Innovator Stories

Founder Focus: Shanita Nicholas of Sip and Sonder, Sonder Impact

What do Arabica coffee, law, and entrepreneurship have in common? 

They’re all passions, professions, and pastimes of Shanita Nicholas, ’09SEAS, ’13LAW, ’13CBS. A member of the early version of the entrepreneurship cohort here at Columbia, Nicholas today brands herself as a “coffee entrepreneur” while managing her own startups: a mission-driven coffee shop, Sip and Sonder, and its affiliate nonprofit, Sonder Impact

We spoke with Nicholas about her start at — and return to — Columbia, the draw of entrepreneurship, and what she’s working on now. 

Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity. 

CSL: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you currently based, and what have you been up to these days? 

Shanita Nicholas: I am based in Los Angeles. Most of my days are spent as co-founder of Sip and Sonder. It’s a portfolio of coffee houses. I’m also the co-founder at Sonder Impact, which is a nonprofit organization affiliated with Sip and Sonder. We do work around entrepreneurship and well being and host several different kinds of encouraging events like pitch competitions, fireside chats, and workshops. 

It sounds like you have many hats on. Tell me about your time at Columbia and how you came into all of these different areas of work. 

There’s a lot of Columbia. 

I started in undergrad at the engineering school, in chemical engineering, and I had a couple of different areas that I worked within the first lab on wastewater treatment, and my senior project was looking at agricultural commodities. 

After working, I applied back to Columbia and got into the law program when the three-year JD-MBA program got announced. By the end of my first semester, I think I took my first set of law school exams, and maybe a five day break and then I went and took the GMAT [Graduate Management Admission Test]. I did well enough on the GMAT to get into the program, and I spent the rest of the time in graduate school at Columbia as a JD-MBA candidate. 

During that time, the Columbia entrepreneurship program was just burgeoning, and the team was looking for graduate students to come assist in that development. It was kind of cool because I found out that there was someone both in the law school and separately in the business school that mentioned my name to be one of those students to assist with that. 

To be part of that was really, really awesome.

When did you start thinking about creating something like Sip and Sonder? 

It was kind of an internal joke for me when I was an undergrad: I would always say, “You know, when I retire, I’m going to open a coffee shop.” It really was a fascination and appreciation for coffee shop spaces initially. I grew up as an Army brat with a military family, moving around a lot and starting to find this solace and ownership in these coffee shops. I can just kind of do my work, be alone, read a book, invite a friend. Growing up in Maryland, there were no coffee shops. I’d have to drive to DC for these kinds of third spaces. The initial thought was, “Oh, how cool it would be to create a space for people to have the privileges that I knew I was able to access by being at places like Columbia.” 

This was a venture that you started after law and business school. How was that experience? 

I’d started a meetup group in Bed Stuy for entrepreneurs and service providers — and there are certainly a lot more spaces like that now than there were then. But I had this idea of bringing people together in this third space within our own communities and then continued to have those conversations and along the way met the person who is now my co-founder. 

And how did being a part of the developing Columbia entrepreneurship community sort of feed into this idea and help you as you pursued this venture? 

I think in a couple of different ways. One: Really looking and appreciating that interdisciplinary nature of entrepreneurship and what it could be. That bringing together of different areas to support entrepreneurship was one thing that was really prevalent in the creation of the program. 

You can build a community around entrepreneurship, which is what we do, both within Sip and Sonder and the nonprofit Sonder Impact. 

Looking back, are Sip and Sonder and Sonder Impact what you thought they would be? 

Yes and no. I think Sonder Impact has grown. We’ve extended into well being, and we’ve looked at the entrepreneur as a whole person — we’ve extended into doing programming around wellbeing through yoga and meditation and art therapy. There’s this broader aspect of how we engage with individuals and within the communities; that wasn’t something that I set out with at the beginning, but it’s developed in a really beautiful way. 

With Sip and Sonder, it’s been a lot of what we wanted. On the roasting side, it has really developed to a very specific, purposeful mission on traceability, direct trade, and sustainability. 

What advice do you have for members of the Columbia entrepreneurship community or young entrepreneurs just starting out today?

I think not being afraid of the big idea is probably one of the things that I’ve taken on. Having a game plan and laying out how you’re gonna get to something is important. Something else I’ve been thinking more about is, “What’s the big picture?” 

Is there anything that I’m asked that I haven’t asked you that you think I’ve missed or that you’d like to put out there? 

Opening and broadening what community looks like, and emphasizing how relationships are so important for up and coming entrepreneurs is really key. There might be something that you need or gain from hearing an idea and you also just get support by saying “This is what I’m doing, I just want to say it out loud to someone and get feedback.”

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