In this episode, Lisa talks to Jen Shaw of Emerge Toowoomba about helping disengaged kids turn their lives around with a crowdfunded food van project, and how her toughest times created her biggest strength.
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Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:
Lisa: Oh, it’s a fun day when I get to talk to the amazing Jen Shaw. Jen, welcome to the Podcast.
Jen: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Lisa: So many people will know you from your Facebook page and blog at Barefoot Kitchens. And I got to know you as someone who was kind of a rockstar in the social media world, helping people create amazing, healthy, wholesome meals on a budget.
Because you’ve got a lot of children, and so making meals stretch, making them kid-friendly. I’ve interviewed you quite a few times, you’ve featured in my programs, I point people your way all the time. But you’ve been beavering away on a brand new project.
Jen: Yes, I have. Emerge feels like it’s just started again, but it’s really been there for my whole entire life, in various forms. But yes, I haven’t let go of all that I do in food. I still love that, but I just felt like I was at a point in my life where I really needed to pursue something more. Something that I was built for.
So, I spent the last 12 months researching, fine-tuning, evolving an idea. You know, fundamentally I just love helping people, so zoning in on young people. People who are disengaged, or at risk of disengaging. When we say disengaged kids, we think about kids who are really running amok on the streets.
But talking about kids who are just having a bit of trouble in life, you know. Maybe they’re not doing so well at school, or home is not so nice, or they’ve got a disability or a mental illness that might affect them. So, I’m really passionate about helping those kids, mostly because I was one of those kids myself, a very, very long time ago.
So, yes, when I say that the idea’s been stewing, it really has. I can still remember sitting on the steps of the house. I was 14, I was at a home. Life felt pretty shit at that time, and I was sitting on the stairs going, ‘One day, this is all going to make sense. All this pain that I go through will be for a purpose one day.’
It’s taken on so many forms. A couple of years ago, we thought we’d do an alternative to youth detention, and I did some study for a long time at university – human services – trying to find out how community services worked.
Over the last 12 months, it’s really come down to using the skills I’ve learned in food in creating a hospitality business that is really practical. It gives young people the opportunity to train, get some work experience, build their confidence in the kitchen, engage with mentors.
So, it’s really hard to get young people who have a lot of trauma to engage with anyone. But we find so far that when they know my story a bit – and people like me, there’s that relatability. So, sometimes the work experience is there, but just finding an ally in life. Particularly if you are a young person who’s been on the other side of the law, or outside of the box that society gives you.
Mostly, people – particularly adults – are sort of saying, ‘Go get a job, get better, do this.’ So, we want to meet young people where they’re at in life. No judgement for where they’ve been or what they’re going through, just seeing them where they are, finding their potential, and helping them evolve that, I guess.
So, originally we thought it would be a café, which has always been a huge dream for me, and probably everybody else on the planet. But I had to be really sensible about what a café looked like for kids who are experiencing those challenges, and also the cost of creating a café was huge.
So, it’s evolved down to a food van, which has also been another passion of mine. We can go to events, we can also be private catering, so it’s actually the perfect scenario for kids who don’t want to face the public straight away. They can just jump in a kitchen with some chefs and cook some yummy food.
As a part of that, we do some programs as well. So, we’re not just throwing them in a kitchen. They’re holistically supported, so we do some basic self-care stuff, the importance of looking after yourself physically and mentally. We do a little bit of physical activity. My husband’s a boxing coach, so that helps, but we’ve also got a yoga mentor, a female personal trainer.
It’s widely researched how good the mental benefits are for physical activity, and naturally, getting back to real food. There’s certainly no perfection when it comes to teaching them. We don’t talk about gluten-free or Paleo, we don’t use shitty buzzwords like that. But just back to basics food. You know, it’s OK to have a bit of raw carrot and stuff.
We also work on the idea that it’s OK to have goals. We do goal-setting, and gratitude diaries. And the idea – embracing community. In our groups, we embrace the community of each other. So, after the programs finish, it’s about empowering them to go on, to build their own communities and that sort of stuff. So, that’s it in a really big nutshell.
Lisa: It’s like, ‘Oh, OK. So you’re just doing that? OK, cool.’ Just keeping it small and achievable at the outset. How many kids? So, it’s like a program. Is it a year-long program, or how do they come in to emerge? How do you find them?
Jen: I guess that was a huge lesson for me is how do I find these kids? I know they’re there. It’s a local project for now. So, you can see them everywhere in our town. Late night, hanging out at the local Maccas or the local shopping centre. In every town you would probably find the forgotten children, I like to call them, out on the streets.
I kept thinking, ‘How am I going to engage with these kids?’ Because I thought, ‘You know, if I can just have a yarn with them, I can get them to engage with me,’ but it was hard to find them. I’ve got a teenager, and her friends weren’t really the kids – I mean, I love speaking to them – but they weren’t really the kids I wanted to talk to.
So, it took a long time, getting some feedback. Also, it’s always been really important for me that whatever we do, the program, it has a youth-lead voice, and being different. My ideas might have been crappy. I keep saying to our girls in the program, ‘I’m trying to build a program that doesn’t suck. So, if it any point it sucks, can you please tell me?’
That’s empowerment stuff, you know, being part of the process. And the responsibility that they have the input into future programs. I guess it’s taken a long time to build relationships with community services and alternative schools.
Looking to those places that are already doing good work, and tapping into what they’ve got. Building those relationships, and talking to the kids through that. It was one of those things, I was developing the program, and I kept putting it off until it was perfect, perfect. And then I got to a point where I got, ‘I’m just not sitting here any longer. I’m just going to go.’
We launched it, and we shared the program around with all the community services, and it kind of went viral in the community space, because everybody was going, ‘Wow, this is so needed. This is so wanted.’
We just got a bunch of girls together. It’s exclusively a girls’ program at the moment while it’s in pilot stage, but we’ve got a boy and then a girls’ program launching in January next year. So, it’s just a whole lot of learning. And we tried to do a few youth feedback events where we wanted kids to come and hang out with us, but apparently we weren’t actually cool enough to hang out with. So, we had no kids come along.
So, it’s been learning, but I’m building lots of relationships now. It was kind of like the domino effect, you know, once you’ve got a few lined up, it’s just all falling into place now. So far, so good. The feedback’s been really awesome from young people.
They send me text messages, and they want me on Snapchat – I don’t know about that. But they send me text messages and say, ‘Thank you, this is awesome.’ We’ve sort of built this mutual respect. You know, we’re doing this together. It’s really exciting, actually. It’s cool.
Lisa: So, will you be training them up just for the food side of things? Or will people be taking bookings, or doing customer service?
Jen: You know, it’ll run like an everyday business. So, it’s a social enterprise business. Social enterprise is becoming cool again, I guess, because it’s really, really successful. Using the principles of traditional commercial business to solve social problems.
So, a lot of places, community services and things like that, they do amazing work, but if you look around, they’re all reliant on Government funding. That creates an atmosphere where everybody’s competing for that funding, and some of the funding is going back into trying to get more funding.
So, social enterprise, the idea is to make a profit out of the business. It goes straight back into the business, but also into the programs as well. So, it will operate like a business, and there will be staff on board so that the business is going great.
Initially, in this start-up stage, it has to be really, really good. So, as much as I’d love to, I’m not the cook in that kitchen. The lady we’re buying the van from, we’re kind of buying the chef as well, so she’s coming on board to cook for us.
That puts me in a position where I can be a total mentor, and a total coordinator to make sure that everything is really successful. So, the kids will have the opportunity – the van is really squishy, when you’ve got way too many – but we can fit two or three kids in it at a time, with plans to grow.
So, they’ll jump on board and do a 12-week program with me, which is all about the goal setting, the food, the cooking skills, the basic stuff. And then we get them to do some work experience, so no more than three hours at a time, for about three or four weeks. So, it’s towards the end of the 12-week program.
So we’re building those relationships first, chucking them in, and they’re doing the work experience. From that point, they may wish to pursue a traineeship. So, it’s a traineeship like anywhere else, and they’ll jump in. The traineeship is about eight months.
So we’ve teamed up with a training organisation who is also really passionate about fixing social problems, and giving young people, and the other people that they work with, that space. Giving them that room.
I don’t know if you’ve ever worked in a café, but in a café setting, it’s really fast-paced. If you screw up, there’s a bit of yelling, there’s that pressure. So, we’re trying to create that. The staff will take the pressure – there’s no doubt there will be pressure – but trying to take it off the kids a little bit.
Also, we have kids who may not do our program, but they’re really just dying to do some work experience. All kids, but especially those who are trying to get their life back on track. They just can’t get anyone to give them a shot.
They need something on their resume, just a few basic skills. How to use a EFTPOS machine, or how to do a bit of customer service. So, it’s open for kids to do that, as well.
It’s really holistic, it’s really something for everybody. And all kids who identify. We want them to self-refer. We want them to be a part of the program, or the program won’t work. Not being forced to be there.
But they can be referred from other services too. So, it’s about collaborating and building those relationships with other services, so that we’re all working together. I’m definitely not – we’re not therapy – though we are therapeutic.
Lisa: Yes, nice, I like that. Yes. I just can’t believe – you just work away in the background, you’re just getting this done. It’s so inspiring. Like, I am so inspired hearing your story. I’ve been so inspired watching this process happen, seeing the place of integrity that it’s all coming from. The genuine desire to serve, to change lives.
Jen Shaw, you are a change-maker. All of these people – what a gift you are to Toowoomba and all of that. And you’re also managing your own tribe of kids.
Jen: Somehow, yes!
Lisa: Like, there’s even a baby in the mix, and you’re still just making all this happen. That’s why I wanted to support you as a sponsor. I was like, ‘Any way that I can help with this, I will help.’ I think we should talk about the crowdfunding campaign, because there needs to be money to be able to make this stuff happen.
Jen: The biggest barrier, I think.
Lisa: Yes. Like, ‘I’ve done all the study, I’ve spoken to the community. Oh shivers, who’s going to pay for this?’
Jen: Because of the nature of how we want to run, the social enterprise is using those principles of business. So, we’re kind of stuck in-between the world of business, where you might go and remortgage your house or borrow some money off your mum, or whatever, to get started in business – and the old ‘go for a grant, compete for the funding.’
So, we’re stuck in this place where, what do we do? So, it’s a downfall, but it’s also a really good thing too, because we can play both worlds a little bit. So, we can still apply for funding and grants. Again, that is hugely competitive.
So, I’ve built a really solid, beautiful community of people on social media. Of course that wasn’t on purpose, for this. I had no idea, when we started, that I’d be doing this. But many people along the way have said, ‘How can we help?’ So, I’ve been spending a lot of time, also, researching crowdfunding.
Initially I sort of thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just type something up on the internet and that’ll be it. I’ll put it out there, and we’ll raise all the money that we need.’ You know, Kumbaya around the bushfire. But apparently, that’s not exactly how you do that. So, a lot of work has gone into crowdfunding.
I’m finding a lot of people don’t know what crowdfunding is. Isn’t it funny, you get caught up in it, you know what you’re talking about because you’ve been reading it, but other people go, ‘What’s crowdfunding?’ Like, we have a dinner together or something.
So, crowdfunding is online, it’s using an online platform. We’re using a company called Chuffed, which is really dedicated to social enterprises like ours, and not-for-profits. It’s a bit different to the old GoFundMes, definitely dedicated for something like ours.
So, for 35 days, the campaign will run, from November 6 through to 11 December. Even though that’s going to be a huge 35 days for me, that’s a really good size for a campaign. You can literally jump on and give us $5, or $100, but we set up a few rewards, because we really want people to be a part of this story now, but also 20 years from now.
So, we set up some stuff that will be really beneficial. We’ve got a van, so let’s pimp it out with some cool stuff. So, we’ll have a panel of people’s names, so that might be Lisa Corduff, or the Corduff family. That’s not open to businesses, that’s people, because this is a community-driven project.
Although in saying that, we do have a large van, so we can put some business sponsorship on there too. We’re going to go everywhere. We predominantly will be in Toowoomba, but we can drive, so we’re like a movable billboard. So, we’ve got some spaces there for business logos, and the panel.
We’ve got an e-book, it’s just my thing, I guess. I’ve done a couple of cookbooks, so it just felt natural to have a book as part of it. Food and nutrition is a big part of our programs with our kids, and the food that we teach them is stuff – a lot of our kids are in residential care, or foster care, and they haven’t really had mum or dad, or grandma, teach them how to cook. Or it’s not been a priority, anyway.
We find a lot of the kids that are coming over to us, they’re eating takeaway food, they’re not really sure how to cook. So, the e-book is called Leaving Home. So, it’s really a good cross between the kids who haven’t had someone teach them that stuff, but also for my kids – an e-book you might give your kids when they leave home, so you know that they’re actually eating something decent.
That’s probably my most prized reward of the whole campaign. We’ve got some little things, like we can high-five you on social media. I mean, not really high-five, but you know, we can say thank you. We just really want everybody to get behind it, because it is a community thing. I hope everyone is as excited about it as I am. Maybe terrified as well, a little bit.
Lisa: You are so ready for this, but I know how scared you must feel. Because it’s like, the crowdfunding thing is so exciting and fun, but it’s really like, ‘Well, this is it now.’ What’s your goal? How much is it that you need to raise?
Jen: So, we’ve been really privileged with the van. We’re able to use it now on a borrow sort of a scheme, but we’re able to buy it for $57,000 outright. So, our goal is $60,000 so that we can own it. We’ll own it, we don’t have to borrow it, we don’t have to feel like if we crash it we’re in big trouble. But it also gets us started up with some stock for the van, as a stretch goal.
So, that’ll get us moving, we’re going forward with that. It’s happening anyway. A stretch goal, because we’ve also agreed to sign a lease for a dedicated youth space in Toowoomba, which is so long overdue. There have been meeting in Toowoomba for, like, 30 years about creating a dedicated youth space, and no one ever gets it done.
So, I just went, ‘I’m getting it done.’ So, I’ve agreed to sign a lease. So anything stretched from making $60,000. I mean, $60,000, no biggie, no worries.
Lisa: Just $60K.
Jen: Nothing. So, anything more than that will go straight towards that youth hub. So, we’ve got a three-month bond, one month in advance of the rent, plus the little bits and pieces. Turning the lights on, and things like that. So, it’s no biggie. $60K, right near Christmas time.
Lisa: But this is the thing, this is why I just think it’s important for people to know. Your story is so much a part of this, and I think trusting someone to pull something like this off, you really need to know that they’re in it – even just hearing you say, ‘In 20 years’ time.’
Like, this is not just some flash-in-the-pan thing, this is your life’s purpose, and this is going to change the lives of many, many people. And it’s coming from just the most genuine, authentic place, from one of the loveliest people that I’ve ever known. So, I don’t understand why people wouldn’t want to help something like this happen.
It’s so hard for us to feel like the money that we earn is going to a bigger purpose than us, than paying our bills, and all of the things. So a crowdfunding campaign like this, a project like this, put together by you – it’s like an absolute no-brainer.
Jen: Yes. Like, there are other youth services. People keep saying to me, ‘But what about all the youth services that keep popping up?’ Social enterprise – I mean, it’s definitely not a new concept. Lifeline has had social enterprise, you can go in and buy second-hand clothing.
So, it’s not a brand-new concept, but I think we’ve come to a point in community services and helping people where the Government can only give out so much money. You wait so long for things to get changed, and the systems are so broken. Like, worldwide, systems are broken, especially in Child Protection.
So, I think projects like this – it serves what we want to do here in Toowoomba, but it gives other people inspiration and motivation to do stuff like this in their own community. If I can do it, anyone can. Sometimes we go, ‘But I haven’t studied this, and I don’t know the ins and outs of Government.’
But it really just takes a couple of caring people with a little bit of drive and passion to get a project like this started. I mean, wouldn’t it be cool if there was something like this in every city around Australia?
Lisa: Yes. You’re not a small thinker.
Lisa: No. It’s like, ‘Let’s just change the world with food vans.’ But I think this is absolutely something that you could show people the process in which you set this up, train other people to do all of that. There’s so much potential.
Because do you know what I know for absolute sure is this is going to fly, and it’s going to be amazing. Because you and your husband have both run businesses as well. On another podcast I do, we interviewed the General Manager of Food Connect, which is a social enterprise – connecting farmers straight with the buyers. So, cutting out the middlemen and all that sort of stuff.
She’s a woman who is passionately committed to the cause, but a really savvy businesswoman. I love exploring these ways in which business can be used as a positive social force. So, this is just another example of people going, ‘Look, I know this stuff. I know how to run a business, but how can we do this for good?’
Jen: Yes, that’s right. I guess entrepreneurs possess a certain element of that risk-taking, sometimes a little bit of craziness, and they just say yes to things then just find a way to get them done.
Whereas in a lot of other traditional community services, there’s so much waiting for things. That’s just so opposite to what an entrepreneur does. Like, you probably know, you just say, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’ and then you’re freaking out for the next six months trying to get it done, but it gets done.
Not to bag community services. There are a lot of passionate people who want to do those things, but they’re bound by a lot of red tape. Whereas we’ve got that flexibility to get things done.
Lisa: I remember working for a not-for-profit, and I don’t think that whole time – I was there for maybe nine or ten months – I don’t think I did any actual work. I didn’t realise that I was an entrepreneur at the time, but in my previous job, I’d just think up cool ideas, and my boss would be like, ‘OK, well if you can raise the money to go ahead and do that, then do it.’
And I’d be like, ‘Sweet! I’m going to go find people to sponsor this, or do this,’ and then I’d get something up. But in a not-for-profit setting, when there has to be so many boxes to tick, and you need to get a review done, and then you need to do a survey. I was like, ‘Just get me out of here. This is not what I signed up for.’
I like the nimbleness of the social enterprise model, and I like, also, the skills that they’re going to be exposed to running a business. I definitely think the playing field is so open at the moment for people to start their own businesses, and if you can show them what’s possible – oh my gosh. The possibilities for them.
Jen: I had a chat with Queensland Chief Entrepreneur Mark Sowerby. That’s such a huge, fancy title, but he’s just this amazing guy who has this hugely successful investment company. I was so intimidated when I met him, because he’s got billions of dollars. Well, maybe not billions, but he just knows his stuff.
So, someone like me, who’s sort of broke. I had this meeting with him, it was a half an hour quick mentorship meeting, and I was so terrified about what he’d think about my ideas for social enterprise and all sorts of stuff.
For a business person, he gave me the best advice ever, and he said everybody he invested in as part of his investment company that ever went on to be successful and really do some amazing stuff had all come from backgrounds of trauma.
So, women who had been in domestic violence relationships, kids who had been in foster care, young mums – people who had really done some really tough stuff. Because they possessed a really awesome element that entrepreneurs need, which is resilience.
He found a lot of people who had been given that silver spoon in their mouth, and delivered everything their whole life, they weren’t ever as successful. So, I’ve taken that, and when I’m having a really bad day – because sometimes I’m going, ‘Who am I? Who do I think I am? You know, I never finished school, I’m just an old street kid. I don’t know nothing.’
Then I go back to that, and I remember what he said. And this guy has invested in million-dollar companies. Like, he really knows his stuff, and yet, you know, resilience, that’s what makes the difference. So, when I’m thinking about the young people we’re mentoring, I’m always thinking, ‘You guys are already possessing what it takes to be amazing in the future.’ The sky’s the limit.
I get to say to them, ‘It was me too.’ You know, but anyone can say to them, ‘You already possess resilience. You’ve already seen the shittiest stuff in the world, so what’s the worst that could happen if you just try to be awesome?’
Back to my visionary head, we’ll build this commercial kitchen within the youth hub. And then we can support these kids. You know, this is my pipe dream, it’s not going to happen for all kids – but they do a traineeship with us, they find a passion for food, like I did, maybe.
And they go on to go, ‘Well, I want to do a cake business,’ or something, and then we can support them through the business. There can be a really big chain of awesome events that come from that, I reckon.
Lisa: I just got shivers all over, and the potential to cry, when you were talking about all of that. Because what you’re on the precipice of is this business being up and running, a successful crowdfunding campaign, that is going to have huge, massive, tangible, positive impacts on not only individuals, but you think – their future children.
Their family, who suddenly watch them soaring to new heights, and getting their shit together. Just the exponential ripple effect of what you’re doing. I think you’re a total rockstar.
Jen: Thank you.
Lisa: And I think that whatever you have gone through in your life, to get you to this point, like that 14-year-old sitting on the doorstep. You absolutely are putting it into – it does mean something.
Jen: It does. It does, and it gives me a why, as well. Everyone’s story’s different, totally different. We see a lot of kids who are disengaged, but hey, their family is really supportive. You know, when I’m having a shit day, I go and spend some time with our Emerge girls program.
It doesn’t matter that someone’s told me the whole thing won’t work, or it doesn’t matter I haven’t found the money, or I haven’t met the goal. I go and spend some time, really in the raw, with these girls, and they’re relating to me, and they’re coming to a program where they weren’t engaging with anything before – and that gives me that why. I know exactly why I’m doing it.
If I keep showing up – and I’m a role model, now, to them. So, if I give up all of a sudden, or it doesn’t work, and I give up, then I have to answer to those kids. So it’s a really, really cool way to keep yourself accountable.
Lisa: Yes, there’s an accountability right there. So, if people want to support the campaign, which I’m sure they absolutely do, where should they go to do that?
Jen: So, basically, if you’re on Facebook you can find us on Facebook, and there will be no shortage of links to that by looking up ‘Emerge Toowoomba.’ Otherwise, you can go to our website, Emerge Café.
Lisa: Emerge Café. What was the Facebook page?
Jen: it’s Emerge Toowoomba. There’ll be no shortage of links there, I’m certain. And our website, emergecafe.com.au. Again, that’ll have links to more information about what we do. There are different sponsorship opportunities.
Even though this is a Toowoomba project, there’s potential for everyone in Australia to get on board and help and support us. We’ll have links the Crowdfund campaign through there. Or if you jump on Chuffed, and just search for ‘Emerge Toowoomba’ in there, you’ll be able find it.
Lisa: I’m so pleased to be able to help in any way I can, because I think it’s all the good feels. And you’ve worked so frickin’ hard for this. You’re a smart and savvy woman, but you’re also gritty, and you get it done.
I can’t wait to see this fly for you, and I can’t wait to share this Podcast episode with everyone, so they can jump on board as well. So, thank you for taking time out. I know how busy you are!
Jen: I’m just about to go to a meeting, yes.
Lisa: Go, go, go! OK, I’ll speak to you soon.