By Annamarie Koehler-Shepley
No matter how you take your coffee, the co-organizers of Columbia’s 1 Million Cups (1MC) would all agree that the best way to enjoy your morning cup of joe is to do so while talking business.
Columbia’s 1MC is a free program that provides a weekly forum for aspiring entrepreneurs to present their startups over coffee to a network of peers. The program was first started in 2012 by the Kauffman Foundation, a private foundation focused on entrepreneurial education in Kansas City, and has since grown to include more than 100 communities in more than 40 states.
“It was a program that grabbed our attention right out of the get-go,” said Foltex USA operating officer and 1MC co-organizer Agata Chydzinski.
Chydzinski, along with John Wilkinson, Greg Hilton, and a few others, have been volunteering their time and effort to make 1MC a great community experience since it first came to Columbia in 2014. Wilkinson, co-organizer and COO of USA eShop, refers to the program as the “welcome mat of entrepreneurship in Columbia,” and Hilton, co-organizer and founder of community workspace SOCO, said that a main goal of the program is to connect budding entrepreneurs in the area.
“We didn’t see a central thing that brought everyone together,” Hilton said. “We wanted to create an event where everybody came together and could meet other people who were going through the same challenges and experiences that they were.”
Despite the organizers’ passion for a program like this in Columbia, it wasn’t certain that it would be a success.
“One of our big concerns was, ‘Are we going to have enough entrepreneurs?’” Wilkinson said. “We’ve been really pleasantly surprised.”
“Columbia is a great city, but it has a lot of silos that are not necessarily working together as far as entrepreneurial support is concerned,” Chydzinski said. “‘For entrepreneurs and by entrepreneurs,’ is the message we wanted to send out.”
The program not only brings local entrepreneurs together, but it also serves as a starting point for anyone who might be interested in starting their own business.
“A program like this is important because it really is an introduction to entrepreneurship,” Hilton said. “You can come, and you don’t have to know much about it.”
A typical session includes presentations from one or more entrepreneurs in the beginning stages of their businesses, followed by a question-and-answer session. Free-flowing coffee helps encourage creative viewpoints, and the co-organizers help make sure that the discussion is lively and that hard questions are asked.
“We have really raw, honest conversations during 1 Million Cups, which makes it special for entrepreneurs because they get the feedback they’re looking for,” Chydzinski said.
Columbia’s 1MC usually sees around 40 people each week, and as the program grows in popularity, the organizers work hard to keep it running.
“What Columbia needs more than anything else is good programs that stick around, so our plan for this year is to invest our time in creating a great experience for the 1MC community,” Hilton said.
As a part of improving the experience, Columbia’s 1MC has incorporated monthly educational sessions that, like the normal meetings, are open to everyone, but that cover topics like personal finance and budgeting. And this April, Columbia’s 1MC announced a partnership with Richland County Public Library, which now serves as its weekly meeting spot.
“The partnership with the library is one that is perfect for us,” Chydzinski said. “Everything that they do is so innovative and so entrepreneurial, so for us it’s the perfect place to take the next step in the growth of our program.”
“It’s much more than just books now,” Wilkinson said. “They have a lot of incredible resources, not just for entrepreneurs but for everybody in the community.”
The library’s recent renovations include meeting spaces, maker spaces, and even podcast studios, all of which encourage people to stick around after a 1MC meeting to discuss their ideas.
“My favorite part is the mind meld that occurs,” Hilton said. “It never ceases to amaze me that I will learn something new every single session.”
For those who can’t make the weekly meeting, sessions are live-streamed on Facebook.
“For us, it’s less about who’s coming through and more that the program is open to any entrepreneur in the community to come in and share his or her journey.
Being an entrepreneur is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and you should never do it alone,” Hilton said. “That’s really what 1MC is about.”