High Impact Philanthropy: Olivia Chessé Of Chefs for Impact On How To Leave A Lasting Legacy With A Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization
An Interview with Karen Mangia
Listen to people, learn from others, especially the ones who have done it before. And always stay humble, there are tons of people way smarter than you are. I have learnt so much from some very special human beings whom I have been lucky enough to cross their paths. I am very grateful for the way they have shaped me as a social entrepreneur.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Olivia Chessé.
Born and raised in France, Olivia Chessé is the founder of Chefs for Impact. A veteran in the food industry, Chessé leveraged her years of experience and intimate knowledge of the dining world and created the non-profit, which aims to raise awareness for a more sustainable food system through community programming, educational curricula and industry collaboration. Through an elite roster of Chefs for Impact ‘Ambassadors’, Chessé is permeating the food industry on a 360 degree scale — from the production, to the vendor distribution, to the dining scene — Chefs for Impact is personifying the phrase ‘farm to table’.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
Thank you for including me and highlighting my work and commitment.
I grew up in Provence, in the countryside of France, in a family of food lovers. Growing up I remember endless meals where my family would spend hours talking about an ingredient or a recipe. There I developed and nurtured values of authenticity and ‘terroir’. My grandfather was the head of a fruit cooperative, two of my uncles were also in the fruits & vegetable trade, my mother cooks a lot and she has always been the hostess with the mostest. My passion for food, hosting, and sharing is undoubtedly a result of my education.
Then my path crossed with some difficulties that made me face great responsibilities at a very young age. I quickly had the desire to work, then to escape, leaving the environment in which I grew up and in which I felt constrained, I had this thirst to discover the world. Many years living in Asia, the discovery of new cultures, languages, and people, have obviously shaped the person I am today, offering me a new vision of the world towards respect and tolerance.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
I am passionate. When I talk about food my eyes light up! I am the happiest when I cook for my family and when I share a meal with friends. I am an epicurean (no wonder I called my event agency Epicurean Nights). Food is my language of love.
I am a hard worker and a go-getter. I am grateful that I was taught the values of hard work and money at a young age. I started my professional life as a waitress in a restaurant to finance my education. After I graduated from my master’s degree, I started my career in China at a time when the hospitality industry was booming, and we were all working long hours. I was able to seize opportunities, build my jobs through hard work, energy, and perseverance. I have an ability to overcome obstacles that I see as opportunities to learn. I have reinvented myself many times by starting from scratch in China, Indonesia and most recently in New York.
I am empathetic and an active listener. I have this need within me to listen to others, support and help if I can. I am a very generous and altruistic person and I have always, no matter what stage of life or financial situation I am in, given back. I have been involved in various volunteer projects in the past. I financed education and supported projects with women victims of domestic violence in Indonesia where I lived. When I moved to New York, I multiplied food distributions, supported numerous charitable causes, and spent several weeks volunteering in an orphanage in San José, Costa Rica. Many causes speak to me, but education, childhood, food access, and women are the ones I feel very strongly connected with.
In the continuity of my past experiences and aligned with my values, Chefs for Impact comes at a time in my life when I wanted my commitment to take on a whole new dimension.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
That there are many inspiring initiatives and organizations fighting to make the world a better place. I discovered with joy that many people are fighting for their beliefs. I have met some of the most inspiring people in my life over the past two years. They have inspired me, guided me, and allowed me to believe that it was possible.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
Our goal is to empower people and connect communities to make sustainable food decisions through our media, programs, and advocacy, with a lot of our work centering around youth. We believe that Impactful, long lasting change starts with education, especially at a young age. Through our youth program, Chefs for Kids, our goal is to plant a seed of sustainability; introducing our students, aged between 5–12 years old, to sustainability concepts, diverse foods, and people that can spark an idea or set them on their own path of food exploration.
We also believe that significant social impact comes from collaboration. We are very lucky to work with incredible organizations like Harlem Grown, Smallhold Mushrooms, Norwich Meadows farm, Grain de Sail, Revol Porcelain, and many others in our quest to inspire a more mindful relationship with food. Our partners help us fulfill our mission and live out our values as an organization, and vise versa. Long lasting change requires teamwork.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
Food is about caring for my family, sharing with my friends, bringing communities together, and helping each other. For as long as I can remember, endless discussions about food and taste have been a part of my life. We eat 3 times a day and I think it is essential to ask ourselves where this food comes from, how it was grown and by whom. We are what we eat and our food decisions matter. It is probably because I grew up in France that I believe access to food education, and to healthy food is a human right, it should not be a privilege. I am passionate and extremely motivated to have an impact in these directions.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
While I was launching Chefs for Impact, I met this school mom, our children were in the same class. A very charismatic and strong woman. As we got to know each other better, I discovered that she also lives on 13th street in Manhattan. Just like me, just a few blocks away and two very different lives. I live at the West end of 13th street in a townhouse with a garden in the West Village, while she lives at the East end of 13th street, in a project, in an underserved community, in a building that doesn’t have hot water every day, where rats rot in the ceilings, where homeless people go to take refuge on the roof at night, especially during the pandemic. One street, two worlds.
When I went to her place, I learned more about her life as a survivor of domestic violence. That strong woman was raising her 2 children, working full time, and still living below the poverty line in one of the richest cities in the world. And behind that strong woman, I met the one with doubts.
When she joined my team at Chefs for Impact, she was very motivated and willing to learn. Together we launched the youth programs in Manhattan community centers, after knocking on doors looking for partners. Now an educator in one of our partner schools, this experience has empowered her, allowed her to regain her self-confidence, to feel appreciated for her true self. With C4I, she learned about seasonality, she met farmers and chefs, she discovered many varieties of fruits and vegetables she had never heard of before, and she is now aware of the importance of sustainable, local, and seasonal food. And she knows how to cook a delicious spinach frittata!
It would be utopian to believe that we could all have access to delicious fresh local foods if we wanted to. But change will happen through education. This person has benefited from the initiative as have the dozens of children from the same communities we reach every day.
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
Food sustainability can be scary, can seem expensive, or even complex. In fact, it is a return to the simple values of nature. So in my “sustainability for beginners; guide I would recommend:
· Eat local, seasonal, choose environmentally positive farming, buy organic (certified or not), and no pesticides
· Think community and buy from small scale producers
· Reduce meat consumption, prefer quality over quantity, choose ethical meat and dairy, Eliminate meat from industrial livestock production and create more plant-based menus.
· Avoid food waste & Recycle
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.
1. Believe in what you’re doing, have a vision and stick to it. Over the last 2 years since the inception of C4I, we have launched many programs from cooking video series, youth education, dining events, sustainable wine classes, we have created a collection of educational tools, launched an online magazine, we have built a community garden, created an after school curriculum, summer camps, organized field trips etc more… Sometimes it could get overwhelming but along the way our vision has never changed, not even once. All these programs live under the umbrella of inspiring a more mindful relationship to food.
2. Create an ecosystem and surround yourself with good people. I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to do this alone. I have built and nurtured a community of supporters who believe in our mission and support our work: board members, colleagues, volunteers, industry advisors, chefs, farmers, sommeliers, wine makers, producers, entrepreneurs, nonprofit founders.
3. Listen to people, learn from others, especially the ones who have done it before. And always stay humble, there are tons of people way smarter than you are. I have learnt so much from some very special human beings whom I have been lucky enough to cross their paths. I am very grateful for the way they have shaped me as a social entrepreneur.
4. Inspire the next generation. As a mother of 2 and stepmother of 2, I believe that educating and empowering youth is the future. Knowledge is power. The work our team does every day on teaching kids how to make better food decisions is all about creating a lasting legacy. Some of the students we’ve been teaching for the last 12 months have discovered varieties of produce they never heard of before. They know the taste of a real carrot and a strawberry. They met with farmers, they understood how food is grown, and the amount of work that is needed to get it onto their plate. We are not saying that their favorite food switched from pizza to beetroot suddenly, but we are planting seeds for the future.
5. Building a financially sustainable model for a nonprofit is certainly the best way to create that lasting legacy. My journey as a social entrepreneur has been great so far, but fundraising has certainly been the most painful aspect of the job! My team and I are currently building a strategic framework and laying a strong foundation for a long-lasting impact, and we won’t be able to do it without money! Our goal is to partner with family and corporate foundations that believe in the importance of food education and who want to be involved in building tangible impact with our start-up non-profit organization.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
I have always been attracted to community work, philanthropy, and volunteering. I used to do it on the side, but the pandemic allowed me to dedicate myself fully to this cause and make it my full-time job. It also gave me the strength and motivation to create something that would have an impact. I have probably never felt so grounded and connected to my values. I know that I am where I am supposed to be today. We all have a role to play. The pandemic has given me a new purpose and the opportunity to evaluate my role in the industry.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
In general, I try to see obstacles as opportunities to bounce back. Nothing is unattainable or insurmountable if you believe in it and give yourself the means to achieve it, and this is what motivates me to move forward. I recently went through a difficult period on a personal level with the sudden death of a very young friend. This event obviously made me think a lot about the meaning of life in general. I realized even more how lucky I am to be able to pursue my dreams. With Chefs for Impact, I have created my opportunity to feel in tune with my values, it is a project that feeds me intellectually, professionally, humanly, and even culinarily! So lucky! And what motivates me above all is to do all this with my team and the ecosystem that surrounds me. They are my inspiration!
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Michelle Obama, of course.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
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Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.