When Gabriela Lee’s meal delivery subscription service, Damn Good Kitchen, started getting more orders than she could handle with all the food preparation and administrative work, she knew it was time to grow her business by expanding her entrepreneurial skill set.
“I used to do everything from purchasing, cooking, packing, customer service. I was afraid of hiring a team, investing in a bigger kitchen, and delegating," she said.
Lee is the founder and chef at Damn Good Kitchen (DGK) in the Dominican Republic. Her company prepares and delivers daily meals and snacks to clients with busy lifestyles or special diets. DGK dishes out traditional fare from the family cookbook with a healthy twist.
Lee cooked up this venture working from home as a solo entrepreneur. A week after she resolved to meet the growing demands of her enterprise by educating herself, Lee's husband shared an email link to the U.S. State Department’s Academy for Women Entrepreneurs program. She seized the opportunity to build the business of her dreams by learning new skills, and applied online to the program the same day.
"The academy," as some participants affectionately call the initiative, turned out to have just the right recipe to help Lee feed her hungry enterprise. It is a free, economic empowerment program that supports female entrepreneurs around the world, equipping them with transformative tools like knowledge, skills and access to expert advisers.
Since it launched in 2019 to 26 different countries, the program has expanded beyond 50 countries, helping more than 7,000 women create and operate the businesses of their dreams. Enhanced in value and impact by the dire circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs program has evolved into an inclusive global learning community, providing opportunities for women from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe to learn the fundamentals of business, including creating business plans and raising capital, with the goal of building a better future for their families and communities.
The program's curriculum is powered by DreamBuilder, a free online business training program available in English and Spanish that helps women start and grow small businesses. The Freeport-McMoRan Foundation created DreamBuilder in partnership with the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. Instructors at Thunderbird provide expert support and advice to the women enrolled in the program. Its success around the world as an interactive online learning platform attracted the attention of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which was developing the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs. The bureau selected the DreamBuilder program to be the core curriculum for the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs program.
Along with their online learning in DreamBuilder, collaborating as a supportive group, Lee and her fellow academy participants engaged in facilitated lessons on business management, networking with like-minded entrepreneurs and mentors in their regions and in the United States. Lee finished her DreamBuilder courses online and graduated from the program in 2019 with improved management and strategic decision-making skills.
“I got the tools to plan for growth in every aspect of my business, from finance and marketing to sales, human resources, and product development,” she said. “We even got one-on-one meetings with U.S. Ambassador Robin Bernstein and got specific and direct advice on how to keep growing ourselves as leaders and also keep growing our businesses.”
Lee credits her academy and DreamBuilder training with alleviating the adverse impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on her business while simultaneously positioning her to leverage the difficult circumstances of the pandemic to her advantage as demand for home deliveries suddenly increased.
Since Lee graduated from the academy, her Damn Good Kitchen has been serving up extra helpings of business growth, increasing from one to 11 full-time employees — eight of whom are women. Their success, driven by Lee's hard work and newly expanded entrepreneurial repertoire, gave her the confidence to invest in moving to a new industrial kitchen in the capital city of Santo Domingo.
“With the tools I gained in the AWE program, I managed to increase my sales by 500%. I started with 20 clients per week and now we have over 300 weekly clients,” Lee said. Her team now sells more than 1,500 plates of food on average every week.
With help from the academy and DreamBuilder, Lee learned how to launch her brand and reach her target audience, empowering her to expand DGK’s services across Santo Domingo using outsourced delivery operators. After the COVID-19 outbreak sent a virtually unlimited pool of potential new customers into lockdown, Lee and her team capitalized on the opportunity to meet increased demand in spite of daunting new logistical challenges. Using her new management skills, she led her team in developing new services such as family meal plans and individual subscriptions for professionals working from home. Next up? Expansion.
“I’m already planning to open seating tables in my restaurant next year and to grow my business into other provinces in my country,” Lee said. “And who knows? Maybe other countries too.”
Building dreams in a year of adversity
Damn Good Kitchen’s growth parallels the upward trajectory of the online learning platform that helped Lee make her entrepreneurial aspirations a reality.
DreamBuilder is free and open to anyone, and the COVID-19 pandemic has increased demand for effective remote education, so it’s not surprising that the program’s reach has expanded. DreamBuilder’s enrollment is up by 51% in 2020 and the number of graduates has increased by 57% compared to the same period in 2019. With learners in 108 countries and 10,775 graduates worldwide as of October 2020, DreamBuilder is making a positive impact on a global scale in this year of historic challenges.
When the pandemic forced many business owners around the world to close their doors, an opportunity emerged for entrepreneurs like Lee to devote time to online education. As the pandemic ravaged entire economies, many people who suddenly found themselves unemployed turned to starting a business as a means of supporting themselves and their families. Available online at no cost, DreamBuilder is empowering thousands of people around the world to work toward owning their own business or picking up new skills to advance their careers.
“The DreamBuilder program has given me a lot of strength to move forward, to continue to overcome all of the problems that we women face every day and to keep going for our children, for our families and for ourselves,” said Silvana Farfan, a DreamBuilder graduate and owner of Muebles Adria, a family business manufacturing linens in Arequipa, Peru.
When the challenging circumstances of 2020 suddenly compelled Thunderbird’s DreamBuilder support teams to conduct all activities remotely, from recruiting to instruction, they quickly pivoted to a virtual engagement and support model, providing 129 virtual workshops that also streamed on social media. Their exemplary operational resilience made it possible for more than 9,000 aspiring business owners to safely attend live training sessions online and take advantage of virtual office hours for one-on-one guidance from DreamBuilder instructors at Thunderbird.
For many of the women who have gone through the program, the knowledge, skills and friendships they gained have been transformational, allowing them to share cascading economic benefits with their families and communities.
“What I value most is the connections I made with other women business owners in my country and how close we got on a personal and professional level,” Lee said. “I got to work and grow alongside 35 other amazing women and their businesses in this program. We cried, we laughed, and we shared our everyday struggles. Since then, we’ve had several business collaborations together.”
From creating jobs to putting food on tables and clothes on bodies, the rippling social impacts made by DreamBuilder graduates often transcend generations and keep cultures alive in their recipes or designs.
“The tradition I carry on is fashion,” said Valentina Aragon, chief operations officer of ACONAV, LLC, makers of Native American fashion designs and apparel in Arizona.
“In essence, our business is cultural designs embodied in timeless elegance. We believe in the preservation of culture. Through our fashion, we represent our ancestral pottery art and our belief in the beauty of the living world. Ultimately, our enterprise is an homage to our matrilineal societies.”