The state’s orders limiting in-person dining and liquor sales have created significant hurdles for Denver’s dining scene—and that’s putting it mildly. Restaurants have faced temporary closures and fought last-minute eviction notices, among numerous other hardships. Sadly, many have shut their doors permanently. 

But one local coffee shop has managed to thrive in spite of the strain COVID-19 has placed on us all. Prodigy Coffeehouse, situated in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, serves up the same cappuccinos and lattes as its competitors. But it’s raison d’être is entirely different: It aims to help marginalized young adults build life skills through business experience. With programmatic goals tied to developing the professional aptitude, personal growth, and mental health and wellness of these “apprentices,” Prodigy operates as a social enterprise. And that model, founder Steph Frances says, has been key to the coffee shop’s ability to weather the pandemic. “We’re a competitive, craft coffee shop, but we exist for this social mission,” she says.

In general, social enterprises strive to solve a social or environmental problem through a market-driven approach. They’re organizations, whether for-profit or nonprofit, with a do-good mission that works in tandem with a money-making business arm; that revenue-driving component pours back into the mission. Often, there’s a second fundraising element as well.

As a registered nonprofit, Prodigy’s financial model is supported by revenue from the coffee shop itself (which covers the costs of operating the business arm and generates a small profit), as well by grants and donations that go directly toward funding the classes, coaching, and therapy that each apprentice not only receives, but is paid to attend. 

So when the coffee shop was shut down last spring during mandatory COVID-19 containment efforts, it leaned on donations to keep all of its apprentices fully employed—in fact, Prodigy hired an additional 25 disconnected youth to be a part of a month-long, paid training program. Old and new apprentices alike attended virtual seminars about what employers will look for in a post-pandemic workforce and had access to emotional healing and meditation resources. “They really focused on our mental health during those months,” says Jamie Cordova, who began her apprenticeship last February and is preparing for a managerial role. “Most jobs don’t do that. They’re not invested in their people like Prodigy is.”

Operations manager and former apprentice Emilia Cano agrees that at Prodigy, people don’t just drive the mission; they are the mission. “A lot of the youth who come here haven’t found success in those traditional systems of work and school,” she says. “Prodigy gives them a place to find themselves fully and authentically.”

Jamie Cordova. Photo by Kevin Mohatt

Prodigy takes a “stakeholder approach,” explains Catherine Milburn, a teaching professor for the social responsibility and sustainability division at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. Companies have traditionally made decisions based primarily on what’s best for their shareholders—generally the short-term goal of making a profit. Businesses that take a stakeholder approach factor in their impact on groups like employees, communities, consumers, and the environment. 

“While making a profit is still important, the stakeholder approach suggests that a company’s real success and profitability lies in satisfying a variety of stakeholders, not just those who own the company,” Milburn adds. It’s a matter of playing the long game and recognizing that if your company has a positive impact on the world, it’s more likely to thrive.

Both Milburn and Frances note that consumers and shareholders are starting to demand that businesses take a stakeholder approach by asking more questions about companies’ environmental impact, employee treatment, and diversity, equity, and inclusion practices. “Millennials and Generation Z are driven by those things,” Frances says. “It’s a smart financial move as well as a smart human move for companies to consider something like a social-enterprise model.”

Certainly, that model is better suited to some industries and entrepreneurs than others. And Milburn points out that being dependent on donations is fine “if you can keep them going, but a weak spot if donations go down.” 

Yet as we begin to rebuild our local economy, Frances insists it’s vital for businesses to move away from traditional systems benefiting those with “money, privilege, and power.” Instead, employers need to think more equitably, especially when it comes to hiring practices. Do that, she says, and the financial gains will come.

“If we can shift the way that we think about our economy, we can still have businesses with amazing products, while also having this back-end piece where we’re caring for people deeply and working to upend inequitable employment structures,” Frances says. “Prioritizing those on the margins creates a more equitable, soulful, culturally vibrant community.”

3801 E. 40th Ave.