How a Philadelphia coffee shop is helping kids transition out of the foster-care system

By Alyssa Hurst

Lisa Miccolis

Lisa Miccolis

When you order coffee from The Monkey & The Elephant, you aren’t just getting your morning jolt — you’re supporting young people as they make the transition out of foster support systems. After Lisa Miccolis, the café’s president and executive director, first learned of the challenges that face individuals who age out of foster care, she decided to put the natural community of a coffee shop to good use.

 

What is the mission behind The Monkey & The Elephant (M&E), and what inspired the company’s founding? I know you met a young man in South Africa who is a major part of the story. 

Miccolis: The young man from South Africa was 16 when I met him, and was receiving support services over there for housing, education, food, clothing and a lot of basic needs at that point in your life. I got to know him and we stayed in touch after I came back to the U.S. When he turned 18, he aged out of eligibility for all those support services, and that was my introduction into this as an issue. There are individuals that are in a system and receiving help, and then they hit a specific age and that’s no longer available to them. With my background working in cafes at that point, I realized there was an opportunity to leverage the natural community of a coffee shop as not only a support system, but a way to build a foundation, and employment skills, and communication skills and general life skills for these individuals. [It was] an opportunity to bridge the gap between when they are receiving these supports and when they are transitioning into independence and adulthood.

How does your model at M&E work? How do you bring in participants and support them? 

Monkey and Elephant

The Monkey & The Elephant

Miccolis: The [individuals] come to us from a bunch of different places. … Some come from other organizations, some come from individuals in the community, and then the youths have also started referring each other. And then we go through the interview process. In that interview, we are really looking to identify whether that person is ready to receive the support and the guidance … and [whether] we are at the capacity where we can best support them.

Once we bring them on, the first couple of months are just learning how to work in the coffee shop and getting to know each other. It’s important that we start to build that trusting relationship for a foundation. Otherwise, no matter what kind of advice you’re giving someone, they are not going to listen to you if they don’t trust you. From there, we start to implement the programmatic exercises. We do consider this an applied learning program, so there’s learning going on every day throughout a shift as we work through situations and circumstances. …

There are about 10 [exercises] right now that range from writing your personal elevator pitch … to doing a networking exercise. … And then there’s a budgeting exercise where they are tracking their expenses for a couple of weeks, figuring out where their money is going, and doing a spending plan. Then there are a couple of others focused on new experiences. There’s one where they walk around two different neighborhoods — one they are familiar with and one that they’re not — and notice internally and externally what looks different, what feels different. We have a big focus in this program, as a whole, on self-reflection and self-awareness. So we use those opportunities to get them to reflect on those experiences, and then they talk through all of those exercises with a program mentor. …

The last couple of months are focused on transition. At that point, we know the individual pretty well, they know us, we’ve identified what their strengths are and what they are interested in going into — whether that’s education-related or another job or both — and we work toward those goals with them. The other thing we address throughout is any barriers that may come up, so housing, mental health, food, clothing — basic needs that there tend to be gaps in.

Is there a point at which these kids graduate from your program and move on?

Miccolis: We’ve had six graduates to date, since we opened this location in February 2015. One thing I’ll say is that it’s not a program where you graduate and the door closes and the support is gone. We really try to keep an open-door policy and stay connected with our alumni. We do family nights twice a month, where we encourage the youth in the program and the alumni to come back and hang out. Sometimes we are doing specific work around a topic; other times we are just hanging out, having fun and really working on creating a peer culture, where they start to get to know one another and they are supporting one another.

What successes have you seen come out of this so far? Are there any stories that really stand out?

Nate Nichols

Nate Nichols serves as a board member for The Monkey & The Elephant. Like many of the young people the business helps, he was born into the foster care system.

Miccolis: Honestly, all of them. … It’s really seeing a lot of the personal growth, like watching somebody really start to connect the dots and make the changes within themselves that they need to for long-term sustainability and for long-term employment, and to reach their education goals. Or it’s seeing someone who didn’t know how to use their voice and didn’t have a ton of confidence in speaking up — they’re suddenly able to do that, and they realize they have leadership potential and they are starting to tap into that. We do have individuals that are going to community college, people who since they left are maintaining full-time employment. There have been individuals that have bounced around a little bit. We are a very supportive work environment and I think sometimes when that is the case, some need to then leave this place and experience the real world a little bit in terms of what another employer is like, to start to put the pieces together. So we’ve seen that happen too. But really, everybody has been successful in my eyes. They are still moving forward in terms of the goals they have set for themselves, and they are continuing to use us as a resource and build on the foundation they started with us.

M&E started as a pop-up shop. What were those early days like, and what did you learn from that type of atmosphere? 

Miccolis: The first pop-up was one day a week in a small bakery in the Italian section of Philadelphia. It was myself and one youth. … There wasn’t much of a program at that point. It was more of a mentor-mentee relationship, where I would just talk to her about what was going on in her life, what she was having difficulties with, and then figure out how I could be supportive to her. And I also started to understand what the barriers were and what the challenges were in this type of situation, and started to build on that. … It started to inform what programming was necessary. It also gave an opportunity for potential donors to understand the model a little bit more. I think on paper and in talking about it, it was difficult for people to wrap their heads around it unless they were frequent coffee-shop goers. I think those people who were part of a community that revolves around a café understood it. For other people, it was hard to understand how all of the pieces fit together.

 

Coffee shop garden

The walls of the coffee shop’s garden and outdoor seating area are brightened with a mural by artist Sophie Roach.

How did a coffee shop end up being the perfect vehicle for the type of work you do? 

 

Miccolis: There is a lot of regular, everyday behavior that goes on in a coffee shop. There are a lot of people who get up in the morning, go to their local coffee shop, grab a cup of coffee and head out for the day. And you’re seeing those people ultimately at least five, if not seven days a week. You start to build a relationship with them. You start to get to know a little bit more about what they do; they start to get to know you a little bit. And there’s kind of this informal check-in. If a customer is gone for a week and then they come back, you’re going to ask them where they were. … And it starts to build this informal community that can get progressively deeper as employees get to know customers, and vice versa.

What does your revenue model look like now, and how do you envision it changing in the future?

Miccolis: Right now, the majority of our revenue is in café sales. We receive donations and small grants at this point, as well. I don’t see that changing a ton. … It would take a very specific business model with a profit margin that is pretty expansive to really cover all of the expenses of this business, as well as the overhead of the social services. So I still anticipate that long-term, we are going to need additional funding to support everything we need from the social services standpoint. But with that said, we are getting ready to do a strategic planning session where we start to look at what the long-term growth of the organization is, and what the new revenue streams are. Are we opening multiple new locations? Are we building out a catering opportunity, or roasting coffee, or wholesaling products? What does that look like, so we can expand our input? Five youths [currently in the program] is really great. I think our depth of impact is really solid, but a lot of funders want to see more numbers, and I ultimately know that there are a lot of youths that would love to be a part of this place, and we just need more capacity to work with them.

About The Human Element:

The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.