University Avenue serves as an artery for San Diego proper, connecting more than 11 miles of hyper-local and proud neighborhoods. From the affluent urban district of Mission Hills to the sleepy family-friendly suburban La Mesa, the neighborhoods scattered along University Avenue serve a diverse array of San Diego residents. Smack dab in the middle of the thoroughfare sits City Heights, a longtime haven for refugees from all across the globe.
The community of City Heights is as bustling as it is diverse – a large number of local businesses launched and supported by refugees from Middle Eastern, Northeast African, Southeast Asian and Latin American origin. The community is proud of its global roots, celebrating the varying backgrounds and cultures.
The vitality and pride of the City Heights neighborhood inspired resident and Rady School of Management graduate David Tran (MBA ’15) to create a hub for the community to gather, while catering to the local interests and tastes. Along with his wife Sterling Tran and colleague Lonny Cheuk, City Heights Coffee House was born – a multi-cultural space for residents to gather over a cup of coffee or tea sourced from the countries that make up the neighborhood.
City Heights Coffee House sits right in the center of University Avenue surrounded by local businesses and nonprofit organizations – from Vietnamese, Somali, and Ethiopian restaurants to Lao, Mexican, and Ugandan community centers – all interspersed – and just a stone’s throw away from organizations that assist refugee resettlement and integration.
The complex ecosystem comprised of low-income households, challenges with affordable housing, gentrification, and a diverse population inspired Tran and his partners to create a social enterprise that focuses on workforce development. City Heights Coffee House offers jobs to opportunity youth in San Diego, including refugee and justice-involved youth. Opportunity youth are classified as youth between ages 16-24 who don’t have a job and aren’t in school. A crucial element of the Life Development Program is to provide on-the-job retail training, basic skills such as budgeting and managing a schedule, conflict-resolution tools, and career development courses such as resume and job-search prep.
“During my time at Rady, I took Professor Ayelet Gneezy’s class that focused on social entrepreneurship,” he said. “This class was pivotal for me because it exposed me to a different entrepreneurial path – one that isn’t traditional and focused solely on profit. One specific concept that she was teaching in the class was around root cause analysis. When we see a problem in any community – globally, nationally, or locally or regionally, anywhere or in the workplace -you have to ask yourself, ‘What’s the problem, and what’s causing that problem? And what’s the problem beneath that problem?’”
Over 41,000 youth in San Diego face barriers to employment opportunities (or lack thereof) and lack support structures to identify and perform successfully in education. The mission of City Heights Coffee House isn’t solely to provide a quality cup of coffee – it extends a hand to the community, offering jobs to underserved youth. Through job training and providing career and personal development opportunities, Tran and his team are dedicated to paving the way for their youth to succeed.
A space to serve
A longtime resident of City Heights, Tran was inspired to create a space after noticing a need in the community.
“The inspiration for City Heights Coffee House came from my experience a few years ago volunteering for a nonprofit organization called Bridge of Hope here in City Heights,” he said. “We were delivering clothes, donations, furniture and food to refugee families and I remember meeting this Afghani family that had just moved here to San Diego. When I met them, I realized that they were given all this food, but didn’t even have a fridge or a kitchen table. Moreover, they didn’t have jobs and were expected to assimilate into American society with limited help and support.”
With an idea in place, Tran decided to attend the Rady School to gain the business acumen to create and launch his dream – a community hub that helped local refugees and at-risk residents obtain marketable skills and knowledge to succeed in the workplace and community.
“My time at Rady was invaluable to the development and execution of the City Heights Coffee House,” Tran said. “The Lab to Market class in the second year of my MBA program taught me to take a concept and transform it into an actual business plan. I conducted market research and it taught me how to think — how to take a social enterprise concept that was going to solve problems for our community and transform it into an actual plan that we could work with and had action steps to it.”
Taking an idea and transforming it into a functioning business is no easy undertaking, but with the skills and tools Tran developed during his MBA, he was able to create a functioning business prototype before crossing the Commencement stage.
“Through countless hours of brainstorming, primary and secondary research and feedback from classmates and alumni, City Heights Coffee House was able to incorporate in April 2015,” he said. “Shortly after in August 2015 with a stroke of divine favor, we received our 501(c)3 status.”
A growing venture
Since 2015, City Heights Coffee House has continued to grow, moving from a Farmers Market stand to a small cart behind a thrift store to now a storefront on one on San Diego’s most popular streets. The new space has been conducive to providing a hub for the community to gather, hosting mental health discussions, cultural celebrations, art shows, open mics, and local council meetings.
“It’s so exciting to see how far we’ve come – our social venture has grown so much and we’re continuing to grow,” Tran said. “We want to continue to expand so we can provide more career opportunities for youth who want a hand-up, not a handout. We’re in the mission of second chances.”
Sitting in the shop with a cup of coffee (sourced from Ethiopia – a large population of Ethiopian residents reside in City Heights), the energy is palpable. Local residents filter in and out throughout our conversation, admiring the local art on the wall while waiting for coffee prepared by college students who live in the area. One barista, Betel Mulugheta from Eritrea, is eager to share how City Heights Coffee House has helped her in her career.
“My time at City Heights Coffee House has been extremely helpful for my career,” she said. “I work as a manager and barista, so I have experience with both making drinks and running operations behind the scenes. It’s given me the opportunity to learn more about business and I feel confident in my abilities.”
Mulugheta’s testimony brings a smile to Tran’s face – seeing his team’s goals for the business and community materialize in real time only reinforces why City Heights Coffee House was created in the first place.
“I’m so thankful for my time at Rady, because without Rady this wouldn’t have been possible,” he said. “I hope other MBA students realize that social ventures and enterprises can be profitable while changing the world for the better.”