Student Entrepreneurship Fuels Business Growth And Learning

Saxbys Founder & CEO, Nick Bayer, Bowie State University President Aminta Breaux and inaugural ……

recent study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers pointed to a disturbing trend. While graduates believe they are well prepared for a job, employers increasingly think otherwise.

Nick Bayer, Founder and CEO of Public Benefit Corporation and hospitality company Saxbys expressed it to me this way: “The job market demands skills like critical thinking, emotional intelligence, problem solving, cultural agility—attributes that are extremely difficult if not impossible to teach in a classroom.”  

Bayer developed the Saxbys Experiential Learning Platform (ELP), a student-centric entrepreneurship opportunity where partners with leading universities to give students the opportunity to run a business, specifically a bustling on-campus café. 

Each ELP cafe is helmed by a Student CEO (SCEO) and a team entirely of undergraduate students who fully responsible for the business, and in return receive academic credit as well as financial compensation.  The program also has an important educational component. Starting three months before their term, the SCEO completes 100 hours of training centered in the following three areas:  Team Development; hiring, inspiring & empowering a team of on average, 50 of their peers; Community Leadership, engaging with stakeholders to become a valued cornerstone on campus; and Financial Management, being fully accountable for the Profit & Loss statement of the cafe. 

Through this program Bayer told me that the students “develop the power skills that can’t be learned in classrooms and earn the real experience it takes to stand out as they seek to springboard their careers.”  

I recently talked to Bayer on occasion of the company’s recent B Corp Certification, as part of my research on businesses with a social mission. Below is a lightly edited version of our email conversation.  

Christopher Marquis: How did you come up with this model?

Nick Bayer: Nearly a decade ago I had the good fortune to be asked by my alma mater (Cornell University) to become an Entrepreneur in Residence to help serve the explosive growth of entrepreneurship on campus. I was struck by the confluence of the tremendous desire from students to become civic-minded entrepreneurs and the need for real opportunities to “learn by doing”—or in the pedagogy of Higher Ed, experiential learning.

On the many drives I’ve done from Center City Philadelphia to the Ithaca campus, my mind would race with the possibilities of providing such an opportunity for the next generation of entrepreneurs. As Saxbys has always been deeply mission-driven, intentionally committed to entrepreneurship—all of our cafes are run by CEOs—and our top performing cafes have been on or adjacent to college campuses, it started to become apparent this could be the best way to teach business experientially.  

Saxbys is headquartered in Philadelphia—with which over 100 of colleges and universities may just be the biggest college town in America. Located less than 10 blocks from our headquarters is Drexel University; known for many impressive programs & achievements, but especially for their renowned co-op program where students are required to, for an entire semester, take no classes and work full-time in in their field. I was introduced to Drexel’s President John Fry—an educational innovator and community builder—and he supported the vision right out of the gates.  

I actually remember it like it was yesterday because the great majority of people thought we were out of our mind—there’s no way we could successfully run a demanding business, 15 hours a day, 7 days a week exclusively with students. 

On April 15, 2015, Saxbys Drexel (now known as Saxbys OG Drexel after our second Drexel ELP cafe opened in 2017) opened and the outpouring of support from the campus and neighborhood alike was nothing short of humbling. To this day—more than five years later—that cafe has served over a half million guests, employed hundreds of Drexel students, and has been led admirably by a Student CEO every minute since.

Since then, we have opened 9 more ELP cafes throughout the region with three more on the way at the University of Pittsburgh and dozens more in the pipeline.

Marquis: Can you provide a brief history of Saxbys?

Bayer: Since we were founded in 2005, Saxbys has grown from one corner cafe to a 20+ cafe system spanning multiple states and regions, all with our mission to Make Life Better. Each cafe is an uplifting environment filled with friendly faces, delicious drinks and exceptional food to fuel the day’s possibilities. With a core mission to “Make Life Better,” we brew real change in the communities we serve, while nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit in team members who aspire to make an impactful difference. In 2015, we launched the ELP to introduce exclusively student-run cafes to university campuses, complementing classroom learning with tangible experiences. Currently, 10 ELP locations exist across eight campuses with partners including Drexel University, Millersville University, Temple University, La Salle University, West Chester University, Penn State University, Bowie State University and Saint Joseph’s University.                                                 

Marquis: I see students get credit for their work, can you describe the relationships with the different universities and how that works? Is there any associated academic work?

Bayer: When we first started the platform, we felt it critical for the SCEO to receive full academic credit for the opportunity and there are three important reasons for that.

  1. We don’t want to delay graduation  – we have a massive student debt problem in this country, a $1.6 trillion dollar problem. By ensuring these students don’t take additional time to graduate, we remove the financial effect of having to stay additional semesters to be able to participate in this opportunity. The credits they receive are meaningful and contribute to the advancement of their degree program.
  2. Maintain full-time student status – this ensures the SCEO’s eligibility for federal financial aid, a key component that enables them to afford school.
  3. It’s a bustling cafe, and they’re the leader – when we hand the keys of the cafe to a SCEO we mean it—they’re supported by an HQ team designed for experiential learning but the responsibility for the cafe truly lies on the SCEO and their full attention is critical for their success as a leader. We look for synergies between faculty and coursework to provide an academically rigorous, credited connection to the experiential learning of the cafe.

The ELP complements traditional classroom learning—we find so often that when the SCEO returns to the classroom after their experience they can apply the skills they learned in running their own business to their studies. Most of our partner schools have SCEO’s present to university leadership and the Saxbys executive team at the end of the term about their experience along with reflections on how they mastered the 3 Pillars of Team Development, Community Leadership, and Financial Management. 

Marquis: Why is this experience important for students?

Bayer: Experiential Learning has never been more important in education. The job market demands skills like critical thinking, emotional intelligence, problem solving, cultural agility—attributes that are extremely difficult if not impossible to teach in a classroom.  We believe it’s not the sole responsibility of the university to equip students for the future and rather, truly impactful businesses must lean in and create opportunities to nurture and grow the entrepreneurial spirit in young people. As such, Saxbys plugs a living, breathing B Corp into college campuses, exposing students to conscious capitalism in the form of a popular, dynamic business run by their peers. Furthermore, Saxbys is an on-campus entrepreneurship lab accessible to both students & educators for case studies, projects, and distinctive learning experiences. In fact, recently Penn State students and faculty wrote a case study on Saxbys commitment to a Plant Powered menu and had their case published in a peer-reviewed publication.

Marquis: How has Covid impacted your business?

Bayer: The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly presented challenges not just to Saxbys but to food & beverage businesses across the nation. I nicknamed our time during lockdown (where most of our cafes were closed due to slow traffic and team member health risk) Productive Hibernation. I read early in the pandemic that former Intel CEO Andy Grove once said “During times of crisis bad companies die, good companies survive and great companies change.” It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to erase the proverbial priority checklist we operated off companywide and rebuild it to ensure Saxbys change into the great company we could become. And the top of that new priority list was our commitment to culture and impact, so we set our sights on attaining BCorp certification.

All along the way, we never discontinued our Experiential Learning Platform. When companies were cancelling internship programs and co-ops, we exposed our Student CEOs to every aspect of converting to remote work and leading company-wide projects in areas such as operations, training, marketing and communications. When it was time to reopen our cafes, our teams were ready and our Student CEOs led that effort with the newfound experience of helping the company survive the endless challenges of the Covid crisis—never once did we waiver in our effort to empower young people to be leaders. And it shows, the Student CEOs that operated cafes and navigated their experience amidst the pandemic are better for it, with a set of skills and experiences that can not be replicated or simulated.

Marquis: Why is being a B Corp important for Saxbys?  Can you tell us about the certification process?

Bayer: I chose to become an entrepreneur because I truly believed businesses should be a force for good, and as such, we’ve built Saxbys with the intent to build a business that makes people’s lives better. As the impact movement continues to gain traction, I realized my original intention was directly aligned with being a B Corp (but it didn’t exist when I created Saxbys!). Going through the B Corp Assessment wasn’t just solely to receive the certification, but also expose our team to areas where we can do better, the assessment gives an opportunity not just to see what we’re great at but areas where we can improve.

The B Corp assessment is, understandably, a huge undertaking for any company, and that was our experience. Our team spent the last 2 years going through the assessment and audits, producing information on all aspects of our business as well as incorporating as a Public Benefit Corporation—codifying our commitment to both our shareholders and stakeholders.

Marquis: How did you educate your team on this achievement?

Bayer: We knew that internal education is even more important than us sharing this story with the world. We built an exciting and detailed training program run through our Learning Management System for all team members (from baristas to the CEO) and coined it as Saxbys Impact Week—a bi-annual event that trains and highlights all areas of Saxbys impact. The week started with a virtual Impact Week Kickoff event, we closed our cafes early so that we could include every single team member across our entire cafe community. The highlight of the event was a panel discussion featuring Jay Coen Gilbert, Founder of B Lab, and Dr. Aminta Breaux, President of Bowie State University. It was moderated by Jameel Rush, the Vice President of DE&I at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Our team heard directly from these leaders on what it “Means to be a B Corp,” the history behind the “Declaration of Interdependence,” and the importance of plugging double-impact, experiential business learning into higher ed.

The kickoff event and Impact Week was designed to create an army of impact ambassadors in our cafe & HQ to be able to communicate with our guests as to why this is so important. We see our role in the B Corp movement not just as a passive participant, but as a leader in proliferating why it’s good business to be in the business of doing good.