The Dojo Cafe: Empowering People through Coffee

To create safe, culturally reflective, and productive spaces/venues for underserved communities.

Photo of Kristina Lersbuasin
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Written by


  • I am not an employee of BNY Mellon, or an immediate family member of a BNY Mellon employee
  • I am over 18 years of age
  • My organization is incorporated as a non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid organization, or I have a partner that is incorporated and could accept funds on my behalf
  • I have already piloted my initiative and have some initial evidence of impact
  • My organization is headquartered and creating impact in the United States

Where are you making a difference?

City Heights - San Diego, CA (92105)

Focus Areas (required)

  • Business & Social Enterprise
  • Children & Youth
  • Civic Engagement
  • Development & Prosperity
  • Environment & Sustainability
  • Peace & Harmonious Relations

Date Started


Organization Type

  • for-profit

Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Growth (have moved past the very first activities; working towards the next level of expansion)


  • $1k - $10k

Website or social media URL(s) (optional)

Facebook URL

1.Founding Story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this to succeed.

After working as a social worker in City Heights for 12 years, in and out of the homes of this “low income” community of City Heights, I (Carlos) met the Vallejo twins and older sister - participants in a nonprofit program I started. I came to understand how smart and creative they were and they didn’t have plans after graduation. Like most other young people I had worked with, they had nowhere to express themselves, be themselves, be inspired and empowered. Nancy mentioned she used to run a tiny convenience store and I thought, “What if we start a business made for and by millennials and minorities, where it would be a safe space for them to be themselves and be empowered.” Nancy is a co-founder, her sisters were our first employees.

2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

The Dojo Café purpose is to provide underserved communities safe and empowering café’s that not only believe in them, but foster human connection as well. The Dojo Café’s vision is to change the way help happens through coffee, genuine human connection, and community engagement. There is a lack of safe spaces in underserved communities where youth and minorities can spend time and be themselves.

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

The Dojo Café is a conscious business with the belief that it is possible to create sustainable businesses that positively benefits ALL stakeholders: community, customers, suppliers, nonprofits, the environment and The Dojo Café. Every purchase, every interaction at The Dojo Cafe can provide a sense of belonging and engagement with the community. Every item available for sale will have a story and a connection to community - for retail and foodstuffs that will be a connection to a local, small-scale producer of these items. Coffee will be purchased from a local roaster who engages in direct, fair trade with coffee farmers so that the source of the coffee is known, identifiable, and clear. Employees will be recruited from local youth and programs. The Dojo Café, already referred to as “more than a coffee shop,” provides additional value to communities by empowering, educating, and in creating (through collaboration) life-enhancing programming and events tailored to youth and residents.

4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of how your solution is working to solve the problem.

Recently the high school youth were here after school and we talked about life. Some shared issues that they were experiencing at home (home removal, and other hard situations). We spoke and the group was supporting them. I told the group this is the best part of my day and thanked them for feeling safe to be themselves. It was then one student said, "This is the best thing in my life right now. I can come here and be myself and not be judged…I don't have to go home and deal with my mom and stepdad, and all their crap. The conversation I had with you (Carlos) on Wednesday about my father not being in my life, I didn't realize I needed that conversation...but I needed that conversation. You know, if it wasn't for The Dojo I would have killed myself already. I'm not kidding. This is the best thing a lot of us have, it's the only thing we have. The only place that doesn't give us shit.”

5a. Too many people in the U.S. have unmet needs for financial products and services. How is your work reaching a population(s) that is currently underserved? If it is not reaching an underserved population yet, how might it in the near future?

The Dojo Café is working directly in City Heights, an underserved community.

5b. Please specify if the population you are reaching is underserved due to any of the following characteristics:

  • ability
  • immigration status
  • work status
  • language
  • race/ethnicity
  • age - youth
  • socio-economic class

6. Marketplace: Who else is addressing the same problem? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

There are other programs in the area focusing on micro-enterprise development, job training (in a cafe setting), and other similar areas of focus. In fact, we have both established and burgeoning partnerships with these organizations. The Dojo Cafe occupies a different space than most of these other programs. By being a cafe, it is a natural gathering space for community members where social capital can be developed and shared intentionally. By being a for profit enterprise, we are a natural link between these programs and a market and operate with shared motivation for growth.

7. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

The Dojo Café is working directly in City Heights, an underserved community. Highlights of what we have accomplished: -Helped launch 3 businesses, mentoring 3 more -Hosted 17 events and have 24+ in the works, many co-created w/residents -Developed strong connections with local High School: -Students view us as a safe and fun hangout after school -Students practice music and play at events -Invited to speak in their classrooms by teachers -Created 50+ partnerships -People, businesses, and nonprofits are being referred to us by the community -7 interns & volunteers -Put 7 16-24 year old youth through our workforce pathways program, 5 gained employment -Employ two Transition Age Youth in transition from state custody or foster care and are at-risk, through Catalyst’s WePay Program -Connect residents to local service providers -Provide homeless with drink, food, clothing

8a. Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling your impact?

The current Dojo Cafe is both a flagship and meant to be a model of an enterprise that can take root in other underserved communities. We are already in conversation with key stakeholders in other communities in San Diego to establish Dojo Cafes. The model is replicable and at the same time flexible, because of the emphasis on developing relationships with community stakeholders (resident groups, non-profit agencies, governmental bodies, and the public/customers). Therefore each Dojo Cafe following the model would develop differently in response to how the community views their needs.

8b. If applicable, which of the following scaling strategies have you launched?

  • Trainings, Consultation

9. Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

As a for-profit enterprise, we need to be profitable. We have been open 8 months and have experienced increasing gross sales monthly, and increasing customer traffic and visibility in the community. We have bootstrapped financing through a variety of methods up until now, and are looking for additional funding to power us as we continue to expand our marketing and community engagement projects to generate more customers.

10. Team: What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

Our co-founder team of five, was created to ensure The Dojo Café runs smoothly, reaches profitability, and helps the community. Carlos, our CEO, put together our team and together we have experience in finance, marketing, event coordinating, project and facility management, and product development. Two team members work full-time and the other 3 part-time. We hope to evolve all become full-time. As we expand we plan to hire full-time baristas and event and marketing coordinators.

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 1 - Which of the following categories do you identify with? (optional)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French)
  • Hispanic, Latino/a, or Spanish origin (for example: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuba, Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian)
  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian, etc)
  • Asian (for example: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani)
  • Self-identify race, ethnicity, or origin

If you replied "Self-identify race, ethnicity, or origin" in the question above, please specify. (optional)

Founders of The Dojo Cafe identify as black, Hispanic, Asian and Greek.

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 2 - Do you identify as part of any of the following underrepresented communities? (optional)

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income community
  • Religious minority (non-Christian)

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Word of mouth

Evaluation results

5 evaluations so far

1. Overall, would you champion this entry as a excellent example to move forward to the next phase of the challenge and become a semifinalist?

Yes, absolutely! - 40%

Yes/maybe - 20%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 20%

No - 20%

2. Is this entry INNOVATIVE?

Yes, absolutely! - 60%

Yes/maybe - 20%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 20%

No - 0%

3. Is this entry IMPACTFUL on financial wellbeing?

Yes, absolutely! - 20%

Yes/maybe - 40%

Maybe - 20%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 20%

4. Is this entry SUSTAINABLE?

Yes, absolutely! - 20%

Yes/maybe - 20%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 60%

No - 0%

5. What are some of the HIGHLIGHTS of strengths of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 100%

Clarity of Model - 20%

Clarity of Writing - 0%

Idea Originality - 80%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 40%

Impact measurement - 0%

Impact Potential - 20%

Financial Sustainability - 20%

Team - 60%

Partnerships - 20%

Potential to scale - 0%

6. What are some of the areas for IMPROVEMENT of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 0%

Clarity of Model - 80%

Clarity of Writing - 40%

Idea Originality - 0%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 20%

Impact measurement - 80%

Impact Potential - 40%

Financial Sustainability - 60%

Team - 0%

Partnerships - 20%

Potential to scale - 100%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Sonya Passi

Kristina, the idea behind DOJO is truly inspiring. We are looking forward to learning more about the work that you all do, and your plans to grow within the San Diego community!

Photo of Kristina Lersbuasin

Thanks so much Sonya!