Penn Enactus was one of the first organizations I joined my freshman year. I’ve always had a soft spot for feeling the impact of my work, and I was hooked instantly. For the next two years, I got a chance to participate in building a social venture around food and empowering local Philadelphia refugees. For my involvement with Penn Enactus and chairing my own project, I was awarded a Wharton Field Challenge course (MGMT 353) credit. Here are my experiences.
It all began when our team – a few other freshmen, a junior, and an MBA student – was assembled. We were tasked with starting a new project that would benefit the local Philadelphia community. Sitting with this new team, I felt a distinct nervous excitement: everyone in the room was passionate about something and very anxious to get their hands wet.
We cycled through multiple ideas but had to keep questioning the associated price tags. Would we ever cultivate a convincing business proposition? The answer came to us one evening while sharing a meal in a GSR (group study room). We stumbled upon a non-profit organization based in Seattle called “Project Feast.” They employed immigrants to teach community members how to cook their country’s foods.
From there, the REFresh Initiative was born. Our mission: to empower refugees by offering opportunities for them to lead cooking lessons.
We created a viable business model, crafted a mission statement, and embarked on community outreach. We started attending a few events around the city, getting connected to many human services organization, and the vibrant community of immigrants and refugees trying to find ways to share their culture. We met some great chefs and community leaders and found our partners were just as motivated as us. Though there were times of uncertainty, everything ended up snapping into place. We had to trust the direction we’d take.
The first few months were the most memorable ones. We explored South Philadelphia, cooperative café W/N W/N, and their kitchen. We found local grocery stores to examine our food sources. But, best of all, we were invited into the homes of our refugee chefs, where they prepared a marvelous meal for us. We got a chance to sample the menu they would be teaching, and a chance to discuss our common vision – all over food.
In mid-April, after much marketing and planning, we hosted our first cooking lesson. We made a TON of food. We got a TON of smiles. At the end of the day, we knew that we created something solid.
First year done. Now on to the second!
When the second year came around, I had a great feeling about the project and decided to become chair. Our first goal was to get our name out there: we did another collaboration with W/N W/N and hosted a pop-up dinner, featuring ethnic Burmese food. Next, we made many trips to South Philadelphia, the community where our chefs resided, and did small menu design workshops and basic English lessons. We even sought out pipelined ways for us to get our chefs FoodServ certifications. However, our chefs told us they didn’t want to enter the food industry; they just wanted to share their culture. Once we made that realization, we were able to change our focus to precisely that.
It wasn’t long before we started getting some recognition on campus. The Asian American Studies Program (ASAM) reached out to us and wanted to do a collaboration. We were very excited to bring our experience back to campus and share them with our friends and family.
We knew people were hooked, and we had to invest in the next step: bringing cooking lessons back to campus. With the support of Harrison College House and the ASAM department, we did just that. Our audience wasn’t just Penn students; quite a few people from the community came as well on that Saturday morning. The cook-off in Houston Hall was a great success!
There were many highlights and low-lights with the entire process. There were long weeks where we couldn’t generate any leads, stuck in a deadlock. But at the end of the day, one valuable lesson we learned is “planning is guessing.” It was a stroke of luck that we found our partnering chefs and the partnering restaurants. But we still had to do things to increase our exposure. Once we got the ball rolling, boy was it rolling!
At the end of the day, everyone involved gained a lot from the project. Our vision was important, and it inspired people to believe in us enough to work with us. I am grateful for the opportunity to venture into the Philadelphia community and make so many friends over good food and interesting stories.
Even though I am no longer involved, the venture is still going strong. There have been multiple events at the New College House this year, and the team is currently working on a cookbook dedicated to our partnering chefs. You can keep up on REFresh here:
Bill He is a member of the Class of 2018 majoring in computer engineering and concentrating in management and entrepreneurship and innovation. He plans to go into project management, development, or growth after graduation.