A mecca of mechanical know-how and business startups is emerging in South Waco, just a few blocks from tourist magnet Magnolia Market.
Each day, the former cabinet factory at 1211 Webster Ave. it’s buzzing with teenagers welding, screen printing, building a food trailer, programming laser cutters, or studying for technical certifications in food safety, small business, or Photoshop.
This is the home of Triple Win Waco, an initiative founded by Rapoport Academy four years ago. Now it’s coming into its own with an expanded campus, additional funding, growing enrollment and partners including Waco, La Vega, Connally and Lorena school districts.
The initiative expanded this spring to the largest building in the former Khoury Inc. complex, bringing its usable space to more than 30,000 square feet.
Officials will continue to build space and add programs over the next two months with a $350,000 Texas Education Agency grant approved in June, said Clay Springer, director of Triple Win Waco and director of career and technology at Rapoport.
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Springer said that within a few years, he aims to serve 500 to 700 students a year in a space that serves about 80 in the current summer quarter.
Triple Win is creating a manufacturing space with high-tech equipment such as CNC routers, 3D printers and more conventional tools, with plans to open to the public by the first of next year.
Vision is an incubator for start-up businesses, both for young people and adults.
“Within two or three years, we want to see student-run businesses along with community entrepreneurs in our environment,” Springer said.
Meanwhile, other partners continue to line up to take advantage of the Triple Win space. McLennan Community College is offering “maker” camps for middle and high school students this summer using Triple Win staff.
Creative Waco has taken over part of the building for its Artprenticeship program, which will begin work on a mural for the building in the coming week.
Space is also reserved for Upskill Waco, a job training program for adults ages 18 to 24, supported by the City of Waco, Prosper Waco, the Cooper Foundation, Texas State Technical College and MCC.
Triple Win Waco also plans to build a coffee shop and food truck outside the building on Webster Avenue in the near future.
But the heart of the wider enterprise is hands-on training for young high school students in career and technical education. They are able to earn certifications and get paid to work on projects for local businesses. Those who earn a certificate in small business and entrepreneurship can access $1,000 in seed capital to create their own small businesses, such as mobile food vending.
CL Fry, 18, who graduated from Lorena High School this spring, is among the crew working on the food truck for Dave’s Burger Barn, which includes outfitting it with sheet metal and appliances. On a recent afternoon, on a break from wiring a truck, he said the certifications he gets from the programs will make him more employable in the short term and help prepare him to earn a degree in computer engineering from Texas A&M University.
“I’m thinking about working in computer hardware, so this will be a really good experience for that,” Fry said. “This is a good work environment. There are a lot of good people here to work with.”
Meanwhile, Rapoport seniors Mikayla Lee and Rafael Peña were completing their small business and entrepreneurship certifications, which include exams proctored by the center’s staff.
Peña, 19, said he’s already using that knowledge as he builds a vending machine business. He already owns four machines and plans to install one at Triple Win.
“Having that certification makes me feel like I know what I’m doing,” he said. “They helped me understand the margins on snacks that I was losing money on that were fine.”
Peña said he might pursue automotive and welding programs in college, with the goal of creating an automotive business. He has already restored an old BMW, fixed the brakes and suspension and converted it to a manual transmission.
Lee, 17, discovered an interest in welding through the program and is pursuing it through a dual-enrollment course at Texas State Technical College.
“I started this program because I wanted more real-world experience,” she said. “I ended up falling in love with welding and small business.”
Lee hopes to study biomedical engineering at Texas A&M and perhaps continue to help develop new artificial organs.
“Honestly, I’m not sure,” she said. “I’m really interested in new inventions and helping people.”
Triple Win Waco grew out of a one-time collaboration in 2018 between Springer and entrepreneur Cory Dickman, whose ventures include Waco Ax Co., Rogue Media, Waco Escape Rooms, Waco Pedal Tours and others. Dickman is now an instructor and makerspace coordinator for Triple Win.
When the electric vehicle that Waco Pedal Tours used to tour downtown broke down before spring break, Dickman hired Springer’s team of four mechatronics students at Rapoport to fix it.
“He fixed it up and it was great,” Dickman said. “And then he comes back and asks, ‘Have you ever thought about doing another one?’ They’re about $70,000 new, and they’re really hard to find because you have to go through all these different channels.
“He said, ‘I think we can make you one, about half the price.’ And I said, no, I’m out. This thing breaks and it was built by adults and now you’re going to have high school kids doing it? But you know, he was convincing. So we thought if this thing didn’t work out we could probably sell it.”
Dickman was impressed with the new vehicle and commissioned the team, along with Connally students, to outfit a mobile trailer for his new ax throwing company.
That venture transitioned into building their own food truck, which is available for rent to young Triple Win entrepreneurs.
East Waco Innovative School Development, the parent nonprofit of Rapoport Academy, established the Triple Win program, named for the benefits to students, schools and businesses.
The COVID-19 pandemic hampered that venture, but it continued on a limited basis in 2020, moving into part of the Khoury building.
“This summer, we feel like we’re back to the pace we were in 2020, when we were adding more schools,” Dickman said. “This is the year.”
Dickman and Springer said there seems to be no end to student demand for the program, and now that they have adequate space, it’s just a matter of staffing, equipment and funding continuing to grow.
Dickman, who has two degrees from Baylor University, said the demand shows the need for alternatives to conventional approaches to education and careers.
“For students who don’t feel the pressure to get a four-year liberal arts degree and graduate with $180,000 in loans, I’d rather say, don’t you come here?” Dickman said. “Let’s take you down the path of entrepreneurship or mechatronics and you go down that path and by the time you’re 24 or 25 you might be doing what you love and making good money and being happy in what you do.”