Student enterprises blend energy, opportunity

This story is reprinted from the February issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU Magazine

As Brennan Williams sat in that meeting with President Brian Mueller and other Grand Canyon University executives, he had to remind himself that he had just graduated a few weeks earlier. He couldn’t believe he had graduated to this.

It was shocking enough that he had been installed as manager of the new coffee shop on campus. But then he heard these words:

Students flock to Grand Canyon Beverage Co., where they are served by students who are managed by recent graduates.

“Let us know what you’re going to need.”

Even today, he still can’t believe it:

“I had been asking to go to the bathroom three weeks earlier in class, and then all of a sudden I have these top-level executives at a university saying, ‘Let us know where you want us to invest. We’re going to do this and we’re going to take this very seriously and we want to grow this.’

“I was blown away by it. I said, ‘This isn’t going to be just another coffee shop because that’s not the vision. And this isn’t just another university. It’s more than that.’”

Nearly three years later, Grand Canyon Beverage Co. (GCBC) is the most high-profile student enterprise on campus, filled morning, noon and night thanks to its innovative menu, comfortable ambience … and, in no small measure, its leadership (all recent GCU grads) and employees (all students). But now it has plenty of company.

To keep ground tuition frozen by intelligently managing expenses, a quest that is at 11 years and running, the University has launched nine other businesses that don’t just employ students, they empower them. In addition to GCBC, other start-ups are the Canyon Promotions merchandise company, Student Ad Agency, Lope Shop, GCU Hotel/Canyon 49 Grill, GCU Golf Course/pro shop/Lope House restaurant, and Canyon Worship albums.

Collectively, those enterprises employed 430 people and produced about $16 million in gross revenues in 2018. Just as important, they are providing real-world business opportunities in which students are interacting with high-level clients and regular customers, deciding menu or merchandise options, writing training manuals, choosing logos, devising marketing campaigns, and managing the daily routine of opening and closing business operations.

Savannah Slover, enjoying a rare quiet moment on the GCBC production line, is among the students who went through intense training to work there.

Bottom line: Students are trusted. That was the vision. Now it’s a reality. And it is a game-changer for them.

“It is a tremendous experience for students,” said Mueller, who meets monthly with representatives of all the enterprises. “They’re either running the business or they’re part of the business, and they’re doing it in an environment that’s fairly safe because the new business has the backing of a large enterprise. So there can be some risks taken and they don’t have to worry about the business closing the next month.

“It is a very good way for a young person to learn what it takes to be part of the beginning of something.”

The advent of these enterprises is so important, they occupy two planks – creating jobs for both students and people in the neighborhood – in Mueller’s five-point plan to revitalize the west Phoenix community in which GCU resides.

“To rebuild a community and make it middle class, you have to bring safety, you have to bring improved schools, you have to work on increased home values,” Mueller said, laying out the other three planks in his plan. “But you can’t do any of that unless you also bring jobs. If you try to do those other three things without jobs, you gentrify the neighborhood.”

Instead, GCU has electrified the job market.

Local residents can transform their lives and those of their entire families by working for the University, which brings the added benefit of significant GCU tuition discounts for their children – many of whom would be the first in their family to get a college education.

GCU students can learn the skills to run a campus business and then take that know-how into the community and beyond. Or they can keep those skills on campus after graduation and do something akin to Williams’ task – managing a multimillion-dollar business with 143 employees.

GCBC managers Danny Pezzullo, Brennan Williams and Lauren Lentini.

“GCU took me seriously, invested in me, and so I’ve got to do that with them,” he said. “If I don’t, I don’t feel like I’m doing the University right.”

It is paying off for everyone. Here’s how …


More than just java

Williams had seen this level of trust before. As a leader of the Havocs, GCU’s nationally recognized student cheer section, he got an early look at the planning that goes into any University entity.

That was evident to him the first time he sat in on a meeting about Midnight Madness, the traditional start of the basketball season every October. A marketing plan was needed. It had to be done in a month. Who was going to do it?

“We are,” the Havocs leaders said without hesitation, much to Williams’ surprise.

“It wasn’t just showing up to a game and getting crazy. There’s so much that goes into it,” he said. “What I learned in my first week was, holy cow, the executives trust us. They want us not just showing up and working, they want us thinking creatively.”

From a guy who didn’t even drink coffee until his senior year at GCU, Williams has developed a java passion that runs so hot, he sounds as if he’s three cups in when he talks about it:

“The idea was similar to the Havocs, really. It was community, it was student-run, and it was a heck of a lot of energy and excitement that needs to be around this. This wasn’t going to be a coffee shop where you’re going to get this relaxed experience. We wanted an energetic, excited, how-we-doing-today.

“We’re going to get you caffeinated and get you to class. We’re going to get you caffeinated so you can do your Resident Assistant duty tonight. We’re going to get you caffeinated so you can go to your life group. Coffee and tea applies to everyone on this campus. Every single person.”

The results – and the training to achieve those results – are equally intense.

GCBC already has ordered 250,000 cans of Stampede, its own energy drink, in the year and a half since it was introduced. A four-hour shift can require making hundreds of drinks. “Our baristas are the best in the business. We deal with an insane level of volume at once,” Williams said. “We are slinging the beans here.”

Jake Kraft, here serving another student, was on the cover of the February issue of GCU Magazine.

Lauren Lentini, like Williams, has been a manager from the start, and Danny Pezzullo joined the supervisory team after being a regular customer. “They have been so key in the growth of this,” Williams said.

But they rely heavily on student workers, whom Williams calls “the heart and soul of this thing.” Student teams manage GCBC’s social media and promotional events. They do research and development to come up with new menus. They had a major role in determining the right flavor for Stampede.

New hires must pass a quiz about the drink menu, then work six shifts spread over two weeks. And who does the training? Students, of course – the training team. One of the team’s members, Jake Kraft, helped write the manual.

“The level of trust is given to you from the moment you start training,” Kraft said. “You start learning about coffee and you can really see how passionate everyone is about the job. We’re excited to go to work. It’s a fun environment.”

Kraft applied to GCBC as soon as he arrived from Couer d’Alene, Idaho, in 2017. He had previous coffee shop experience back home and, besides, he probably would have been in GCBC all the time anyway – just like so many other students. It’s not uncommon to hear of the Havocs’ allure persuading a student to enroll at GCU, and now GCBC is an attraction, too.

“I was talking with my friend Tanner Bach (Vice President of the Havocs),” Kraft said, “and we agreed that GCBC and Havocs leaders are the two best jobs on campus.”


Easy sell for clients

The level of responsibility confronting student workers reaches an even higher level in the Student Ad Agency for a simple reason: They aren’t just trying to impress their fellow students; they have to wow outside clients, mainly school districts, as they create everything from logos to animated products and marketing campaigns.

The work that Kyle Peterson (left) and Kylie Whetsel have done for the ad agency has made them more marketable.

The ad agency was created for two reasons: to elevate marketing for K-12 institutions, such as Bourgade Catholic High School and Glendale Elementary School District, by leveraging years of experience marketing higher education, and to provide GCU students with practical experience. The combination is inspiring, and the response from the community has been just as impressive.

“It’s the reputation that GCU already has with having such a strong brand and understanding marketing really well, but it’s also the opportunity to work with the students. All of them are excited about that,” said Senior Marketing Manager Brian Blumer, who oversees the agency.

The students, in turn, benefit from doing something that goes far beyond getting graded in class. They get to interact with clients and brainstorm with each other on marketing solutions to client problems.

“You get to take stuff you learn in class and apply it,” said Kylie Whetsel, a marketing major who was convinced by her teachers that working in the ad agency would be a good idea. “You get real-world experience just by being here.”

Said senior advertising design major Kyle Peterson, who has worked for the agency for nearly a year and a half, “I know the process and understand how the agency process works, and that’s something none of my classmates have. I feel like I have a big advantage over them.”

Better yet, they have fun while they’re gaining such valuable experience. Blumer said a major part of his job satisfaction is getting to work with the students (“We don’t have any Eeyores on our team”). Courtney Baldwin, another marketing major, talks about the delight she takes in commandeering the whiteboard during meetings, conducted in a no-such-thing-as-a-bad-question demeanor.

Samantha Richards was assigned to write -- and enforce -- a six-page training manual for Canyon Promotions.

“It’s a learning environment but also a professional environment,” she said. “It’s the right amount of fun and the right amount of work.”

Peterson sounded a lot like GCBC’s Kraft when he said, “It’s probably the best college experience I’ve gotten out of everything at GCU.”


Fits students to a T

It was a big deal when Mark Stone, Business Division Manager for Canyon Promotions, asked student worker Samantha Richards to write a training manual.

“He was trusting me to do it the way he wanted it,” said Richards, who likes to be called Saman.

But Stone chuckled to himself when she told him she thought it could be done in one page. It grew to six as she spelled out all the painstaking details.

“We’re trying to give students ownership of projects – that’s what we’re about, keeping things moving – and at the same time making sure that we’re delivering professional-level service,” he said. “It’s not just the expertise we need. Are you capable of and comfortable with teaching those skills to others?”

With a staff evenly split between students and outside workers, Canyon Promotions produces staff uniforms, the T-shirts handed out at basketball games, and apparel for GCU promotional events. It is another example of GCU using its ingenuity – while schooling its students – to hold down costs and still maintain quality.

Rosa Vazquez says working at Canyon Promotions is an education in and of itself.

“It’s really cool because they give students first-hand experience rather than just throwing us out into the workplace after we graduate and expecting us to know what we’re doing,” said Richards, a double major in mathematics and nursing. “It shows that they care about our future and how we will respond to the workplace.

“Even if this isn’t directly in our field that we want to be in one day, it still gives us experience with, for example, learning to work as a team, learning organizational skills, learning how to follow directions and learning how to organize directions, like writing a manual. It’s also nice because they’re so flexible with our school schedule.”

Richards got the last laugh when Stone, who also teaches marketing in the Colangelo College of Business, didn’t follow her manual instructions when logging in a package. “Saman told me off,” he said with a smile.

Richards’ co-worker, forensic science major Rosa Vazquez, agreed that she never knew making T-shirts could be so much fun – or educational.

“If you want to major in business or open your own business one day,” she said, “this teaches you how to do that. When you start from the bottom, it shows you how to go all the way up.”


Students get in Disney-like spirit

Shelly Schrimpf likes to tell the story of a student who chose GCU because of the way the family was treated in the Lope Shop. “Who wouldn’t like to be part of this atmosphere?” the student’s dad asked.

“When I interview students who want to work here, that’s the number one thing I get: ‘We want to work here because every time we come in they’re so nice. We just want to be part of that,’” said Schrimpf, Assistant Director of Campus Retail and Licensing.

Nika Cornell loves being given more responsibility at the Lope Shop.

Schrimpf is a former trainer for Disney and has applied those same principles to the Lope Shop: Visitors are guests, not customers. That Happiest Place on Campus attitude has been embraced by the students who work in its vastly expanded location in Fleming Hall.

Again, it’s all about trust.

“We’re really well equipped as far as training goes, but from there we’re given plenty of opportunities to step up and show that we are responsible and we can handle this,” said Nika Cornell, on track to graduate a year early with a degree in Christian Studies with an Emphasis in Global Ministry.

It isn’t your typical college store. There are no textbooks – GCU switched to e-books, which saves students gargantuan amounts of money. It was leased but now is independent, which means the University keeps all the profits (another reason for the tuition freeze) rather than writing a check to a third party. And the inventory goes far beyond T-shirts, providing school supplies and basic necessities that at some schools would require a trip off campus.

Cornell’s responsibilities include opening and closing the store sometimes – heady stuff for most college students, just part of the job for her. The 47 student workers are managed by a full-time staff of 11, seven of whom are GCU graduates. The trend is clear: The students either get their degree and go full-time, or they pass the baton to someone they trust.

“We normally hire off recommendations,” said Andy Dunn, Director of Campus Retail and Licensing. “When our current students are ready to graduate, usually they bring someone to Shelly and say this would be a great person to bring on.”

See if you can spot a trend as you listen to Cornell’s sentiments about working there:

“I’m a little biased, but I think it’s the best job on campus. I’ve made a ton of friendships here. I love interacting with customers. One of my favorite things is when Discover GCU students come in – I get to brag about the school a little bit.”


Hospitality majors are well-served

Marisa Becker didn’t hesitate when she started working at Canyon 49 Grill, the stylish restaurant that services the GCU Hotel. The senior hospitality major wanted responsibility, so she did some job shadowing and quickly became a catering assistant.

Marisa Becker is always looking for new ways to promote Canyon 49 Grill.

“Marisa walked in the door and was a born leader,” said Brett Cortright, who manages the hotel/restaurant and GCU hospitality program.

And when Cortright comes across a leader, he also doesn’t hesitate – Becker now handles the social media platforms for the restaurant and hotel all by herself and also helps with internal events.

“So there’s a lot of trust there, obviously,” she said. “Brett’s really good at involving you in different aspects of the hotel. He’s a big dreamer, so he really wants to push his students and throw them out there and, of course, help them, too. He wants you to go above and beyond and reach new heights and do cool things.”

When she first came to GCU, Becker was an exercise science major and wanted to go into sports psychology. Though her parents both are in the hospitality industry, she didn’t think it was for her.

But after she got a taste of corporate event planning, she decided that would be her career track. “Just working here has connected me with a bunch of full-time people who do events for GCU and then people throughout the Valley through different hospitality events that we cater to or attend.”

Cortright likes to push students by putting them in situations where they can succeed or fail, “and we all know which ones you can learn from more.” But he and his managers are right there to help students like Becker when they have questions.

Here’s how much she appreciates her social media role:

“It takes a lot of creativity, which I love. I go around the hotel and restaurant thinking about what content I can create and what can I boost about the restaurant and hotel that will drive customers in here. That’s been a really interesting way to learn and push myself.”


A solid shot at a career

Like GCU Hotel and the Canyon 49, the public gets a first-hand look at what the Lopes are like on a visit to GCU Championship Golf Course. Jesse Mueller, the course’s head professional, estimates that 40 to 50 students work at the course at any one time in the pro shop, Lope House restaurant and maintenance facility, and it’s a difference-maker for both his staff and his customers.

Kon Kim became a manager at GCU Golf Course while he was still a student, then was hired full time once he graduated.

“It’s been great for us to work with the students,” he said. “They’re good employees. They add a different dimension to the golf course. People like interacting with the students, asking them about how it is at GCU, what they’re majoring in, things like that. Plus, the customers get to see the golf teams out here – they’re out here a lot.”

So is Kon Kim, who graduated from GCU in December and immediately was hired to work full time at the course after nearly two years as a part-timer. He wants to teach golf and would give anything to be a touring professional, as Mueller once was, but “working here, I’ve seen what Jesse and all the managers do, and I think it’s a great opportunity to work at a golf course.”

Between playing on the GCU club team and attending classes, Kim learned what working at a golf course is all about, mainly – long hours. “You get to see the sunrise and sunset, but it’s better than sitting inside,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s also really fun at the same time if you put your heart into it. You see all types of customers – that makes it really fun, too.”

He had never worked at a golf course before arriving at GCU, and “I actually was very intimidated. But all the managers, they’re very helpful when it comes to teaching us. I would always ask questions and they wouldn’t get frustrated – they’d just teach me and guide me through everything.”

He learned so fast, he became a manager while he was still a student. Now he’s set up for a career in golf.


Going national

Last but certainly not least, the annual Canyon Worship album – featuring students from the College of Theology’s Center for Worship Arts – is different from the other student enterprises in one extremely important way: It has a national profile.

Each of the three albums has drawn increasing attention around the Christian music world for the depth and quality of the songs the students write and perform. In particular, Harrison Russell’s “Rhythm” drew rave reviews — and more than 28,000 listens on Spotify.

But another trend connected to the albums is equally noteworthy: Students are coming to GCU mainly because they want to take a shot at being on the album.

“That’s been the deciding factor for at least two or three students,” said Dr. Randall Downs, who manages the Worship Arts program.


More of this … much more

Just as GCU keeps expanding its campus and student population, Brian Mueller is bullish on the potential for the current student enterprises – and whatever is down the road on the neighborhood business front.

“I think we’re just at the beginning of this,” he said. “We don’t have anything on the immediate horizon, but we will keep looking for opportunities. We’re not only looking for opportunities for ourselves, we’re trying to get existing positive businesses to stay.”

Two of those positive entities are Bourgade Catholic and the Milwaukee Brewers’ spring training complex in Maryvale, both of which decided to remain in west Phoenix with some help from the University. The latter will be the site of a Learning Lounge, where K-12 students can get academic assistance from GCU students.

The idea of expanding GCBC and other enterprises out into the community also is very much on the table and probably is just a matter of time.

There’s that vision again.

“You just have to believe that at some point people are going to want to live in the community, they’re going to want to attend the schools, the community is going to be safe and there are going to be jobs,” Mueller said. “That’s the reason we’re doing this. We can be a major catalyst.”

Thanks to a student workforce that has earned the trust to make it happen.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


Related content:

GCU Today: Stampede grows: GCBC unveils larger energy drink

GCU Today: Stop, shop and roll: New, roomier Lope Shop opens

GCU Today: GCU Golf Course changes view of west Phoenix

GCU Today: Canyon Worship shines bright


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