A dynamic, proactive response to pandemic challenges while calling for more equitable investment in local business.
By Geetika Agrawal as told to Georgia Freedman
Geetika Agrawal is program director at La Cocina, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps women of color launch food businesses. Agrawal previously ran a software incubator at IBM, managed a portfolio at Acumen Fund that invested in small holding farmers in India, and helped found a London-based food business incubator.
I came to La Cocina more than seven years ago now. I’ve gotten the chance to work with over 60 businesses in the time I’ve been there, and the program has worked with over 110 businesses from incredible women who come from all different cultures, backgrounds, and races.
Thinking back to March, the thing that was very profound for me is that that first weekend, March 8th, even before the shelter-in-place order, we started to get calls from our graduates—the more successful ones, the ones that have been out of our program for years, running businesses—reporting income losses of over 80 percent. It was really dramatic and very quick.
What our entrepreneurs had done so successfully was partner with places that were buying food at scale. For instance, Alicia Villanueva of Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas had her own accounts with tech companies and was delivering to the Moscone Center and Chase Center. And as soon as the tech companies’ employees started working from home, they canceled all their contracts with vendors.
That was the first shock for me, because this was even before the government-mandated shutdown. The impact was so intense. These are women who had figured out how to make a profit starting from nothing. So it was painful and shocking.
Then, by the March 16th shelter-in-place order, all our entrepreneurs were reporting 40 to 70 percent income losses. So it was real, and it was happening fast. At La Cocina, our first goal was to mimic what people and companies with more privilege and power get to do, which is to ask, “How do you control the bleeding? And then, can we find sales? Can we support people in figuring out how to pivot?”
We worked immediately on rent abatement. By the end of March, we had letters drafted and had paired everybody with lawyers so that they could start having conversations with their landlord about why they weren’t going to be paying rent that month. Not too much later, you have Starbucks asking for full rent abatement. So they are not alone. But our entrepreneurs get ahead by being the best tenants. They don’t have the privilege to default. They’re women of color. People expect them to fail. People are looking for a reason, to be able to prove that it’s not racism, it’s just actually that they’re somehow not as good. So they’ve always had to be the best at those things.
We were also doing a lot of counseling. It was so emotionally difficult for them to even be like, “This is going to be okay. I’ll be okay. They aren’t going to just take away everything I’ve built.” So the emotional weight, on top of the financial burden, is really hard. Imagine living paycheck to paycheck and suddenly having all of your income disappear while you’re trying to pay rent and also trying to keep paying your employees.
The other really important thing that we did was establish an emergency relief fund, which we launched by mid-March. Because we recognized that this was not just a business emergency—this was a personal emergency. We work with communities of color and low-income communities who live off their businesses. You can’t ignore the reality of personal insecurity. A slow response is immediately damaging to people who have less privileged finances.
We seeded the emergency relief fund with $100,000 of La Cocina’s money, and have continued fundraising for that. In March, we were able to distribute a check of about $3,900 to all 58 of our entrepreneurs that applied to the program. Over the course of the last couple months, we’ve given out over $10,000 to each entrepreneur.
Then there was the alphabet soup of trying to figure out the government assistance. What does it mean to apply? Who qualifies? Who doesn’t qualify? When can you apply? So we immediately created a taskforce within our staff to give individualized support to anybody who wanted to apply for assistance.
We don’t live in a system that has allowed funds and capital to flow equally to all types of communities. At La Cocina, we’ve known that. That’s why we’ve always worked on access to capital and on advocating for access to capital. Even if you put gender and race aside, most small businesses, and especially food businesses, are not considered a good loan investment.
And then the last thing that we launched was a community food box. Every week we have food from 10 different entrepreneurs. It’s a mix of entrees and frozen and fresh snacks, and there’s always a sweet treat because we all need sweet treats right now in our lives. And we rotate that opportunity around among our entrepreneurs.
We’ve paid out all of the food box money directly to the entrepreneurs, and also we’re not charging for kitchen time. So it’s really about trying to find a way to put cash in their pockets. The food boxes have been really successful. In the beginning, the menu would go up on Saturday, and if you got your hands on one that day, great, but otherwise they were gone. It was so inspiring to us and to the entrepreneurs to have the community come out so quickly and really support and love the box.
Looking toward the next couple years, I think that one of the biggest evolutions for us is that we’re adapting to a real focus on resiliency and regeneration. Most of the programs we’ve developed during COVID are going to continue to be incredibly important. We still need to talk about rent abatement or new rent arrangements—it’s just the timeline is different now. We’re going to have to continue to navigate government assistance.
And on the sales side, how can we continue to adapt? What are the opportunities now, and where are people spending on food? Even if it isn’t the same volume for a while, what are the places that you can continue to grow and showcase your food? What we have in spades is creativity and innovation. Our entrepreneurs make what they make because they’re just incredibly talented and creative.
I have a computer science degree from Stanford. I come from tech, and tech didn’t magically become innovative. There’s a ton of resources that were pumped into allowing tech to be innovative. Most businesses aren’t financially stable or self-sustaining even a couple of years in. So many of those companies are subsidized by venture capital for years before they’re expected to be profitable.
We’ve always been a little false about how businesses can just sell themselves into prosperity. That outlook is blind to how much investment certain businesses get, and how much investment others don’t. Even in the food industry, as San Francisco got more expensive, there have been a lot of restaurants that rely on investor capital. What would it mean if we start making investments in other things that we love?
This is an opportunity to build a more equitable system. What businesses are we going to invest in and support? Are we going to finally start caring about the communities we’ve disenfranchised and exploited for a long time? We can’t just assume that people are going to sell themselves out of this pandemic. Entrepreneurship in the hands of women and people of color is long overdue. And food businesses don’t just make our bellies happy. They activate corners. They are gathering places. They are places to wrestle with progressive ideas.
I am naturally just a really hopeful person. I believe in people and their power. And if we give them power, if we actually stop being exploitive and become equitable, I think that we can still build a beautiful place. Let’s do it.