Changing lives is nothing new for the James Beard Foundation. The mission – to nurture and honor chefs and the food culture they create – is etched in the hallowed halls of the James Beard House. When it comes to supporting women’s initiatives, the Foundation has three leadership programs geared to help them succeed – but it takes more than inspiration to reach profitable success in the food business. That’s why the aptly titled “Owning It” event series is capturing the fascination of women throughout the country who dare to dream of culinary careers.
Women may arrive at Owning It events ready to unpack those dreams, but they depart with so much more. At the conclusion of an Owning It two-day workshop, attendees leave with real-world knowledge, a plan and the confidence to make sweeping progress. The formal definition of the program is to introduce emerging leaders in hospitality-related fields to share visioning, planning, fundraising and business ideas.
“Owning It is for everyone every level any age, from women working at the entry level in a restaurant to women their 60s just getting started with a career change,” said Stacy Carroll, director of impact for the James Beard Foundation. “We have open applications in each city, and we bring in experts in that city to advise and mentor the women who attend.”
Participants at the first two events in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., listened, learned and practiced pitches. They formed supportive peer groups and connected with industry leaders.
In the kitchen, Carroll says, women are natural nurturers, but those skills take a different turn when women own restaurants.
“Owning It includes tools women can use to transform a food concept into a profitable business, including critical feedback and participants form peer networks with fellow members,” said Carroll. “Owning It provides the space for education, reflection and valuable connections with women who have paved the way for others to find success.”
Get Inspired, Make a Plan
One such passionate mentor at the inaugural Owning It event in Atlanta was global soul food authority Deborah VanTrece. The restaurateur and chef behind Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours, and Atlanta’s famed Edible Art catering company, she was named one of Zagat’s Most Badass Female Chefs in America and recognized for her creative style. A sought-after advisor and speaker, VanTrece often shares her story to serve as a role model for others. She believes Owning It is the forefront for empowering women in this field with attainable, hands-on information from experts.
“I wish someone was doing this when I got started because it shows women what it takes to operate a business in this industry and was so much more than just a typical conference,” said VanTrece. “There was immediate conversation with feedback and next steps, and how they can keep it going beyond the conference because we are communities, growing and learning as women, and sometimes when you get caught between a rock and a hard place you don’t see a way out.”
VanTrece hears the same thing from many aspiring restaurant owners: “There is opportunity, but where do I start?” She called the information shared with Owning It attendees “top-notch knowledge,” but in a feel-good, positive environment.
“Some of the people may have been down, but we picked them back up and gave them that second wind,” said VanTrece. “There are a million ways to get there, but you’re gonna get there. If that door is closed we’re going to give you another door – some go by train, some by bus, some of us walk and some of us had to crawl to get where we are, but we got here and so will you.”
Seeing is Believing
Visioning is a huge part of the Owning It program. Presented by Tabitha Mason, managing partner of Zingerman’s Cornman Farms, Mason joined Zingerman’s nine years ago as general manager of Zingerman’s Roadhouse. Ever since, she has helped the organization and its training program ZingTrain skyrocket to international acclaim. As one of seven female partners within the organization, Mason said her biggest takeaway after leading the visioning portion of the program was how it transcends location, background, and personal history.
“The idea of visioning a preferred future brings hope and joy and focus to all of us,” said Mason, who endured many hardships during her youth, long before finding success. “I didn’t know what that would look like for me, but I always believed that I was going to rise above the consequences of my actions and find my greatness.”
And that she did. Now Mason uses her position to help others find their own greatness.
“Partnering with James Beard Foundation makes me so proud, and it lends credibility to the work we do at ZingTrain and at Zingerman’s overall,” said Mason. “I knew being a part of Owning It would be as beneficial for me as it would be to the women in attendance, and if just one woman remembers my story and it helps her get up and carry on, I’ve been successful.”
Through the ZingTrain program, Mason shares tools and philosophies that have spurned Zingerman’s growth from a single deli opened in 1982 to a 10-company “Community of Businesses,” employing more than 700 people and forecasting to generate $70 million in revenue this year.
“Visioning is such a powerful tool,” said Mason. “For people so used to being told what they can’t do, what won’t work, the act of focusing solely on what they want the future to look like can be incredibly moving.”
Mason says she never thought she’d own a business, despite being a highly capable manager. The first time she accomplished a vision writing exercise, everything changed.
“All of these things poured out of me, words I didn’t even know my heart had, a desire for even more, the realization that I could use my business as a tool to do good and impact people more deeply, more widely than I ever would in a management role,” said Mason. “That led me on the path to become an owner and that gift, the tool that is visioning, to me was the very best way to kick off people’s experience at Owning It.”
What Mason loves most about Owning It is that beyond hope and affirmation, women who attend the events are putting in real work.
“They leave with plans, contacts, and clear next steps on how to take their business or business idea to where ever they see it going, along with the knowledge that they aren’t alone,” said Mason. “There is a pack of equally committed food-loving women behind them to continue to encourage their growth and celebrate their successes.”
Fund Your Passion
Once you find your passion, you have to fund it. Yet, this leg of the restaurant business is one of the least understood, especially by new female chefs and food industry hopefuls. The complex process of funding is demystified for participants in Owning It.
Investing in food entrepreneurs, innovative restaurant concepts and hospitality tech is Elaine Chon-Baker’s area of expertise. She is the founder and managing director of Mokja Ventures, a Washington, D.C.-based venture fund that emerged from her own passion for eating, drinking, and supporting start-ups and early stage ventures. Chon-Baker shared her insight with Owning It participants including how access to information plays a vital role in being an entrepreneur.
“Owning It brings like-minded people together with different backgrounds and experiences that have shaped us into who we are, so when we share these experiences and lessons learned, others can avoid making some of the same mistakes and it also may help accelerate the process of business building,” said Chon-Baker. “With guidance, encouragement, hard questioning, big picture thinking, and re-framing, overcoming obstacles and achieving success is more attainable.”
Chon-Baker calls herself a total outsider to the food world other than being a diner and shopper when she entered the restaurant industry. To conquer the steep learning curve, she invested her time learning everything possible.
“Always be learning and have a growth mindset,” Chon-Baker advised participants. “You never know what you might see, what you might hear, or who you might meet at any event – have your elevator pitch ready and practice it so you’re more confident, because your excitement and positive energy could lead to something bigger.”
Support Becomes Action
OpenTable’s own Betsy Kemp witnessed the culture of inclusivity that flowed throughout the event. OpenTable is passionate about giving back to restaurant partners and the industry as a whole – a key reason the company is proud to sponsor Owning It.
“The James Beard Foundation has many initiatives which are near and dear to us, and for women who are figuring out the future, this was really powerful,” said Kemp. “I felt like the mentors got women in attendance to connect the dots quickly and funneled it down so these ladies were able to turn their vision into a business plan right then and there.”
As restaurant marketing manager at OpenTable who’s worked intimately with hospitality groups, Kemp recognizes that the food industry requires an innate understanding of the business side.
“Passion and drive may be all there, but business know-how seldom is,” said Kemp. “It would have taken weeks or months to formulate and distill these business plans, but by the end of day two, attendees were taking those conversations and putting them into pitch delivery for the first time.”
Women are encouraged to apply to attend Owning It workshops scheduled across major cities throughout the United States. Applications are now open. The Phoenix workshop will take place Sept. 22 and 23 in partnership with Danielle Leoni of The Breadfruit. In New Orleans on Sept. 29 and 30, the event partner is 2019 James Beard Foundation award winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef, Kelly Fields of Willa Jean. And in Sacramento on November 18 and 19, Bobbin Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s B&L will partner in presenting that city’s Owning It workshop.
Meanwhile, get involved! Follow the #owningit hashtag on social media and sign up for the newsletter list at the James Beard Foundation Owning It website page. And for those in cities not scheduled to host Owning It events, it’s possible you could help bring a workshop to your area. For details or to share why your city needs an Owning It workshop, email Emily Rothkrug at firstname.lastname@example.org.