Operating out of a small apartment room in Escondido Village Graduate Residences (EVGR), Shreyas Lakhtakia M.S. ’23 creates community by brewing coffee.
Lakhtakia’s coffee-centered collective, the Beagle Cafe, is scarcely more than an espresso machine and a couch in Lakhtakia’s room. But at a school where graduate students say engagement can sometimes be hard to come by, the Beagle Cafe has come to be one of the most intimate, welcoming spaces on campus, according to attendees. Lakhtakia has entertained dozens of graduate students from a range of programs and departments at Stanford, hosting conversations ranging from urgent international political issues to the latest hit TV show.
With the Beagle Cafe rapidly morphing into a graduate student hub, The Daily spoke to Lakhtakia to learn more about his motivations for creating what he calls “a place for conversation, caffeination, and community.”
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Tell me a bit about yourself. How did you get to where you are today?
Shreyas Lakhtakia (SL): I’ve had a bit of a nomadic story, which is part of what pushes me to create community. I know that my settings can change a lot and very quickly, and that the only things I’ll take with me are the people I build bonds with. I was born and raised in southern India, and we moved about four times by the time I was twelve years old. I moved to the East Coast in the U.S. for college, and I’ve lived in three different cities on the East Coast. And now I’m here, and I’m here at Stanford because I’m excited about the implications of technology for society. I think the domain I’m really passionate about is AI healthcare and applications of technology that improve people’s lives. But I’m separately interested in the experience of being human, and I think community is a big part of that. And I’m trying to balance that technical background with what I think is core to being human — that is, that sense of all being humans together, and in fact being together.
TSD: What is the story behind the cafe? How did it all come together?
SL: I think the two big inspirations were first, the fact that I really liked coffee and I wanted to share that love with other people. And the second was my first job out of college. I missed that community that college provided, but ended up finding it in a cafe near my house where I’d hang out with friends and colleagues and we’d debate about stuff or share ideas or make plans or just hang out and work together. It was that feeling of a close knit space that I wanted to recreate.
TSD: Many graduate students have spoken about difficulties with low engagement within the graduate student community. Why do you think this might be the case?
SL: Speaking on a personal level, I think that there are fewer avenues for grad students to find and build community than there are for undergrad students. The Stanford undergrad experience is a very tailored one — which it should be, since I think when you’re coming in as an undergrad you need a bit more support. But sometimes the grad student experience is pretty lonely. And I think part of that is the nature of work. Research work can be lonely and people are often dependent on their labs. Finding avenues for grad students to be social is hard, because it isn’t super organic. But that’s part of the ambition with this initiative.
TSD: What do the conversations in the cafe usually touch on?
SL: No two conversations are ever alike. I’ve had very personal conversations with people about everything from losing a parent and how that shaped what they wanted to do with their lives. I’ve had conversations with people who’ve come from different countries around the world and have experienced various types of governance and politics, as well as war and corruption. But I also have a lot of casual conversations about stuff like Squid Game, or why the Marvel Universe is totally fine and is actually an intellectual experience. I like the fact that sometimes it’s deeply intellectual and other times it’s deeply stupid. I think that’s the nice thing about both being a young adult and also being in a place like Stanford.
TSD: How have you been able to help guide these conversations?
SL: It’s a good question. I think I see myself as wanting to recede into the background and let people be around other people. But I also end up doing some of the talking. At the end of the day, I like to create harmony. Sometimes people are excited to be here, but want to listen. And if that’s the case, then I find myself asking more questions or doing more of the talking. But I also feel like some people who come here are very happy to talk, in which case I do most of the listening.
TSD: You mentioned that you have had as many as eight guests come by at a time. How do you manage larger groups of people?
SL: I try to make sure that everyone has a voice without putting pressure on them. I’d never want anyone to feel like they didn’t have a chance to share when they came here. But that’s really the only thing I try to do. I think the great part about being here is that people care about other people. People want to listen to other people and so people find a way to be inclusive naturally. But sometimes it is chaotic, yeah. I think that three or four guests is probably the sweet spot.
TSD: Have you considered expanding the Beagle Cafe beyond Stanford?
SL: I would love to. I think the thing that I’ve struggled with in the past is how to find people to bring into your home. Because I don’t want it to be just me seeing the same friends over and over again, but I also don’t want to meet complete strangers that I have nothing in common with. That’s really tricky in the real world. In the past, I’ve relied on friends of friends or alumni or colleagues. But it’s not as organic as being on a campus setting.