in that order, because if you ever try to say it a different order, you will forget one of them. And then you’re like, “Great. What do I do now?” But it’s an, it’s an amazing community. So, we all got to be a part of this program. Michael and I, as a part of the class of 2021, and Liam, he’s a year behind us.

And that was truly how 321 came to start. So I came to school, I had this idea, but I hadn’t done anything about it. And I was sitting at lunch one day, probably like in September of Freshman year. So, like one month on campus. Really, the main people that I had known at this point are the other Park Scholars in my class.

And I just happened to say, “You know, I would love to start a coffee shop that employed people with disabilities.” And by luck, those other students that I was sitting with at lunch said, “That’s awesome. I’m willing to help.” Like, “What do we do next?” And it was like, ” I guess we come up with a name,” and, “I guess we maybe make a logo?” And like, none of us knew what we were doing.

But it was having those other students who are like-minded and driven and, you know, want to leave the world better than they found it. That Park brought together, that really got 321– got the ball rolling. 

Donald Thompson: That is really awesome. Couple of things I want to– so tell me the four pillars again, because I’m– I was writing this down.

Lindsay Wrege: Okay. Yes. Scholarship, Leadership, Service and Character. 

Donald Thompson: That is awesome. And I also think– and this is really commendable. When you think about academic scholarships, right? You have this thing in your mind that someone’s going to go on and then go to med school. Somebody’s going to go on and go to law school. There’d be an engineer. 

And the fact that NC State endorses, embraces, and encourages whatever journey you can create those four pillars of impact, and that you all have decided to become entrepreneurs. And I think that is really, really powerful, not just for what you are doing, but that– just that flexibility in helping people that are in their journey kind of find the way that’s right for them. 

Lindsay Wrege: Totally. I completely agree with you. I think that, especially when you think of like the full ride, merit scholarships, you think of, like, the person with the perfect SAT scores, that’s probably going to go out and cure cancer, and like get the med school degree and the law school degree and all of the degrees and just, like, never leave the library. But like, that’s just not what NC State and Park cultivates. And I think that it’s really powerful that they see value and encourage students to be the best forms of themselves in wherever the passion lies. 

Donald Thompson: Yeah. So, free marketing advice. You got to be careful with that, but I’ll throw some out to you. You were experienced as an entrepreneur, as you’re going out and potentially looking at how you want to grow the business. Anywhere you’ve had success in your life that builds you to who you are and have become, people need to know about. And you’re so humble that you don’t really lead with that. 

And we’ve known each other for a little while and– but when I hear Park Scholar, I know that you were one of the top academics leaders in your high school. Of the twenty-five thousand people at NC State, you’re one of the top academic performers there. And people want to be in business with people that excel. And so, don’t bury the lead on that as you market yourselves and different things like that.

People want to know and be with people that are winning. And it doesn’t matter what the field is. So anyway, that’s that free part. We take that, leave that, and do whatever you want. 

Lindsay Wrege: Noted. Yes. 

Donald Thompson: Right. 321 Coffee, where’d the name come from? 

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah. So, the name itself represents Down Syndrome, which is the third copy of the 21st chromosome. And so, we’ve gotten to do a lot of fun things with our branding of incorporating, like, chromosome mapping and DNA and stuff like that. Truthfully though, it was, like, the most– I don’t know, dumb luck that we stumbled into that. It was like the– so, we decided at that one lunch that we were going to do this.

 Then the next day we had lunch again because we decided we needed to come up with a name and someone was like, “Oh, you know, like Down Syndrome three, two, one. How about 321 Coffee?” And we’re like, “Perfect. Yep. Done. Moving on.” And, like, by luck, like, the trademark was available, the URL was available, the social media handles were available. And we didn’t think to check any of that until, like a month later when we had ordered, you know, signage and a table runner and stuff like that. And it’s just stuck with us ever since. 

Donald Thompson: That is awesome. The, the one thing that, you know, when you’re starting a business in a new enterprise, you do need to have a game plan and all those things, but you also need to have a mindset of, “We’re going to figure stuff out and try some things.”

And one of the things that underpins your success and then your future success is that willingness to try, fail and adjust. And that’s something that, as I’ve gotten to know you and see is, is really a characteristic that is really, really powerful. And so I, I love working with your team from that regard.

So, last question for me, and then we’ll kind of flip it for a minute and see if you have any questions that I can be helpful with. When you think about 321 Coffee, and you talked a little bit about this earlier, in terms of you wanted people to trust your process, right? Where you sourced your coffee from .What that process was. Why have you made that so important as a part of your brand?

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah, I think that there’s so much power in business. You know, there’s power to really create change and do business the right way and make a statement that you can source locally. You can pay an inclusive staff above market rates instead of– I mean, this is sort of deviating a little bit. But you know, hiring people with disabilities– there are government laws where you can pay people sub minimum wage rates because they have a disability sometimes down to like 20 cents an hour.

And if you’re looking at the bottom line, that is great, right? No, that’s not at all the right way to treat people. And you know, that’s completely devaluing what they’re bringing to your team and what they’re– how they’re contributing to your business and that’s not okay. And so, what I want 321 Coffee to do, and what I respect that you and your leadership have done with both Walk West and The Diversity Movement, is proving that you can run a business that can both be profitable and viable, but also really stand for something greater and create impact in your community.

And so, you know, whenever we make decisions where we are going to buy milk from? Where we’re going to buy the coffee from? How much we’re going to have starting rates be? Who are we going to take investment from? We really want to be conscious with how we’re making those decisions. Because as soon as you do that, you start that ripple effect and you can demonstrate for other businesses that they can do it too.

Donald Thompson: Hmm, that’s powerful. I don’t, I don’t– I’m not going to add to that. That’s a great way to, to close, and not just because I love compliments, but the way that you described it really aligns. And it’s why we get along well is, like, let’s win in the marketplace, but let’s make sure people win at work with us. Right? And that is something that I had to mature into, quite frankly. That’s not– you know, you’re much further along. In that social construct aligned with business than I was early in my career. Right? And that’s something that over time I said, “What do I want my legacy to be? How do I want to be remembered? What am I doing this for?” Right?

 And really, it becomes kind of obvious that what you want to do is help people have a better path than they would have without you. And in order to do that, you’ve got to change. And we’re talking about it now called the “Triple Bottom Line,” right? People playing a profit. Right?

Lindsay Wrege: Yes. 

Donald Thompson: So that you can really have as a part of the way that you think about business, have it be other-centered, right? Just not the financial gain. And I think that the generational shift, right? Gen Y, Gen Z, that’s more of an expectation of the companies that young people will buy from and work for. And, and so it’s really, it’s interesting that you embody that, but all different companies need to understand that exists, right? In the next generation.

Lindsay Wrege: Definitely. 

Donald Thompson: All right, my friend. What can I help you with? So–

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah.

Donald Thompson: Ask away. We’ll keep on tape what’s general. We’ll cut off anything that’s super proprietary, but I’ve got 15 minutes; free consulting. What can I help with? 

Lindsay Wrege: Thank you. Well, so, first question is sort of just like a general leadership question. It’s not as much about um, 321. But I would say like, one question that I get asked often is like, “Tell me about your experience being a female founder and a female CEO,” and like very, “What hardships have you had to overcome being a woman in a predominantly male-dominated industry? And you know, I’ve had my experiences.

But truthfully, the greater hardship that I feel like I have to overcome is being a young entrepreneur, and I feel like I had to prove myself because of my age. Not as much because of my gender. And so, I was curious from your experience– I have listened to your podcast, I know you get a lot of questions about being a black CEO, but I was curious if there’s anything that isn’t asked, but that you feel like you have to overcome that people don’t always recognize.

Donald Thompson: Yeah, I think you’re– you make a lot of good points in the question. You know, one of the things in terms of, you know, people that are in their first year companies, young entrepreneurs, is you don’t have to try to be something that you’re not. You can’t be experienced because you haven’t had the experience yet.

But what you can do is you can create the fact that not only are you young, hungry, smart, innovative, but you do your homework. Your decisions are backed by data. You’ve assembled a board of advisors around you to help you grow the experience that you don’t have to link with the enthusiasm, the innovation that you do have. 

And so, you take something that could look like a negative to some investors, right? You’ve not done this before, you’ve never had a multi-million dollar business before. It’s like, you know what? That’s exactly why I brought on this advisor, this advisor, and this advisor. To help me on that journey while we match their experience and wisdom with the innovation that we’re bringing to the table.

And so, you don’t have to be afraid of what you don’t have because you can go get it. The other thing that happens is that people respect results. And so, what you want to do that kind of– and I had to learn to do this as a black CEO and as a technical salesperson, a tech sales person for many, many years.

To get people to look beyond who I am, I focus the conversation on the business outcome I would help them deliver. The promotion in their company, I would help them achieve, because we saved them a million dollars using our software versus their current system. So, I focused on the outcome for them, and I became a conduit of somebody to get the goals that they needed.

And by doing that, the conversation shifted from my background, my pedigree about Donald versus me creating a narrative of how I can help in a measurable, meaningful, high impact way. And so, I was not naive, that my journey would be different, that people would, you know, if I’m the only black person in the room of a thousand people at a conference, 2000 people, like it’s kind of noticeable, right?

Like, it’s not. So, you know, it’s, it’s a, it’s a thing. Right? And so, in order not to make it a negative thing, I became very “Other-centered.” Right? And it made me really, really focused on how to create very powerful business value for the people that I was working with. And then those relationships became my advocates.

Those people that I helped win in the marketplace, win at work, be impressive to their manager or their boss, then invited me into doors that wouldn’t have normally been open to me.

Lindsay Wrege: That’s awesome. I mean, it completely speaks to the power of, like, the community that you build. When it’s genuine and not just like, “Oh, I’m going to be friends with you because you’re black.”

Donald Thompson: I laugh all the time with– not all the time, but it was sometimes that I was going to create a business, “1-800 – I’ll be your black friend,” right? Just charge people like thousands of dollars, man. Just show up at events with them and hang out. 

Lindsay Wrege: Give him a nice pat on the back to show it’s real. 

Donald Thompson: That’s exactly right. 

Lindsay Wrege: That’s awesome. Okay. Another question is when, at least for me, and I imagine other people experience this too, you’ve got the vision, you’ve got the ideas, and all you want is to run and run fast, but things don’t always happen as quick as you would like them to. And so I’m curious how you gage deadlines and timelines to really get where you want to go, but also in a realistic way, especially when a lot of times what you may be getting slowed down by is other people?

Donald Thompson: Yeah, that’s a great, very, very good question. With most businesses that I’ve worked with as an advisor, investor, I’ve worked myself, how do you get from zero to a million dollars? To me is the most important milestone. And the reason is because from zero to a million dollars, there’s so much learning about the team that you need, who to hire, who’s going to work out? Different things like that. How do you want to represent yourself in the market? Right? Because you’re trying things, you’re figuring it out. Your website, your business cards, your marketing, your advertising, all of that stuff, you really don’t know. And then what kind of leader do you want to be?

Where do you want to be involved? Right? Are you on the pre-sale side? Are you operations? Right? Are you the product person? And so, from a zero to a million is the only timeline I’m focused on in a new business. And this is just my perspective in a lot of the businesses that I run have some capital, but not a huge amount of capital.

I’m not talking about a business that got $20 million in funding or $50 million in funding. I’m talking about a business, got a half a million dollars, or a million, or none. But when you can get a business to a million dollars, then you know what works. You don’t have to guess. So now, you can then have a thought process of, “I can double down on what’s working, double and triple that revenue from that stream that’s working, and now I can explore new streams of revenue, new opportunities, new things we want to do with less risk or trepidation because I’ve built some level of foundation that I know how to build an actual company. Right? And so, for me, the reason that I’m not as worried about faster, slower, different things is I have a very small number of goals for my first 12 to 18 months.

And because my goals are pretty finite, if I’m waiting on somebody, there’s a roadblock in terms of timing or different things like that, there’s a lot of different creative ways to get from a zero to a million dollars. And so, by keeping that the focus, it eliminates a lot of the noise and distraction because I have that current goal. And then being able to achieve that gives you maximum confidence. 

Because here’s what you know; we took The Diversity Movement, I’ll use our example. In a new business, we’ve spread it out from Walk West, an independent business now. And we went from zero to a million in around 12 months. We did it pretty quickly. But man, we learned a bunch. We have a great mission, but everybody’s not set out to work for us, even though they love our mission.

We had to figure out were we going to be a consulting business or a product business? And we’re figuring out we want to sell more product. We want to sell our e-learning and different things. And how it works together. But that process, the last thing I’ll say in this question, is from zero to a million, don’t get moving so fast that you’re not learning from everything that happens, because that’s your research phase.

And then as you hit that million dollar mark, it’s easier now to think, project, dream a million to five, five to twenty, twenty to fifty, fifty to a hundred, because of all the learning that you got from zero to a million. 

Lindsay Wrege: That’s awesome.  All right. Another question. The first time I met you, you were a guest speaker, we were part of the Andrew’s Launch Accelerator last summer.

And you came and spoke to, our cohort. And literally, in my notes, I have essentially like, if 321 doesn’t work out, go work for Donald Thompson. Like, that was the sentence that I wrote down. And it was because when you were speaking, you talked about, like, “I want to do cool things and I want a cool team to do it with me.”

And you just talked about the culture that you have of your people, and it’s not about like, “I will only hire somebody who has an MBA and 12 years of industry experience and dah, dah, dah, dah.” It was about, “No, like if you’re going to come and you’re going to demonstrate that you’re going to work hard and get those results, then I’m going to want to keep you around and keep you elevated throughout the company and keep doing good things.”

And that was just the best ever to hear. I mean, not necessarily as a prospective employee, but as a leader and what I want to have throughout my company. And so, I was curious what tangible things you do to really walk that walk.  

Donald Thompson: Thank you for that question. I really– I really appreciate it. I was given– in 1996, I was employee number seven at a tech company called iCubed. And Grant Willard and NC state alum, and my mentor and good friend, was the CEO and the founder of that company. And the reason I went to work for Grant, and I had three other job offers and all of them were more money in terms of base salary and different things. But Grant said, “I will give you the opportunity to be promoted and grow your career based on your performance, not your pedigree.”

And no one was talking to me like that. Right? And so, from that moment, as he fulfilled that obligation and taught me and trained me and helped me grow as a, as a business leader, right? I wanted to create a company to where the reason someone wants to work with me is because they’re not going to feel like they’re working for me every day.

That we’re going to partner in chasing the dream that’s so big, that there’s room enough for recognition for all of us. There’s room enough for you to be a star because our goals and dreams are big enough, right? Because we wanted to create that David versus Goliath mentality, with that startup company that’s chasing and trying to slay those giants. That is attractive to people that are dream chasers.

And as a business leader, the way that I walked the walk, is if you demonstrate you can do something, I’m going to step aside, let you do it and cheer for you all the way. When you win a big deal, it’s not going to be because I did it. I’m going to promote the fact that you and the team did it. And so, I’m so excited about the, the folks in my organization that are living that dream, so to speak. 

It doesn’t mean it’s easy to work for me. It’s certainly not. I have a tremendously high standard. Everybody doesn’t make it, everybody shouldn’t, everybody doesn’t want to. But for those that do, what they’ll find is that the training, the education, the focus on how we grow them as individuals is second to none. And whether they work with me a year, two years, five years, or go do something else, my goal is for people to be better off because of that experience. 

Lindsay Wrege: I really, really respect that. And I’m sure your team does too. 

Donald Thompson: I appreciate it very much. Final question, my friend. 

Lindsay Wrege: Okay. This one is a little more 321 specific. So at 321, there’s a large company that is really championing 321. They’ve done it in the past with incorporating 321 Coffee into a holiday gift for all of their employees. And they’re doing it moving forward with bringing us in to be the cafe in their new headquarters. They are really finding ways to bring 321 to the employee experience that they’re building and their culture, which is huge. 

And it’s got potential to be a really large partnership. And so, my question is how do you take that model and build a business around it that works for more than just this one large company that’s willing to make this commitment and investment? 

Donald Thompson: That is a phenomenal question. And I think about it differently than most. Most people are looking to diversify sometimes too soon. Versus creating a great and powerful service around three or four marquee clients that help you work out all the kinks in your process. The power of case study, the power of recommendation from CEO to CEO is so valuable that what you want is to have three to five raving fans of these enterprise clients, and you will naturally see other people knock down your door. Because people want to follow leadership both in product innovation, both in business model innovation, but also in how do you create a powerful employee experience?

So, if you can create a model where three, two, one is about growing a powerful employee experience, an exponentially growing employee experience, and because your story, who you support, what you stand for, aligns with the mission of those companies, I wouldn’t be so concerned about being able to replicate it until I have three successes like that. Drill down on those successes, create the marketing engine around those successes, and then the scaling will be much simpler. Because what you’ll find is big companies are different often in their leadership mission, different things, but they share very common characteristics.

Once an organization gets a thousand, two thousand, three thousand, five thousand people, what that means is innovation is tough to continue. Because they’ve got all this hierarchy. So what people in big companies want, is they want to see what was done by another company like theirs and adopt. And so, once you have these three or four case studies under your belt, it’s going to be really much simpler to replicate and scale.

So don’t be concerned about having one big customer to soon. Be concerned with making that one big customer into three. And learning everything you need to learn about process, about how do you get in the door? What level of person cares about this? How do you market this? And then as you expand it out, the same three companies are going to share your name with their peers because they believe so much in what you’re doing.

They’re not going to look at this as a competitive threat that other people are doing what you’re doing. They’re going to look at it as evangelizing something amazing that they were a part of. And that’s going to help you in your business development and your sales go forward. But congratulations right on on that one– if you can get one marquee client, you can get five. If you can get five, you can get twenty-five. If you can get twenty-five, you can get a hundred. If you can get a hundred, there’s nothing that can stop you. 

Lindsay Wrege: Thank you. I’m excited. Good things are to come. 

Full Episode Transcript

The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, The Diversity Movement CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. For more on how to engage your community or build your personal brand through podcasting, visit Earfluence.com.

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