The Hub

CA Curious

Introducing: The Hub

October 21, 2021

Announcing the winners of the café naming contest—Callie Chang (CA ’25) and Arnav Ahuja (CA ’21)—and the grand opening of The Hub. 

Hub: a center around which other things revolve or from which they radiate. 

Community has been central to the Cary Academy experience since its founding, underscored by our campus’s very design. Our open Quad, glass-walled multipurpose meeting spaces, and innovative collabolounges invite us to connect, to see each other, to look out for one another. 

As a crossroads for the entire Cary Academy community, The Hub is another such gathering place—one with a buzz in the air. 

Offering coffee, tea, smoothies, frappes, snacks, school merchandise, and student-made products, hundreds of students and staff visit this vibrant little corner of the Administration building daily. Striking up conversations while their order is made, customers meet fellow Chargers and connect with friends and colleagues at The Hub. 

Beyond a meeting place, however, The Hub serves another important function on campus—offering unique opportunities for students to come together to learn about how to start and operate a small business. As alum Arnav Ahuja ’21 wrote in his naming entry, The Hub will be “a place to form some good connections.” 


Over thirty-five students across grade levels learn together on shift. Middle Schoolers and Upper Schoolers hang out together in the Library, sipping their favorite drink and soaking in the value that we are #oneschool. Employees from departments across campus volunteer for shifts right alongside students. Charger fans mingle amid racks of blue and gold and share a laugh about how CA’s football team is still undefeated. 

“My friends and I have been so excited that CA would have another great gathering space like the café!” – Callie Chang (CA ’25) 

The new café side of the business has also catalyzed relationships that extend beyond our campus to local community partners. The Hub serves Bolt, a signature blend of coffee curated by a team of Cary Academy students and employees and roasted by Port City Java in Wilmington, NC. And our cold brew is roasted and brewed by adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities employed by 321 Coffee in Raleigh, NC, co-owned and operated by Lindsay Wrege ’17.  

PCJ and 321 also partner with The Hub to provide entrepreneurial education to Chargers. These relationships offer a model—one we hope to replicate many times over–of how we can serve as a hub (see what I did there) for other local small businesses to meet the CA community and for Chargers to learn the lessons they are excited to share centered on entrepreneurship, community, equity, and sustainability. 


Operated by Upper School students before, during, and after school hours under the supervision of experienced professionals, The Hub is a classroom—a true learning lab–disguised as a café.  

Café crew students have not only learned to make delicious lattes and frappes or to explain the difference between cold brew and iced coffee or a cortado and an espresso macchiato, but know industry-standard food safety protocols and the rationales and reasons behind them.  

As a fully functioning business, The Hub infuses current, relevant lessons into the Entrepreneurship course curriculum and provides similar opportunities to spark X Day workshops—whether that is photography for marketing, writing copy for merchandise, the science of cold brew, seasonal drink development contest, or a global supply chain deep dive. The learning lab aspect of The Hub’s business model empowers students with entry-level technical and human skills while simultaneously lifting the curtain about what happens in the back office and how management makes decisions. 

Already, the students in the year-long Entrepreneurship elective course began their experience in The Hub with barista training and an introduction to the financial principles of operating a coffee shop presented by Port City Java’s CFO and accountant. From there, the students progressed to developing potential specials and undertaking the process of pricing each item on the menu. In each step—from operations and inventory management and accounting to merchandise design and marketing—The Hub Supervisors and I have been excited by the vision our students have demonstrated in every facet of the The Hub’s operation.  


No school would be complete without a campus store where fans can find swag for the big game. Just as the original Charger Corner did for the school’s first twenty-four years, so too does the The Hub have all your blue and gold needs covered. 

Whether you swing by for a snack or smoothie or stop in to try on a shirt, make sure you peruse our Chargerpreneur section, where our very own Chargers-turned-vendors (and future business moguls) have their original designs and creations available for purchase. No longer simply the school’s store, The Hub at Cary Academy is a marketplace for student discovery, innovation, and collaboration. 

The Hub is open school days 8:30am to 4:30pm to the entire CA community. Or shop online for pickup in store or shipping outside the Triangle. 

Curious about volunteering shifts at The Hub or participating in the Chargerpreneur Program? Email Palmer Seeley for details.  

Written by Palmer Seeley, Entrepreneurship Director, Center for Community Engagement

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Charger Corner-Turning the Lights Back On

November 5, 2020

Almost a year ago, during our annual Taste and Toast Event, we had the chance to introduce the Cary Academy community to the beautiful new space in the library that was to shortly re-open as the Charger Corner Store and Café. The excitement was palpable and the entire team responsible for getting the store off the ground could barely contain themselves.   

For the next two months after that Sheila Hall, our Campus Store Manager, with the support of others, put in the hard work of ordering, outfitting, stocking, merchandising, calibrating, and practicing for a store launch on the first day of T3. The milk and the whipped cream were chilling in the fridge under the counter. The new custom Charger Blend coffee beans were loaded in the grinder. The rainbow assortment of syrups were lined up ready to delight tastebuds. Never-before seen store products were lovingly displayed on shiny new fixtures, waiting for students to ooh and aah over them.    

And then…  Well, we all know what happened. 

Since that day in March, one of the burning questions from the CA community has been “When will the store open up again?” Our reply has been the same – “We’re not sure yet but we’re working on it.”  

And we have. We’ve been having to wrestle with all of the same challenges so many small businesses have. How do you operate a retail business and maintain social distancing in a space where students love to congregate? How do you serve food and beverage in a safe and responsible manner? To top it off, we no longer had a Campus Store Manager, since Sheila left CA in June to relocate as she had planned. Hiring a new director in the middle of a pandemic did not make good sense. And above all, we’ve had to prioritize our energies towards getting instruction, student activities, athletics, and dining up and running.  

It’s taken some time and a whole lot of effort, but we’re finally at a place where we can talk about the store again. And it feels good. 

So, what does that mean?  

We’re starting off slowly by relaunching the store online. When the Holiday Shoppe opens for business online on November 16 (you can get a sneak peek of a few of our early-bird vendors now), you will find that you will be able to go to our new Charger Corner website and once again purchase Charger gear – everything from magnets to clothing.   

In true Cary Academy fashion, getting to this point has been a collaborative effort. In the Center for Community Engagement, Palmer Seeley, our Entrepreneurship Coordinator, has been guiding both Upper School and Middle School students in building out the website content. (Even if you don’t shop, I encourage you to go to the site just to see our Upper School students modeling merchandise and read the creative product descriptions written by our Middle School students.) Our PTAA volunteers and our Business Office, Development, and Communications teams have been working on the logistics that will allow you to safely order merchandise online and get socially-distanced, curbside pickup in time for the holidays.  

What’s next? We have begun the process of assembling the team we need to reopen in brick and mortar form. We are working on finalizing the policies and procedures that will allow you to safely come in and shop. And we are even working with our software vendor to explore ways that we can get café operations up and running safely. We can (almost) smell the coffee brewing… 

Stay tuned after the start of the new year for the announcement of on-campus hours. Much depends on how the coming weeks and months unfold. But one thing we know for sure: we remain committed to turning on the lights in Charger Corner and welcoming you back!  

Written by Deborah Reichel, Chief Financial Officer


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October 15, 2020

Mary Esposito ’21, Mila Patel ’21, and Sonia Shah ’22 took the top spot in the Young Founders Institute 2020 Fall Makethon, this past weekend, publicly launching Blōra Beauty (formerly Nexkap) and generating $50 in sales in just a few hours. YFI’s Makethon challenges young entrepreneurs to work with local CEOs to craft a brand, identify market challenges, develop innovative solutions, and build leadership skills.

The challenge for the trio was to brand their product and narrow their target customers effectively. “As we have learned through the Young Founders Institute, it is vital to begin actively engaging with customers even when the target product is not tangible,” said Patel. “The Makeathon allowed us to launch a lip gloss line to begin interacting with our audience.” In the space of less than a day, the team launched Blōra Beauty’s website, online store, social media presence, generating sales for their first product, lip gloss.

The team is now more focused and using their prize money to diversify their product line. Aside from lip gloss, Blōra Beauty is also developing a Conrad Challenge finalist tobacco seed oil derived skincare product that targets acne, including cleansers and moisturizers. “The Makeathon was an excellent opportunity for us three to fast-track our company’s current goals, exercise time management, and stimulate collaboration,” explained Shah. Nicki Medford, an Entrepreneur in Residence at the Young Founders Institute, adds that the team’s Blōra Beauty line “really resonated with the team of judges because it identified a market niche and created value specifically for the Teen consumer.” 

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager

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Pitch Perfect

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Pitch Perfect

September 11, 2020

What do you get when you combine design thinking, tenacity, resiliency, and agile problem-solving with the pursuit of innovation in the name of social change and global good? For a group of enterprising CA students, an eye-opening and award-winning foray into one of the most prestigious youth entrepreneurship challenges in the world: the international Conrad Challenge.

Last fall, rising seniors Sarah George, Ritvik Nalamothu, and Clay Thornton approached the Center for Community Engagement with a big idea to support budding entrepreneurs. Their goal? To launch a club that nurtured student innovation and business acumen by facilitating participation in global entrepreneurship challenges.

A natural extension of CA’s existing Entrepreneurship Initiative, the students’ proposed Startup Challenge Club earned a quick approval, with Entrepreneurship Coordinator and English teacher Palmer Seeley signing on as faculty mentor. The nascent club would go on to attract an intrepid group of 18 Upper School students who immediately set their sights on the prestigious international Conrad Challenge as their target competition.

While ambitions and excitement were high, as first-time competitors entering alongside a field of over 300 teams the world over, many seasoned veterans, no one was quite certain what to expect for CA’s inaugural teams. But, after a tumultuous year of trial and error, ups and downs, and virtual pivots, a fantastic display of CA ingenuity and collaboration brought impressive results: one finalist team and one alternate finalist team, one well-deserved award, one patent pending, three student-led burgeoning businesses, and countless lessons learned.

Rising to the Challenge

Sponsored by the Conrad Foundation, the Conrad Challenge is a prestigious annual, multi-phase, global innovation and entrepreneurship competition for students aged 13-18. Named in honor of Apollo 12 commander, astronaut Pete Conrad, the Challenge asks students to work in collaborative teams to create products and services that address pressing global and local challenges.

According to Seeley, “The beauty of the Conrad Challenge is that its whole mission is to empower students to become entrepreneurial problem-solvers—to design the future with a hands-on approach that addresses challenging scientific and societal issues. Like CA’s on-campus entrepreneurship initiatives, such as the Drink Cart Challenge and forthcoming Café and Student Store, the key to success is utilizing creativity, critical thinking, and thoughtful problem-solving skills.”

Conrad Hall Challenge

Challenge teams tackle any number of issues across a series of established industry categories, including Aerospace and Aviation, Cyber-Technology and Security, Energy and Environment, Health and Nutrition, Re-purposing Farmlands and Tobacco Crops, Eliminating and Reducing Teen Vaping, and Transforming Education through Technology.

Innovation is the name of the game. Teams are encouraged to think outside of the traditional box—the Challenge touts its “no-box toolbox” approach—and to start with a “clean sheet approach.” In other words: the sky’s the limit, and no solution is off the table (provided, of course, that you’ve got a well-researched pitch to back it up).

The first phase of the Challenge requires teams to craft just that: a detailed proposal outlining the issue they seek to address and a proposed solution. Successful pitches offer a broader situational analysis of the larger market landscape, providing insights into anticipated challenges, strategies to overcome them, and how the idea is unique.

For Mila Patel ’21, Natasha Sachar ’22Sonia Shah ’22, and Ella Gupta ’23—the driving force behind Team Nexkap, it was a daunting first step.

Initially overwhelmed by the expansive list and blank slate model, Team Nexkap opted to cast a wide net of research across all the industry divisions. Ultimately, they settled on the Repurposing Farmlands and Tobacco Crops category, which had personal resonance for the native North Carolinians.

Rather than simply falling back on an existing or preconceived product idea from the start, they took a problem-first approach and set out to develop a nuanced understanding of the market and challenges at hand.

“Tobacco is North Carolina’s longtime cash crop, but health concerns and changes to the tobacco economy have put tobacco farmers
in dire straits,” explain the four members
of Nexkap. “USDA data shows a greater-than
50% decline in the tobacco economy; a decline which disproportionately affects small family farms and a considerable number of farmers of color.”



With a clearer understanding of the problem they were solving for, the team shifted focus to investigate possible solutions. After a few weeks of research, a breakthrough arrived when Patel—Nexkap’s CEO—discovered an article about tobacco seed oil while researching old wives’ tales. It suggested that tobacco plants could reduce inflammation, heal wounds, and soothe skin irritation.

Intrigued, the team began investigating the biology of the tobacco plant. They soon discovered that the oil from a tobacco plant seed contains a large amount of linoleic acid, a compound recently approved by the FDA to treat common skin issues, such as eczema, hypopigmentation, blisters, sunburns, and acne.

A product idea began to form.

“We started to see how an all-natural, tobacco seed-based cream was unique in the skincare market and how it could solve a significant economic problem in our community,” says Shah. “Bringing to market a cream with a high concentration of linoleic acid will create a new export opportunity for tobacco farmers and will ultimately reinvigorate tobacco communities.”

Encouraged, the team turned to consider their audience, only to realize that their product could also address an inequity in
the marketplace. As women of color, they were familiar with the limited number of products available to treat the unique skincare needs of darker-complected
people, who are more likely to experience acne and hypopigmentation and react adversely to corticosteroids.

Thus, Nexkap—a universal body cream developed with the skincare needs of teenagers of all skin tones in mind—was born.

“By intertwining the cosmetic and tobacco industries, we felt that Nexkap encompassed our backgrounds,” says Patel. “We chose the name Nexkap—derived from the Greek word for tobacco, καπνός—because we see this as the next chapter for the tobacco industry.”

Meanwhile, their peer teams were similarly making progress. Setting their eyes on the Health & Nutrition category, Team Boxide focused in on a solution for on-site surgical equipment sterilization in remote parts of the world. Team CannStrips looked to reduce the lethality of cannabis vaping with the development of a pH-like strip that users could use to test their bootleg electric cannabis cartridges for Vitamin E oil, a deadly inhalant. Team WrappedUp, set out to transform sexual education with a mobile app that coupled sex-ed curriculum with geo-location, providing users with information on where to find condoms near their location.

From idea to invention

Ultimately, first-round judges advanced all four CA teams to the next round. Invited to submit a strategic business plan, the teams turned their attention to fleshing out their ideas to determine what it would take to bring their product to market.

Initially, Nexkap encountered struggles that often come with blazing a new trail. Incorporating tobacco seed oil in cosmetics was a novel idea in skincare, requiring the team to delve into complex scientific concepts to better understand the scope of their product concept and its feasibility.

“The unconventionality of our product is what made it unique,” says Patel, “but it also forced our team to go through a seemingly eternal discovery process— a process that at times made us feel as if we were writing a research paper.”

In the end, after numerous trips back to the drawing board and countless revisions, their efforts paid off. In February, the team received a short email carrying a big message: they had been selected as Conrad Challenge finalists, alongside 36 teams from Australia, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, and across the United States.

“It was surreal,” agrees Sachar and Patel. “At that moment, the significance of the Challenge started to sink in. Nexkap had moved from being an idea to an invention.”

Team Boxide—comprised of Jay Sagrolikar ’21, Vibhav Nandagiri ’21, Kathryn Chao ’21, Paul Ibrahim ’21, and SCC Co-President Nalamothu—also received good news. They were named alternate finalists in the Health & Nutrition category.

As part of their preparation for the third and final round, Nexkap started provisional patent applications to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The Center for Community Engagement collaborated with the NCCU Law School Intellectual Property Law Clinic to provide guidance and feedback to the team as they prepared their patent applications. Nexkap is officially patent-pending, which Gupta describes as “a unique opportunity that was extremely cool.”

Going virtual

As finalists, the teams were scheduled to present their final pitches in April at the Conrad Innovation Summit at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Unfortunately, as they prepared for the intense Q&A sessions that awaited, the coronavirus began sweeping across the United States. The Summit was delayed until the end of May, shifting from an in-person meeting to virtual sessions.

“Although this was a set-back, our team adapted,” says Sachar. “We learned a lot about the patent process and how to produce a persuasive, virtual marketing pitch,” notes Shah. Their pitch was so persuasive, in fact, that they won their category’s Power Pitch Award—presented to the team that makes the best presentation.

Award aside, and despite the less than ideal conditions, the opportunity to connect virtually with fellow entrepreneurial students, industry experts, and forward-thinking and experienced mentors from across the globe proved invaluable for Team Nexkap.

“It brought the exhilaration and creativity we
had longed for,” explains Patel. “With our pitch video, an executive summary, and a patent, we were bringing our product to a small part of the world. After meeting virtually with lawyers and CEO’s, I
no longer felt like just a student, but truly an
aspiring entrepreneur.”

“The opportunity to meet other students from all around the world was amazing,” adds Gupta. “I now have connections in the United Kingdom, Australia, India, and other states, from California to Virginia. Talking to, and learning about, my fellow finalists was extremely inspiring. I wouldn’t trade my Conrad experience for anything.”

Team Nexkap isn’t resting on their laurels. As Gupta explains, “we are in the process of finalizing our formulation and establishing test groups for our product,” with Shah adding, “I’m excited to see what the future of Nexkap looks like.”

Similarly, the future looks bright for the other members of the Startup Challenge Club. Team Boxide continues to develop a business model for their plan to expand access to on-site surgical equipment sterilization in remote parts of the world. While Team WrappedUp, encouraged by feedback from Conrad Challenge judges, sees potential for a considerably expanded initial market, given the changes wrought by COVID-19 and increased demand for cost-effective, digital education opportunities.

Preview in new tab(opens in a new tab)


“When I look back on what has grown out of that pitch to start a new student club and see where it has taken not only Nexkap, but all the CA students interested in entrepreneurship, I’m amazed, but not surprised,” reflects Entrepreneurship Coordinator and Student Challenge Club coach Palmer Seeley.

“Giving students the opportunities to explore what challenges are out there and the guidance to help them discover new paths and solutions is at the heart of what we do. And it’s exciting to see how the connections they’ve made and the fresh perspectives they provide have sparked new ideas and energy.”

Indeed, student-driven learning opportunities have always been a hallmark of the CA experience. CA’s extensive and diverse roster of student clubs—all the product of student interest, advocacy, and leadership—is an integral part of campus life, offering ample opportunities for students to connect, pursue passions, broaden horizons, explore interests, build relationships, and take calculated risks in the name of learning.

In 2019-2020, Cary Academy offered more than 40 clubs in the Middle School and over 70 clubs in the Upper School. From intersectional affinity groups such as the Gender and Sexuality Alliance to the Christian Affinity Group, to step team, to Science Olympiad, and many in between, student clubs are all made possible by financial support from the CA Fund, which picks up where tuition dollars leave off.

In Middle School clubs, a student might opt to produce the daily CAST News broadcast; strengthen community in Student Leadership; get moving in Just Dance; learn All About Animals; stay flexible and fit with Yogalates; enjoy Tea Time; explore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, tend the Community Garden; or make a green difference through Upcycling—just to name a few.

Upper School students might get prepared with emergency first responders as members of the Community Emergency Response Team; explore culture and imagination in World Building; promote authentic learning by Shifting the Educational Paradigm; ensure that Charger athletes benefit from the X-Factor of fan support; Share the Music with members of the on- and off-campus communities; take the pulse of campus with The Campitor; and serve the community in meaningful ways through Delta Service Club.

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager

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Student entrepreneurs win Power Pitch Award from the Conrad Challenge

June 4, 2020

Congratulations to team Nexkap on being named Power Pitch Winners in the Conrad Challenge’s Smoke-Free World, Repurposed Farmlands & Tobacco Crops category at last week’s virtual Innovation Summit! The Nexkap team, comprised of Cary Academy students Mila Patel ’21, Natasha Sachar ’22, Sonia Shah ’22, and Ella Gupta ’23, was coached by Upper School English and Entrepreneurship teacher Palmer Seeley.

This year was Cary Academy’s first time participating in the Conrad Challenge, an annual, multi-phase innovation and entrepreneurship competition held by the Conrad Foundation. Each year, small teams of students, ages 13-18, from around the world create products and/or services to address some of the most pressing global and local challenges. They become entrepreneurial problem-solvers, designing the future while addressing challenging social, scientific and societal issues through utilizing their creativity and critical-thinking skills.

Nexkap built a business model sustainably repurposing tobacco crops to address skincare needs and support one of North Carolina’s traditional agricultural crops. See their award-winning pitch here:

The third and final round of the Conrad Challenge was held virtually May 27-29. Each team of finalists participated by engaging in fifteen minutes of Q&A with the judges and staffing their virtual booth during their competition category’s Expo Open House. The virtual Innovation Summit allowed participants to attend the Cosmic Chats with professional innovators and connect with one another through open networking time and Connection and Creation sessions facilitated by the Conrad Foundation Alumni Leadership Council.

The “Power Pitch” awards were earned by the teams who best presented their virtual pitch to the panel of judges, along with their peers and industry professionals.

Cary Academy’s Center for Community Engagement partnered with the NCCU School of Law’s Intellectual Property Law Clinic to provide guidance and feedback to the students as they prepared a provisional patent filing with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. 

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager

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September 26, 2019

I arrived in our nation’s capital after a sleepy five-hour bus ride with the junior class. As I stepped off the bus on to The George Washington University’s campus, I looked around at the many students, food trucks, and scooters. The energy palpable, I was struck by GW’s intimate campus environment despite its location in the heart of a big city. 

Starting our tour, we crowded around the front of a diminutive sculpture of a hippopotamus, it’s mouth agape. The tour guide had just launched into an animated explanation of the origins of this famous (and altogether unexpected) unofficial GW mascot, when a professor approached and asked if he could interrupt.   

“I am the Director of Entrepreneurship for the university,” he announced with the tour guide’s assent. “We are lucky enough to be able to give $600,000 a year to our students to help them develop their own businesses.And, just like that, he walked away.  

Jaw-dropping figure aside (wow!), I was struck by his enthusiasm. And, I get it. Few things are exciting as empowering students to pursue their passions, as having the opportunity to mentor and guide their process and experience the fulfillment of watching what was once a mere hint of an idea—as it is coaxed through prototype after iterative prototype—develop into reality.  

In short, I was happy to discover a connection, an institution kindred in CA’s spirit.   

This year, the Center for Community Engagement is launching our own entrepreneurship initiative. A natural outgrowth of our commitment to innovation, entrepreneurial programming at CA will offer students outlets to explore their entrepreneurial interests, both in and out of the classroom; to take risks in a safe and supportive environment; to pursue their ingenuity and creativity; and to stretch themselves to learn and grow. 

In the classroom, T2 will see the launch of CA’s first dedicated entrepreneurship class that will teach students how to get an original idea into the marketplace. Leveraging design process and design thinking and a variety of resources, tools and materials, student will explore the challenges and opportunities of product development and its potential for success in the marketplace. They will have opportunities to prototype a product or service to test its viability for development, while learning the ins and outs of marketing, branding, financing, and implementing a business plan.  

At the beginning of the year we also introduced a new StartUp Challenge Entrepreneurship Club in the Upper School. Participation in the club offers students the opportunity to participate in various nationwide entrepreneurial challenges, including the Conrad Challenge. 

An annual, multiphase student-driven innovation and entrepreneurship competition, the Conrad Challenge tasks students with identifying relevant real-world issues. Then, guided by teachers and industry experts, students work together to bring to life commercially-viable innovations that have the potential for positive global impact. 

As we look to prepare our students for the future, one thing is certain: the careers of tomorrow may be altogether unknown to us today. However, the types of skills developed through these entrepreneurial programming—business acumen, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, communication, design thinking developedwill undoubtedly be critical and serve our students well far into the future.  

Just as The George Washington University does, we are breaking new ground to celebrate the ‘outside of the box’ teaching and learning, and for what that contributes to our community and our future, I am proud. And, while we won’t be able to offer that jaw-dropping GW-level funding, we do expect the program to pay richly in learning dividends.  


Written by Danielle Johnson-Webb, Director of Equity and Community

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Drink Cart Origin Story

April 5, 2018

Last April 10, hundreds of Upper School students spilled onto the Quad on a typically brilliant blue North Carolina afternoon, made even more special because they were able to grab a fun drink — from popular mainstream choices like tea, coffee, root beer floats and fruit punch smoothies to the more exotic like boba/bubble tea, frozen hot chocolate, and matcha  — and hang out with friends.

This was the first of a two-day entrepreneurial contest called “The $100 Drink Cart Challenge.” Armed with their creativity and spirit, teams of students were given $100 in seed money and challenged to produce, market, and sell as much as they could.

In the end, 13 teams comprised of more than 50 students took us up on the challenge. About half the teams turned a profit, which in total topped more than $1,000. Along with the fun, students learned some basic entrepreneurial skills through a voluntary “boot camp” prior to the contest.

We are excited to bring back the contest this month, with an extension. This year, students will be able to sell snacks alongside their beverages, and we’ve invited 8th graders to form teams as well. This year’s challenge will take place on April 18 and 20. All participating students will get a t-shirt.

 The Origin Story

The story behind the Drink Cart Challenge is almost as interesting as the contest itself.

It started with a creative exercise with the San Francisco design firm IDEO and a group of 12 schools from around the world, sponsored by MISBO, a regional organization supporting independent school business offices and SAGE (who just happens to also be our Dining Services provider).

Planning in Baltimore

We had come together in Baltimore to meet with the creative team at IDEO to “disrupt” school business models. In short, we were there to explore interesting ways to bring revenue to schools beyond tuition. The IDEO model is to use Design Thinking to prompt rapid prototyping of ideas.

Going into the meeting, our Chief Financial Officer Debby Reichel and I had thought we might explore the expense side of the business model, but we found ourselves gravitating to ways we could extend valuable services for the community, such as the school store and including a cafe concept.

Of course, we immediately dove into the weeds. Where would it go? Who did we need to hire? What would be their job description? What would we sell? Would students buy coffee? Should students buy coffee? Would adults pay for coffee if we have it free in the lounges already?

We shared our ideas with Becky and Miki from IDEO team, and they encouraged us to come up with something we could test right way. The problem, from their perspective, was that business too frequently get caught up in trying to anticipate everything and thus spend all their time talking and little time doing.

Bias Towards Action

Design Thinking has what IDEO calls a “bias towards action.” What could we do the week we got back?  What could we test to help us learn something right away?

We supposed that the first question about opening a coffee bar would be: Do people want coffee? We decided this should be our test. Becky and Miki patted us on the back. “Get planning,” they said.

Shortly, though, Debby and I were wondering:

  • Should we rent a mobile “Starbucks machine?”
  • How would we store the milk?
  • Where would this fit?
  • How much should we charge?
  • Should we take a poll?
  • Did we need a permit?

“Mmmmm,” Becky and Miki said the next time they stopped at our table. “You two are back in the weeds. What can you do right away? What can you test in a day or two, without needing to answer all these questions.”

Debby and I clearly were having a hard time at this creative genius thing. Everything idea got sucked into some kind of administrative vortex. Finally, exhausted by Becky and Miki’s relentless pushing to “go small,” we decided that we’d ask somebody to sit in the library with a pot of coffee and offer it to people for free, for one day.

“Now you get it,” Becky said when we announced our idea at the concluding presentations.

Big Idea lands with a thud

Things didn’t go so well when Debby and I returned to Cary Academy and shared our “big idea” with the school’s Leadership Team. Everybody had been pretty excited for the potential of this collaboration, and some members were unable to contain their snickers when I described the pot of coffee at the desk.

Presenting final idea at IDEO

We had a Skype call scheduled with Becky and Miki the next day.

I told them about the reaction I got from my colleagues, who are usually very nice to me. Becky said the Leadership Team was right: The coffee pot idea stinks.

“But when we left the retreat, you said we had it,” I said disheartened.

“You did have it. You finally got the bias towards action,  but that doesn’t mean what you wanted to do was fun and interesting. You’re a school. Why are you not including the kids?”

Cue the slaps to the forehead.

After adding our Auxiliary Programs Director and Campus Store Manager Sheila Hall to the team and a few more brainstorming meetings, the Drink Cart Challenge was borne.

As we hit year two, we are still interested in learning about what types of food and drink might be good to sell in a school store, but we are also learning about ways we can promote an entrepreneurial spirit outside of a traditional classroom setting.

We’ve also seen ways in which a “bias towards action” can help us move ideas forward and model the innovative spirit we think is a part of what makes this school such a special place.

So get your tummies (and wallets) ready for April 18 and 20. Learning never tasted so good.


Written by Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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