A Reimagined Student Run Enterprise With a Storied Legacy

Columbia Bartender’s Agency:
Vibrant and Thriving Again

Entirely student-run since its formation in 1955, the Columbia Bartending Agency (CBA) has delivered two key services for generations of Columbians: affordable bartending training for students and a hiring network for New York City event organizers needing freelance bartenders.

CBA also served as a model for a variety of Columbia student enterprises over the years — from a babysitting service to the “Inside New York” student guidebook — which were all managed by the University’s career center. However, as industries like guidebooks and babysitting consolidated and moved online, these agencies gradually shut down leaving the CBA as the only remaining student enterprise.

In 2015, the University called on Columbia Entrepreneurship to “reimagine and revitalize the Agency for the 21st century,” explained Nat Kelner, Associate Director of Columbia Entrepreneurship. In order to reinvigorate the organization, which continued to be well regarded by bartenders and clients alike, while bringing hundreds of jobs to students on campus, Kelner embarked on a nine-month process with a number of students “to spin the CBA out of Columbia entirely.” The result was an entirely new non-profit entity with which Columbia was no longer directly involved, but included Columbia Entrepreneurship on its Board of Directors as a form of oversight.

Columbia Entrepreneurship Assistant Director, Nat Kelner

The process, which began in April 2015, culminated in January 2016 with the signing of an asset transfer agreement that incorporated the new company. As Jennie Olson, ‘17CC and Executive Director of the Agency, recalls, “Columbia Entrepreneurship took us under their wing and gave us all the resources we needed to start a business.” The CBA began offering classes again in March 2016, and has been tremendously successful since then, breaking even and creating a small surplus.

In addition to its financial viability, the enterprise brings countless benefits to the Columbia student body. According to Olson, “What we do for the Columbia community is completely unique. It’s a way for students to learn a skill and make great money during their college years. The hours are flexible — you can work as often or as little as you want. For me at least, it was the perfect way to get valuable work experience in the service industry in New York City.”

If you were a bartender during your time at Columbia the CBA would love to hear from you! Fill out the CBA alumni contact form here.

On the management side, Olson cites the invaluable experience gained over the two years she spent getting the Agency off the ground with fellow student managers Christy Jenkins, Jake Drobner, and Ricky Chiang, all ‘17CC: “It was all on us to make it happen, and we feel so much ownership and pride in what we’ve created.”

With an impressive year under the CBA’s belt – 700 students have taken classes, while the bartending network currently boasts 150 student bartenders for hire — Kelner is looking towards the future. “We’re considering whether there are other Columbia student enterprises that could benefit from this same structure. And, given that we’re a non-profit generating some surplus, what better way to use those funds than for the benefit of Columbia students?”  What better way indeed.


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