In Spring 2013, I began receiving acceptances into grad school programs for my MBA. At that time, Los Angeles-area schools were my first choice, given their proximity to ESPN and promising networks to the media and entertainment industry. At that time, my dream career was to work in sports management, and attending a school in L.A. would have made the most sense.
But, after speaking with mentors and friends, I felt a deep call to stay in San Diego and commit to a beautiful, multi-ethnic community: City Heights. Through efforts from resettlement agencies, such as the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Charities, San Diego has become home to thousands of Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Somalian, Karen, Iraqi and other refugee groups.
CHCH Co-Founders from left to right: David Tran, Lonny Cheuk, and Sterling Tran
Years prior, I began investing my time and energy in cultivating relationships with the marginalized: refugees, the homeless and ex-gang members. The conversations and interactions were nothing short of illuminating, upsetting and heavy; yet joy and laughter often accompanied the interactions. Hope was brewing.
So, I took a leap of faith and chose the Rady School of Management. Three years later, I find myself launching a 501(c)3 specialty coffee house devoted to employing marginalized people groups, partnering with local businesses and government leaders, and working at Fifty and Fifty, a creative agency in Downtown San Diego that serves mission-based organizations. In a serendipitous turn of events, I allowed compassion to drive my career decision.
CHCH serves coffee & tea in various venues, including weddings for UC San Diego alumni!
Through Rady, I chose to live a life of significance, not just one of success.
Three core elements of the Rady program helped bring me to life’s intersection today: leadership development that focused on ethics and social impact; a creative environment that supports strategic, calculated risks; and fantastic classmates and down-to-earth professors. I learned how to think better and quicker.
Some Important Milestones at Rady
Given San Diego’s specialty coffee synergy, my friends and I asked ourselves, “What if we used coffee as a medium to spread hope to the disenfranchised?”
To answer this question, I had to learn a few things.
In my core marketing course taught by Professor Ken Wilbur, I learned that the most important characteristic of a marketer is empathy. The worst mistake you can make is to assume your customer is exactly like you. Prioritizing data-driven thinking was a key step in my professional growth.
In Ayelet Gneezy’s Social Ventures elective, we performed root-cause analyses on environmental, educational, health, governmental and political crises until the real “Why is this problem happening?” was truly uncovered. The media often presents the symptoms, but rarely identifies the core issues fueling the numerous problems we see around us.
City Heights has an average high school graduation rate of 50%, a growing homeless population, and disparate social, educational, career and health outcomes for its population as compared to other suburbs in San Diego. In applying a root cause analysis to our community, we determined a few of these core issues: segregated ethnic communities (i.e., absence of relationship), limited job opportunities and high costs of living.
Gracie, our first employee, comes from the San Diego County Juvenile Hall. She’s been a fantastic learner and up and coming barista. Her dream is to one day become a parole officer.
Professor Del Foit’s Lab to Market courses proved to be most influential, as it was within the confines of this six-month cohort that we created our market research and business plan for City Heights Coffee House. The course forced me to think critically about my social ventures startup:
- What is our value proposition?
- What existing social lean models exist today? What worked and didn’t work?
- Who is our target audience?
- How do we measure social impact?
- What is the legal, technical, market, regulatory, and financial risks?
- What is the size of our potential impact?
- With whom could we partner in the community?
Through countless hours of brainstorming, primary and secondary research and feedback from classmates and alumni, we came up with a plan. In April 2015, we incorporated as City Heights Coffee House. In August 2015 with a stroke of divine favor and luck, we received our 501(c)3 status.
Since then, we’ve hired two employees from the Juvenile Hall, operated at the local farmers market, signed a lease for a brick and mortar location, catered a wedding, fundraised over $15,000 and planned a Tijuana Coffee Tour to build cross-border relationships.
We brew specialty coffee roasted by Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, based on La Jolla, California. Bird Rock offers sustainable, direct trade beans from long-standing, equitable partnerships with farmers around the world.
A Life of Significance
Our mission at City Heights Coffee House is to empower our community by providing employment to marginalized people. We understand that authentic human connection is the primary driver for releasing and realizing hope. We craft our drink menu to reflect the diversity of our community: Vietnamese, Mexican, Ethiopian and Iraqi.
Without relationships, our work would just consist of programs and grant writing. People had to matter to us, and they do.
At City Heights Coffee House, a coffee cup is more than just a drink. It’s an invitation to build deep ties across cultural and socioeconomic boundaries with neighbors, ethnic groups, local businesses and government leaders. Each cup represents a conversation: a reconciliatory talk, an exchange of business ideas, a willingness to listen to and learn from one another and a passion to be connected to the global world around us.
Each cup is our call to a life of significance, not just one of success. We believe we can transform the landscape of our neighborhood by first tackling the relational and social challenges. And it starts with relationships.
Shout out to Keith, Rubia, Xiao, Julia, and Kerry for being phenomenal classmates during our Lab to Market course!
David Tran graduated from the Rady School of Management, Full-Time MBA class in 2015 with a focus in digital marketing. He is co-founder at City Heights Coffee House and currently serves as the director of marketing and partnerships. He’s also the senior producer and digital strategist at Fifty and Fifty, a full-service creative agency partnering with socially and ethically responsible companies. // Connect with David on LinkedIn