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DreamBuilder platform expands impact for female entrepreneurs

November 16, 2020

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.

 Instagram @damngoodkitchen

Photo credit: Instagram / @damngoodkitchen

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.

 Instagram @ damngoodkitchen

Photo credit: Instagram / @damngoodkitchen

“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. 

 US State Dept.

Gabriela Lee (right) at home planning DGK's expansion. Photo credit: U.S. State Dept.

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.

ACONAV, LLC, makes Native American fashion designs and apparel in Arizona. Photo credit: ACONAV

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.”

Jonathan Ward

Associate Director, Media Relations & Strategic Messaging , Thunderbird School of Global Management


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ASU launches new virtual Leonardo Imagination Fellowship Program

November 16, 2020

Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination and the ASU-Leonardo Initiative have launched a new eight-week virtual fellowship program for fall 2020.

Three fellows, representing different parts of the globe, were selected from a talented pool of applicants to carry out experimental projects that combine innovative art and science practices across multiple publishing and broadcast media platforms. All of their projects align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and are either related to water, sustainability or community.

“Our center seeks to inspire collective imagination for better futures,” said Ed Finn, the founding director of ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination and associate professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts“These fellows are working on a fantastic set of projects to deepen our understanding of sustainability by bringing together art and science. Addressing the challenges of the 21st century is going to require us to imagine positive futures together, and art is a very powerful way to do just that.”

In addition to their projects, fellows will participate in a Mentorship Matrix that connects them with younger students who might benefit or learn from their experiences through the program. Through the ASU-Leonardo Initiative, which was established in 2019, the fellows will also lead a Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) event — a global salon series that brings together artists and scientists for informal presentations and conversations with audience members.

“As an enterprising think tank, ASU-Leonardo integrates hybrid, creative inquiry and practice as catalysts to solve compelling problems, explore timeless mysteries, and shape a finer future,” said Diana Ayton-Shenker, executive director of ASU-Leonardo Initiative, professor of practice in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and faculty member in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. “It's essential that art and science coexist to inquire, inspire, innovate and instigate insights into who we are in the world.”

One of the goals of the program is to empower fellows to build new connections to artists and researchers at ASU. Ayton-Shenker says she hopes fellows will “develop their transdisciplinary, creative practice; build pivotal connections with each other, mentors/peers/proteges; and increase their visibility as changemakers who advance social justice and the sustainable development goals.”

And although the virtual format is an adjustment — and somewhat experimental — given the circumstances of the  pandemic, Finn explains the model allows the program to be more inclusive.

“The virtual format allows us to include people who might not otherwise have the means or the time to spend several weeks with us in Arizona.” Finn adds, “This way we can invite them into the ASU family as well as learn more about their collaborators and communities in very different parts of the world.”

Learn more about the fellows below.

Leonardo Imagination Fellowship

Nandita Kumar

Nandita Kumar

Kumar is a new media artist who uses art, science and technology to create interactive installations and sensory narratives by exploring the impact of innovative technologies on human lives and natural ecosystems.

Her project, “Sounding the Invisible: An Elegant Symbiosis,” gives audience members in India audio and visual insights into the way certain plants naturally absorb pollutants out of water. The installation includes barcoded test tubes that play the sound frequency of each plant and 41 pollutants, while an accompanying book outlines the pollutants’ health impacts and the plants' additional uses such as in food or medicine.

“This project uses data visualization (and) interactive technology alongside a sonic experience to transpire imagination, connect thoughts and build reconnection to the various case studies being explored,” Kumar said. “We need to collect and represent data that is meaningful to individuals and communities to increase their awareness about the importance of preserving water, the impact of our technology and to encourage a global culture of sustainability.”

Kumar said she started this project after talking to a fisherman in Mumbai whose nets were getting caught in a whorl, or vortex, created by the dumping of untreated sewage from nearby suburban communities. For the first time, through the Leonardo Imagination Fellowship Program, Kumar feels that her work can be designed at a macro level, helping her understand how technology may impact lives and whether technology and nature can coexist.

“As our technology has increased in complexity, the tools we use to control nature have become more powerful and the materials of that technology have become more alien to nature; more difficult or impossible to reassimilate back into its processes.” Kumar added, “I often question, what if rather than reshaping the world to solely suit man’s needs, technology was shaped in harmony with nature — in turn changing humanity's future?”

Kumar has shown her work in festivals and exhibitions throughout the world including the New Zealand International Film Festival, Rome International Film Festival and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. She also curated a community project called “Ghar Pe/At Home,” which has been documented online by Asian Art Archive (Hong Kong).

Leonardo Imagination Fellowship

Melanie Valencia

Melanie Valencia

Valencia, who is originally from Ambato, Ecuador, is pursuing her PhD in the circular economy: a system centered around eliminating waste, and the pursuit of reusing resources. She is particularly interested in how this model could be applied to the informal sector in Latin America, since she explains many of the repair jobs there are dying, falling victim to convenience and cheap products.

Inspired by biomimicry, which Valencia believes is at the core of innovation and eco-design for a circular economy, and her time spent talking to waste pickers throughout the global south, among other things, Valencia’s fellowship project will be a collection of stories about the people who are using secondhand material and bartering; and the impact of doing so, especially during a pandemic.

“I have learned that these conversations cannot be limited to academics and policymakers, rather we all should be engaging with each other to transform our economies,” Valencia said. “With this fellowship I hope to visualize the connection between nature and society, urban and rural, you and other, and to showcase the work of multiple actors working informally to reach a more harmonious socioecological reality through care, care for the planet, care for our elders, our children, each other, and future generations.”

Valencia hopes her work and stories can inspire communities to find a common ground in the circular economy and zero-waste movements. She believes there’s a huge disconnect between consumerism and what that really does to the planet’s resources. Valencia says the circular economy must make it easier for citizens to choose what is best for the planet.

Valencia adds, “I am especially eager to share what I have to offer and hoping to learn so much more from the other fellows and this network of peers that have already been extremely generous, holding on to this sense of community even when we are so far away and interacting virtually.”

Valencia was recently a consultant for circular economy projects at Universidad San Francisco de Quito — a private university in Ecuador. She was also named MIT Innovator Under 35 in 2016 for her work in CarboCycle, a biotech startup transforming organic waste into a palm oil substitute.

Leonardo Imagination Fellowship

Brook Thompson

Brook Thompson

Thompson is a Yurok and Karuk Native from Northern California who is currently working on her Master of Science in environmental engineering at Stanford University.  She has been using her engineering background and artwork to start dialogues about improving water quality and water rights for Native Americans. 

ASU’s Leonardo Imagination Fellowship is important to Thompson because she points out that women, and especially Native Americans, are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. She is hoping to use her voice to educate the public and valuable stakeholders about Native Americans and their beliefs, especially when it comes to sustainability, and how they value the land they live on.

As part of her fellowship project, Thompson plans to create four beaded medallions in the shape of puzzle pieces to tell her story about traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) — the understanding gained by Indigenous communities by living on and with the land. Each puzzle piece will represent a TEK and a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal and will have a video component online — infusing modern technology with traditional storytelling. Thompson said she was inspired by Jaime Ocuma, a Native American visual artist and fashion designer who is known for her beadwork, and tribes who use Wampanog beads for storytelling.

“I want to bring traditional ecological knowledge to the forefront,” Thompson said. “I hope people start to think about and understand a few concepts of TEK through my artwork that make them reconsider what it means to be knowledgeable, and who is considered knowledgeable in the Western world.”

Thompson was the 2019 American Indian Science and Engineering Society’s Region 1 representative. She was an intern for the city of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in D.C. In 2017, Brook was awarded the American Indian Graduate Center’s undergraduate student of the year award. In 2020, Thompson won Unity’s 25 Under 25 award.

Top photo courtesy of

Jimena Garrison

Copywriter , Media Relations and Strategic Communications