I’ve spent the last 48 hours on the campus of Loomis Chaffee, a prep school in Connecticut that I am fortunate to call my alma mater. Since the fall of 1990 I’ve spent years at Loomis as a ball boy for the soccer team, as a fan of my brothers, as a student, as an alumnus, and, as of this week, a teacher.
On the heels of our week in Boston, Andrew and I were asked to work with Loomis’ Hub for Innovation, leading a group of 10 college-bound seniors in an entrepreneurship exercise. How cool is it that at the high school level, students are using real world applications to enhance learning beyond AP exams and SAT prep? I jumped at an opportunity to contribute to a school that has meant so much to me, to help students bridge classroom education and tangible application.
With that blank canvas as an assignment, Andrew and I chose to focus on a study in collaboration — one of Summit’s core brand principles. We introduced Summit to the students, and then offered them a list of 15 brands to choose from as a “partner” to us for this exercise. They had to, by Wednesday afternoon, pitch us on a product or event, something tangible, that was built on shared brand values. The students, in three groups, chose the Museum of Modern Art, The North Face, and sweetgreen.
To prepare them better for the assignment, we drew on three books we’ve used time and time again to build Summit over the past eight years: “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins; “Start with Why,” by Simon Sinek; and “The Lean Startup,” by Eric Reis. We talked about building companies for the long-term, and how that’s accomplished through a foundation of a vision or purpose, rather than leading with a product. Because if the product fails, as so many do, what do you have to fall back on?
The entire exercise was surreal in a few ways — for one, I was teaching seniors at the very school where I studied 15 years ago. I got to tap into the intelligence and social awareness of Loomis students who reminded me an awful lot of myself from 2003. It also was surreal because it forced Andrew and me to condense Summit’s brand, intellectual library and vision into a 36-hour window. It’s as if someone asked me to regurgitate the most worthwhile lessons I’ve learned as an entrepreneur and spit them out to the next generation.
In some ways, it felt a little like preparing to pass the baton. As I wrote last week, it’s hard to transition from student to teacher, from question asker to question answerer. Yet here I was, sharing the Cliff Notes of my eight-year story as Summit’s leader. We discussed building a foundation, of discovering a purpose, of continuing to ask questions, of harnessing the talents of your teammates, of developing a strategy and then pivoting when that strategy doesn’t work. We discussed how to turn a strategy into a business plan, and then a business plan into that tangible deliverable — a product, an event, etc.
I don’t consider myself an expert. I’m self taught, I’ve made more mistakes than I ever imagined, and most days I don’t know where I am heading … only what I believe in while I am on the way. And I realized over the past few days that maybe that’s the best I can offer the next generation of innovators. You don’t need to be an expert, you don’t need to take all of the classes, you don’t need to wait for perfection to try something. You don’t need to know what your two- or five-year plan is, so long as you have a vision and a purpose and a reason for wanting to find out what’s next.
We probably won’t open a cafe inside The North Face’s retail stores, and we might not get our cold brew cans in every sweetgreen, and we almost certainly aren’t going to get the green light from The MoMa to erect an exhibit on the art of coffee. But there’s value in dreaming, and having aspirations bigger than you can count and farther than you can see. In teaching, there’s an opportunity to learn. Hearing super intelligent 17- and 18-year-old students propose random ideas surrounding Summit Coffee — our own brand — fires me up. I encouraged them to aim high, to put Summit where they think we belong. Their interrogation of Summit and our brand and our capabilities got me thinking, about who we are and why we do what we do, where we’ve been and where we can go.
As a brand, we’re committed to staying curious and humble. We’re learning through teaching, and taking opportunities to think outside the box. As I told the 10 seniors, if traditional specialty coffee is the box, I want to thrive outside of it. I think teaching a class as part of my daily work is, in fact, thinking outside the box.
What dreams may come true? It’s impossible to know without having some first.