A farmer and the co-owner of one of Chicago’s most influential cocktail bars have been selected as fellows for the James Beard Foundation’s fourth annual Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program. The foundation chose Shelby Allison, co-owner of Logan Square tiki bar Lost Lake and co-founder of the Chicago Style conference, and Laurell Sims, co-founder of farming non-profit Urban Growers Collective, as well as 23 other women from across the U.S.
The fellowship is designed for women chefs or owners who want to advance in their careers and scale up their businesses. It’s under the larger umbrella of the foundation’s Women’s Leadership Programs, and both were co-founded by Rohini Dey, owner of Indian and Latin American fusion restaurant Vermilion in River North. Previous fellows include chef Christine Cikowski of Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Avondale. Cikowski has used her program experience to establish employee benefits rarely seen in the hospitality industry, including health insurance, paid family leave, and accrued paid sick leave and time off. She and co-owner Josh Kulp hope that by speaking out about their practices, more owners will choose to invest their staff.
The Beard foundation scrapped its annual awards gala this year in Chicago. Likewise, the organization has had to adjust other efforts due to the pandemic. The fellowship, usually a five-day in-person experience, has been reconfigured with two weekly Zoom sessions. Fellows now participate in remote classes on advanced business and finance issues, entrepreneurship, human resources and culture, reopening. They break down into small working groups and office hours also held online. The sessions were developed with the Executive Leadership Department at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Sims, of Urban Growers Collective in Bridgeport, is the first farmer to be chosen for the fellowship. Her team, along with Urban Grower co-founder Erika Allen (the daughter of Milwaukee-based urban agriculture pioneer Will Allen) offer programming for youth and adults including basic growing techniques, job training, and new farmer incubation. There are currently over 200 teens in the program.
“We don’t want all those kids to be farmers but we do want them to know there are places for them in the food industry,” Sims says. “There are so many outlets for being a part of that system as a consumer or if you make it your career — you have power there and you can help influence it.”
The collective is planning to relaunch its Fresh Foods Mobile Market program, a produce market inside a bus that organizers shut down in March because of the pandemic. Sims says the fellowship classes are helping her learn how to scale the market as the team works to relauch with wider range of offerings, including prepared items and meals like salads and fruit cups from local Black-owned food service company Chi Fresh Kitchens, as well as items from other Black-owned companies that produce soaps, toilet paper, beans, rice, and more. They hope to have the new bus operational by November.
“That brought me to the application: we’re diversifying this bus, which is almost like a small bodega, but we’re adding a food element,” she says. “It’s like a mini-restaurant with cooking demos and education. We made that case and they let me in!”
Chicagoans know Allison as the co-founder of Lost Lake, the Logan Square cocktail bar with a huge following. Lost Lake is part of Land & Sea Dept., a restaurant company that also runs the food inside the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. Allison works with business partners in those endeavors. She wants to strike out on her own and hopes the fellowship can help sharpen her skills to do so.
Allison says the education and resources she’s receiving in class are helping her prepare to launch a small retail operation at Lost Lake in lieu of dine-in service. “This program was a way to sharpen my business acumen, a way to gain the confidence and skills to be able to do business on my own,” she says.
Both Sims and Allison say the most significant takeaway from the program so far is a built-in network of colleagues and supporters across the country. Working parents like Allison and other current fellowship participants are also managing childcare and virtual schooling while also keeping their businesses solvent. The fellows are also offering suggestions to one another about strategies that have and haven’t worked for them, passing along tips and articles.
“Right now, more than ever, feeling a sense of connection to other women who are struggling with their business because of COVID is so bolstering and fortifying to my spirit,” Allison says. “I have a one-year-old and four other women in program have kids around my daughter’s age, so its nice to see other people balancing both things. It helps me to not feel so alone in what’s going on — not to be hokey.”
Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Awards.