When Carley Kammerer first opened her coffee shop, it was a portable stand that she would set up at farmers' markets across the Twin Cities. But she wanted to do more than sell pour overs. Since that first day in 2017, the shop has employed local youth experiencing homelessness through a four-month program designed to equip them with tactical, transferrable job skills. Today, the work and mission of her shop remains the same—but the stand is now a physical storefront on Minnehaha Avenue called Wildflyer Coffee: a name she believes speaks to the confidence, independence, and hope she works to inspire in youth. We sat down with Carley to talk about that work—as well as about generosity, empowerment, and a different way to do business.
July 12, 2022
How would you describe the work of Wildflyer?
Wildflyer is a social-enterprise coffee shop working to end youth homelessness. We do that through a four-month program that hires a cohort of youth experiencing homelessness and helps them build the skills they need to get a job and keep a job—which I believe is foundational to becoming self-sufficient.
What was the catalyst for Wildflyer?
My background is in social work, and the idea for Wildflyer came to me because of a client I had when I was running a drop-in center for youth experiencing homelessness. I worked with him on and off for four years, and he came in for a meeting during that fourth year, and I realized he was still struggling with a lot of the same things he was struggling with when we first met. I asked myself, “Why? How did that happen?” He had such a high work ethic and was great at getting jobs, but it was keeping them that he struggled with—and that hurt his progress toward getting out of homelessness. I could see that all he needed was some support in maintaining a job and getting to a place where he could be more self-sufficient. So, I decided I needed to do something to give that support to youth like him.
What drew you to serve youth experiencing homelessness?
I think youth intervention is extremely important. Statistically, most adults that are experiencing homelessness started experiencing it between the ages of 14 and 18. If it starts when people are young, I think we should try to stop it when they are still young. Instead of letting it cycle into adulthood, where people experience it for decades, I want to go as far upstream as possible so young people can find their way out of that cycle early.
What makes an employment program so well suited to address youth homelessness?
I think helping people break out of the cycle of homelessness is about helping them get back in control of their lives. They need to get to a point where they don't have to depend on other people for basic needs, and that requires a sustainable long-term solution—like an opportunity to make an income while learning and growing toward a point where you can maintain a job and pursue the future you want for yourself. Wildflyer provides that opportunity in a supportive environment that doesn’t just employ young people, but also walks alongside them as they work through the challenges that come with keeping a job.
"It’s less important to me that they leave here knowing how to make coffee, and more important that they leave better equipped to thrive in any workplace."
Why is a coffee shop a good environment for this kind of program?
As a customer-service-focused business, we help our youth cultivate soft skills that are transferable anywhere, because our youth can and should pursue any job they want to pursue after their time here. Daily customer interactions lend well to the core competencies and social/emotional skill sets anyone should have for a regular job—like communicating well and navigating conflict. Overall, it’s less important to me that they leave here knowing how to make coffee, and more important that they leave better equipped to thrive in any workplace.
Could you tell us a story from Wildflyer that inspires you?
We had one youth who was so shy and soft spoken when they were hired. No one could hear them. I didn’t know how they were going to be at the register. But throughout their time here, we saw these subtle shifts. They started speaking up and looking people in the eye. They started laughing. We could see that they were coming into themselves and gaining confidence. And just this month, they spoke in front of a crowd at an event we had. That progression of confidence is something I could not have anticipated, and that’s why I like the employment model. There is so much dignity in a job and in feeling that sense of empowerment.
As youth are empowered, what do you hope it leads to in their life?
I think it eliminates a power dynamic. When I was working at the drop-in center, I felt like I would get into this power dynamic with the youth. They came to me with needs, and I helped connect them to resources. That’s helpful, but I think it does something counterproductive for the youth. It makes them feel like they are dependent. Like they don’t have control over their lives. Like they need someone else to get them what they need. With an employment model like Wildflyer, they don’t just depend on other people. Instead, they are depended on by other people. They are a crucial part of what makes this business work, and paired with a regular paycheck, that encourages them to feel vital—to feel like they are a part of something.
"I don’t want to get ahead in life by profiting off people who are in less-fortunate situations. Instead, I want to live—and do business—generously, with open hands."
When you started Wildflyer, what was the dream you were going after?
I wanted to start something that helps end youth homelessness. I’ve always been interested in long-term, sustainable solutions, and that interest led me to the idea of starting a business that exists not just to profit, but to employ and support an underserved population.
What are you building?
I want to build a different way of doing business—one that is focused less on profit and more on serving the community. In short, I want to create structures where everyone wins. I think business has been one of the greatest offenders in creating wealth for a small amount of people at the expense of others, so I want to be part of a new kind of business. Because if businesses could help wealth be more evenly spread out, people wouldn’t have to work so many jobs. They would have better places to live and better schools to send their kids. Families would be safer. Essentially, people would have what they need.
What drives you to get there?
I don’t want to get ahead in life by profiting off people who are in less-fortunate situations. Instead, I want to live—and do business—generously, with open hands. And I feel like I don’t have the luxury to not engage in that meaningful work just because it’s hard. This work is just too important to walk away from. Youth matter so much to me, so I want to keep supporting them, encouraging them, and helping them grow into the people they want to be.