In early-2014, Rayanna Perry heard a stat that piqued her curiosity and kindled an entrepreneurial energy she didn’t realize she had.

“Half of the world’s population had not had a Coca-Cola in the last month,” recalled Perry, a global HR manager. “That blew my mind.”

She went back to her office and jotted down a list of ideas to tackle the opportunity, including one with a clever name: “Coke it Forward.” The concept? To give consumers the ability to donate a Coke product to someone in need when they purchase one for themselves at a vending machine.

“A buy-one, give-one idea playing off the ‘pay it forward’ mindset,” Perry explains.

A few weeks later, she signed up for a Startup Weekend event at Coke’s Atlanta headquarters to help turn her concept into reality. During the three-day workshop/hackathon, Perry and 100 of her Coca-Cola colleagues came together to brainstorm, mold, pitch and eventually launch startups using the proven LEAN methodology. Some of the ideas were Coke-specific, others were not.

Perry and six teammates presented “Coke it Forward” to a panel of judges, winning 2nd place and the “Just Do It” award! From there, Perry and teammate David Garcia, an IT director, secured executive sponsorship from Coca-Cola Refreshments (CCR) President Paul Mulligan and enlisted the support of Coke’s marketing, community affairs and vending teams.

Over the course of the year that followed, they developed a way to add donation technology to Coke vending machines that accept credit cards – piggy-backing on existing technology used on college campuses, which lets students buy a drink by swiping pre-paid meal cards.

With the technology in place, the next step was to identify a community partner. Perry says that when she first came up with the idea, she saw it an interactive disaster relief tool – where consumers could send bottles of water to earthquake victims, for example. But conversations with her colleagues opened her eyes to other ways “Coke it Forward” could benefit the community, starting in the company’s backyard.

Amy Sparks

“We wanted to keep it simple and start out in Atlanta,” Perry said. “Erika Von Heiland Strader from our community marketing team suggested Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta, and they were onboard almost immediately.”

Coke is piloting the technology in vending machines at one of its offices, and at Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital Atlanta and Arbor Place Mall in Douglasville, Ga. When a consumer steps up to a machine to buy a drink, the card reader will ask if they would like to also purchase a Dasani to be donated to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta. If they say yes, the machine will dispense one product and charge them for two. Coke will then match with two additional products, delivering a total of three bottles to the organization.

Depending on the results of the pilot, which runs through May, the program could potentially expand to Coke’s U.S. fleet of 100,000 credit card-enabled vending machines. Since the solution is completely Internet-based, the company could potentially simultaneously run multiple campaigns with multiple customers and community partners.

“We’re just scratching the surface of being able to build consumer connections with our brands and give them an opportunity to join us in giving back,” Perry said.

The project has been a valuable learning experience and development opportunity for the team. “It has connected the dots of our system and opened my eyes to new parts of the business,” Perry said. “Being able to take an idea and see it impact our company, consumers and community is a bonus I could never have asked for.”

Garcia said the experience demonstrates Coke’s commitment to creating an entrepreneurial culture, where new ideas are welcomed.

“We took a great idea, found an executive sponsor and continued to prove the business case and value we could deliver," he said. "We were impressed by the enthusiasm and support by senior leadership.”