Empowered Cooking with Lisa Gross
We’ve all seen (if not worn) those inspirational t-shirts reminding us that women can be and do anything. Lisa Gross, founder of League of Kitchens, has combined her love of homemade food, and her background in public arts with her passion for curating special experiences and developed an empowering business that highlights an age-old role for women: the masters of the kitchen. League of Kitchens offers multicultural cooking experiences where immigrant women are the instructors and the hosts.
Parachute: Honestly, I can’t wait to plan my next trip to NYC just to take part in a League of Kitchens class! So for starters, Lisa, tell us about how League of Kitchens began.
Lisa: Well, we’d love to have you! And I’m happy to share our story. I’ve always been interested in the ways in which communities come together, and I’ve always had a love for cooking. After completing a graduate arts program focused on creating public art, I moved back to Brooklyn and had the idea of developing a multicultural cooking experiment as a form of public art. As I was planning and preparing for it, I realized that this cooking project could actually be a business, and within time, League of Kitchens was born!
Parachute: So tell us more about what sparked this cooking curiosity and what League of Kitchens is all about.
Lisa: I’ve always loved cooking, and in particular I loved cooking with my Korean grandmother because I found that no matter how great the Korean restaurant was, nothing was as good as my grandmother’s home cooking. There is just something special about home cooking, especially when the recipes transcend generations and continents. League of Kitchens hires immigrant women to teach cooking classes in their home based on their native cuisine, so we’ve essentially opened up the opportunity for everyone to experience the joy and delicacy that I experienced cooking with my grandmother.
Parachute: That is so cool. All the classes look so special and fun (and of course yummy!).
Lisa: Thank you! It’s really rewarding to know that both the instructors and the participants enjoy the experience so much.
Parachute: We spend a lot of time at Parachute thinking about working parents, and working mothers in particular. League of Kitchens strikes me as a meaningful company to examine, both because you, its founder, are a working mother, and because your instructors are working mothers.
Lisa: Yes, all of our instructors are mothers (though some of our instructors now have grown children). Interestingly, we did not initially intend for our instructors to be an all-female, all-mothers group, but that is how the group organically developed. Now, four years in, I feel like it is really important that our instructors are women because most of the cooking that happens around the world is at the hands of women. And despite the tremendous value that their cooking adds to individual homes, communities, and frankly, society, their work is woefully undervalued both in recognition and monetary remuneration. So League of Kitchens offers a framework for this knowledge and expertise to be disseminated and enjoyed.
Parachute: It is really inspiring to hear how you have taken something that many could see as traditional, and potentially gendered, and turn it into something truly empowering.
Lisa: Exactly. We see it as being all about empowerment. We compensate these women for their art and expertise, and in turn their families recognize and appreciate their contribution; and the women become empowered. We are proud to be asserting this message into the conversation. Hosting, nurturing, and cooking are all undervalued activities traditionally associated with motherhood. We are working to make them visible and for the value to be recognized.
Parachute: We could spend hours discussing just that point alone, but tell me what it’s been like for you to run a business as a working mother.
Lisa: I actually began developing and setting up the company when I was pregnant with my first daughter. So by the time my daughter came along, we already had a small team, our first group of instructors, and the branding and marketing was fully underway. Looking back, I don’t think I would have been able to launch the business and have an infant at the same time. But given that it was set up already, I was able to shape the business to fit with my professional goals and parenting commitments.
Parachute: People often dream of the flexibility they believe entrepreneurial ventures are flexible to offer but then find that running a business can be all-consuming. Have you been able to set boundaries that work for you?
Lisa: There is no question that there are pros and cons to being a working parent and running your own business. One of the definite cons is that work can expand into any corner or crevice. But I’ve adjusted for that by understanding the pacing and flow of the business. I am with my family in the morning, and then focus exclusively on work from about 10:00-3:30, and then I spend the afternoon and evening with family. After my children go to bed, I’m able to turn back to work without it feeling burdensome or arduous because I’ve had the afternoon to enjoy my family.
Parachute: It sounds like you’ve done a great job of learning what rhythm works for you. What are your biggest challenges in this business?
Lisa: There are definitely challenges, and even the balance of it all is challenging sometimes, but overall I’d say that my background in, and orientation for, the arts and the non-profit world made the learning curve of a for-profit business very steep. I just wasn’t accustomed to gearing decisions towards making money. Also, League of Kitchens is not an easily scalable business because we spend so much time finding the right instructors and cultivating a truly special experience. We definitely approach our product through an artist’s lens. The artist’s lens can be powerful and unique for sure, but artists also tend to focus on curating the experience they want people to have as opposed to worrying about profit. So it was a challenge to teach myself how to use that lens to create opportunity and value for both the business and the participant.
Parachute: What advice do you have for others who are contemplating entrepreneurship?
Lisa: There is a saying that while somewhat trite, I find to be true: There is magic in taking the first step. The most important thing is to take action. Sitting around and mulling things over will not give you the real data you need to determine what will work or can work. Take very small steps and see what happens. See how people respond to those steps, and then add steps accordingly. I find the concept of the pop-up model really compelling -- it allows you to test things out without major commitments.
Parachute: How did you get comfortable with the risk of entrepreneurship?
Lisa: It is so dependent on someone’s personal tolerance for risk, and what you feel is enough of a cushion for risk. Some people feel like they need a huge cushion. I had a small nest egg of savings and I decided to take the risk. Also, I was really inspired by our instructors. Immigrants are the largest group of small business owners, and it’s not because they are independently wealthy. It’s because they pool their resources together to advance the community. I focus on that to help me remember that there are lots of different ways to make things work, and if the first approach proves fruitless, there is always another way.
Parachute: What’s one tidbit or piece of advice that has really helped shape how you approach your business and parenting?
Lisa: I’ve learned so much from the instructors. We have meetings with the instructors as a group (and also parties sometimes), and family is always there. The instructors bring family members and my girls are there and it is such a reminder that we don’t have to exclude our life as mothers from the work that we do. Our children don’t need to be hidden away and we don’t have to be scared to say no because of a parenting commitment. Being parents gives us extra skills. It teaches us how to incorporate different needs and perspectives. Ultimately, I think it’s less about balance than it is about integration. Parenting offers so many opportunities to share; there is no reason businesses can’t offer those opportunities too.
Parachute: I couldn’t have said it better, Lisa! Thank you so much for your time and insights. Good luck continuing to grow League of Kitchens!
Lisa: You’re so welcome! Thank you for having me.