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The Community Table is Open for Learning and Sharing

By Andi Sciacca

Andi Sciacca is an advocate for access, education, and equity – and a proud #MKEpreneur.  She is currently leading the development of The MKE FoodSchool – a center for learning, innovation, community-building, and resource-sharing, working to create the space for an inspired and inclusive conversation around Milwaukee's community table.  She also teaches for the Milwaukee Institute of Art + Design and is program designer and capstone faculty for the graduate division of The Culinary Institute of America– where she develops and leads courses on innovation and entrepreneurship. She believes technology has the power to bring people together – rather than isolate – and she enjoys helping others leverage those opportunities to connect and to flourish.

How did you come up with the idea for MKE Food School?

I am a Wisconsin native who moved from MKE to NYC in the late1990s. I was in New York for 18 years – the last 5 of which were spent planning to move back to MKE in order to be closer to my family – and to once again be part of a city that I truly love. I spent all of my adult working life in higher education but always had my own business – and the opportunity to combine my passion for education, community-building, and the food system coalesced in the decision to develop The MKE Food School as a way to create connection and effect change.

Did you start the venture alone?

I am definitely a solopreneur, but nothing is ever done alone.  I’m fortunate to come from a family that thinks so far outside the box, there often is no box.  This made me fearless about the kinds of risks you need to be willing to take in the innovation / start-up space – but it also made me very clear on boundaries around that risk.  Knowing this, I have thoughtfully developed a Community Impact Board and a Global Advisory Board for The MKE Food School – and I call on those extraordinary people to make sure I’m staying mission-driven and prioritizing my efforts in the most inclusive possible way.  I’m also graced with an incredibly smart partner in life – and he is not only a great husband, but also a fantastic sounding board – and an incredibly successful scholarpreneur in his own right, and that makes the demands of entrepreneurship something we can navigate together, rather than alone.

How did you manage uncertainty in early stages of business? Were you ready to pivot if needed? Did you keep it a very lean MVP?

I think I’ve really learned to manage uncertainty by embracing it.  I look for it as a natural part of the process – and have trained myself to be OK with being uncomfortable.  It’s so important to be real about where you are and to be honest about what that feels like!  I think one of the best things we can do is marry a healthy dose of curiosity with a good amount of vulnerability.  It not only feels good to be able to say, “I don’t know what’s happening here!” but it’s even better when you let that level of transparency and honesty connect you with others who can help you, support you, and encourage you to stay committed to your own path.  This approach helps with all of the necessary pivots (whether anticipated or unanticipated) – and it makes you braver and better – and yields much more joy overall.  In terms of the MVP, yes – I’ve kept it ultra-lean!  The MKE Food School as a part of the online world was (and remains) the most stripped down version of what could have been built – but for that reason, it’s also more resilient and much easier to scale.

What advice would you give to other founders just starting to build a company?

The best advice I can give is to seek out the others and build supportive communities for yourself.  Founder life can be lonely, exciting, exhausting, beautiful, tough, rewarding…you name it!  So, being connected to others through platforms and communities – from Uncrowd to Y Combinator’s Start-Up-School can really help you connect with those who understand your stressors, are there to help you think through your challenges – and can help you celebrate your wins.  Through these kinds of supportive groups, you can find co-founders, if that’s your goal – or just walk through the things we all know and understand that our non-trep (non-entrepreneurial) colleagues, family, and friends might not get.  Innovation can be isolating – but it doesn’t have to be.  Thankfully, that’s been a huge shift in the start-up community over the past several years.  Also, even if you’re not sure of yourself yet, make time to apply for all the pitches, programs, and workshops you can – but only if you know you can commit to them.  Learning is everything – it keeps you nimble, and it makes you bold – and you never know who / what you might gain from the opportunity to share ideas and connect with others.

Have you ever failed at anything? If so, how did you handle it and what did you learn?

Oh, wow – have I ever failed!  I am one of those people who quotes Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  In part, because I really do believe this is the best way to learn, grow, and build your courage – but, in part, because I’ve got a long list of big ideas that ended up not being what I thought they would, but did lead me somewhere really interesting instead.  Never be afraid to fail.  And, if we take some inspiration on failure from the culinary world, we know that everything from popsicles to chocolate chip cookies to champagne and beer were invented by a combination of happenstance and mistake.  So, my core belief is that we should always be willing to seize the moment and do our thing!

How are your hours spread throughout the week? Have you had to set any boundaries around time?

I have a saying (almost a mantra, really) about the way I keep my calendar– and that is to “Honor the Block.”  But getting there is a process.  First, you need to be willing to give yourself the freedom to observe yourself in and out of stress over a period of time.  Ask yourself:  When are you most productive?  Why are you attending so many meetings (even if only virtual) that could have been emails or Slack channel updates?  Are you joining too many groups?  Are you getting exercise, fresh air, good sleep, and healthy food every day?  When you take the time to step back and observe your patterns, you might see that you spend half your time (or maybe more!) putting out other people’s fires– but if you look at how you work best, and block your time accordingly, your entire focus can shift and change.  I did that for a mostly painful year.  I tried things that worked – like suggesting phone calls or audio-only Zooms so I could walk and talk to get exercise and necessary updates in at the same time.  But I also tried things that didn't work at all – like scheduling early morning masterminds with high-achieving colleagues that occupied the time I needed to center myself. As of right now, I reserve Mondays and Fridays for quiet work and thinking– giving myself a four-day weekend.  I concentrate all of my meetings and important client / education conversations in the three-day space of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  And I do yoga every morning and Tai Chi every afternoon to get (and keep) myself on track.  I could go on – but a couple of things I’ve found absolutely critical to me being at my best every day of the week are to make sure I read every day – and take frequent inspiration from breaks for observing art and nature, listening to music, and making good food.

Is it possible to build a successful company without burning out or damaging other parts of your life (family, health, etc.)?

I am going to answer this by saying that it is not only possible, but also essential.  I’ve done business-building a lot of different ways. I’ve been the coffee-slamming, sleep when I’m dead, full-steam ahead start-up zombie – and I’ve been the kinder, gentler, better-rested, more hydrated version – and I definitely prefer the latter.  It’s important to do a little bit of hustling, flowing, grinding, and shaking things up everyday.  But it’s equally important to make time to take a walk in one of our beautiful Wisconsin parks and trails – or listen to music that makes you happy – or call your Mom!  You need to spend time with the people you love and build memories while you can.  Being a whole person with a richness of relationships that sustains you and allows you to give freely of yourself is one of the greatest ways you can “make it” in this world.  If you have that, you can work to change things for the better and help others thrive.  Burn out isn’t a badge of honor – it’s a trap.  Build big, sure – but never at the expense of your life or those you love.

How has COVID-19 challenged you as an entrepreneur and how are you overcoming those challenges?

Well, the easiest way I can answer this is to say that The MKE Food School was originally going to be an incubator inside a building called The Beacon. I was working with the team at NEWaukee to launch a café and restaurant, and a catering company, with plans to build an urban ag project on the roof.  The very week before we went into the first COVID lock-down in March, we’d just had a meeting with the architects.  And then, as we know, everything changed.  The silver lining (if there is one) is that I wasn’t already knocking down walls or buying $30K hood fans.  I was able to get creative and rethink how this might work best.  I am so grateful to have had the option many people did not have – and that was to keep my “doors” open even as the world was slowing or shutting down.  I was able to partner with some incredible chefs and restaurateurs to celebrate what they were doing in an online format – and I was able to be thoughtful about how I wanted to move forward.  The impact on the restaurant industry is deep. The failures of leadership to truly support the food system will be felt for years to come – but the industry is also incredibly collaborative, resilient, and strong.  It is my greatest honor to be able to focus my efforts on ways to help people in the community in this way.  At its core, The MKE Food School designs and delivers programs and experiences that create meaningful connection and drive powerful change.  We are scalable, transferrable, and necessary. We are a center for learning, innovation, community-building, and resource-sharing.  We partner with people that grow, harvest, sell, deliver, prepare, eat, reclaim, recover, research, write about and talk about food – because we want to create the space for an inspired and inclusive conversation around Milwaukee’s community table.  We partner with people like YOU.  And we look forward to growing with our community as the world continues to change – hopefully, for the good.

Has your business made you happier and more fulfilled in life, compared to how you felt before starting it?

Absolutely. I was not built to work for other people in a traditional sense – or to have a 9-5 life.  One of the reasons I loved teaching higher ed (and still do!) is because my classes rotate term to term and there are concentrated moments of engagement followed up by opportunities to live inside my own headspace for a bit.  And I say this as someone who often taught more than ten classes for five different colleges at a given time.  While I teach far fewer courses right now, the work I did hustling from a mixture of in-person and online courses on five different campuses in New York (some over two hours from one another by car) taught me the value of time management – and the absolute joy of throwing myself into work I love more than anything else.  I would teach for free (and often do) – but when I was promoted to a dean position for one of the colleges I worked for, I remember thinking you couldn’t pay me enough to deal with administration and 40 hour work weeks to make it enjoyable or worthwhile.  When teaching as an adjunct professor for multiple colleges, I often worked 65-70 hour workweeks, and I never felt tired.  When I was a dean, I was exhausted all the time!  And now, combining my love for education, community, and the food system, I am finding more joy in my work than ever before.  I have never been more eager to meet the challenges and opportunities of the day!

What impact do you want to have? Is your startup objective "getting rich" or "changing the world"? Is control or success more important?

I am at a point where I define success very differently than I did when I launched my first company.  Right now, success is to build community– to change the world through food – to help people heal and grow– and to always be learning.  I love to teach, to write, to engage with others who want to make the world a safer, kinder, more inclusive, and more magical place.  I also want to raise $50M for a fund for food system innovation here in MKE by 2025.  I want to be able to bootstrap my business and scale it out to other communities in places like Detroit, Vermont, Austin, Oakland.  But the biggest thing that’s changed for me is that I have learned to recognize that focusing on control is the surest way to lose your way.  One of my favorite quotes on this topic is from Marcus Aurelius, who (translated) said, “The things ordained for you – teach yourself to be at one with those.  And the people who share them with you– treat them with love.  With real love.”  After all, what could be better than that?

If you want to continue following Andi's story use these links:

MKE Food School

Andi Sciacca's LinkedIn

Andi Sciacca's Instagram

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