This is the latest in my series of posts spotlighting underrepresented communities around the world and the entrepreneurs trying to help them. In this installment, I interview a Bay Area food tech entrepreneur who is hiring at-risk youth and helping them get a college education at the same time.

The Bay Area, and California in general, has an employment problem. There just aren't enough jobs.

The unemployment rate is less than 6 percent and even lower than 4 percent in San Francisco and other parts of the Silicon Valley. For urban youth and incarcerated youth, finding a job can be a next to impossible. A recent Sacramento Bee article went viral with it's map showing just how many people are leaving California, especially people living near the poverty line around Los Angeles and and San Francisco, because jobs are so hard to find.

I take great joy in meeting entrepreneurs who are trying to change this. I recently spoke to one Bay Area CEO who is providing jobs and training while also helping other companies that are doing the same thing. Sabrina Mutukisna is one of those entrepreneurs. She and her co-founders at The Town Kitchen are making a difference for underprivileged youth by leveraging their network and their culinary skills.

Connecting Food Tech to Community

In 2015, The Town Kitchen began serving food at events big and small in the Bay Area. So far, The food tech startup has served 100,000 lunches at over 600 company offices.

Mutukisna started the company largely due to her 13 years in workforce development. She helped foster children, formerly incarcerated youth and other young people figure out how to launch careers and build skills. She realized how important such programs are. Mutukisna discovered that finding grant-funded or federally funded programs that provided jobs for more than a year was difficult.

Mutukisna says, "For me the question became, 'What does this look like with a for-profit business? Can we find a space where a for-profit company employees young people for years, and helps them towards educational attainment?'"

She teamed up with co-founder Jefferson Sevilla, formerly executive sous chef at Google, as well as COO Kara (Sabrina's sister) who also worked at Google. They set up shop in Oakland.

The team sees The Town Kitchen as a way to connect communities, education, and great jobs to urban youth for not only the Bay Area, but someday the entire nation.

How The Model Works

Today, the company's primary product is a box lunch service, which includes a chef-crafted main course featuring things like seared tuna, Hawaiian chicken sandwiches with grilled pineapple, iced mint tea, and walnut brownies.

These meals are catered to Bay Area companies through the company's model as a "community-driven food business." The Town Kitchen partners with other locally sourced artisan food businesses that are either female-founded or founded by people of color. In exchange for generating revenue and cross-marketing, partners hire or commit to hiring from The Town Kitchen's workforce training program.

The employees at The Town Kitchen include urban youth ranging from 15 to 25 years old. Many grew up in the foster system or had been incarcerated. The Town Kitchen provides a fair wage job as well as a workforce training program that is linked to San Francisco State University.

In this way, The Town Kitchen helps provide education to young people as well as good jobs and stability, something that can be difficult to find, no matter your age or the area of the U.S. you live in.

How Community Brings Young People and Food Together

"Food has always been this really great way to bring young people together and to be able to talk about culture and values," says Mutukisna. "Also, just give them great formal, hard skills. We wanted to combine food with something that was scalable with a company that could grow and actually retain them for years."

The program has a strong retention rate, with many of the employees sticking with the company for over two years now. Further, 90 percent of the employees are enrolled in college and have the support of a case manager who is a member of the community.

Part of The Town Kitchen's model includes partnering with other community-based organizations to help with case management, housing, and transportation - some of the other roadblocks that youth encounter these days.

"For us it's sourcing from people that we're really excited about sourcing with and creating this really great ecosystem that has started and really flourished in Oakland," she says.

With such a high college enrollment rate, an average hourly wage of $15.65, and more than 100,000 meals delivered, you could say the program is a success. Sabrina's plans for the future include not only expanding nationally (with Seattle next on the list), but also including a wholesale line, with partner Bite. This includes healthy vending machines at corporate offices, along with The Town Kitchen's already successful lunch orders and large event services.

"We're hoping in five years that we're really represented in every major urban city. We'd love to have a presence in Detroit. I think there's some really great stuff happening there. Also, New Orleans."

For Sabrina, the whole model and success of the company comes from the power of community.

"Instead of us trying to do it all it's like, 'How do we find the best food businesses, the best community nonprofit partners to give young people a better opportunity?' It's really about doing it together as opposed to thinking we can do it all by ourselves."

If you like stories about entrepreneurs helping out underserved communities, check out some of the other stories in the series. Meet the the entrepreneur who started a reality TV show featuring Lebron James in an effort to boost small businesses in Cleveland. Or, meet the entrepreneur helping thousands of disadvantaged youth learn more about personal finance.

Published on: Mar 9, 2017