Advice for real problems • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Advice for real problems

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1 Million Cups offers entrepreneurs outlet to exchange ideas, grow networks

1 Million Cups meeting
Various business topics from marketing to finance often are discussed at 1 Million Cups meetings. (Photo provided by Purdue University Northwest)

The casual observer likely would call Breanne Zolfo a successful entrepreneur.

The 31-year-old owner of Cafe Fresco coffee shop in downtown Crown Point has gained national notoriety for just being nice to people.

Zolfo and her baristas write inspirational messages for customers on their coffee cups. She’s used tip money to surprise people shopping at local grocery stores to help pay for purchases, and she started a Facebook group called Community Love, which encourages people to give time to a cause.

“I realize that inspiring people and encouraging them can literally change the direction of their life and empower not only a person but a community and then an area and eventually a nation,” Zolfo said. “Our mission of Community Love was a spark and that spark spread like wildfire.”

Zolfo and her unique business approach recently were featured on a segment for CBS morning news and on the Steve Harvey show. But even with the notoriety she achieved on her own, Zolfo realized she still needed help with her business.

That realization led her to attend a meeting of the new business networking group 1 Million Cups.

“One Million Cups is an informal way to provide … one-on-one feedback to business owners,” said Kenneth Gonzalez, business adviser at the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center in Crown Point.

The Kauffman Foundation started the initiative in 2012 in Kansas City, Mo., as a way for entrepreneurs to engage with their communities, figuratively, over a million cups of coffee. The movement has grown to more than 180 communities nationally, with Hammond joining in 2016.

The group meets weekly and invites owners of businesses with five or fewer years in operation to get feedback from other entrepreneurs.

“We have business owners and supporting types of businesses from marketing firms, professional firms to get legal advice,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes we have bankers to offer advice, (and) sometimes you get funders that come by and think that’s something they want to invest in.”

Kasia Firlej, a professor of marketing at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, said business owners who find themselves at a 1 Million Cup presentation usually walk away with a solution to a problem.

“A lot of these businesses have different barriers,” Firlej said. “I believe this is one of the best kept secrets in Northwest Indiana for students to learn about what type of real issues businesses face.”

She said attendees make connections.

“It’s just such a great vibe to see people giving back,” Firlej said. “These are people who are very dedicated.”

Firlej teaches digital marketing at PNW in Hammond and has presented at 1 Million Cups meetings to help upstart businesses survive the marketplace.

“Digital marketing is a big growing field, and there’s a lot of unscrupulous kind of behavior,” Firlej said. “These people here are very dedicated that strive to bring in resources and expertise to help business and entrepreneurs thrive.”

Meetings usually offer presentations about a local business or product while attendees enjoy some coffee. A presenter is provided six minutes to discuss their service or product with a 20-minute question-and-answer session. The presentation culminates in a final question of what the community can do to assist them.

“In some ways, it’s like Shark Tank,” said Mont Handley, associate director of the Commercialization and Manufacturing Excellence Center at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond.

Sometimes, Handley said, an aspiring entrepreneur learns whether to start a business or change course.

“I can tell pretty quick whether something is going to work or fail,” Handley said. “It’s better to fail fast than invest all that time and money.”

Firlej said 1 Million Cups is a gathering of people looking to help each other.

“It’s just a bunch of people giving encouragement to the business owner who might be struggling with different elements of ‘What am I going to do next?’,” Firlej said.

Zolfo agrees even successful entrepreneurs can use a little help.

“This is definitely needed,” she said. “It’s a good thing to have this kind of support in Northwest Indiana.”

Click here to read more from the February/March 2020 issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.


  • Michael Puente

    Michael Puente works full time for WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago Public Radio. He covers politics, environment and features in Northwest Indiana, southwest Michigan and Chicago’s South Side. For 11 years, Michael wrote for the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana. Michael also spent two years writing for the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill., covering Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Michael is a contributing writer for Cafe Latino Lifestyles Magazine in Chicago and an adjunct faculty instructor at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Hammond.


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