Growing my Social Impact Startup at Chicago Booth

I’m dual a degree MBA/MPP full time student, and I also run a social enterprise. KitcheNet provides urban food deserts (areas without access to quality nutrition) with easy access of affordable fresh produce and food education to empower and celebrate community wellness.

We’ve been in operation since August 2017, and so far have served more than 200+ boxes (1000 pounds of fresh food) to the Englewood community in Chicago. I often get asked how I ended up being a social entrepreneur while pursuing dual grad degrees. And how do I manage everything? Good question…

Finding our Model
KitcheNet began as an offshoot of a proposal that we submitted to the Clinton Global Initiative, which my original co-founders participated in as students at the Harris School of Public Policy here at the University of Chicago. We started with an idea to tackle inner city childhood obesity, pivoted, and then entered into Booth’s Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC) as a healthy cooked meal service.

After SNVC, my original teammates went back to their previous commitment in the foreign ministries. I was very inspired by our customers’ determination for a healthy lifestyle. Motivated to celebrate their desire to live healthier, I found a new team and joined the Polsky summer accelerator. During the summer, we conducted another round of customer discovery, incorporated feedbacks, and eventually came to our current model.

There are two things I follow in my daily execution and planning…

  1. Learn about our customers: Our team spends a great amount of time on the phone with our customers because we want to learn as much of their challenges at keeping a healthy lifestyle as possible. We focus on their daily habit and their preferences. We are very diligent at getting customer feedback to understand if they like the product, and if we’re meeting their expectations.
  2. Implement and track the progress: Many TV shows broadcast the messy and crazy life entrepreneurs live in, but I think the most important key to keeping myself sane is to document the changes we’ve made, and track our results.

24 More Hours per Day, Please
Risk management is a big part of what I do. It is important to keep the daily operation as standardized and efficient as possible. That way, we have the mental energy needed to fight the unexpected (a bad customer review, a delayed order, wrong orders, etc.). I lay out bite-size goals at a weekly/monthly basis, which helps us immediately validate the business model and track progress. If I start thinking about the company in a 5-year term, I would definitely be discouraged or overwhelmed.

Since I started the company during the summer, I struggled a lot when I transitioned back to the full-time student class schedule while running the company on the side. At the beginning of the first quarter, I felt like I was playing constant catch up. I was distracted from classes thinking about the company (how would the delivery go today, who would work on these things), and stressed during work thinking about school (when would this get to the point that everything I learned in school would actually be applicable to my business).

I saw myself not being able to execute any plans for the company, and constantly letting my team down during school. It was a mess. Like many other entrepreneurs, I realized that this is not sustainable. Ultimately, there are no magic elves that will give me an additional 24 hours every day. So instead of aimlessly trying to make progress, I decided to slow down the company’s pace, and focus on establishing sustainable systems.

The emotional rollercoaster was taking a toll on my mental energy. So I had to find order in the chaos. More specifically, I structured the time spent running a business (roughly 30hrs/week) like it was four additional classes each quarter (Booth students normally take 3-4 classes per quarter). Just like any class, there should be a result at the end of each quarter. So before the beginning of every quarter, we made a quarterly goal we want to achieve, with monthly milestones we want to meet.

The KitcheNet team – sometimes the hardest part of being a social entrepreneur is knowing what to do with your hands.

Why Introspection is Critical
I’d like to think of an entrepreneur as a hybrid between a scientist, a social psychologist, and an artist. Artists have been known to act on feelings. Not all feelings are productive. As a creative kind, I found it important to ask the scientist and the psychologist in me to help out. In fact, it is crucial to me to understand the inputs that bring me to a productive mental state since I have a tight schedule, and a desire to constantly inspire my team. And having a positive mood allows me to empower my teammates to bring on another awesome week!

Knowing that, I spend time analyzing the impact of events in my life and summarizing what made me feel good, and what made me feel bad. When I look at the triggers of feelings, I try to separate them into two categories: external onsets and internal interpretation. I then work on both ends to understand why.

For example, if a comment was made which resonated with my current concern of a business risk, I would focus on further finding a plan to reduce the perceived risks and have confidence in it. Once an action is put in place to reduce the risk, I feel less stressed. Meanwhile, if a comment was made without sufficient evidence, I ask for more clarification. If I can’t clarify, then I’ll just ignore it.

Working on the internal interpretation of a stressful event is very important. It is hard not to make business events personal when they are everything you care about! So getting critical feedback on an idea you are obsessed with can be difficult. In fact, it is most difficult to calmly explain why your passion—though ridiculous in some other people’s opinion—is not completely insane. But constructively, I try to understand the motivation of the other person’s comment. Like my colleagues and mentors pointing out the dangers ahead because they care about me. It’s my job to interpret the critical feedback as a caution that comes from deep care.

Honestly, that is still the harder part. But when I am able to process critical entrepreneurial advice as a form of caring, that energy is very positive to both me and my business.

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