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Café accepting personal data as payment could open in Princeton

<p>Shiru Cafe's location near Brown University, which recently closed.&nbsp;</p>
<h6>Photo Courtesy of Soki Yamada / <a href="" target="_self">Wikimedia Commons</a>.</h6>

Shiru Cafe's location near Brown University, which recently closed. 

Photo Courtesy of Soki Yamada / Wikimedia Commons.

This winter, a Japan-based café chain called Shiru Café has plans to bring free refreshments, coupled with controversy, to students at the University. Shiru serves coffee and pastries, but, unlike other cafés, asks students to pay with personal information instead of cash.

At Shiru’s Providence location, just across from the Brown University bookstore, coffee is free for any student who completes a Shiru “resume” with their name, email address, major, class year, and professional interests or technical skills. The possibility of a Shiru café, whose mission is “to create a place where students can learn about the professional world and envision their future careers,” has become the cause of mixed reactions within the Princeton community.

Shiru Café’s Yale and Amherst locations are currently under construction, and Shiru’s General Manager of North American operations Keith Maher said he hopes for them to open later this fall. He added that the Harvard and Princeton locations are currently in the “leasing and permitting” phases and will hopefully open this winter.

Shiru estimates that 76 percent of the Brown student body are registered Shiru Café members, and Maher said that the café receives over 600 customers each day.

The café, which opened in March, serves Brown students, staff, and faculty members. Beverages are free for students to drink in-house, but cost $1 if taken to go. Faculty of the university must pay $1 for drinks.

Students can order a free coffee every two hours.

Zachary Mor, a sophomore at Brown, goes to Shiru about once a week. He knows many students who go on a daily basis. He enjoys the food, drinks, and the environment of the café.

“It serves as a place where I can just go get free drinks and have a free space to work in,” he explained. “But at the same time, it’s not exactly free in the same way that other things are free, because you pay with your information.”

The company’s main revenue source at its Japanese and Indian locations is sponsorship.

Sponsors of the original University of Tokyo location include Microsoft, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the Japan Railways Group, Philip Morris Japan, and Mitsubishi Fuso.

As of now, the Brown location does not have any sponsors. However, Maher mentioned that Shiru has been approached by new potential sponsors over the past six weeks.

Shiru’s sponsors advertise with their logo directly in the store. Shiru also trains its baristas to provide explanations about the sponsor corporations and holds events where company representatives can interact directly with students.

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Mor considers the Ivy League full of “high value students” and thinks companies will be willing to pay a steep price for partnership with Shiru. Though he personally would not use Shiru to find employment, Mor said he could definitely see others using the café as a resource.

The growth of Shiru comes at a time when people’s personal data is increasingly vulnerable.

Recently, it was revealed that 30 million Facebook accounts had some form of personal information hacked in a mid-September cyber attack.

Many articles about Shiru describe college students “selling their data” for coffee, something some see as potentially worrisome.

“I don’t have the impression that the personal data that’s given is more than glorified contact information,” said University economics professor Nick Buchholz. “But, you see it in the press all the time with companies entrusted with personal information. You see cases of abuse of that trust, or you see breaches of security.”

However, Maher says that the company is “very strict about student privacy.”

Shiru does not share students’ personal information with any third parties or directly with their sponsor companies. It only gives sponsors “aggregate data,” such as how many students visit the café and the general breakdown of those students with respect to majors and class years. If a student wants to share their information with a sponsoring company, they must do so directly.

Arnav Agarwal ’19, CEO of Tiger Capital Management, thinks that the timing of Shiru’s opening is the main reason for possible animosity.

“People find it creepy and are somewhat surprised with how much Facebook, for example, knows about them,” he noted.

However, he thinks conflating Facebook’s scandals and Shiru’s business model is unjustified. He believes that students with accounts on Handshake or LinkedIn already make their data public, and that clubs at an activities fair ask for just about as much information as Shiru does.

Buchholz is more skeptical about how the service will affect students’ ability to search broadly for careers. 

He said he’s worried that Shiru would compete with the University’s existing career matching services.

”Students are going to have more of their attention devoted to firms that pay for that attention,” Buchholz said. “Whereas the University’s services are configured on behalf of students, this service is configured for the firms that pay them.”

He said this means that students could possibly only expose themselves to a subset of the possible jobs that might appeal to them.

Buchholz pointed out that aggressive early recruiting can reduce the amount of time truly devoted to searching for a career, and that there are many great jobs available with less advertising capabilities than a large corporation.

Buchholz also added that the myriad of other employment options available to students “just don’t have the same resources as big banks to put people in all the college campuses and market themselves.”

“The firms are the customers of this shop, not the students,” he said, “You have access here to Career Services, and they’re going to connect students to a much broader set of options, only with the difference that they don’t give you free coffee while they do it.”

Kimberly Betz, executive director of Career Services at the University, echoed this sentiment, highlighting the importance of students making their own decisions while job hunting. She hopes that students will self-assess, thinking about their own interests, values, and skills, before they reach out to companies.

“It’s really about a student taking ownership of the process and saying, ‘What is it I’m looking for, and how can I make that happen?,’ as opposed to just being more receptive and saying, ‘Well, I’m just going to respond to the things that present themselves to me,’” she explained.

In a letter to the Editor of the Brown Daily Herald last December, two Brown students called for a boycott of Shiru Café. They noted that, due to the number of technology and consulting representatives that already recruit at Brown, many students are already drawn into careers at large consulting and technology companies, which they considered to be a problem. They felt Shiru Café would only worsen this problem, since, as the Brown Daily Herald reported earlier, “last year, 40 percent of JP Morgan Japan’s new hires were Shiru Café patrons.”

However, Agarwal pointed out that students already flock to corporate info-sessions and coffee chats. Shiru’s company-student meetups, to him, are very similar. If anything, in his mind, Shiru’s corporate presence helps students.

He said existing recruiting processes are terribly non-transparent.

“It’s all about networking, and I think a lot of people have a specific advantage if they come from a finance background or are from America,” Agarwal said. “So I think this actually levels the playing field for a lot of students who can have the opportunity to go to [Shiru's] sessions and understand how the process really works.”