A few characteristics that make Darden unique include our Honor Code, our collaborative community and our entrepreneurial spirit. In today’s guest blog, Second Year student and president of the Emerging Markets Development Club Chirag (CJ) Jain describes how he worked closely with First Year students and the Darden staff to launch a hospitality venture based completely on the honor system:
“I was sitting in Café 67 chatting with a few First Year students this past fall after a summer spent with a consulting firm in Houston. We were discussing why we had come to Darden and one of the First Year students turned to me and said, “You know, there is only one thing that I really want to see at Darden. I’m a foodie, and it bothers me that we’re sitting here on a weekend and the only dining options available at the School are vending machines.”
Somewhat presciently, another student walked in asking for change to buy something from the vending machine. Intrigued, we asked him about his food preferences and found a strangely kindred soul. It seemed that in that moment, we had found an unspoken and yet broadly identifiable need — additional food options during off-peak hours at Darden.
So what now?
What I love about the Darden is that you can make it your own. I think it takes students a while to grasp the tremendous power they have to shape their experience. However, in our journey since, we have seen how far Darden will go to support its students in whatever initiative they choose.
Part 1: George’s Diner
The solution seemed so easy: Why not simply have meals available and ask people to pay on their honor? We guessed that staffing nights and weekends at a 600-person school was expensive, but if offices could have an honor system, why not a school?
I think the leap may not have seemed so intuitive had we not been at Darden. There are plenty of issues and fears about just leaving food and money lying around. However, Darden believes in being a community of honor. We take exams at our own time and pace based on honor. We talk about being a trust-based school and here was a chance to build on that.
So we started with a simple test — How would Darden students fare if given the chance to pay on their honor? During the Term 1 exams we purchased about $150 in snacks and drinks, and set up a makeshift stall. We left a bucket out for money and sold everything at $0.50 a piece.
About a dozen First Year students volunteered time during exams to help manage the stall. Thus, George’s Diner (named after a very popular business case) was created.
Over the course of four days we sold nearly 500 items, and more importantly, discovered that 98% of people paid even with no enforcement or surveillance of any sort. The 2% default rate was due to a combination of counting errors and poor signage.
Part 2: George’s Bistro
Two months later, with Term 2 exams approaching fast, a group of 15 students got together to launch a better pilot program, wanting to push the honor system to its limits.
We invested nearly $1000 in inventory and equipment. A team of students ran a market survey polling ~100 students on their food-based needs and preferences. Another set of students partnered with a local vendor to source meals to sell at $7 a piece. We decided to make a minor name change since “Bistro” sounded better than “Diner.”
More importantly, we received incredible support from Darden staff, who loaned us equipment for free and provided staff support. The School administration helped us manage faculty concerns and ensured we had proper authorization. We even were able to test out credit card payments using a borrowed tablet and a Square™ dongle.
In just 4 days, we sold ~750 items. More importantly, our honesty rate was still >95%.
What happens next? Why does this matter?
Our belief is that these pilots will reshape the dining experience at Darden. We’re confident that Darden will have a 24/7 food option going forward. But a far greater outcome is that we would have built an enduring tradition at Darden of a community informed by principles of honor.
However, this post isn’t just about honor. It’s also about empowerment.
The most rewarding part of the experience has been the journey from small problem to an unforeseen and far more meaningful solution. For the volunteers, it has been a chance to test their skills, to taste what it’s like to start something new, and to tangibly feel the impact that a bit of business acumen can have on the community around them.
Why else would you get a business degree if not to empower yourself?”
CJ spent four years as an energy sector consultant focused on the North American power markets. In his spare time he volunteered with an inner-city mentorship program in D.C. working with at-risk youth.
He discovered his passion for emerging economies through his first-hand experience of the 1998 South East Asian financial crisis, as well as his summer work with a social enterprise based in the brothels of Calcutta. Through his work with Freeset, CJ found a passion for blending value-creating business with meaningful social change.
After Darden, CJ will be moving to Houston and joining McKinsey & Co. as an associate.