my Panda helps people get trusted, reliable help from right in their own neighborhood. my Panda has a culture of women helping women. 95% of the Pandas are women, they understand the struggles our members face, and they hire those who are passionate about helping. GSIC caught up with founder Tamara Lucas to learn more about her journey and my Panda’s success with connecting neighbors and local communities.

By: Kayla Jones, Social Impact Fellow

GSIC: Tell us about my Panda, and why you felt it was necessary to start this business. 

Tamara: So, it was a problem that I have, right? I am a single mom of two kids. My career before this was working in sales and marketing management in the fine wine field – working as a distributor. I was representing different wineries, and as a single mom with two kids, I was super overwhelmed. It was too much on my plate, as many of us can relate. The idea was born actually when one day, I was talking to a friend of mine who worked as a dog walker. She was like, “Oh, my God, I go into people’s houses, and they need much more than just a dog walker! I go in there and take their dog out, but then their kitchen is a disaster. If they would like throw me $20 bucks, I’d empty the dishwasher and wipe down the kitchen, too!”  And I thought to myself, “Holy cow, that’s what I need!”

Founder, Tamara Lucas

So, at that point, I was like, “You know, if someone was driving by my house anyway, they could just stop and spend 30 minutes in my kitchen, and I paid $20? Oh, absolutely!” And then I thought about how many other people there are all around us – primarily working women. We’re the ones that have the brunt of everything put on us. And how many other people are all around us, in our community, have little bits of time, little pockets of time, and would want to help?

That’s where the whole idea came from. I thought, “Hey, if we can just connect these people, that would be great.”  So I asked myself, “Well, why don’t we try to build an app?” And I’m non-technical. So I had no idea what was involved in that. Then I began to realize, as I talked about this idea with more and more people, how many people needed it. Basically, everybody I talked to was like, “Oh, my God, I need that! I need someone to help me just get to these everyday things that are just too much.” So then I was like, this is something that can really be a business, and we can grow it. And that was the birth of it. We went ahead and built the app and it has kept growing from there.

GSIC: That’s great. Can you speak more about the decision to make it an app? Or the other possible ways my Panda could’ve come about

Tamara: Yeah, sure. So we actually launched with a browser-based system because it was really simple to build. People would just log into the website, put in the request, and then the request would be there for us to view. We developed the app because we envisioned people being out and about and realizing, “Oh, my God, I left the laundry in the washing machine, I need someone to go by! And maybe, I’ll just have them take care of the dog, too.” 

We wanted people to just go to their phones and put the request in. We saw it as a very simple way to use this tool. Most people carry their phones around them all the time. We wanted it easy for people to hire our Pandas, and Panda stands for “Personal Assistants Next Door App.” We envisioned people thinking, “Oh, I can go get a Panda” and getting one flowed seamlessly into the person’s life. That being said, right now, we are reworking our website. We’re rebranding and everything, and going to have a browser-based capability of putting in requests. We’re building that back in because there are people that might not want to download an app or sometimes getting the app is a barrier for them. We think it can help our marketing because if people can use our services just from the browser instead of downloading the app too, we think that will make a difference.

GSIC: That’s great. Can you speak about some of the favorite moments about doing this work?

Tamara: I’m passionate about helping people. I have a Master’s in social work, which I got from UGA back in the mid-90s. Helping the community and helping people drive me, and that’s what I see my Panda as. It’s helping the people that need help, and it’s also helping Pandas who want to have a flexible job. It’s rewarding work because they get to step in and help people.  It isn’t just a gig, you know? I can’t think of an exact moment per se, but when I get emails or text messages from our users, like, “Oh my God, my PANDA just left, and my life has completely changed!” I love that feeling of completely changing someone’s day and, by doing that, changing their life.

Also, many women left the workplace during the pandemic, and it’s been a big issue. So many of our PANDAs are women. And having the job flexibility of making $20 an hour and the opportunity to work within the local community is pretty special. That’s the other unique thing about us – we’re hyperlocal. Our PANDAs only work a few miles from their homes and serve the same people within the local community. They get to support local independent businesses. We have many people who submit shopping requests for the DeKalb Farmers’ Market. So Instacart, for example, doesn’t go there.  Some of our PANDAs are skilled and know their way around the market. They can go when the market isn’t too busy, which helps our users that work during the day and can only go during peak hours. It makes my day when I get those stories about how we completely affected somebody’s life.  

GSIC: That’s really cool. It’s neighbors helping neighbors, and also helping the small businesses that may not show up on other food delivery apps.

Tamara: Exactly. And it’s also keeping the money in the local economy. It’s really important for us to support our local businesses and keep that money locally. When we do that, that money gets amplified so much more. It helps communities instead of going into huge corporations and helping the shareholders.

GSIC: That’s great. So then, on the other hand, what has been some of the more challenging experiences of running it? 

Tamara: With running a startup, you’re building the plane while you’re flying it. I don’t have a business background – I have a social work and psychology background and experience in wine sales. So the learning curve was really steep, and then having the resources that you need. Being a first time founder and a female founder, getting access to funding is tough. It’s changing now, for underrepresented founders, though. There’s a lot more funds out there that are specifically targeting us and helping us but, bootstrapping is hard. And accessing cash has been very, very hard.  It’s hard when this is your full-time job, and you’re not paying yourself, and you’ve got two kids to raise. So that has been really difficult – accessing resources. 

We’re essentially a marketplace business. We’ve got a supply side and a demand side. Making sure that that’s balanced is tough, too. Making sure we have enough Pandas hired so that when requests come in, they’re getting picked up time on time. But then also, we get Pandas hired and don’t have enough jobs coming in, and they quickly lose interest, and they fall off. So as far as the style of business that we are, that is the biggest challenge we have with running the business.

 

 

GSIC: That makes a lot of sense because the PANDAS provide on-demand services, right?  

Tamara: Yeah, they do. So a person can put in “on-off” requests, and they can be completed within an hour or two. But generally, we don’t get to them that quickly. So you can do same-day services, but we also have subscription services where a person gets partnered with Pandas, our Panda Partner program. So depending on the needs, we find the Panda whose schedule works with the client’s. Then that Panda becomes the “go-to.” Those people schedule the Pandas more regularly, which helps the Pandas have more consistent work. We’re hoping to move to a membership-based model soon to help with some of our scheduling challenges. 

GSIC: Thank you for your transparency in talking about the challenges as you operate. So how did you build those connections in the first place and get customers using the platform? 

Tamara: The startup and technology ecosystem here in Atlanta is robust. I’ve tapped into that ecosystem to help give me support. As a first-time founder, I really needed help building a strong foundation for the business. I also tapped into ATDC and Emory’s Goizueta Business School, which has the Start:Me program. I went through the City of Atlanta Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative program, LaunchPad 2X, and right now I’m in TechStars Atlanta. Getting into all these programs helped my network to expand. 

That was all hard because our app launched in September 2019, right before the pandemic. So, as I was building the business, everything was virtual, and getting to know people was difficult. But a lot of the foundation was laid during that time period, and now that people are getting back out and about, it’s been great to access that network again.  

Pretty much all of our growth has been because of word of mouth, we’ve had very little marketing. That’s been great because my Panda is a very personalized, trust-based business. So if you hear about it from your friends, you’re much more likely to use it. Much of our growth has also been from Facebook groups, especially Mom and Neighborhood-based groups. I started it in my neighborhood and then moved to the neighborhoods around us. Facebook has been a huge way that our business has grown. 

GSIC: Wow, that’s pretty cool. Using Facebook groups is really really smart. So what do you believe is my Panda’s superpower?  

Tamara: Connecting with people and connecting people. My undergraduate degree was in psychology. And when I was going to college, I thought, “What am I gonna do? I thought I might as well get a degree in psychology because all I ever did was help people with their problems.” I might as well get paid for it, you know? (laughs) So, I definitely connect with people and establish relationships with people really well. my Panda is a connector for sure! 

GSIC: That’s great. Well, thank you so much for your time! We wish my Panda all the best.

Tamara: Thanks for having me!

Find more information about my Panda here

Donate Panda hours to New American Pathways to help with Afghan refugee resettlement: https://www.mypandaapp.com/napw

Download the myPanda app”

Royal Thanaka is a unique line of skin care products that features Thanaka, an ancient ingredient from the central forest in Myanmar. For over 2,000 years, it has been used by local people for skin protection and nourishment. GSIC caught up with co-founders Htwe Htwe and Mary Ellen Sheehan to learn more about their journey and how Royal Thanaka brings this treasure of nature to the world. Their products use sustainably sourced, high-quality ingredients and are carefully made in the U.S.

Royal Thanaka Founders, Mary Ellen Sheehan and Htwe Htwe

By: Kayla Jones, Social Impact Fellow

GSIC: How did you all meet each other? And how did the idea for starting Royal Thanaka come about?

Htwe: We worked at the International Community School together maybe more than 10 years ago.

Mary Ellen: Oh, yeah! You came in 2003 when Hain, her son, was six years old. That’s when I met both of you. If Htwe started working there in 2004, and I was working there at that time, then it’s about 18 years since we’ve known each other.

Htwe: So we’re like a family now.

Mary Ellen: So we met, and we were just friends at work. But there’s something about the International Community School (ICS) – all of us bonded. It was a true community. We first started a different business together, and I found the business plan for it recently. Our families bought an urban farm together. But it was hard. We were all working full time but still growing seeds and planting them on different plots to sell in the veggie market on market weekends. We just couldn’t keep doing it -it was too hard, so we stopped.

And after that, we stayed friends. I went to a farm-to-table cooking school in Ireland, and one day we were out on a boat, fishing for dinner. One of my classmates had been in the cosmetic industry in Hong Kong for 30 years. She was originally from Australia but met an Irish guy and lived in Ireland. She told me she was starting this line of skin care products based on Irish seaweed and planned to launch it in Ireland in May 2022. And I was like, “Wow, I didn’t know that regular person could do that,” because we’re teachers, and we’re not in that kind of industry. So I came back, and we were having dinner one night. I told Htwe and her husband, Mu about the woman. They said that in Burma, they had Thanaka, and it’s already used for skin care. I thought, “Why don’t we make a line of skincare products?” 

We wanted quality control from the beginning. So Mu went to Burma, and he sourced tree farms. He got an expert to help, and they found the best Thanaka tree farm out there. They hand selected the trees, and they don’t cut the trees down, just the branches. He set up a system of harvesting the tree – you have to rinse off the wood, dry it, and grind it. Then we had to get permission from the USDA to import the ground wood. We had to get customs brokers, find a lab, find jars, get packaging, artists, a website, and social media.

Our first lab dragged their feet for a year and a half! We brought in some wood and asked, “Can you turn this into a product?” And they’re like, “Sure!” But we didn’t know what we were doing. They were a contract manufacturer and told us they would own the formula – not us. But we thought, “It’s our product!” And so they told us that if we paid them $50,000, they might let us have the formula. So we decided to find another lab, and our current lab is in North Carolina.  

Htwe: Yes, our first year, we just wasted alot of money and time. 

Mary Ellen: Yep, because we didn’t know what we didn’t know. So the new lab is the U.S. Botanical Safety Lab, which is really nice. It’s owned by the University and the arboretum, and they’re not for profit. It took us a year, though, to get a meeting with them, but now we’re in. And it’s a much, much, much better thing! They make the formula for us, and we pay them, but it’s nothing compared to the other lab. One of the chemists there did a job for us where he made the cream and manufactured it. The downstairs of the lab has a manufacturing facility called Blue Ridge Food Ventures. Besides food manufacturing, they also do cosmetics. That’s where he mixed all of the formulae and put the cream in jars that we got from Italy. And that’s how we got started. Step, by step, by step.

Htwe: We started in 2016. And our products came out on September 21, 2021, during the Covid pandemic. 

Mary Ellen:  Yep, it took us that long to launch! SharkTank heard about us, and they approached us before we launched and then again after we launched. So that was really affirming. They told us we virtually had a new ingredient. I mean, it’s 2000 years old in Southeast Asia, but in the United States, we’re the only ones besides Manda, a sunscreen company for surfers, that uses Thanaka in their products. SharkTank also said we have an amazing story. But we didn’t fit in with their theme this year, so that fell through. Anyway, Htwe do you want to share about how your mom used Thanaka when you were a kid?

Htwe: Yes, so when we were young, my mom held us on her lap. She would get a small piece of the Thanaka bark and grind it with a small amount of water on a stone slab. If you have a piece, then you could grind it and put it anywhere on your skin. You can put it on your face or hands – anywhere here, even use it like sunscreen. So my mom used to hold us and put the Thanaka on our faces, our bodies, and the last piece, she would put in our mouths. She said it was medicine (laughs).  

One of the Thanaka trees can also be used for medicine. Some use it for body aches and even to help women heal after they have a baby. The one for your skin helps to make the skin feel smooth and cool. Thanaka has lots of vitamins, especially Vitamin E. There’s alot of natural benefits to it.  

Mary Ellen:  Yep! There are four kinds of Thanaka trees. So there’s this one for the skin and another medicinal one. Thanaka is related to sandalwood, so we can even make a fragrance. 

Htwe: We haven’t done the fragrance because it is expensive to make, but Thanaka is really, really good to use. 

GSIC: How interesting! So in the story on your website, it mentioned said that some of the Thanaka trees are in danger. Has that made doing business more difficult?

Htwe: We have enough for our products right now. 

Mary Ellen: Oh yes, we do. We have about 400 pounds in our basement, which is enough to make 150,000 jars. The extra Thanaka goes a long way. What the story is describing, though, is what was happening before the war. There’s a war in Burma right now, and it started a year ago, in February 2021.  

Before the war broke out,  the Thanaka tree farmers started to cut down all the trees because other countries wanted them to grow other products that could be used as food emulsifiers. So, they were clear-cutting the Thanaka tree forest, the Ancient Ones, because they said, “This is old-fashioned people don’t use it anymore.” At the time, Revlon and other Western companies were moving into Burma. But then the war broke out in February 2021, and a military coup took out Aung San Suu Kyi and took over the country. 

Then the people started painting their faces with Thanaka as a form of protest, and it became a symbol of freedom. The tree farmers stopped cutting it down because it became a symbol of pride in the culture. So anyway, if Burma shuts down and we can’t get any more trees, the trees also grow in Southern India and in Sri Lanka. We could get them from there as far as the supply, but we prefer these ones that are grown in Burma. 

We’ve been giving some donations to help people during the war. Htwe, do you want to talk about some of the protests you’ve organized over the last few months?  

Htwe: Yes, in 2021, the military took over in Burma. I still have my family and many relatives that live there, including my father, who has been sick for over a year. And I haven’t been able to see him. The government cut off electricity and water. So there are many people who are still struggling. And even if we send them money, they do not always receive the full amount because the post office there would take a cut.  

Mary Ellen: Yeah, we were going to send an oxygen machine to her father. But people said it would get confiscated. 

Htwe: So that’s why here in Atlanta, we’ve done some community organizing. We went to the other states, too, like New York, Washington D.C., and North Carolina. We tried to support to my country by community organizing and fundraising. People would donate money, and we’ll send it to Thailand and Burma and to other people who needed help.  

GSIC: Well, thank you so much for sharing that. That’s admirable work. Can you speak about your products and what Royal Thanaka offers? 

Mary Ellen: Yes, we have one product, our Ultra Rich Moisturizing Cream, in two sizes right now. It’s a face cream, but you could use it on your hair and hands as well. Our new packaging for the cream was designed by an artist who teaches graphic design at Eastern Connecticut State University. She is extremely talented. We didn’t know what we were doing (laughs). But we wanted the box to accentuate the word “Royal” because there are some ancient stories about Thanaka that goes back to Burmese kings and queens. 

Our logo was designed by another artist from China at Eastern Connecticut State University also. It is the hintha bird, which is an ancient Burmese mythical bird. The bird is surrounded by a garland of Thanaka leaves. 

We only have one product now, but our chemist recently made a facial bar soap cleanser. A facial cleanser has to have a different pH than a regular body bar of soap. So she made one with a certain pH. We’re still finetuning it because it is exfoliating, but the feedback we’ve gotten from our customers is that they’d like a bit more ‘sudsing’ action. And the bar of soap looks pretty plain. They mentioned that if people aren’t used to what Thanaka does, and they see the plain bar of soap for the first time, it may not be that exciting to them. So we’re still working on that. But once people use our things, they just love them.

 

 

The next thing our customers want is an eye cream. We have two chemists that both said an eye cream is not hard to make at this point. But the challenge now is finding the right containers. We don’t want to put any more plastic into the world because there’s more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish. So our current containers are recycled glass with a recycled plastic lid. We got these in Italy. We had to go there because in the U.S., if you do find glass, you have to order 20,000 at a time. We couldn’t do that financially, but in Italy, they don’t care how many you order. So for our large containers, we ordered 1000 from Italy. Then for the small ones, we have a frosted glass that we ordered from Italy as well. 

GSIC: That’s great. What are you most proud of about your company so far? 

Mary Ellen: Well, what comes to mind for me is I’m just really proud of the fact that we both came here from other places. So Mu and Htwe came to this country from Burma with hopes and dreams. And their children have done, really, really well. And my parents came from Ireland. They left the poverty of Ireland with the hopes and dreams of having a decent life in this country. So, I’m proud of a couple of things. We’re honoring our ancestors in continuing the hope and moving forward. I’m proud of the fact that we did this together from scratch. We’re still here, and people love our product. 

We’d like to take it to the next level because my dream is to have a foundation where we can support people to live out their dreams. This year we’re giving a portion of each sale to the International Community School. We decided before we launched that we want to do something like that every year for a different organization. So next year, we want to create a scholarship fund for Burmese children to attend college. We’d like to give scholarships and open them up to the Asian community, especially women. We’re a women-owned business, and even though our husbands are involved, we have primary ownership. So as women, we want to support the efforts of other women. 80% of people working at the International Community School were Asian women. 80% of refugee families are women and children, and women are already 51% of the world population. We want to help – immigrants, women, young people with hopes and dreams, and older people with hopes and dreams. So that’s what I’m proud of. We’re still on that path. I can’t say we have a long way to go because you never know what will happen. But it’s been nice, with really nice surprises along the way.

Htwe: For me, I’m proud of who I am now, being here. Even though this is so hard for me, the language, you know, it’s not my language. I’m also proud to be bringing the Thanaka from my country here and spreading it throughout the world. It’s like being a bridge, and it’s our dream come true. That’s what we prayed for.

GSIC: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing, ladies. It was fantastic talking to you all! 

Royal Thanaka products are available for purchase at www.royalthanaka.com

 

GSIC celebrated Lavonya Jones’ first 100 days as Director on Thursday, August 11th, at a networking happy hour. Partnership for Southern Equity and Startup Runway Foundation hosted, and GSIC Steering Committee Member Brian Goebel emceed. The happy hour centered conversations on Lavonya’s vision for GSIC and how the social impact ecosystem could leverage capital, collaboration, and legislative policy to drive change.

Many thanks to our caterer, Love, JéKeisha, and Najm Khalik Muhammad (@astarslight), who provided us with excellent food and live music for the evening. Thank you to all who attended.

GSIC is honored to be a leading member of the social impact community throughout Georgia!

GSIC Director, Lavonya Jones and Brian Goebel, GSIC Steering Committee Member

 

Sterling Johnson and Aaron Johnson, Partnership for Southern Equity Just Opportunity Portfolio, Lavonya Jones, GSIC Director, Brian Goebel GSIC Steering Committee Member

Lavonya Jones, GSIC Director, Brian Goebel, GSIC Steering Committee Member

 

Love, JéKeisha, Caterer

 

Najm Khalik Muhammad, @astarslight

 

GSIC Networking Happy Hour

 

GSIC Networking Happy Hour

 

Brian Goebel and Lavonya Jones

July 6, 2022

By: Kayla Jones, GSIC Social Impact Fellow

True to its tagline, “Design for Abundant Living,” Rochelle Porter Design (RPD) believes everyone along the value chain should have the chance to live well. RPD prioritizes fair pay and the use of organic materials whenever possible. Their goal is to “Create the flyest possible products while doing the least possible harm.”

GSIC spoke with Rochelle Porter to learn more about her company and commitment to ethics, sustainability, and creating beautiful products.

 

 

GSIC: Thanks so much for being here. We’d love to hear about your journey as a designer and what inspires you as you design. 

 

Rochelle: Well actually, designing wasn’t always a dream that I had. I have no formal art background or ever thought about a design career growing up. I come from a very traditional immigrant, West Indian family. My family’s Guyanese and I was born there. And, with many immigrant families, you come to the U.S., you go to a good school, and you get a job as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. So that was all I knew. I didn’t have any interest in any of those fields really, or any desire or any inclination toward them.

A career in design or art was not one of the job options. But I always doodled as a kid, and as an adult, I doodled on anything I could find. It wasn’t something I saw as a skill or a talent or anything particularly amazing. It was just what I did. It was more like a compulsion than anything. I mean, from you know, drawing on the corner of your books in school, to me being in corporate America and being in like, three-hour-long meetings. People thought I was taking notes voraciously, and it was a whole legal pad full of my doodles! That’s how I made it through those meetings. But I never really thought much of a career in design.

A few weird and pivotal things happened, though. So, I ended up majoring in English and History in college, much to my family’s chagrin. And my first job out of college was as a computer programmer. I hated the job and it was a horrible fit for me, but it was at a Fortune 100 company in Manhattan. I had “arrived.” I was wearing a suit every day, my family was proud, and everything seemed great. But really, I was dying inside. And I knew I was “creative,” but I would have never called myself an artist or anything. So just as an outlet, I took a class at FIT – Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. It was an Intro to Fashion Design class and I took it about 20 years ago at this point. It was only a three-day class and I went to the first two days. The instructor told us that if we wanted to get our products made, we’d have to go to China. I thought to myself doing production in China probably meant human rights violations, child labor, pollution, horrible worker conditions, and all these things that I had no interest in being involved in or perpetuating. So I didn’t bother going to third class and just moved on with my life.

Fast forward over a decade, and I started learning that sustainable fashion was a ‘thing.’ I didn’t initially have a great interest in it. I just knew what went into fast fashion, and I knew that it was bad; I didn’t want to be involved. So I felt encouraged when I learned about sustainable fashion. I took another class one day, but it wasn’t an art class in the traditional sense. It was a class about finding your heart as an artist and learning about how God created us to be creative. It was incredibly life-changing for me. I remember there was a woman in the class with me, and I didn’t know her at the time; but she looked at me and said, “I feel like there’s a dream that you had a long time ago that you put down. But I think God wants you to pick it back up now.” It was nice for her to say that, but not impressed (laughs). I was not impressed because I had picked up so many things from the time I took the FIT class until that moment. I filed the art dream in the back of my brain. And then another instance happened when, I was getting on a flight, and a Delta agent said my name sounded like a clothing line. Things like that kept happening for about a year and a half, and then I finally said to myself, “Okay, I’m listening, what’s going on? Clearly, there’s something here.”

The real turning point for me was going into some department store – it could have been Target or Nordstrom. I saw the stuff on the shelves – clothing, coffee mugs, greeting cards – and they all had these prints on them. The prints looked like things that I doodled. So I started asking myself, “How do people do that?” “How do people get artwork onto products?” I did my research, and found that it was an actual field called “Surface Pattern Design.” People did it for a living, and they had trade shows and conferences, too. I eventually went to the shows and conferences, and it kind of clicked from there. That’s the short version of how I got started!

 

GSIC: Thank you for sharing. Your designs are beautiful. Can you speak more about the surface pattern design style? 

 

Rochelle: It’s called surface pattern design, so anything that has a surface. Textile design is probably what people are most familiar with. But surface pattern design isn’t just textiles. It could be a phone case, wallpaper, fabric – anything that can have a print on it, basically.  

 

GSIC: Thanks for explaining that! Are there any unique challenges you’ve faced while navigating the industry? 

 

Rochelle: Okay, sure. So while I do make apparel products, I actually kind of hate the fashion industry. I love style, I love clothing as a form of self-expression, and I love that you can tell who somebody is without them even saying a word sometimes. That’s amazing to me and it’s beautiful. The industry, of course, is racist, sexist, and not particularly size-inclusive, either. So with my activewear line, specifically, the sizes go from extra small to 6x. We really try to have something for every body type. There are a variety of prints for people who are really bold with color, or a little more conservative. It’s focused on making everything a lot more inclusive.

The sustainability aspect of that is a challenge. Because if you’re using stretchy material, there’s not a whole lot of 100% sustainable options. For example, you can’t make an organic cotton pair of leggings. So the materials are not the most eco-friendly, but our production method is. We use a ‘print on demand’ model, so the item doesn’t get made until the customer orders it. The item then gets printed, cut, sewn, and sent to them in about a week and a half. That way, it’s less likely to end up in a landfill somewhere or languishing on a shelf, or a warehouse. So we try to be mindful of that.

Right now, we source organic cotton and use eco-friendly dyes for printing. This production happens in North Carolina. We try to keep our carbon footprint really low by being as local as possible. We actually have some of our decor made by Amani Women’s Center, which is run by Doris Mukangu, who’s also a Start:ME alum. Her sewing academy is focused on the Clarkston immigrant community. They train them to get to a level where they’re really good and then they start doing production in manufacturing for brands. By using local workers, I know that people are being treated well and paid fairly. They also just do a great job of production.

 

GSIC: That’s great. You recently collaborated with West Elm, congrats on that accomplishment! How do you decide on who to partner with and where to sell your products? 

 

Rochelle: Thank you. That’s an interesting story. With West Elm, the partnership came about in a sort of unconventional way. I had been doing pop-up shops at their stores for years. I heard that independent designers could do pop-up shops in their stores. So I went to one and was like, “Hey, I got these pillows.” (laughs) I had done that for about four or five years before anything was actually sold on westelm.com. But with everything that happened in 2020, with all the social unrest, brands started to make an effort to support Black businesses and Black designers.

Many brands took the 15% pledge after George Floyd’s death. The pledge was started by a designer named Aurora James who said to brands, “Here’s what you can do. Since Black people comprise roughly 15% of the population, we should be 15% of the products that are on your shelves.” West Elm was one of the first brands to take the pledge. I already had a relationship with them, so it was sort of a ‘no brainer,’ and the partnership happened seamlessly. They’re a company that values sustainability, individuality, and different kinds of expression. Their ethos aligned with what I was doing anyway, and it just made sense. They’ve been a great partner. As we grow and expand into other retailers, it’s important for me to vet them by asking, “Do they actually fit with my brand?”

 

GSIC: That sounds really hard to do. 

Rochelle: It’s definitely a challenge. If I was making some mass-produced, fad product, it probably would be a lot easier and more lucrative on the front end. But I’m trying to build a brand with longevity, values, and hopefully some influence on the rest of the industry going forward.

 

GSIC: This has been wonderful. Thank you for your time! Where can we find out more about Rochelle Porter Design?

Rochelle: You’re welcome! Thanks for having me. You can find us in West Elm and Home Goods and online at RochellePorter.com.

 

 

###

Get connected and learn more about Rochelle Porter Design!

LinkedIN | Instagram | Facebook | Pinterest | Twitter

June 6, 2022

By: Kayla Jones, GSIC Social Impact Fellow

Bread and Butter Farms aims to utilize what the earth provides holistically to grow vegetables,  fruits, and herbs with zero chemicals. They simply take care of the soil, plant heirloom seeds, and harvest to provide the most nutrient-dense produce possible.

 

GSIC caught up with founders and owners Micole and Musa Hasan to learn more about Bread and Butter Farms and their mission to provide a “true farm-to-table experience” for the community. 

 

 

GSIC: Tell us about Bread and Butter Farms and the challenges you hope to address with your mission. 

 

Micole: Bread and Butter Farms initially started as a way to afford to feed our family the way we wanted to eat, without having to buy foods or produce full of chemicals. We began very small in our apartment. In each space we lived, we started indoor growing. Then we would go to the balcony and backyard, making a natural progression.

We finally got a house and a yard, so we turned the whole backyard into raised beds. That’s when we started selling at a market. We would take pictures and post them on social media, and people started showing interest in what we had. So, we would just sell bundles here and there, and then somebody said, “Well, you guys should come to the Athens Farmer’s Market.”

We were like, “Sure, why not!” So, we tried it, and it was like getting bit by a bug because we did not realize that we could make money doing something that we enjoyed. We were already doing it for our family but saw that we could provide income for ourselves. It was our opportunity to get out there as farmers, scientists, and Black people. The farmer’s market was an area in a food desert, too. We partnered with the Athens Land Trust, which tries to work with Athens’s underserved and underprivileged communities.

So, we felt it was a good space for us and a good fit because we got to talk to all sorts of people. For example, people would come to tell us about their health challenges, like high blood pressure and heart problems. Our experiences, along with our education, helped us talk to people about what they should eat to mitigate the issues that they were having.

We are both very passionate about farming. It keeps us going on some level, especially when it comes to our customers and seeing the needs that we can fill.

 

GSIC: That’s wonderful. How long have you all operated, and how have you grown over time? 

 

Musa: We started in 2012 and have been pushing ever since

 

Micole: Yes, we came up with the name “Bread and Butter Farms” in 2015 because initially, we were farming without a name. We were operating, giving produce to families, selling a little bit here and there. But we became “Bread and Butter Farms” once we were at the Athens Farmer’s Market. The name came because I make bread and cakes and Musa makes butter. We took that to the market with us and the produce, which is how we began.  

 

GSIC: That’s awesome. Did you grow up farming, or did you get more involved as you got older? 

 

Micole: I grew up growing and gardening. My mother and my uncles always had gardens. I come from an agricultural family to the point where agriculture was the only thing that supported the family. My mother grew up on a self-sufficient farm operation. Everything came off the farm – we grew cotton, corn, and mostly cash crops. We also had chickens and hogs. My father grew up in the same kind of farming operation as well.

It was deeply rooted in my upbringing; I was the only one out of four kids interested in it. Every fruit seed I got, I grew. I grew some flowers on my front lawn and my parents, thankfully, let me have that independence to be able to do that. I’d have my gardens, too. When Musa met me in college, I had a balcony garden. So, I’ve always loved growing.

Wherever the two of us moved, I said, “We have to have sun; I have to be able to grow something!” When I met Musa, he shared that he grew up on a farm. He’d still go back to the farm while we were in college, going to visit his grandfather and help him on the family farm in Monroe. Musa has more of an upbringing with agriculture firsthand, and my family was more into gardening. I’d say that I’m first-generation, returning to farming, and Musa is a second-generation farmer.

 

GSIC: How has building connections and relationships helped you all run and expand Bread and Butter Farms? 

 

Micole: We’re so grateful for our network. We try to reach out and take part in whatever we can in terms of growth and development, but we are also pretty selective about opportunities. We don’t deal with any bank loans, and we don’t deal with any interest. It is very important for us to be able to farm and make an impact without it being stressful and without negatively impacting our mental health.

Because farming is very stressful, you put everything in the ground at the beginning of the season. And we lost 85% of our crops, for example, from the frost that we got a couple of weeks back. So, you do these things, and sometimes it feels like you’re on a hamster wheel. But thankfully, we have a network. We do have places like Emory Start:ME, where if we need to share something, they can help us.

We have the opportunity to work with the American Heart Association and receive publicity through that. We work with MARTA stations and various farmers’ markets. We also meet people in different organizations and partner with these micro-food systems throughout Atlanta. We try to collaborate with them and provide them with produce the best way we can because we’re kind of far out – we’re an hour from Atlanta.

So, connecting with those individuals and knowing that our food is getting to the people who need it is a huge thing for us. We’re happy to work with anybody who moves in a direction parallel to our values and what we feel.

Working with the school system is another opportunity for us. Starting with the kids, you need to build from the ground up. Creating that knowledge base and that interest when it comes to agriculture and farming, that’s how we move. When it comes to SNAP benefits and people that are low-income, we try to squeeze into that space as well.

Good food is not a privilege. You shouldn’t have to make a certain amount of money to go to Whole Foods and be able to buy stuff – and who knows how old the food is!

Anybody that needs food should be able to get it

Musa: That’s exactly right

GSIC: Can you all speak to Bread and Butter’s farm share initiative and the benefits of this farming model? 

Musa: So, the farm share is pretty straightforward, and it is a model that started in Tuskegee, Alabama. Basically, the idea is to have individuals interested in zero chemical, organic produce. They buy into the program ahead of schedule – so people start purchasing full and half shares around November and December for the springtime growing season. A family of four might buy a full share, and they would get a weekly distribution of veggies for ten weeks. That allows us to know exactly how much we grow and who we are growing for. Those seeds and plants are already allotted, and as farmers, we don’t want to waste anything. It helps us save tons of food.

And there’s a difference in quality, too. When you’re eating certain types of food, and you go to a farm or a farmers’ market and grab something harvested less than a couple of hours before, or at most a day, the taste is absolutely amazing. Even if you are buying conventional produce, just the fact that you’re getting it earlier than two weeks, the taste is different. And we don’t use any chemicals or pesticides either, so the nutrient density of the plant and produce is astronomical. 

GSIC: Do you all teach people how to farm as well?

Musa: We are working on that, and we recently hired our first staff member. We’re hoping to hire another person, which will free us to host more farm dinners and workshops. 

Many people don’t understand what’s happening in society right now. There’s a decline in produce and meats, and other food products that are typically readily available. Our culture needs to understand growing practices and the benefits of growing.  And just growing, even if they live in an apartment, to grow whatever they can. “Grow where you are” has been one of our mottos since we started.

Micole: Exactly, and the whole agricultural system in the U.S. is not sustainable. The conventional farming system, mass-producing everything and importing, is not sustainable because it destroys the land and the soil. 

If we can get more micro farms and micro gardens going, people don’t have to be so co-dependent on a grocery store. Then, if there’s a fault in the system, people can keep moving without stress and pandemonium. We have been talking about moving more to an educational farm-based operation instead of market and Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) models.

As we age as farmers, that’s something that we think about – how long we can sustain the physical labor and how much longer we can keep doing it. We can’t assume that our kids will automatically want to farm and carry on the business, and a lot of times, that’s not the reality with farmers. We are considering and remain passionate about creating an on-site educational program for people who want to learn how to farm as a business or just learn how to grow.

GSIC: What do you believe is Bread and Butter Farms’ superpower?

Musa: I’ll answer for Micole, and she can answer for me. Micole’s superpower is her organization. With thinking outside the box and her critical thinking skills, she’s a chess master when it comes to outlining details that I wouldn’t typically think of when it comes to business, farming, and things of that nature. Her creativity and great ideas – that’s a huge superpower. 

But other than that, honestly, it’s the balancing she’s consistently doing. This balancing act between a wife, mother, and business owner, engaging in self-empowerment and community development. All of that together, I think, is a superpower. 

Micole: Thank you, babe. I appreciate that! Musa is a networking king. He’s good at greeting people and getting into spaces that will benefit us. He’s great at making connections that end up helping us in the present moment or down the line. 

Another thing is his work ethic. He has a way of tunneling in and getting things done. He helps me execute my ideas, and he’s good with numbers. I think we’re a good business match in that way. He presents information in a format that people can read and understand, which has helped us in our grant writing and securing funding. We’re playing off our strengths.

GSIC: What other programs are you planning to start at Bread and Butter Farms? 

Micole: We’re pushing our farm stand to get more people down to the farm. It’s a precursor to having a school program, so we want more people to learn about growing. Those happen on Sundays. As we move forward, we’re hoping to grow and develop more as a company. We’d also love to provide jobs for more people interested in agriculture. 

Musa: Yeah, we think that’s important. Our whole motto is self-sustainability. Farmers’ markets are good spaces to be in as a farm, but we may not always be able to depend on them. 

Everything is done as a steppingstone to something else. Bill Gates purchasing farmland, for example, is a stepping stone to things that might come down the pipeline. Rules and the policies that get passed will likely protect big corporations or other big farmers from small farmers. Down the line, this might require farmers to get different certifications to keep farming. To avoid those regulations and policies that will come later, we believe that selling from our farm itself and dealing with the people around us will help us as we move forward. 

GSIC: Thank you both so much for your time.

###

Get connected and learn more about Bread and Butter Farms!

Bread and Butter Farms Instagram | Facebook

Monroe, GA. 30655 | 470-487-3959 | [email protected]

May 2, 2022

Lavonya Jones is passionate about entrepreneurship as a solution to economic injustice and inequality. As a third-generation HBCU graduate, she also serves as an Entrepreneurship Instructor for Morehouse College, the founder of a social justice media company, Consciously Funded, and the Director of Student Programs for the Morehouse Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center where she works with students at Minority Serving Institutions around the country, creating pathways for them into entrepreneurship, technology, and venture capital.

What makes you excited about this new role with GSIC?
I am passionate about a world where all communities thrive, and I have followed GSIC’s work since its beginnings. As a Georgia native, I’m excited about being in a position to make connections across the ecosystem to raise a more equitable and sustainable Georgia for all of our residents. I’m also eager to build deeper working relationships with many friends that I’ve worked with throughout my career.
What do you admire about GSIC’s work so far, and how do you hope to see Georgia’s broader social impact ecosystem evolve under your leadership?
I truly admire how GSIC has amplified the conversation in Georgia around social impact and impact investing. When I moved back home after college and spoke about social impact work, people looked at me like I had two heads! It’s refreshing to see this conversation being normalized. Georgians are starting to see that you can do good and do well. Under my leadership, I’d like to see deeper roots for social impact and impact investing also grow throughout the state. I’d also like to see a greater understanding and development of B-corporations in Georgia, as well as an expanded priority on equity and inclusion within the social impact and impact investing ecosystems. Lastly, I’d like to see an acceleration in how we are aligning capital with social outcomes in the state of Georgia, particularly as it relates to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. My goal is to ensure that we develop an ecosystem that fosters equitable and sustainable outcomes for present and future Georgians.

Connect with Lavonya on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook!

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/coachlavonyajones/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CoachLavonya

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/coachlavonyajones/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CoachLavonyaJones

April 28, 2022

 

By: Lavonya Jones, GSIC Director

 

During the 2021-2022 academic year, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University because the first Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) to join the Blackstone Launchpad network. Founded in 2008, Blackstone Launchpad is a program of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation to help students navigate the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem by complementing existing on-campus offerings with experiential learning, skill-building, and connections to mentors.

As a fellow interested in tackling housing in Black communities, Jamir Withers stated that the Blackstone Launchpad program has helped him to “acquire a lot of excellent new contacts, learn how to utilize LinkedIn effectively for networking purposes, and gain a lot of fresh insights and ideas on how to grow my business.” And tech-focused fellow, Quincy Box of QTech Innovations, shared that the fellowship allowed him to be “exposed to ideas and processes that I never knew existed.”

As a part of this program, Morehouse and Spelman fellows were able to attend the Startup Grind and TechCrunch Early Stage conferences hosted in Silicon Valley in April of 2022. A delegation of five students and two staff members from Morehouse attended. During the first day of this event, Blackstone Launchpad directors and students from the U.S. and Ireland participated in sessions that focused on building capacity around our innovation and entrepreneurship programs, balancing being a student and a founder, and opportunities to network between campuses. In these sessions, students met with other student founders “tackling huge problems that plague society today.” Morehouse Fellow Zaire Gary of social enterprise The Black Certification Agency and Company, was able to network, learn, and experience real entrepreneurship and startup culture, including assisting John Hill of Techstars with his presentation. Zaire stated, “One gem John dropped was for us to focus on building quality connections rather than quantity. That is really important to me because often we focus on gaining as many connections as possible, however; quality connections are more important because of the effectiveness of the relationship.”

At Startup Grind, students heard from innovation leaders from Y Combinator, Oracle for Startups, OpenSea, Andreessen Horowitz, Dell Technologies, Dropbox, and InstaCart, among others. Students were also able to meet and have a one-on-one conversation with Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital and HireRunner. At TechCrunch Early Stage, students heard from innovation leaders from Sequoia Capital, Microsoft for Startups, Google Ventures, Google for Startups, SoftBank Opportunity Fund, Amazon Web Services, and Samsung Next, among others. Highlighting Obi Akpuda of Microsoft for Startups roundtable on building a minimum viable product (MVP), fellows stated that this session was inspirational and informative, expanding their understanding that “your MVP must answer your customers’ needs or their problem with a solution that solves your customers major pain points.”

Overall students enjoyed seeing “other student entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas and ambition doing business, networking, and then just having fun” at the two conferences. Speaking on his experience as a Blackstone Launchpad Fellow, social entrepreneur Jamir Withers shared that his time as a fellow “was an unforgettable experience that I will always cherish.” Fellow Thomas Bitting of Goldilocks Shower System, whose business idea started as a science project, proclaimed that “having the privilege to be a member of the Blackstone Launchpad program was an amazing experience that has genuinely changed the course of my life….This program has opened my eyes to the many possibilities of what my life could really be!

 

Morehouse Blackstone Launchpad Fellows: Student Testimonials

ZAIRE GARY: Last week I spent 4 days in Silicon Valley networking, learning, and experiencing real entrepreneurship and startup culture. My experience was in one word: amazing. I am going to discuss a couple of gems I learned over the week from practical and applicable advice to personal development and industry secrets. I must mention the impact a Morehouse education and matriculation had on my ability to move into a space so unknown to me as I had never been to California. Morehouse gave me the confidence get out of my seat on the very first day, go on stage in front of all of the Blackstone Launchpad Fellows and assist John Hill from Techstars with his presentation. That eagerness and confidence gave me the opportunity to have a 30 minute private meeting with John on Thursday of this week. John is a self-proclaimed evangelist at Techstars, which means he focuses on utilizing his network in an exponential way to connect whoever to whoever they need to grow and succeed. One gem John dropped was for us was to focus on building quality connections rather than quantity. That is really important to me because often we focus on gaining as many connections as possible; however, quality connections are more important because of the effectiveness of the relationship. 

The next special moment for me was connecting with Obi from Microsoft for Startups. The connection I made with him was special for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I was able to see a man who looked like me, working out of Microsoft’s office in Atlanta, who led a round table discussion about MVPs or your minimum viable product. Obi was an inspiration and extremely informative. The most important thing I got from his round table at the TechCrunch Early Stage 2022 conference was that your MVP must answer your customers’ needs or their problem with a solution that solves your customers major pain points. From my own experiences and failures in business, I realized that you must validate, validate and then re-validate your problem and your customer’s pain point. This is extremely important because the problem is the foundation of your entire business. If your problem isn’t a serious pain point, then it invalidates the entire company you build on top of it and around it. 

My experience overall was so uplifting an inspiring, especially seeing other student entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas and ambition doing business, networking, and then just having fun! I am extremely thankful for Morehouse, Blackstone Charitable Foundation, Kylan Kester, Professor Lavonya Jones, and all the amazing entrepreneurs I connected with and listened to.

 

JAMIR WITHERS: My time at Blackstone was an unforgettable experience that I will always cherish. As one of the more senior members, I was expected to take on a greater leadership role. This was a new experience for me, but I am glad that I was able to help the younger guys. I felt as though I was able to assist others in becoming more comfortable by encouraging them in whatever manner I could. It meant a lot to me that my presence enabled the guys to represent Morehouse with the intellect, politeness, and professionalism that we did. Everyone there was blown away by us, and I hope we paved the way for more HBCUs to be invited to similar events in the future. Overall, I was pleased with how well we looked after ourselves. 

The environment was filled with so many imaginative and creative people; it was amazing. The genuine definition of entrepreneurship is everyone getting together to network, teach, and learn from one another. I’ve acquired a lot of excellent new contacts, learned how to utilize LinkedIn effectively for networking purposes, and gained a lot of fresh insights and ideas on how to grow my business. 

The most important thing that I learned was how to be at ease while meeting new people and, more significantly, how to be at ease with myself. Everyone is a little awkward, but most people respect those that are prepared to put themselves out there and are nice.  I’ve also discovered that many of the finest public speakers at the conference, both now and in the past, have struggled with public speaking fear. It makes me feel better about addressing my issues with public speaking. Maybe it’s acceptable for me to experience anxiety if these renowned individuals do. 

 

QUINCY BOX: The Blackstone Launchpad Fellowship has been very beneficial for me and my entrepreneurial path. I have been exposed to ideas and processes that I never knew existed. The conference is an example of something that I have not been exposed to before, so I experienced many things for the first time. I am an introverted person, but the conference pushed me to meet and  talk to people from all around the world. When I spoke to them, lots of their business ideas were tackling huge problems that plague society today, such as access to affordable goods. I met so many great people at the conference and am very grateful to Blackstone for putting this together for us and allowing me to meet other entrepreneurs from all walks of life.

 

 

 

 

THOMAS BITTING: Having the privilege to be a member of the Blackstone Launchpad program was an amazing experience that has genuinely changed the course of my life. My business began as just a science experiment, but now it has the potential to become my career. The connections I have made and the things that I have experienced are things that will benefit me no matter what I choose to do during and after college. This program has opened my eyes to the many possibilities of what my life could really be!

April 14, 2022

 

By: Tyler Thompson and Jeffrey Shiau

 

Profile Summary:

  • Entrepreneur Name: Tyler Thompson
  • Venture Name: Atlanta Green Market (a subsidiary of TESS: The Environmental Solutions Store)
  • Impact Focus Area(s): Environmental Sustainability [Our own unique terminology: “Consumer-driven, market-based environmental problem-solving”]
  • Business Stage (Ideation, Startup, Early, Later, Mature): Startup
  • Year Venture Established: Formerly registered in 2021
  • Business Type: LLC (working towards multi-stakeholder co-operative)

 

The Issue

Social entrepreneurship is about solving problems. Tell us about the challenge you are focused on addressing and why it is critical that we make progress.

The consumer challenge we are working to solve is convenience, trust and access. The idea of buying “green” looses steam against these three countervailing winds. It has to be easy to “buy green.” If not, then people won’t do it. People have to trust that their “green” purchase is having a meaningful, positive environmental impact. Otherwise “green” looses it’s legitimacy. And, buying “green” has to be affordable. The Environmental Solutions Store aspires to solve all three of these issues as a trusted marketplace for “green” products and services.  Coordinated, collective consumer action can inspire market forces to change. In fact, consumer spending can advance market-based solutions to environmental problems much more effectively than government can regulate polluting industries. That’s because businesses will fight tooth-and-nail against government regulation, but they will turn on a dime, for a dime. We just have to come together to buy things that move the green-economy forward fast enough and far enough to displace the harmful practices of big business as it is known today.

Your Journey

Entrepreneurship is a journey that requires connections and support from a wide array of stakeholders across the ecosystem to help successfully identify, start, and grow a social enterprise. How has your life’s experiences, educations, and relationships prepared you for your journey as an entrepreneur?

My personal life journey is a winding road. I grew up hearing my father preach from a pulpit to an invisible congregation about the dangers of mankind’s treatment of the natural world. He published a book in 1992 called The Environmental Entrepreneur: Where to find the profit in saving the Earth. The book was successfully kept off the shelves by a business that took offense to my father’s factual reporting and which threatened to sue the publisher if the book was distributed. He has devoted his entire career to researching and writing about the intersection of ecology and economy, developing academic frameworks for eco-labeling along the way. After pursuing a career in international development, including service in the Peace Corps, and a corporate stint at Delta Air Lines; I decided to complete a 7,000 mile self-supported cycling trip from northern Alaska to Key West, Florida. On that trip I committed myself to brining some of my dad’s ideas to life. Since then I’ve been working with him and others to launch the business with a kickoff event that we’re calling the Atlanta Green Market Fair–April 23rd at Ponce City Market. This event will be a test of our marketplace concept, featuring local “green” businesses, a full-day’s schedule of environmental programming and numerous environmental non-profit organizations. Those who haven’t already can RSVP at www.atlgreen.market.

Why Georgia’s Social Impact Ecosystem Matters

Being an entrepreneur is hard and it’s even more challenging when you are a social entrepreneur as your business model and / or structure doesn’t follow the same path as traditional start-ups. Tell us about the framework you have used to overcome issues that threatened to sink your venture.

I believe in the power of what we as consumers can achieve by coming together. To me, that power is sufficiently extinguished by the allure and acceptance of venture capital. Not impossible, but not probable. That’s why I’m personally interested in the co-operative model. The idea is that the business supports it’s stakeholders, rather than it’s shareholders. In our case, stakeholders would include employees, vendors, customers and communities. Our vendor collective will pay a nominal membership fee that will provide them needed services–marketing, branding, accounting, legal. Our employees will earn fair wages and share in profits. Our customers will earn dividends in the same vein as the well-known REI co-op model. And our community will benefit from knowing that they are not alone in their sustainability efforts. Our intention is to be able to show exactly how the community is having an impact through their collective purchasing decisions. Educational events and resources will be provided to support these efforts to connect all of our stakeholders. It’s not a model for rapid return on investment. Rather, it’s a sustainable pathway forward that benefits all parties involved. All that’s left to overcome is impatience, and the unknown. All I know is, we’re better together.

###

 

Interested in learning more, please visit:

April 4, 2022

 

By: Kayla Jones, GSIC Social Impact Fellow

 

Yohana Solomon was born and raised in Ethiopia and came to the US in 1998 due to a civil war. She is the owner of Atlanta Underground Market and chef and owner of Kushina Catering, which specializes in authentic Ethiopian cuisine. Yohana is also co-founder of Chow Club Atlanta. She currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia, with her daughter.

 

Amanda Plumb is co-founder of Chow Club Atlanta and author of Uniq ue Eats & Eateries of Atlanta. She lives in East Atlanta with her dog, Pepper, and three chickens. 

 

GSIC caught up with Chow Club co-founders Yohana Solomon and Amanda Plumb. Check out how they’re building community, spreading knowledge, and celebrating culture through food! 

 

GSIC: Tell me about the challenge you’re focused on addressing and why it’s critical that an organization like Chow Club exists. 

 

Yohana: From an immigrant and refugee perspective, when you’re in a country where you don’t know anybody, you don’t know the ins and outs of the country, and most of the time, you’re escaping some dire situation back home. Most immigrants and refugees are good at feeding people – especially cooking for a large number of people. They have a skill but don’t know what to do with it. And I believe Chow Club gives an opportunity for those individuals. It’s a platform to cook, make some money, and at the same time, tell their stories. That’s one good thing we’ve managed to do – it’s a great way for the foodie community to learn about a different culture. You also get to try amazing food! 

 

Amanda: Yes, I agree! Even for folks who aren’t immigrants, some people enjoy cooking, but they don’t know how to market themselves or get a following on social media. So, we’re helping other small businesses, though primarily immigrants and refugees, build their brand by putting a spotlight on them for a month. Our customers want to learn about other cultures. They’re curious and want to try new foods, but maybe they don’t feel confident walking into an Ethiopian restaurant in Clarkston or don’t know what to order and where to begin. So, we take people through this journey through the food. 

 

We also started the dinners when Trump was in office. People were looking for ways to show solidarity and support people from other countries. You’re not only learning about new cultures, but at the dinners, you’re probably sitting with people you’ve never met before. So, you’re meeting new people, and it’s a great communal experience. Food is intrinsic to all of humanity – people love their food and tend to show their love and express themselves through food.

 

Yohana: Food is a universal language. And, where else can you meet, for example, a person from Liberia? We have a Liberian chef hosting our dinner next month. People may have heard stories about war and other hardships in Liberia, but people often don’t know the rich culture, the food, and the beauty of the country. Where else can you go to meet somebody from Liberia, try their food, and hear their stories? What an amazing opportunity! 

GSIC: That’s amazing. Food is definitely a quick way to the heart! How did Chow Club get started and how has it evolved over time? 

 

Yohana: I used to do the Atlanta Underground Market, where I had the pleasure of meeting and working with chefs from all walks of life. Amanda used to host pop-up dinners at her house. One of Amanda’s friends celebrated his birthday, and he wanted Ethiopian food. She called and asked me where to go for the best Ethiopian food, and I jokingly said, “my house,” since I catered on the side. So, she had me host the dinner at her house. It was great, people enjoyed it. 

 

From that time, we looked at our relationships – the vendors, the chefs, the people on our email lists – and thought why don’t we start hosting these dinners at Amanda’s house, featuring different chefs each month? That’s how we started, and it’s been a blessing since then. 

 

Amanda: Right. The dinners actually started in my home in East Atlanta, very organically. I don’t think we were trying to start a business, but we enjoyed hosting the dinners and kept doing them. Eventually, we decided to turn it into a business. We hosted them at my house for about a year and a half, and we outgrew it. Since the pandemic, we’ve been at Underground Atlanta and are now planning to move to a space called Uptown Atlanta. It’s a new development near the Atrium. For the most part, though, things have been pretty much the same. I think that’s the really nice thing about our model and being so small. We can test things out, try out new ideas, and see what works and what doesn’t.  

 

GSIC: That’s great. So you both already started talking about the power of community building – from your relationships with the chefs and your customers. Can you speak to how you built those relationships with the different stakeholders in Chow Club? 

 

Amanda: I think the only thing we have is our relationships. Yohana knows a lot of different chefs, and I got to meet a lot of chefs, too. And we’re always looking to expand that network. Our chefs support each other; they tend to volunteer at each other’s events, give each other tips, and get to know each other, which is important.

 

We have a group called our ambassadors, which are our customers that have been to five or more dinners. We’ve had some customers with us since day one – it’s something they do every month like clockwork. We always have new people that come to Chow Club, too. We’re actually going back to what we used to do, putting people at communal tables. Starting this month, we’re giving people a choice to either sit by themselves or sit communally. This way, our customers get a chance to meet new people and build connections. We’ve had people make business connections at Chow Club and others who decide to come together every month for dinner. We also use the space to promote other small businesses. We want it to be a place for everyone, where everyone wins or can benefit. 

 

Yohana: Right! We’ve also managed to build Chow as a place that’s more than eating good food. We managed to build a community that enjoys being at the dinners and supports each other. We have clients that would literally follow us wherever we go. 

 

We also source chefs from everywhere. Most of them are connected to the refugee and immigrant centers around the Clarkston area, but many are from all walks of life. For example, Amanda might go to a pop-up market, see some interesting food, and talk to the chef. I might go to Clarkston to buy some injera and meet a chef from Nigeria while there. We’re always looking for somebody that wants to tell their story, someone that wants to start catering or launch a food business. We look everywhere for our chefs. 

 

And once they join us, we really consider them to be a part of our family. So, if we hear of events or other opportunities, we let them know about them. It’s not like, “You’ve done a dinner for us, bye-bye.” Instead, it’s more like, “You’re a part of our group now; how else can we support you and provide you with the resources you need?”

 

Also, during dinners, the chefs will come and talk about their menu and the story of each course. They’re always available throughout the dinner to answer questions so our customers can learn more. It’s very interactive. 

 

Amanda: Absolutely. Another thing we do that helps build the community is our passport book. When people come to Chow Club, if it’s their first time, we give out a little orange passport that says, “Chow Club.” Every time they come, they get a sticker representing a different country they’ve ‘visited’ through our dinners. We want people to know that they’re officially part of Chow Club once they join us for dinner and have some ownership of that. 

 

GSIC: That’s wonderful. What do you think is Chow Club’s superpower, and what is a favorite moment about doing this work? 

 

Yohana: Our superpower is connecting people, for sure. We created this awesome community. One moment that stands out to me is during the travel ban around 2018 or so when the Syrian war took place. We met this beautiful Syrian mother and son, who were both refugees. We formed a friendship with them and could hear their fear about not feeling accepted in the United States. They didn’t know if they would fit in and had a fear that everyone hated them. As a refugee myself, I know that fear and could understand why they felt that way. 

 

So, we decided to host a Chow with them cooking. Many people asked how they could support the Syrian community, and we felt Chow was a great opportunity. We thought people could learn about the culture, and at the same time, the mother and son could connect with the community. I remember them being so nervous because they weren’t sure if people would like their food or like them. But the amount of support and love they received at that dinner brought tears to my eyes! It was such a beautiful moment to see people connect in that way – just as human beings. 

 

Amanda: Yeah, that was such a special moment! Another reason Chow is really cool is that most of the chefs we work with don’t have their own restaurants or food business. Some of them already do catering, or Chow Club might be the first time trying catering. For many of them, this is the biggest event they’ve ever done. Just seeing the pride and sense of confidence that comes with hosting the dinner and having so many people tell you that they love your food is wonderful. Chefs don’t always get that feedback when catering or even at a restaurant – customers don’t always go back and tell the chefs they enjoyed the food.

 

I agree with you, Yohana – that moment with the Syrian family took Chow up another level. All our chefs who make these delicious meals often learned to cook from their grandmothers and mothers. They’re proud of their food; their family knows they’re a great cook, so does their community back home. But having someone they’ve never met before, validating them, and being excited to learn about them is special. At the end of the night, we always try to convince the chefs to go out, move from table to table and talk to people. Though the chefs can feel a little awkward, the customers love it! The customers get to ask questions, and the chefs get feedback, too. As a chef, you’re like a celebrity for a night at Chow Club! 

###

 

Learn more about Chow Club at chowclubatlanta.com and follow them on Instagram @ChowClubAtl

 

The next dinner will be a Liberian dinner with Chef Carmenia Morgan Tyrus on May 6 and 7. Sign up to attend at https://chowclubatlanta.com/ols/products

March 31, 2022

 

By: LaDerrius Williams, GSIC Social Impact Fellow

 

GSIC x START: ME x Read 4 Unity

  • Entrepreneur: Yenny Yang
  • Venture: Read4Unity
  • Impact Focus Area(s): Literacy, Diversity
  • Business Stage (Ideation, Startup, Early, Later, Mature): Ideation/Early
  • Year Venture Established: 2020
  • Business Type: Micro-Nonprofit

Yenny Yang is committed to creating a better tomorrow for our children and the next generations to come. In 2020, the StartMe: Clarkston alum founded Read 4 Unity, a passion project devoted to the power of literacy, diversity, creativity and unity. Read 4 Unity is currently a micro-nonprofit with a mission to diversify America’s bookshelves. Yenny describes Read 4 Unity as being in its discovery stage. Yenny has yet to decide whether Read 4 Unity will transition from a non-profit to a for-profit social enterprise. She credits Emory’s Start: Me program for helping her breakdown her long-term goals into more manageable bites, creating metrics to track her impact, and helping her craft a framework and operational runway to determine whether social entrepreneurship is the proper means to serve her end: providing diverse books to children.

Read 4 Unity has 3 major ways to acquire books: wholesale, partnerships with self-published authors, and donations. Read 4 Unity utilizes wish lists on its website that allow visitors to donate books to the organization directly. Read 4 Unity also defrays the cost of books by selling tiered book bundles on its website.

Read 4 Unity has 3 major avenues to deliver their books into the hands of children: book fairs, partnerships with organizations like The Little Free Library and Georgia Southern University, and donations to teachers that query Read 4 Unity on its website.

Read4Unity’s continuing partnership with Clarkston’s Refuge Coffee has been beneficial to both organizations and has allowed Read 4 Unity to test and refine its book fair concept and its mini-libraries that it has dubbed Read 4 Unity book nooks.

Read 4 Unity has successfully leveraged existing distribution channels to provide diverse children’s books to more communities in Georgia and beyond. It has forged partnerships with The Little Free Library, Kennesaw State University, and Yenny’s alma mater Georgia Southern University to increase Read 4 Unity’s footprint without straining the organization. The Georgia Southern University office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Georgia Southern University Collegiate 100 partnered with Read 4 Unity to create and manage Read 4 Unity book nooks in and around Statesboro and Savannah. The Georgetown Law School student group in Washington D.C. has also sponsored a Read 4 Unity book fair.

The goal of Read 4 Unity is not to stand up as many libraries as possible. It would rather leverage partners like The Little Free Library, which partnered with Read 4 Unity to provide diverse books in the Atlanta market, to manage the sites where the books are distributed. Instead, it would like to focus on discovering new diverse authors and ensuring that their books make it to the hands of the children, parents, and teachers that need them.

Its moonshot goal is to put 1,000,000 diverse books into the hands of children in the next 5 years. Thus far, it has provided 5,000 diverse books to communities around the country. Read4Unity is holding a diverse book fair at Refuge Coffee’s Spring Market on April 30th.

###

 

Interested in learning more, please visit: