Chatham University

Chatham Views

All posts by Cara Gillotti

UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH IN TAIWAN

Chloe Bell ’16 remembers an afternoon in Taiwan. “We pulled over on the highway one afternoon to eat hot peppers that an elderly couple had made and were selling.  The husband cut peppers into a marinating bucket as the wife offered us all of their other specialties. We found people like this everywhere in Taiwan: small time entrepreneurs who were using their skill set to make people happy, to co-exist in a symbiotic way.”

Bell was part of a research team of six undergraduate students (Diana Cabrera ’17, Ashley Henry ’14, Kristina Hruska ’16, Sook Yee Leung ’14, Rachel McNorton ’14) and two Chatham professors (Dr. Karen S. Kingsbury and Dr. Charlotte E. Lott) who spent four weeks in Taiwan over the summer, studying female entrepreneurs in small-scale, regionally-based restaurants and lodging businesses, with a focus on the following questions:

• What gender issues occur in women-owned businesses?
• How do women use relationship networks to start and maintain a business?
• How does family responsibility interplay with business responsibility?
• Do these women business owners consider themselves to be feminists?

The research team interviewed 14 women entrepreneurs in four areas across Taiwan. They also distributed around 30 surveys to other female entrepreneurs.The research is expected to produce a series of analytical profiles of the women entrepreneurs telling their stories and articles in the four areas of interest—gender issues for women business owners, relationship networks, family dynamics, and perception of feminism.

Preliminary findings include:

1) While for the most part, the women were either unfamiliar with or startled by the term “feminism,” associating it with a radical, extremist set of views that they did not share, when asked how they felt about gender equality, the women were very supportive.

2) In Taiwan, written contracts are secondary to verbal agreements and handshakes.

3) “The female entrepreneurs and the academics we talked to were not focused on making the most money or being the most successful in the Western sense,” says Bell.

4) “I formulated a theory in my own mind that Taiwan would be more like mainland China and less like a Westernized Society. I was greatly mistaken, “ said another student. (Dr. Kingsbury notes this as one reason why Taiwan is an excellent entry-point for US students and researchers interested in engaging with East Asian culture).

5.) “I discovered that while much of my thinking around female entrepreneurs centered on the concept of depending on relationship networks, the women showed a lot of agency in building community among their customers and/or employees,” says another.

Of course, there’s learning, and then there’s learning: “The students developed an excellent interview technique, “ noted Professor Lott. The undergraduate team also gained experience through applying for the grant, operating equipment, gathering data, analyzing findings, problem-solving, and adapting to new situations. “Being able to venture out on my own gave me a great deal of confidence and independence that I could not have earned any other way,” adds Kristina Hruska.

The project in Taiwan has benefited not just the participants, but the greater Chatham community. “The project has been a very effective way to boost the development of a fledgling Asian studies program at Chatham University,” says Dr. Kingsbury, noting that it has also spurred enthusiasm for Taiwan-based projects now in preparation, including a short-term faculty-led field experience focusing on green/sustainable architecture and eco-tourism, food studies, and travel writing currently being planned for 2016. The research team is now compiling a set of essays and photos that David Burke’s fall term course on Print Design will use as the basis for a class project.

Two weeks ago, at the ASIANetwork conference in St. Louis, the research was presented by Bell, Sook Yee Leong ’14, and Professor Lott. Learn more on the project blog, and check out the  2014 Chatham Student-Faculty Fellows report.

The study, Creative Entrepreneurialism, Relationship Networks, and Family Dynamics: A Study of Women-Led Hospitality Businesses in Regional Hubs of Taiwan, was funded was funded by the 2014 ASIANetwork Freeman Foundation Student-Faculty Fellows Program for Collaborative Research in Asia and by a Chatham University Grant.

2014 FALK SUMMER SUSTAINABILITY FELLOWS: ROSE HERMALIN

The Falk Summer Sustainability Fellowships provide an opportunity for students in Chatham’s Falk School of Sustainability’s Master of Sustainability (MSUS) or Master of Food Studies (MAFS) program to engage in meaningful work or research in their field. The Fellowships are supported by the Falk Sustainability Endowment, and in 2014, were awarded to six students.

“Community diners” – also known as non-profit restaurants – are social enterprises. They usually provide free or low-cost meals to qualifying customers, or run on a pay-what-you-wish model. Locally sourced food is used as much as possible to keep money within the local economy, and diners frequently offer on-site job-training.

For her Falk Summer Sustainability Fellowship, Rose Hermalin visited two of these diners: Inspiration Kitchen in Chicago, IL, and Kula Café in Asbury Park, NJ, with an eye toward building a knowledge base for future community diner projects. Inspiration Kitchen is located in Chicago’s Garfield Park, which Hermalin describes as “a primarily working poor neighborhood with few other food options, though the restaurant attracts primarily customers from outside the neighborhood.” As with many of these establishments, Inspiration Kitchen must make sure that the restaurant appeals to both the community members who would benefit from its services, and those whose patronage would allow the services to continue. “As with most anti-hunger and anti-poverty organizations, Inspiration is invested in maintaining the dignity of their students and customers, so creating a comfortable environment for neighborhood families to go out is an important project for them,” writes Hermalin. The Kitchen was enjoying some success with its job-training program: community members were being trained in kitchen skills, which tends to lead to more stable employment with a great chance of employment mobility, and the program boasted a 75% post-graduation job retention rate 90 days after graduation.

Among the challenges facing Inspiration Kitchen is that of optimizing their meal voucher program. While the Kitchen has distributed thousands of meal vouchers through associated organizations (e.g., anti-poverty, job-training), only hundreds have been redeemed. The vouchers look like credit cards – and, like credit cards, are presented at the end of the meal – and recipients are invited to bring their family, with no restriction on what “family” might look like. Still, Hermalin suggests that the low return rate may indicate a need to further destigmatize free food, noting that vouchers for restaurant meals, with the associated connotation of “entertainment,” may be perceived differently than food stamps.

Kula Café is located in the West side of Asbury Park, NJ, a primarily African-American neighborhood with high unemployment rates. The Café’s aim is to establish ties with the East side, which is home to the town’s beach tourism, and therefore the majority of service jobs. Kula trains their participants in a 16-week program that focuses on the “soft skills” that are in demand for front-of-house positions, and in hospitality positions as a whole. Kula has partnered with a local restaurateur who employs program graduates in her establishments.

“Unfortunately, these jobs tend to be less stable than kitchen jobs, especially given the seasonal nature of much of the service/hospitality work to be found in Asbury Park,” says Hermalin. In addition, current funding stipulations require that Kula’s job-training participants be 24 or younger, limiting the impact on the community.

Kula’s menu items are designed to cost the same or less than the fast-food equivalents. “Their menu was designed with input from community members, and features mostly healthy versions of traditional Soul Food items (their Chicken & Waffles, for instance, is a baked breaded chicken breast on a whole-grain waffle, rather than the traditional fried chicken),” writes Hermalin. While next year Kula will start a garden and build a greenhouse, their current focus is on keeping food affordable, so they can’t be choosy about food sourcing. In addition to involving the community with their menu, Kula Cafe provides other events and programs, such as a jazz and blues night, and “Coffee with a Cop.”

One of Hermalin’s most significant findings was that the enterprises skirted along the edge of promoting narratives that “apply negative moral codes to food that’s culturally relevant to the community,” she says.  “And this creates unhelpful, negative associations between well-loved foods and health.” This conflict also shows up in a tension between financial and cultural sensitivity. “Lentil soup may be healthy and affordable,” Hermalin explains, “but it’s often thought of as hippie food.”

In both non-profits, Hermalin noted some degree of reluctance to talk about the projects in terms of class and race; for example, a tendency to refer to “high crime” areas, which, she points out, “puts them (the speakers) in the position or reinforcing negative stereotypes even as they try to advocate for the community.” She also noticed that the communities tended not to be represented within the non-profits that serve them.

Hermalin’s summer research forms part of her larger thesis project, which investigates questions of food justice, racial discourse around food, and how (predominantly white-led) non-profits can work most effectively within communities of color.