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Denver Coffee Shop Teaching Necessary Career Skills

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Greg Glasgow

Prodigy Coffeehouse

A University of Denver alumna has helped transform a former Jiffy Lube in northeast Denver into a funky urban coffee shop that teaches its young employees life and career skills while training them to make the perfect cappuccino.

DU alumna Hillary Frances (MA ’09) and her wife, Stephanie Frances, founded Prodigy Coffeehouse to help prepare high school- and college-age youth for meaningful careers. The social enterprise opened in July.

“[We found that] schools were graduating students who weren’t succeeding in workplaces — either students got an entry-level job and that’s it, or they weren’t even getting a job — and workforce-development organizations weren’t really pushing youth beyond that either,” Hillary Frances says. “We wanted to create something where we hold [young people] to a standard of excellence that means they could get a job in this field, but also any other field.”

To that end, the Prodigy team teaches its employees, known as “apprentices,” not just the ins and outs of espresso machines and cash registers, but the back end of the business as well — everything from marketing and accounting to merchandising and interior design. The apprentices — who range in age from 16 to 24 — come mostly from the neighborhood around the café, which is just down the street from a stop on RTD’s new A line to the airport.

Hillary and Stephanie Frances
Hillary and Stephanie Frances

Beyond their coffee and business training, apprentices are learning interpersonal skills and will soon be matched one-on-one with business mentors in the community. All of this is in the name of preparing the teens for their future careers — possibly with the Prodigy family as it continues to expand.

“We hope that a few of them will start taking on management roles, and then the next step is that they would help us design the business plan for our next social enterprise,” Frances says. “This is only the first of what we hope will be many social enterprises for young adults. We wanted to start the first ourselves and then let this team of apprentices help us figure out what the next one will be.”

Frances has made a career out of helping people find new opportunities. Her DU master’s degree in international and intercultural communications led her to positions in refugee resettlement at Goodwill and for the state of Colorado; she now works for Denver’s Emily Griffith Technical College as dean of the school’s adult education and language-learning programs. There she oversees Emily’s Coffee, a cafe that teaches job skills to newly arrived immigrants. It’s a business model that emphasizes the importance of personal connection, she says, which is why it works for Prodigy as well.

“We have seen a lot of job-readiness programs that put people in back-of-the-house kind of jobs where if something goes wrong, they’re not going to be customer-facing,” she says. “We picked coffee because we knew that it would be a daily interaction, and people would get in the routine of coming in here and being able to experience something different and interact with people they normally wouldn’t interact with. We really wanted the apprentices to be customer-facing because we think they all have something really surprising to offer.”