Learning to Find Your Voice

How a Colorado craft coffee shop is creating upward mobility by inviting its apprentices to “come as you are”
Photo of five young apprentices surrounding the ipad at the cash wrap smiling

After high school, Melii wasn’t sure what her path could look like. Like many young adults, she thought college and a four-year degree was probably the only option, but she wasn’t even sure what interested her, let alone if college was right for her. Then, she heard about Prodigy Coffee’s apprenticeship.

“The apprenticeship allowed me to see a different career option and learn what I actually like to do and what I am good at. I also have learned to find the good in myself,” she said. “Finding a job that would make me the most money was always the priority. But now I know I can make money by doing something that I really like and that helps the community. I want to pay it forward.”

Prodigy Coffee’s unique model provided Melii with both – the opportunity to find meaningful, paid work and build transferrable skills along the way.

Founder and first executive director, Steph Frances, envisioned a nonprofit that would give young people like Melii opportunities that were challenging and dignifying, while also equipping them with personal development and hands-on learning, rather than a traditional college or university. Thus, Prodigy Coffee was born with its first outpost in Northeast Denver in 2016.

Through a 12-18 month apprenticeship, 18- to 24-year-olds learn the craft of creating artisan coffee, as well as running a business.

“We don’t believe in interviews,” Brady Grant, Director of Learning and founding team member boldly explained. Rather, potential apprentices apply through the website (though they aren’t discounted for incomplete applications). They are then invited on “coffee dates” with current apprentices to chat and get to know the Prodigy Coffee culture. From there, they enter a three-day paid training where they learn the ways Prodigy Coffee is different than a traditional work setting.

In six months, the apprentices become coffee experts, receiving industry certification from the Specialty Coffee Association. At the same time, they learn the ins and outs of running a business – from training new apprentices to calibrating equipment and project managing health code audits. By the end of the apprenticeship, participants are equipped to enter the workforce with skills to build sustainable lives, economic mobility and positively impact their communities.

But perhaps more important than the business skills they learn, apprentices are encouraged to show up as their authentic selves. Prodigy Coffee focuses as much on personal development as it does on running a shop.

“We have a sign at the front that says ‘come as you are,’” said Melii, a current apprentice and shift lead. “That’s for both customers and apprentices. We want it to be a safe space where no one feels excluded.”

“If you don’t fit the traditional mold of going to a four-year college, there are limited options. It’s confusing and lonely,” Brady said. “We want to give space to young people who have a ton of potential and rekindle their belief in themselves.

The benefits of developing these soft skills translate into real numbers. As of 2021, 93% of program graduates have increased earning power. That impressive statistic is not only due to apprentices having honed a new craft, but also because they learned the skills necessary to advocate for themselves.

For apprentice and shift lead Shaun, who’s 12 months into the program, learning to speak up has been the best part of Prodigy Coffee. “I’m learning to be more open, not just here but with my family as well,” he said. “I’m learning to use my voice and pushing myself to get a foot in the door for a meaningful career.”

Meanwhile, Melii has become more confident and is now adept at handling a multitude of challenging situations.

A $25,000 capital grant from the Boettcher Foundation enabled Prodigy Coffee to expand and build a second location in Globeville, which has a dedicated learning lab and increased capacity.

But to Brady, the investment from the Boettcher Foundation extends far beyond the building.

“Now that we have two shops, we can think of our apprenticeship more creatively,” he explained.

Two young men in a hand shake over the espresso machine

For example, Prodigy Coffee was able to expand the program, now employing 25 apprentices at a time. They also extended the length of the apprenticeship from 12 months to 18 months, recognizing that it takes about nine months for apprentices to hit their stride. Instead of leaving just three short months later, apprentices now spend the final nine months training peers, finding stability and celebrating success before planning their next move.

Prodigy Coffee also now has the ability to offer workshops for high school students – led by apprentices themselves – showcasing an alternate path post-school.

“The Boettcher Foundation grant helped us reimagine an already-successful program and make it even more transformational,” Brady said. That’s exactly what the Boettcher Foundation aims to do – invigorate communities by pursuing opportunities and finding solutions to pressing challenges – even if it’s one cappuccino at a time. That’s the spirit of Boettcher.

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