The Unsung Heroes of 1 Million Cups

Posted by: Nate Olson on March 26, 2014

Recently, 1 Million Cups reached a big milestone. The business section of the New York Times, arguably one of the largest and most influential news outlets in the world, saw fit to write about who we are and what we do. We couldn’t be more thrilled for the recognition and praise received for the work that we do, and as the story has made its rounds through the community, it’s felt as if we were checking an achievement off our bucket list. New York Times shout-out, check. But it’s certainly not the whole story—because while the article was great, even the Grey Lady has a finite number of column inches. Here’s a peak behind the scenes at some of the unsung heroes of 1 Million Cups, a few untold stories and why we love what we do and the people we serve. 

When we decided to try to start scaling 1 Million Cups, we knew that the program had to be run by and for entrepreneurs. There’s no intellectually honest way to understand an entrepreneur’s journey if you’ve never been one yourself. As a 22-year-old kid at the time, I thought it was disingenuous to give entrepreneurs advice on their companies because I had never started my own business.

In October of 2012, I noticed three guys hanging out in the back of the room after 1 Million Cups. They seemed to be friends, but I later found out that none of them knew each other very well. Their names were Mike Craig, John McGovern, & George Brooks. For some reason, I felt nudged to invite them to lunch and see if they would be interested in leading 1 Million Cups in Kansas City. I remember that lunch like it was yesterday, because of what they told me that day. They said no. As a naïve kid, I thought it would be easy to convince these entrepreneurs to donate their time, help grow the program, and to ultimately shape it into something special. While they expressed some reservations at first, eventually the heavens opened and one of them agreed. Soon after, Mike, John and George had decided to take over 1 Million Cups in Kansas City. 

When these three joined the team, they started to beat out the rug and reveal all of our flaws. We owe much of our success to the guidance of these three guys who ultimately shaped our program into what it is today. They proved that entrepreneurs are some of the most civically engaged, selfless, creative, and giving individuals on the planet. They are driven by a purpose motive to change their community for the better, even if it costs them time, money, and energy. Mike, John and George unexpectedly have become some of my closest friends and counselors. Their forethought and input has impacted thousands of entrepreneurs, and we couldn’t have done it without them. 

Mike, John and George at their final 1MC as organizers.

Then there was Aaron Hoffman. 

Once 1 Million Cups in Kansas City was being run by Mike, John and George, we started to look at scaling the program to another city. During a trip to the Thinc Iowa conference in Des Moines, I met Aaron Hoffman at an after-party. We started talking about the startup community in Des Moines, and how they were experiencing a lot of the same issues we’d experienced in Kansas City months earlier. I told him that I may be able to help with that, and tested the waters to see if he would want to help create 1 Million Cups in Des Moines. To this day, we’re not sure why he said yes, but we are so thankful he did. During Global Entrepreneurship Week we launched 1 Million Cups Des Moines inside of Green Grounds Café, a local coffee shop that we have patronized since. Aaron built a team, and they were up and running doing great things for the entrepreneurs in their city before we’d even thought about whether or not we were ready to scale. 

Again, I think this shows the ability of entrepreneurs to see an idea and to make it their own—to focus on the potential of their communities rather than the obstacles in their way. And finally, for us, expanding from one to two cities was a major undertaking. At the time there was no playbook on how to grow community between entrepreneurs. What we learned in Des Moines ultimately shaped our playbook and has impacted 30 other cities. 

Then there was Melissa Roberts. 

Ever wonder why 1 Million Cups’ tone sounds like a cross between a sarcastic friend and a lovable asshole? Well, that’s Melissa Roberts. I remember the day that she walked into my office and said – “okay look, here’s the deal… your stuff is messed up, but I want to help with that.” She was right. Our social media, voice, PR, etc. was all wrong. We folded Melissa into the Kansas City organizing team in January of 2013, and she’s become a dear friend and confidant to the program. She truly loves 1 Million Cups and our community, and works way more than she is compensated for, way more than we ask her to, and she keeps our head on straight as we navigate forward. We wouldn’t be where we are today without Melissa. 

Let’s not forget about Cameron Cushman. 

Cameron & I conceived of the idea for 1 Million Cups together. He’s since left the Foundation and moved to Fort Worth to work for an amazing company, but he is greatly missed. Cameron is always a beacon of hope and an eternal optimist. He showed up to work every day with a big smile, and helped us wade through some pretty big issues along the way. Cameron firmly believed that you can do anything you want as long as you don’t mind who gets the credit. His belief in this statement is still demonstrated today as his legacy and impact lives on in Kansas City. He’ll probably never get the credit he deserves for what he’s done to help entrepreneurs, but this post is one step in the right direction.

Really the list goes on and on as more entrepreneurs work to shape the future of the program every day. To end this post here would be to leave out over 100 people’s stories—all of our local organizers—who have contributed to the formation and success of the program. 

Amazing memories flood our minds when we think about the last nearly two years of 1 Million Cups. I think the most important lesson that we’ve learned from this program is that we, the Kauffman Foundation, are in the business of empowering and serving entrepreneurs. This is an effort that is not meant to be developed in an isolated manner and then distributed to entrepreneurs. Rather, our approach should be to collaborate with, listen to, and equip entrepreneurs to be community leaders. That has been the secret to the success of this program, and I think that’s what Mr. K would have valued. 

Category:  1 Million Cups  Kansas City 

comments powered by Disqus

Email Newsletters

Want to be up-to-date with the latest news and updates from To subscribe, just give us your email address below; you'll choose which e-newsletters you'd like to receive on the next screen.