“I’m the only person to have the privilege of meeting every single Coca-Cola Scholar,” said Mark Davis, who has been with the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation since its inception and served as its president since 1994.

“All 6,037 of them.”

In 1986, The Coca-Cola Company and bottlers across the U.S. came together to commemorate Coke’s centennial by co-funding the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation. Tonight, the foundation will welcome the 30th class of Coca-Cola Scholars at its annual banquet in Atlanta. These 150 socially conscious, service-minded leaders – each of whom will receive a $20,000 scholarship – join a network of innovators who share a passion for making a difference.

We sat down with Davis, who will retire later this year, to learn more about the impact of the Coca-Cola Scholars program and the legacy he hopes to leave behind.

Mark Davis
Mark Davis has been with the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation since its inception and served as its president since 1994. He will retire later this year. 

How is the Coca-Cola Scholars community unique?

When you first become a Coke Scholar, and during your years in college, the money means so much to you and your family. Then years later, you don't think about the money. What you think about is this community of Scholars. That's really the value of this program. The ability to connect with someone else in a different part of the world, on a different path, and immediately know you have this shared experience as Coke Scholars. The checks are not the most valuable thing we provide. It really is about this community, how they connect with each other, how they connect back to Coke, and then become a part of something bigger than themselves.

Can you describe the feeling you and your team get each year when you select the new class of Coca-Cola Scholars?

It's always exciting because these kids come from every imaginable socioeconomic status. They come from all over the country. They have different passions, different purposes. They’re so conscious of what's going on in their communities and in the world. The sense of responsibility they all share, to solve problems and help make the world a better place – starting in their local community – has been so refreshing to see, year after year.

Mark Davis
Davis addresses Coca-Cola Scholar alumni at Stanford University.

Is that what sets Coke Scholars apart from other gifted students?

Yes. They're all academically talented. They’ve all demonstrated leadership in their schools, through extracurricular activities ranging from student government, to music, to sports. But there are thousands of other great kids that do those things, too. What puts Scholars over the top is that sense of community and how they can make the world a better place.

You mentioned the diversity of passions and interests of Coke Scholars. Has that always been a priority?

Yes, it was a decision we made very early on. It would have been easy to say, “This is a Coca-Cola scholarship, so it should be for business majors.” It could have become a pipeline for students to come into Coke as accountants or marketers. But we kept going back to a focus on leadership, and leadership can exist in every career path imaginable. So that was the reason for supporting Scholars and encouraging them to pursue their passions and study whatever they want at the college or university of their choice. It enhances the program to see somebody doing great things in the entertainment industry. And then see what we have in the way of government relations professionals, educators, and business entrepreneurs. It forms this rich tapestry of experiences and talents.

'The checks are not the most valuable thing we provide. It really is about this community, how they connect with each other, how they connect back to Coke, and then become a part of something bigger than themselves.'

How has the Coca-Cola Scholars program evolved over the last three decades?

We never expected the public to latch on to this program the way it has. The first year, we thought it would be great to get 10,000 applications. And as we got to the deadline, we had 10,000 and thought, “We've got a few more days of mail… this is wonderful.” We stopped counting at 48,000 applications. And this year, we’re over 149,000. From the very beginning, we knew this was something special.

Outreach is critical to our success. We have to have an ongoing dialogue and relationship with our Scholars. In the very beginning, this meant picking up the phone or writing a letter. Then we got a fax machine, which we thought was game-changing! Each time when we’ve felt like there were too many Scholars to communicate with, a new technological stepping stone has come along – most recently, e-mail and then social media – to make it easier to interact with Scholars in a more efficient and effective way.

We've had to be very strategic about providing programming for our Scholars at different stages of their lives and careers. It's a challenge, with more than 6,000 Scholars, to provide something for everyone aside from an email newsletter or video on Facebook.

That's why it's so important for us, every opportunity we get, to have that personal connection. I went to New York in January for our regional interviews and met an alumni Scholar I hadn’t seen in 20 years for a cocktail after work. That was probably the most important thing that I did that weekend beyond deciding who our next Scholars would be. Having that one-on-one opportunity to say, “We're still here, and we want to be connected with you. We want to help you, and we hope you can help us.” That's the type of interaction we strive for.

Can you describe the energy of these young people as they gather in Atlanta for Coca-Cola Scholars weekend?

Trying to keep up with them is exhausting! The energy level is extraordinary because for most of these Scholars, this is the first time they’ve been among their true peers… a group so committed to making a difference in the world. I'm not sure what year it was, but before social media, we used to send out a guidebook to Scholars before they came to Atlanta, with photos and short bios. Now with social media and smartphones, they know each other before they get on a plane to come here. So the connections they can form here are even deeper.

Mark Davis toasting at banquet
Mark Davis (left); Claude Nielsen (president and CEO, Coca-Cola United and former chairman of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation) and Muhtar Kent (chairman, The Coca-Cola Company) toast the 25th class of Coca-Cola Scholars at the 2013 banquet.

As you look back on the last 30 years with the Coca-Cola Scholars, what are you most proud of?

We have built such a diverse community of Scholars. Diversity in gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, career path, etc. There are very few programs that do what we do and do it well. Most scholarship programs hand you a check and say, "Good luck." That’s not who we are.

Would you say it’s now more important than ever to support passionate, idealistic young people?

I think it is, yes. Just look at how divisive our country is now. I grew up in the '60s and I remember the culture wars and protests for Vietnam. I remember Watergate. Now we're seeing 17 and 18 year-olds marching in the streets for their lives. It gets to me. So it's probably more important now than it has been in the last 30 years to listen to what young people have to say.

When young people bring fresh energy and new ideas to the table, they solve problems. They're the most educated generation ever. They have skill sets that go beyond what I had coming up. They have access to technological resources that are just mindboggling. They communicate. They're inclusive. I've seen so many young people make meaningful, positive change happen and make the world a better place. So it’s really all about providing opportunities to help these young people and then stepping out of the way. If we do that, we'll quickly get to a much better place.