Change Is Brewing
Holly Gray, B.A. ’12
How do you make change happen? If you’re Holly Gray, B.A. ’12, the answer is one cup of coffee at a time.
Combining a desire to help at-risk youth with what she says is a “serious addiction” to the caffeinated brew, Gray and her husband, Brian, opened the nonprofit Creating Unlimited Possibilities (CUPs) Coffeehouse in Hollins Market, a slowly up-and-coming Baltimore neighborhood, in August 2012. There, the couple teaches their employees, ages 16-24, professional and life skills to help them succeed in whatever careers they choose.
“Our mission is to empower our employees and help them become independent leaders in their communities,” says Gray, a Northern Virginia native who often took on leadership roles in school. “I was painfully shy,” she explains. “I realized that if I wasn’t running something, I wouldn’t be doing anything.”
During her 14 years in retail management with New York and Co., she and Brian moved to Hollins Market to work with local youth, who, she explains, had “few opportunities and lots of challenges.”
After leaving the retail industry, Gray decided to finish her undergraduate degree and conceived the prototype for CUPs in a Nonprofit Management class at UB. “Our assignment was to develop a business plan for a nonprofit that we would like to work in,” she recalls. She and Brian then made her class project a reality when they signed the lease on the shop during the same week in which she graduated.
The Grays employ 12 or so associates at the coffeehouse and as many as 15 others in CUPs’ catering arm. They are required to “invest in themselves,” Gray says, through monthly volunteering projects and weekly enrichment classes on topics such as resume writing. Every Friday, CUPs holds free community events like poetry readings, art exhibits and music nights.
A partnership with UB’s Henry and Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg Center for Student Involvement and the Maryland-DC Campus Compact AmeriCorps VISTA program pairs 20 CUPs associates and other youth from the neighborhood with one-on-one mentors. “The kids love it—they’re always telling me about what they do with their mentors,” Gray says.
“Our goal is to have a location in every major city.”
And another venture with Episcopal Community Services of Maryland, an organization that provides training for formerly incarcerated individuals, is working to create CUPs Coffeehouse and Kitchen, which will expand the current catering service. This social entrepreneurship initiative allows both entities to provide opportunities for more employees.
Gray is happy that CUPs is thriving—“Our goal is to have a location in every major city,” she says—but the investment in her associates is most important to her. One employee recently handed her a prom picture with a message on the back: “Thank you for ... changing my life.”