Category: Campus & Community, Georgetown Magazine, Spring 2022

Title:Students Serving Students

Author: Sara Piccini
Date Published: April 26, 2022

‘A Tumultuous Time’

Students of Georgetown Inc., was officially incorporated as a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., on March 6, 1972, the result of a student government effort led by president Roger Cochetti (SFS’72) and vice president Nancy Kent (C’72).

Although unique to Georgetown, The Corp was founded in the context of national events, especially controversy over the Vietnam War. “I was elected student body president in 1971 at the peak of antiwar demonstrations. It was a particularly tumultuous time,” Cochetti says.

“There was a parallel consumer rights movement emerging, and an offshoot of that was the concept that students are consumers and they have rights,” Cochetti continues. Underlying all of this, he explains, was the 1971 passage of a Constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18. “it finalized the idea that an 18-year-old is an adult, not a child.”

old student travel poster

The precipitating event leading to the creation of Students of Georgetown Inc., was the university administration’s refusal to allow Georgetown students to house antiwar student demonstrators coming to D.C. from around the country. After consulting an attorney, Cochetti learned that Georgetown students had no ability to contravene the administration’s order.

“I realized students needed some legal structure of their own to pursue what they wanted to pursue,” Cochetti says. He and fellow student government members initially considered a cooperative model like the famous Harvard Coop, but the structure was quite complicated and the student body rejected the idea.

“Nancy Kent and I concluded that the most viable, most pragmatic way to pursue this idea was a nonprofit corporation,” he says. “By setting it up as a nonprofit, we presumed its orientation would be towards doing good things for students or the world, or both.”

From the start, Cochetti knew the organization needed seed capital. When Kent had to step down as vice president mid-year, he recruited Mike Connolly (B’74) as a replacement. They raised $10,000 by endorsing a professional tennis tournament held on campus and collaborating with an outside vendor on a student directory.

“I especially want to recognize Nancy Kent, who was there for the takeoff, and Mike Connolly who was there for the landing,” Cochetti says.

student holding bags of chips

Gearing Up for Growth

At the end of his term, Cochetti turned over the reins to newly elected student government president Jack Leslie. (Under the organizational structure at the time, the student government president also served as CEO of The Corp.) “My platform was all about The Corp. In fact, I remember getting kidded about it, because my campaign poster was an organizational chart,” Leslie says.

record co-op sign

“I envisioned it as a real corporation that would run real businesses,” he says. Leslie and other members of the student government leader- ship team—including Bud Colligan (SFS’76), Sal Massaro (B’76) and Dave Ralston (SFS’76)—started a number of enterprises. The team created two major legacies: Vital Vittles and the shuttle service GUTS, which was later taken over by the university (see sidebar).

Within 10 years, The Corp was garnering $1 million in revenue, and selling 60,000 cans of Coke a month. With coffee eventually replacing soda as the beverage of choice, The Corp opened a series of coffee shops, beginning with Uncommon Grounds in 1994.

Today The Corp consists of eight storefronts and services, generating revenues of more than $5 million annually. It employs over 330 Georgetown undergraduates and funds scholarships as well as community engagement projects. “I had no idea where it would go,” Cochetti says. “When they invited me to the 40th anniversary, I was flabbergasted to see for the first time how large and diverse The Corp had become.”

Well Grounded

The Corp’s impact on Georgetown as a whole has been multifaceted, from the early days of providing inexpensive groceries and sundries in an area of Washington that lacked low-cost alternatives, to becoming an important source of on-campus employment.

“The university really feels proud of the work that The Corp does and sees them as a unique feature of student life at Georgetown,” says Erika Cohen-Derr, interim associate vice president of student affairs, who serves as a liaison to the organization.

vital vittles ad

“They certainly live out the motto they’ve established, students serving students,” Cohen-Derr says. “They’re a company that pays their employees but also puts money back into the community that they’re fostering.

“When we’re developing a new space on campus, they’re very proactive—they develop bold and creative ideas and they base those ideas in their own experience and the experience of their classmates,” Cohen-Derr continues. “In the case of the Healey Family Student Center, they were an essential partner.”

The Healey Family Student Center, which opened in 2014, is home to the newest Corp storefront, The Hilltoss, a salad eatery that was established in response to student requests for healthier food options. Students also overwhelmingly supported an additional coffee service, so The Corp opened Grounded, a new café within The Hilltoss space.

“The Corp has been one of the drivers of the campus economy,” says Bennie Smith (C’86), who started as a cashier/stocker at the former Saxa Sundries and went on to become Corp VP of Operations (COO). “The Corp has a long history of supporting students and their interests in all manner of ways, including engaging with the Georgetown University Alumni and Student Federal Credit Union. When you multiply that out over time, it results in our being a big
driver of the campus economy.”

‘An Incredible Process’

Smith notes that another key aspect of The Corp’s service mission is philanthropic support. “From its earliest days, it wasn’t just about providing low-cost goods and services,” says Smith. “The student service mission also included providing small scholarships for its employees, eventually opening that up to nonemployees.”

Just as The Corp’s commercial operations have evolved to meet changing times, the organization’s philanthropic endeavors continue to evolve as well. “At the beginning of each semester, we create a general outline of how we intend to award scholarships,” says Taylor Harvey (NHS’22), current chair of The Corp Philanthropy Committee. “But while it’s important to plan, we need to recognize that student needs are constantly changing.

“One year ago, everyone thought that with vaccines, COVID-19 would be over by now,” she says. “But lo and behold, things are still pretty pandemic-centric.” In response, The Corp has focused its philanthropic efforts on food insecurity, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Reading through the applications, and the specific answers that people had, motivated me even more,” Harvey says. “I’ve been able to see so clearly the direct impact that scholarships have. It’s been an incredible process to be part of.”

“The philanthropy and community engagement we do is something just as important as our operations,” adds Matt Davis (SFS’22), current Corp CEO. “We take a really active approach on connecting with student groups and even organizations outside of Georgetown.”

“This year we’ve been involved with Dreaming Out Loud, which is a community-supported agricultural company in D.C.,” Davis says. “I’ve realized that even though we’re just a few students, we can really make an impact. I’m super grateful for the opportunity.”

student making salads at HillToss

20-Year-Olds at the Helm

In addition to its university-wide impact, The Corp offers numerous benefits to its own employees, both tangible and intangible. To document students’ experiences over time, Bennie Smith has interviewed more than 500 Corp alumni—part of a larger effort to memorialize Corp history that also includes building a comprehensive archive at Lauinger Library.

“One common thread is people’s enthusiasm for their Corp experience, and their desire that The Corp continues forward so that students now and in the future can have similar positive experiences, both personal and professional,” says Smith.

Because The Corp is completely independent, students at the ages of 19, 20, and 21 run all the operations of a multimillion dollar corporation—supply chain, accounting and payroll, human resources, IT, new product development, and more. They take these management skills with them when they graduate.

“There’s no doubt I got my first job out of college because of The Corp,” says Jillian Duran (C’07). “I was interviewing at a management consulting firm. I could talk about how we standardized the coffee branding when I was there, walking through the process of doing that when I was 20 years old. It really made me stand out as a job applicant.”

Like many other Corp alumni, Duran has also formed lifelong friendships with her fellow employees. “From my first training, I immediately felt like I found my people,” she says. “To this day, the person who managed my shift at Vittles is one of my very best friends.” Her husband, Gregory Zlotnick (C’08, L’11), is also a ‘Corpie.’

As Corp COO in her junior and senior year, Duran was responsible for overseeing the directors of all the storefront services, as well as internal operations.

“One huge role is negotiating leases with the university,” she says. “The regulatory aspect was the other big thing—insurance, certificates of occupancy, making sure we had certified food handlers. When you go in and buy a cup of coffee, you think about who you’re paying, but you don’t think about all the behind-the-scenes parts.”

Duran notes that the responsibility can be intimidating at first. “But there’s an element of ‘Everyone before me has done it, and done it well. I can do it too,’” she says. “There’s such a legacy of reaching out for help.” Long after she left the Hilltop, she remained part of an email chain of former COOs offering support to their new counterparts.

“It’s extraordinary to have a company of that size turn over its entire upper management every year, and its entire employee base every four years,” Duran says. “The Corp has flourished, and it’s done so by having a bunch of 20-year-olds at the helm.”

Confronting Challenges

Like any organization, no matter how successful, The Corp has not been immune from problems and growing pains.

Shoplifting was an early issue, essentially forcing the closure of its earliest storefront, Diesmusbiedeplaz, a discount record store. A few enterprises failed to take off, such as a short-lived ice cream parlor called the Cone Zone in the 1980s. A 1981 article in The
Washington Post [written by Kara Swisher (SFS’84), now a noted tech journalist] reported that an employee had stolen $14,000 from Vital Vittles the previous year. The student was expelled, and a portion of the money was recovered.

Over the years, some students have perceived The Corp as exclusive, particularly because its size is limited by the number of employees it can hire. “As wages grew and The Corp’s prominence on campus rose, job applications began to increase, but the opportunity to hire more people didn’t,” says Bennie Smith. “One of the limiting factors was the commitment to serve people through low prices, so there wasn’t a lot of margin.”

student buying things from the store

Management teams have taken steps to be more intentional in hiring and promotion, especially in recent years.

This past fall, for the first time, The Corp expanded its voluntary demographic survey to include all applicants, rather than just interviewees.

“The goal of the survey was to serve as a foundation for future growth,” says Taotao Li (SFS’22), Corp vice president of people operations. “We can’t really create effective initiatives unless we know the quantifiable data.”

In February, The Corp released a public report of its findings. Among the positive results: 29.2 percent of the hiring class identified as LGBTQIA+, greater than the university average.

student at typewriter

Other results pointed to a need for improvement. “A direct actionable that came about during our spring hiring cycle was mobilizing to increase outreach efforts with our affinity groups for Black and Latinx students, Shea and Incorporado,” Li says. She anticipates that the survey will become a standard practice each semester.

old corp flyer

The resilience that The Corp has gained over the years enabled the organization to navigate its most difficult period in its 50- year history: the shutdown of its store operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, The Corp pivoted to providing storage services and online ordering. It provided more than $5,000 in emergency scholarship funds and initiated new partnerships with GU Mutual Aid and the Hoya Hub to address food insecurity.

“In this last year, instead of pulling away from the university, we’ve really leaned in,” says Matt Davis. “They’ve been really helpful to us. And then on the flipside, we’ve had to show them that we are responsible enough to reopen, making sure all our employees are following the necessary public health guidance. So in that way I think we’ve built a lot of shared trust with the university.”

student outside hoya snaxa

A Dynamic Future

All signs indicate that The Corp—having successfully navigated its first five decades—will continue to be a vital presence on campus 50 years in the future.

For Davis, the key to future success is staying true to The Corp’s mission of students serving students while continuing to change with the times. “I have no idea what The Corp will look like in 50 years, but I hope it doesn’t look like it does right now,” he says.

“We pride ourselves on being really dynamic and adapting to student needs. The mission and values of the company will stay the same, but I hope those will guide future leadership into evolving our services, evolving our engagement, evolving our philanthropy, to best serve Georgetown.”

guts bus from the 1970s

GUTS and Glory

Everyone on Georgetown’s campus is familiar with the GUTS shuttle buses that make their way up Wisconsin Avenue and around D.C. But it’s likely very few people are aware that GUTS began as an enterprise of The Corp.

As with all Corp enterprises, GUTS was created to meet a need. “We had a terrible housing crisis
at the time—very few upperclassmen could live on campus,” says Jack Leslie (SFS’76), head of the organization in the 1972-73 academic year. “A lot of kids were living in Arlington because it was cheaper.” With no Metro service into Georgetown, transportation was a big problem for many students.

“We got a $106,000 loan from the university and—as strange as it sounds—purchased four Mercedes-Benz vans. Because they had much longer warranties and they were built so well, the operating costs in fact were less,” says Leslie.

The Corp leadership viewed the service as a stopgap measure, and believed that the university would take over, as it did the following year. “It was called the Georgetown University Transportation Society, so the metropolitan bus authority couldn’t claim we were competing with them,” says Leslie.

GUTS created a personal legacy as well—Dave Ralston (SFS’76), who ran the transportation service as a student, later became head of Reagan National Airport.

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