Company: KoKoMo’s Coffeehouse
Owner: Tiwanna “Ko-Ko” Hagans
Niche: Sells coffee and light food items from shop at 901 E. 4th St., diagonal from county courthouse.
Story line: Hagan is a 1994 graduate of Johnson C. Smith University, a school she once tried to avoid. Now nearly 20 years later, she’s about to open JCSU’s first on-campus coffee shop.
Favorite Business Book: “The E Myth,” by Michael E. Gerber
Tiwanna “Ko-Ko” Hagans, who grew up in suburban Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C., admits she never wanted to attend Johnson C. Smith University, wanted no part of it.
But when the three other schools she applied to said no, JCSU was the only option left.
“My mama told me I was going, and that was that,” she recalled. “I was very, very in favor of not going. My grades weren’t all that good at the time, so that was my mother’s punishment.”
Today, Hagans is one of JCSU’s biggest boosters. She credits the school with giving her the foundation she needed to succeed in business.
When Hagan arrived at JCSU in 1990, she dreamed of being a lawyer, but a guidance counselor nudged her toward English as an undergraduate major.
Hagans said she quickly grew to love her new surroundings. She especially liked the network of friends she developed.
When she graduated in 1994, she applied for law school at Howard University and the University of Baltimore – and was rejected by both.
“My LSAT scores were horrible,” she recalled.
The University of Baltimore did accept her, however, in its criminal justice program, and in 1996 she earned a master’s degree in criminology.
All the while, Hagans said, she continued to visit her former JCSU classmates in Charlotte. They went to football games and would sit for hours in coffee shops getting caught up.
“Charlotte was an outlet for me to come back to and enjoy the relationships I had developed,” she said.
Hagan said she also began to notice the city’s economic potential.
While in graduate school, Hagans worked as a computer programmer at the National Science Foundation.
“I just didn’t feel God put me here for that purpose,” she said. “I needed some excitement in my life.”
She applied to join the FBI – and was denied. Bureau officials said she needed more experience.
In 1997 Hagans joined the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland.
“I loved it, loved it, loved it,” she said. “Every day was a different day.”
While working as a police officer, Hagans said, she began buying rental properties. She also continued to visit Charlotte and JCSU, still meeting old friends in coffee shops around town.
It was during this period, she said, that she decided to open her own coffee shop, in part at the urging of friends.
Hagans said she had taken a leave of absence from her police job and returned to Charlotte for rest. Having noticed the city’s growth, she said, he first instinct was to invest in real estate here. But when friends pointed out that she was constantly looking for a good coffee shop, her thoughts began to change.
A good coffee shop, Hagans said, is like a “sanctuary. It’s not like a gas station where you pick up and go.”
The more Hagan thought about it, the more she liked the idea. But how could she learn the business?
Hagans said she explained her dilemma to a couple who owned a Dilworth Coffee House and they agreed to teach her the business inside out. The three eventually became friends.
In the spring of 2005, Hagans opened her first store in Huntersville. Soon after, she returned to her police job in Maryland, leaving her mother and employees to run the business. Her second store, on Fourth Street, would soon follow.
“Opening a coffee shop was not hard, believe it or not,” she said. “I love adventure, and this was definitely an adventure… My background was in computer programming and the police. I knew how to write programs and give orders.”
Between working fulltime as a police officer, managing her real estate properties and frequent trips to Charlotte to oversee her coffee shops, the workload became too much, Hagans said. She began having seizures.
Doctors later diagnosed her as having a brain condition that can be exacerbated by stress. Something, they told her, had to go.
Hagans retired from the police department on disability and returned to Charlotte. She underwent brain surgery earlier this year and closed her Huntersville shop soon after.
Hagans said it was during JCSU’s 2008 homecoming weekend that she met the school’s new president, Ronald Carter. Part of Carter’s vision for JCSU is to make it more accessible for outsiders. An on-campus coffee shop had been part of that vision.
Hagans said the JCSU shop, scheduled to open for the fall semester, initially will be located in the library building. Eventually, she said, it may be moved to an off-campus site as part of the university’s effort to revitalize the surrounding community.
Hagans said she relishes the idea of returning to JCSU as a business owner and mentor. She said she wants current students to see her and realize that they, too, can achieve.
Reflecting on her JCSU years, Hagans said the school helped her mature. But equally important, she said, it gave her a network of friends who encouraged her professional growth and offered support during difficult days.
“It gives you that opportunity to get to know yourself and figure out what you’re here for,” she said of the school. “Would I be successful if I had gone somewhere else? I don’t know. I give the credit to the university, totally. I’m just taking it back home.”
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