Civil Pops Grows Young Entrepreneurs

Katie Lauter, CUESA Staff
August 25, 2017

Amid sketches for new branding and merchandise sprawled across the Civil Pops work table, there are three sticky notes with one word written on each: Youthful. Equity. Happiness.

Summer intern Jordan Smith and summer fellow Siya Green explain that these words were the products of a brainstorm around the key questions: “What do we want our customers to see? How do we want them to experience Civil Pops? And what’s their takeaway after trying the pop?”

The young entrepreneurs are learning how to market popsicles, but Jordan sees her internship as “more than just a job.” In this unique venture, the youth get to bring their own ideas to the table to expand and shape the business, and work together to make the best of those ideas happen.

Pictured above: Isaac Buwembo, Siya Green, Graham Gardner, Jordan Smith, Jabari Hughes.

Popsicles with a Mission

Civil Labs was launched in 2015 with the goal to empower entrepreneurial young leaders of color to create change in their community. Co-founders Graham Gardner and Isaac Buwembo met in graduate school, where they received their MBAs in Design Strategy, and Civil Labs was their thesis project. The name Civil Labs, of course, combines the concepts for the people, by the people and a place of learning and experimentation.

Neither Isaac nor Graham had an extensive background in food, but food seemed like the perfect medium for putting those principles to work. The Civil Pops business venture emerged in 2016 as one of the ways to do that. Civil Pops provides opportunities for students to apply for paid internships and fellowships through community partners like East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC) for high school students and RepresentEd for college students.

“While we do value having a high-quality product and sourcing responsibly, it’s really about youthful happiness and equity,” says Isaac. “Food is something that brings people together no matter what space you’re in. It is core to community-building, and that’s what Civil Labs is about. We use food as a way to bring people together, and teach people about business that way.”

Farmers Markets as Flavor Labs

So how do the youth come up with their signature pops? The magic starts at the farmers market for inspiration, then goes back to their Emeryville kitchen space for workshopping, then returns to the farmers market, where the popsicles are sold.

Intern Jordan describes their process: “We brainstorm. We had a board [at the farmers market] and asked the customers to write what flavors they would like to see. We each chose two of those that we liked, and then we chose one that we really wanted to focus on. We went out and got the produce and tested it in the kitchen.”

Favorites among the team are strawberry, kiwi lime, and their new vegan fudge pop. A big fan of strawberry lemonade, Jordan’s passion project was Lemon Berry, their newest flavor. To come up with a winner, the team tested two batches side-by-side with fresh, organic strawberries from Ground Stew Farms, varying the amounts of organic lemon juice and cane sugar.

Civil Pops sources as much as they can locally, from fruit to kitchen supplies. The produce featured in any given pop is from local farms, in season, and organic. “Within that framework, the young people have the opportunity to test out flavors,” Isaac explains.

One thing the young team members have learned to focus on is the importance of smell to determine the sweetness, ripeness, and flavor of the fruit. They shop together at Oakland farmers markets when they’re developing recipes, frequenting farms like Triple Delight for their blueberries, Blossom Bluff Orchards for stone fruit, and Frog Hollow Farm for peaches.

“In addition to what the produce tastes like, it’s about building a relationship and trusting the farmer to provide really good product for us,” says Graham.

Big Plans Beyond Pops

This is high schooler Jabari Hughes’ second summer internship with Civil Pops. He was initially connected to the company through EOYDC, and in his time with the business, he says he has learned about brand development, flavor profiles, sales, events, and marketing.

“It’s a good learning experience, it’s fun, and we work for a place that has meaning,” says Jabari.

The youth team has big ambitions for Civil Pops. In addition to more farmers markets, Jabari wants to get their pops on the grocery store shelves. Civil Pops currently only offers summer internships, but Siya would love to see more opportunities to participate throughout the year. Jordan wants, “a bigger team, more markets, and more flavors.”

Co-founder Isaac says, “We would love to build a bigger brand presence through the farmers markets and get into some local, independent specialty stores, Whole Foods, and tech companies; we would love to supply them with pops in perpetuity.” Their operations are not set up yet to sell at a large grocery chain, but he thinks they would be prepared to sell to a local tech company tomorrow.

Next summer they hope to double or triple the team of young people by growing their sales channels and production. And Civil Labs’ next project, Civil Box—a shipping container café on wheels that serves smoothies, juices, and grain bowls made to order—is in the pipeline, with a goal to launch in early 2018.

Check out Civil Pops at the Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays from 10 am to 3 pm. And stay tuned to the Civil Pops website for the upcoming short documentary, “More Than a Pop: Civil Pops.”

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