For this #ayaniwomen interview, we had the pleasure to meet Tabitha, a very energetic entrepreneurial speaker currently working on the cooking sessions.
The talk was so great that in fact we had trouble cutting it down to fit in this blog post but we wanted to bring the best parts to you. Here we talk about Tabitha's unique path to a career in catering, her entrepreneurial endeavour in bringing people together through food and how she came to define her own way of what success looks like.
Ani: Could you please describe your professional path and educational background?
Tabitha: My professional path has not been an ordinary one. I went from high school to actually traveling three and a half years doing theatre. I learned theatre on the road and then I traveled across the US. So I've been to all but eight states in the US. I would live for three months at a time in a van with five to eight other people. We would go to different places to perform from traditional locations to even to schools, prisons, or street corners.
Afterwards, I went back home and visited some friends. I ended up working in a restaurant for a while. During this time, I got an opportunity to work in social work in California, which is quite interesting because I didn't have an official degree normally required for the job which everyone else who was working there had. They gave me an opportunity as a trial phase. I loaded all my stuff in the back of the car and me and ‘Misty’, as my car was called, did the trek across the country. I figured that they're going to like me and I would be staying. I did that for over a year, working in California. They offered me a promotion but I'd always, since I was 11 or so, wanted to live in Europe. Disney is to be blamed for this, I believe, also because of the castles. Growing up, Europe was always seen as being more cultured. It had this certain feel and flair and I knew that if I took the promotion, I would never leave California. I love California because it has everything. However, it was now or never. I thought about it, thought about it again, then I said okay, let´s do this.
I went over to Switzerland first then moved to Berlin. I came for a job in an international school here then just haven't quite left yet.
My background is in education and social work. But then through several opportunities I ended up having my own catering business for a while, which I catered mainly to embassies. Most embassies have to do a dinner for other countries to introduce who they are and to keep up relations so I would take care of that. Then I started doing weddings but later realized weddings kind of burned me out, not exactly what I wanted to do. So I stopped that. I have done a few other things in between because I also love to do things for my artistic side such as poetry slams, make my own clothes, cooking naturally, collages, and even had two pieces of work as part of an exhibition. So a lot of different things over time.
Ani: Indeed! That's an exciting and adventurous journey you made till now. What are you currently working on?
Tabitha: Now I am building up a new business. The last year has kind of been a trial phase to see if this idea really works. Slowly turning it officially it into a business. I put together cooking events to help bring people together and to build up connections through food. I also have a side project I do for people with my hair. I have natural curls that usually is worn as an afro. It's usually hard to find products or information for them. In a lot of places you feel in order to be beautiful they have to be straight or they have to look a certain way. For me, that has not really been the case. I tried straight hair once or twice but never quite liked it. I never quite figured if it worked for me.
In the end, my hair kind of does what it wants to do, which is usually an afro while it announces itself to people. I think it's not just hair, It can also be part of your identity. How you see yourself and how you introduce yourself to others. So it should be something that you can feel proud of as a way to connect with others and being okay that your hair isn't as “the status quo” says. For my hair, it introduces itself. I don't need to. Quite funny is that sometimes people don't notice me but they notice my hair and have a conversation with my hair. I'm just along for the ride.
Ani: Coming back to the catering services you mentioned earlier, how did you come up with the idea of targeting the embassies and how did you get in because that's one of the hardest things for people, right? You get the idea, but you don't know who to approach, how to approach, how to knock on the door.
Tabitha: It actually kind of fell into my lap. I was at a ‘getting women together’ meeting and I met this one woman, that had just moved from Australia. She wanted to buy some jewelry as a gift, but didn't know where to go. I had some time, so I told her, I could take her around. She was a little bit older, but we had a nice conversation walking through Berlin. I was showing her different places she could go to. And while we were talking, she stated that, my husband has to do, events for work. There is a caterer that everyone uses but we're not so happy about it. Do you know of anyone else like that?
I was like: "I could do that!" I had never done anything like this and had not really thought of going in this direction but I was still I could do this. We talked a little more, but didn't talk about it again. I forgot about it but she called me up around two months later and said, so I have a date for a cooking night. I was like, okay sure. At the time, I grabbed my then boyfriend and her cleaner. I provided them three different menu options including kangaroo. They chose the kangaroo and I taught myself how to make it through trial and error( my friends were happy). I do fusion cuisine so I mixed a bit of Asian style since that's a big influence coming over to Australia with aboriginal. I spent a week in the kitchen creating the recipe and making the same dishes again and again until they turned out how I thought they should be(my friends were happy). I did it and the people there were happy. The business was born from there since they were already in the embassy circle that was my focus. The network grew and I ended up creating my own menus, creating my own recipes, experimenting. I think the one I experimented the most with was when I cooked for the South African embassy because they have a dessert called Malva pudding. They wanted it traditional. I'd never tasted the pudding or even seen it before. I found one of my friends who was from that area and knew what it tasted like. He was my “guinea pig” and had to try it around eight different times until he said, this is what it tastes like from home. Trial and error, trial and error but he was happy. From there it kind of blossomed. I always tell people, don't be afraid to say yes. I've had several experiences where people ask, oh, can you do this? And I'm like….sure. You can learn things along the way, a bit of trial and error. You never know what doors it opens. Many times simply helping someone move something from here to there might open something up. You have a moment that might end up in the connection that later helps open another door. So absolutely go for it..
There's a movie where the guy had to say yes to everything. The other day, I've realized that there's a lot of things I've said yes to. They weren't always convenient, but it has really paved the way for the opportunities that I've had.
Ani: And doing it without any expectations. Right? I mean you did not expect anything coming out from helping that woman find the gift, you just wanted to help her out.
Tabitha: Yeah, exactly. I didn't think anything of it. I didn't know what her husband did for work. I was just, yes, sure.
Ani: Well, I would love to talk about cooking experiences you are working on. How did you get the idea, what is it exactly about, how do you organize it?
Tabitha: The idea came when I organized one of my birthday parties, I actually had everyone try making Sushi. It somehow brought people closer when they were creating something together. It wasn't just this observation of, oh, you have food prepared, let me do a little small talk here and there. I found that cooking brought people closer so I started doing it more regularly.
Since then I have been working quite a bit in this direction. Like I said, my background's education / social work and it was kind of missing from my life. This last year I wanted to learn sales and I was like, okay, my whole day, whole life can't be sales. I decided, you know what, let me start doing these cooking things again. So I put a goal that I had to do at least two cooking activities each month. That kind of sets an accountability. I was sharing my idea with one of my friends that has his own business in the food segment also. He happens to have a big open kitchen and said why don't you just do it at my place? From that I really started doing this. I have a lot of different connections from various fields/ spheres. I started figuring out: who would be great to meet each other ; who would really enjoy this; who's actually from this country or who might have a great time. I do more facilitating. I create a menu then send out invitations to who can come. I figure out how much food needs to be bought and two days before it happens I send out a shopping list, to each person of what they're supposed to bring. Everyone brings specific ingredients and a drink. It's quite funny because I get many stories about, oh my gosh, I can't find this ingredient and I had to go around to figure out what it is. That's the beginning of the adventure.
Ani: They become part of it.
Tabitha: Exactly and they are excited. Like, what am I going to do with this and how does this look or I've never eaten this. After everyone arrives, I have them introduce themselves by having them answer one question. It's a fun question. It's not that thought provoking. It could be - if this was your last day on earth, what would be the meal that you would eat? I just found, it worked so everyone does this little ice breaker. As for the menu, there are different stations at the place that we're cooking at. We would usually have about five or six stations with about three to five people in a group.
Each group has their own recipe and is a little bit autonomous. They decide for themselves who does what and how are they are going to do this. I walk through to facilitate making sure everyone knows where they find their stuff, see if they need help along with keeping conversations going and telling a little bit about the history.
The main dishes we finish together and then we get to eat. By then people have already opened up. They've already met a few people and talking with other groups of people.Often people actually decide to meet up afterwards. This is how friendships start when you have like-minded people, for e.g. let's say everyone in the room is about starting their own business. When you're passionate about that, you start talking about it with other people. From there you can get ideas and encouragement or you get the drive to go further. It creates something and this is what I want to accomplish with my events. Sometimes it's just getting to know like-minded people that are passionate about what they do, that are happy about life and that you can just have a good laugh with or share where you're at. It could also be a networking event where you're meeting other people that have the same struggles, ideas or just have a great connection with.
Ani: The experiences that you described so far, they are really needed in cities like Berlin where there's a lot of people coming and going. Often people say, go to a big city, it's easy to find friends with similar interests because there are more people around. But in the end it's really not that easy because a lot of the time, whether at a birthday party, a meetup or an event, it's quite difficult to go beyond the small talk to make a real connection. And that's exactly what your cooking experiences help with.
Tabitha: (laughing) I start friendships in the bathroom or by just smiling at people. Here when I did that, people were holding their wallet thinking I was going to rob them. Sometimes you go to work but you might not click with them. And so like you said you could have meetups, you go to bars and everything else, but at the same time they are not really helpful. I want to put people together who have a sunny outlook.
Ani: So what is it about cooking that actually attracts you so much?
Tabitha: Well, it's quite funny. I grew up with my adopted/ stepdad. He was by himself. So we pretty much had the same menu every week. On Saturdays we had pasta salad. On Sundays we had soup, which was the leftover pasta salad made into something new. On Mondays we had leftovers. On Tuesday we had these little square potatoes with something on the side. On Wednesday, I forgot it was another dish. And so on. It drove me crazy.
And when I was in California doing at the program, we worked with teenagers that were addicted to drugs and alcohol. The judge told them that they could stay in jail longer or do this program. We would teach them life skills, including cooking so I was cooking a lot with them. In California, you have all these farmers markets, fresh ingredients and spices. For me there's something comforting in cooking. Since I've moved around a lot, this concept of home does not fully exist in my mind. For me cooking is coming home.
Ani: What are the skills that would you say are required to succeed in what you're doing?
Tabitha: One - persistence because it's not always an open door. Like with anyone that starts a business, people aren't always like - yes, come right in, we want to buy it or anything else. And so there is that persistence. I heard a speaker one time, she was a psychologist and I love this picture she showed. She goes, starting a business is like this: she had a picture of Superman and so this is how you want the world to see you. You're like, ah, I'm superman, I'm starting a business, but this is how you actually feel and there's a picture of a person crawled up into a fetal position just crying in the middle of their bed.
You also need margin for things to happen in life also so you can still breathe. One of my goals, at the moment, is doing a little bit every day. Yes, I have a full-time job and there are a couple of charities I support plus a couple of other things I do at the end of the day, so I have to be intentional. I do have a period of time that I'm working on something but I get overwhelmed that I haven't done anything. So I think the biggest thing is to be resilient along with being intentional.
And that's a journey because the thing is we'll always get to that final end then life gives us a new final end because even when you meet one goal, then you have another goal. When you meet one thing, something else pops up for you. Put out that fire and another fire pops up somewhere else. It is so easy to get caught up, oh let me reach that point, let me reach that point. But when we let go of that and say, okay, the journey is my life, so I'm going to enjoy the journey while I'm still trying to get to that goal, then it takes some of the pressure off.
Going back to all the different things I've done, when I was, I think 12, I wrote some goals that I wanted to do. By the time I was in my early twenties I pretty much had done them: I had lived in California, I was a hippie for a while. I traveled across the U S, I was a teacher, like I did all these things. Great. But there was one thing that I'd learned while traveling that always kind of stuck with me as I met several people.. So we stayed at people's homes or in hotels, and I met so many people along the way. Several people I met were like, oh, I always wanted to do what you're doing, but I got married or I did this and I can't. They had this regret and I realized that this regret was making them upset in how they viewed their current life or not full heartedly or whole wholeheartedly into what they were doing. I decided myself, I never wanted to live in regret and so I haven't had the normal path of life. Like if you look at most people that I went to school with, they are still living in the same area. They are married with their own house and their kids. They have their money and their positions plus everything else. And if you look on the outside I was like, oh this is what success looks like.
I'm still looking for an apartment right now. Don't have the money to show, don't have the status and all these different things. But I do have the experiences. I've met some amazing people along the way and I know through my life I've been able to touch certain people's lives, be a part of specific projects, and got to do various experiences.
I even got to learn how to make pizza dough in Napoli from a pizza chef that only spoke Italian and yelled at me the whole time (sounded like he was). I was doing it wrong and I put my fingers through the dough several times. Also I have all these other things. Like I've had pieces of my artworks in art exhibitions. I did a poetry slam, where at the end of the day, people came up to me going, I love your English. They didn't get a word I said (laughing). I made clothes. I traveled. I've performed for between hundreds and thousands of people. I've got to cook for embassies and different people of high standing.
Yes, I don't have the general attributes that people expect but at the same time, my life isn't over yet. So yes, I still want to make money so that I can do a couple of other projects and couple of other dreams that I have. And I do want to be able to go back on speaking on stage, doing conferences again and different things like that. But it is a journey, which means I'm not at the end yet. I'm still alive. So those things are still coming and I can still enjoy where I'm at now on the way to where I'm going.
Ani: This point about seeing your entrepreneurial life as a journey rather than just like you have to reach all these to do lists is a very crucial one. Being busy is inevitable but it is vital to see it as a happy busy. To make sure that you are happy while you're busy.
Tabitha: Yes. I still take a moment to refresh because I think we have so many stories of people burning out. As an entrepreneur, you're going to have a lot more hours of working than the average person, you're going to put a lot more time, effort, especially if you're balancing a full time job plus starting a new venture. Like you do have a lot of hours. But I found that I do have to find out what refreshes me and to take time for that, I still need to take time for my friends.Yes. My friends don't see me as often as they would like or as they probably should, but at the same time I do need to take those moments or those times or have a quick phone call because at the end of the day, what is it about if you don't have people around.
I think especially like I can look at my first business and I ended up stopping it and I can look at that for a while, looked at, oh, I failed or this. Then I realized, you know what? I started, I went for it. I got customers, I did events, I did this and yeah, I got burned out from doing weddings and I realized for myself that if I'm doing a business, I need to stay true to me. I need to stay true to what my original idea is.
You grow, you need to constantly change, but you don't need to do what everyone else says you need to do. You lose the point, you get burned out, you don't want to continue, which is what happened. And so those points that I've learned from it. So for my next business, I know there are certain things I need in place and certain things I won't do. And so I can look on like, oh well you failed at that. And oh gosh, well you're not an entrepreneur, you're not this. And at the moment I'm like, you know what? Maybe I am but maybe I am not. We'll see if the end if the business works or not. But this is something that I love doing and this is something I want to share. This one thing I want to do to help make people's lives better. And so this is the part that I can do and it's a journey to make it happen, I have these dreams and ideas of people to partner with and possible things to do and everything else. But there are times for things and they will happen as they need to happen.
Ani: I would love to ask you more questions but I’d like to end with this one - what is confidence for you in two sentences?
Tabitha: I think it goes back to the other point, being okay with who you are and not ashamed of it. I think confidence is, the ability to speak your own story and being okay with where your story is at.
Because it might not match with stereotypes. Everyone says something, but this is your story. This is what you're in the process of writing and it's still being written. That for me is confidence.
Ani: Perfect! Thank you so much. It was incredible. I really loved listening to your story and having this inspiring conversation with you.
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