BY KATE TURNER ’21
Mo’Coffee, the newly-established Mount Holyoke coffee co-operative held their inaugural event for the year on Sunday. Hosted in the All Saints Episcopal Church, the Kick-Off Coffee House featured music, board games and, of course, a steady supply of coffee and tea provided by student worker-owners and participating faculty throughout the night.
Born as a hypothetical in an upper-level politics class in the spring of 2016, Mo’Coffee has grown from the topic of students’ final projects and independent studies to an actual business enterprise, one that has been working with both the Valley Association of Worker Co-operatives (VAWC) and the Mount Holyoke administration, and plans to open for business in the spring of 2017. Currently, Mo’Coffee is operating out of a common space in the All Saints Episcopal Church just off-campus, although student worker-owner Savannah Harriman-Pote ’20 says that they are willing to be flexible withthe business’ future space.
Part of the benefit of a co-operative business model is that it allows for flexibility, Harriman-Pote explained.
“Just in terms of being really versatile, being able to pop up in places like this is really neat,” she said. “Also, when you’re starting a small business, the co-operative model has a lot of advantages. Co-operatives tend to fill niches in a way that standard, single-owner businesses or — for instance, Mount Holyoke — cannot.”
Mo’Coffee was conceived, at least in part, to fill a niche.
“I think that there’s kind of this lack of an affordable coffee option within the Mount Holyoke community that’s accessible in the hours that people want it,” said Azulina Green ’17, one of the original founders of the Mo’Coffee project. Calling the hours of Uncommon Grounds, the coffee bar previously located in Blanchard Campus Center, “a little limited” and the prices at Rao’s “not so affordable,” Green explained that Mo’Coffee could do better.
The other benefit of a student-owned co-operative lies in the co-operative business model itself. Adam Trott, the executive director of the VAWC, defines co-operatives as, “businesses wholly and democratically owned and controlled by their workers.”
Professor Ali Aslam, who taught the class in which the idea for Mo’Coffee was born, explains that in addition to being “an outlet for entrepreneurial aspirations on campus,” the unique model of a co-operative business also gives participating students a sense of accountability and responsibility for their involvement in the business that is difficult to find anywhere else.
“If I can say it,” Aslam added, “so much of living your principles at the college level is about taking unpaid work. And I, as an educator, worry then that the subtext is the things that really matter are not the things you can work at. And if we can grow this, I think the best version of it is it pays a fair wage, and it is fulfilling.”
Student participation in Mo’Coffee allows them to “live their principles” in several ways, according to the student creators. Perhaps most obviously, Mo’Coffee focuses on sustainability and on ethically sourcing their coffee beans. But there is also a focus on the democratic nature of co-operative businesses as empowering for Mount Holyoke students. In emphasizing different regional preparations of coffee, Mo’Coffee also aims to reflect the diverse backgrounds of Mount Holyoke students.
“We have a diverse campus,” Harriman-Pote explained. “We should start taking note of that.”
“We need an informed and active economic democracy,” Trott said. In his view, worker-owned co-operative businesses, as well as education more focused on alternative business models, such as the co-operative model, only help reach that goal.
“Hopefully, if Mo’Coffee becomes as successful as we’d like it to be, we’ll promote other co-operatives on campus, and kind of create a culture on campus for co-operatives at Mount Holyoke,” said Harriman-Pote.
To that end, Mo’Coffee is also focused on transforming the Mount Holyoke educational experience to better represent co-operatives, expanding experiential and community-based learning options on campus and influencing classroom discussion.
While attending the Association of Cooperative Educators (ACE) conference in 2016, Green and Harriman-Pote met several educators and members of co-operatives who have since been invited to speak on campus in the spring of 2018.
“What has been really exciting is to talk with alumni,” Aslam added. “We’ve learnedthat in the past there were housing co-operatives, there was a used book co-operative, there was a previously student-run coffee shop.” Mo’Coffee’s plan is to capitalize on the experience of those alumni “We’re going to invite those folks to campus and just have a sort of — here, this is the inheritance. Co-operatives past, present, and future kind of panel,” he said.
According to Aslam, if Mo’Coffee is successful in the long-term, they even hope to design a study abroad program, “for students to go and learn how coffee is grown, harvested, how coffee is part of a culture — through one of our suppliers.”
The Pioneer Valley is famous for its concentration of co-operative businesses — Massachusetts hosts around 500 of the U.S.’ 29,000 co-operative businesses and their connection to VAWC through Trott has already been helpful to the Mo’Coffee startup. According to Trott, VAWC is a “co-op of co-ops that educates, develops, markets, and supports worker co-operatives and the wider co-op community.”
“It’s invaluable,” said Green of VAWC. “I also think it’s part of the greater community that Mount Holyoke hasn’t tapped into that much…and I think it’s really important to continue reaching out to the community and inviting the community into our space.”
For Mo’Coffee, that includes not only close participation with VAWC itself but also sourcing from other co-operative providers on all levels. “As you become a member of the co-operative world, you find out that the co-operative ideology operates not only on the level of your own organization, but also kind of works between organizations,” Harriman-Pote explained.
Given their goal of interacting with the larger South Hadley community, the venue within the All Saint’s Church is currently a useful one for Mo’Coffee. However, their business plan does hinge on more permanent coffee house space in the future.
“We’d like the permanent coffee house space to be a hub of student activity that provides a kind of decentralized space where students can, you know, maybe show their art or do open mic, or use it as their own creative event space that’s a little more personal and intimate than, say, Blanchard,” said Green.
Citing the soon-to-be empty dining facilities in the residence hallsas potential areas for development, Aslam stated: “While we’re excited in the future to maybe move right into a campus space, for now this feels right.”
In addition to a coffeehouse, Mo’Coffee plans on the eventual purchase of a solar-powered coffee trike, functioning as kind of an environmentally responsible coffee cart. Their goal is to operate it in different spaces around campus both indoors and outdoors as a more mobile extension of their business, catering to different campus events such as first-year orientation and alumni weekends.
“It’s really more about the process than the end goal,” Harriman-Pote said when discussing future plans for the enterprise. “Because I could graduate and Mo’Coffee might not have a campus space, so it’s ensuring that what I do in the meantime is educationally valuable to the community of Mount Holyoke.
“Now I realize that my vision, my idea and dream for Mo’Coffee isn’t so important,” Green agreed. “What I want to see is a student co-operative on campus. My vision is students taking charge and gaining skills that they can apply to their life and working democratically together.”