‘Spirit Box’ vending machine expands entrepreneurial options at ACHS

‘Spirit Box’ vending machine expands entrepreneurial options at ACHS
Students were happy to see the vending machine as it arrived on campus. (Photo/Catherine Lewis)

By Ariana Wilson

Alexandria City High School’s dual enrollment entrepreneurship program with Northern Virginia Community College is providing students with hands-on training with the launch of the new Titan School Store Spirit Box.

The venture is a student-run vending machine, selling Titan apparel, including t-shirts, beanies, lanyards, water bottles and other accessories with the convenience of self-service.

The new vending machine is open 24 hours a day and is available to students, faculty, staff and community members coming to watch sports games or participating in after or before school activities. It accepts all forms of payment, including Apple Pay, debit and credit cards, cash and coins.

Students have the opportunity to gain practical experience in launching and running a business enterprise while working with teacher and DECA advisor Catherine Lewis. Lewis, who is in her third year in this role, said her prior experience as an entrepreneur who owned an event-planning company helped her learn the skills she needed to teach her students about starting and running a business.

“Students created a proposal after returning from a DECA [an organization that gives students a hands-on opportunity to learn marketing, management and entrepreneurship] International conference in Atlanta,” Lewis said. “That inspired the idea to buy a vending machine for the school and [the students] proposed it to the administration two years ago.”

It took the ensuing two years to secure funding for the project in the Alexandria City Public Schools’ operating budget. It was then approved by ACHS Executive Principal Alexander Duncan III.

“We needed $14,000 just to purchase the vending machine, not including the products or any other materials needed for the business,” Lewis said.

The Titan School Store was the first venture run entirely by students and remains a staple at ACHS for 13 years and running. In 2023, the brick-and- mortar store generated $32,000 in revenue, according to Lewis.

The vending machine was created to provide more opportunities for students to be a part of the entrepreneurial program; with ACHS’ total enrollment reaching 4,600 students and Lewis’ students totaling 125, it was essential to expand the business to accommodate for the increased interest.

There are 38 student employees – or sales associates – for the student store with three general managers: One that works with human resources and the other two who deal with regular department functions. There are an additional 64 DECA students involved in the student store operations.

“Running these businesses has given students invaluable retail and management skills that will serve us well in future careers,” Esinam Dedoo, DECA vice president at ACHS, said.

“The vending department has five employees and one general manager that work exclusively with the department,” Lewis said. “There are about 20 entrepreneurial students that are not employees of the school, but do website design and occasional checks and balances for the school store.”

Students involved in DECA and Lewis’ classes are especially encouraged to apply for various positions integral to running a business. These include sales, marketing, fulfillment, inventory, design, vending and social media marketing through Instagram, where they have amassed nearly 2,000 followers.

“I make them understand the roles of business and ownership and how that ties into the roles of education,” Lewis said. “When you tie that in and make the kids have a voice and a choice in what they’re doing, you create this ‘buy-in’ and they have the opportunity to see what entrepreneurship and formal education looks like so they can choose if they want to do one or the other or both.”

Before joining the Titan School Store Spirit Box team, students must take a tour of the operations and learn the responsibilities of each department.

“I needed them to see how the operations work as well as a vending business owner that gave them an up-close experience as to what a vending business is and to get exposure first hand,” Lewis said.

The unveiling of the Titan Store has required some shifting in Lewis’ business model and they have implemented a new department that focuses specifically on vending.

“It’s a totally different type of business, so the students had to be trained on how to stock and display items in a vending machine and how to run maintenance on a vending machine, which is totally different then what we do at the brick-and-mortar store,” Lewis said.

Students will be introduced to marketing strategies via social media and will be able to organize inventory that directly pertains to the vending machine business separate from the physical store.

“Packaging was difficult because it needed to be accessible but still attractive to customers, so we had to visit other schools to see how they ran their operations,” Lewis recalled.

Lewis’ students also must create a prototype business plan to launch their own for-profit business to work on throughout the year. She wants her students and young people to understand and build a relationship with money because it is a lifelong skill.

“You have to have a plan,” Lewis said. “Ask yourself, ‘How can I be profitable in any arena I’m in?’”

The Spirit Box will officially launch Friday.