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NOTE:

This column features NBIA members who have found creative ways to better manage their programs and serve clients. If your program has found a unique way to improve operations, let us know by sending an e-mail to news@nbia.org.

Spotlight on practice

June/July 2009

California incubator stays true to mission

La Cocina, a kitchen incubator in San Francisco that serves low-income entrepreneurs, is mission driven. Opened in 2005 in the city’s Mission District, La Cocina offers affordable commercial kitchen space to entrepreneurs with ideas but few financial or business resources.

Caleb Zigas, La Cocina’s director of operations, says the incubator aims to create avenues and opportunities for economic self-sufficiency for low-income and immigrant entrepreneurs who are starting, launching and growing food businesses.

“Food has been traditionally one of the more informal generators of income, especially for women,” he says. In fact, many immigrants and Hispanic women often prepare and sell native culinary specialties illegally out of their homes to help support their families. Zigas says that given the right resources, these entrepreneurs can create self-sufficient legal businesses that benefit the entire city.

But staying true to the organization’s mission has not always been easy, Zigas says. “Other opportunities have arisen to expand the program – and we’ve certainly been tempted – but we’ve stayed focused.”

Staff size is one reason the incubator has maintained its original focus. La Cocina operates with a dedicated, experienced staff of four – too small for a realistic program expansion, Zigas says. For another, the incubator’s staff is clear about its target audience: businesses with five or fewer employees; enterprises with under $35,000 in assets; and especially women of color, Latinas and immigrant women.

“We’re attracted to the concept of providing opportunities for low-income women entrepreneurs who otherwise could not afford to rent commercial kitchen space or have the business acumen to succeed,” Zigas says.

Staying true to its mission also has helped the incubator attract sponsors and investors, since La Cocina’s client base often appeals to foundations. The California Women’s Foundation, which founded La Cocina, donated state-of-the-art commercial kitchen space for the incubator, and provides funds for low-income women entrepreneurs.

Maintaining focus is paying off. By sticking to its mission, La Cocina has assisted more than 20 businesses since 2005.—Mary Jo Milillo

Maryland program hosts creative networking event

Three years ago, Ann Lansinger, executive director of Baltimore’s Emerging Technology Centers, wanted to offer a fun event to encourage clients from ETC’s two facilities to interact. A colleague who often planned social events suggested an indoor nine-hole miniature golf tournament as a way to bring representatives of different companies together.

Lansinger assigned each participating client a hole to design. “We had graphic artists and engineers involved, and they really got into creating and decorating their part of the course,” Lansinger says. “The event started at 5:30 p.m. and many of them spent the day designing and setting up the course, which wound through the center’s wide hallways, conference rooms and offices.”

One group produced a Halloween-themed hole that featured wet noodles in a witches’ cauldron positioned just under the edge of a conference table for unsuspecting players retrieving their golf ball. At a hole designed by a group of electrical engineers, LED lights lined each side of the putting surface.

During the tournament, each four-person golf team included representatives from different companies to allow them to interact with other clients in a fun atmosphere. “Clients enjoyed the creative aspect of the event as well as the competition,” Lansinger says. “Having them construct the course allowed them to utilize their skills and enjoy themselves in the process. The camaraderie lasts much longer than just one day.”

Lansinger says the first event cost ETC next to nothing and attracted some 75 participants and onlookers. A local Italian restaurant provided food trays, and retailers from nearby outlets supplied drinks, snacks and prizes.

The event has been so popular that the center offers the golf tournament each year; Lansinger is planning the third annual tournament this fall. “It’s really incredible,” Lansinger says. “During the tournament, the teams cheer and root for each other. Afterward they joke and tease each other for months. It’s a lot of fun and the clients absolutely love it.”—MJM

Keywords: best practices, kitchen incubator, marketing and promotion, social entrepreneurship

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