Bank of America Women’s Leadership Series Concludes Fifth Year, Highlights Houston Nonprofits, NYC Chef Feeding the Community During COVID-19
Asia Society at Home
Asia Society Texas Center concluded its flagship Bank of America Women’s Leadership Series for 2019-2020 with a timely webcast highlighting uplifting stories of women in the food industry responding to the coronavirus pandemic. The final program followed two sold-out in-person events in the series featuring conversations with former PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi and internationally-recognized journalist Ann Curry.
During the webcast, PricewaterhouseCooper’s (PwC) Niloufar Molavi moderated an inspiring discussion with the founder and president of Second Servings Barbara Bronstein, co-creator of Houston Shift Meal Cat Nguyen, and owner of Saigon Social restaurant and chef Helen Nguyen on the ways communities came together during the pandemic.
Molavi invited each speaker to share how they’ve responded during the pandemic. Bronstein spoke about her nonprofit organization Second Servings, which she said is Houston’s only food rescue program focused on redistributing cooked and prepared foods to those in need. Before COVID-19, the organization rescued food from more than 150 distributors and partners, making daily deliveries at no cost to 90 charity sites including low-income housing, day centers, soup kitchens, and more. When the pandemic disrupted the food chain, Second Servings suddenly found new food partners in business cafeterias, schools, sports venues, and restaurants that had been forced to close. With the partnership of longstanding donors and supporters, Bronstein said Second Servings also found an opportunity to create Houston’s largest mass meal relief program, Dinner’s on Us, to distribute meal boxes to those in need, including many workers who had become unemployed during the pandemic.
Cat Nguyen, a Houston sommelier, spoke about her similar mission to provide meals for hospitality workers who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus stay-at-home orders. She explained how Houston Shift Meal (HSM) was born of a partnership formed after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when she and co-founder Jonathan Beitler collaborated to funnel donations from the community to local restaurants that would then transform excess food and product into ready meals for those in need. During COVID-19, Cat Nguyen said the goal of HSM is to help those same local restaurants and workers who stepped up following Harvey — especially since these workers are largely reliant on hourly wages or tips, with no safety net, she said. She admitted it has been challenging in some respects due to the need for social distancing, leading to a significant drop in volunteers at distribution sites with most restaurants operating their own distribution.
New York City-based chef Helen Nguyen shared the difficulties she faced both financially and emotionally when she had to delay the planned opening of her first restaurant, Saigon Social, due to pandemic-related restrictions. She revealed she had to lay off her entire staff — one she had just hired — and spoke on the slow journey of opening the restaurant for take-out only and then partnering with nonprofit organizations such as Frontline Foods and Off Their Plate to feed essential workers in the city. The nonprofits provided Saigon Social with a budget to create homecooked meals, Helen Nguyen explained, and with time she was able to bring the full staff back on a temporary basis as her restaurant transformed into a community kitchen. She added that her work with the nonprofit Heart of Dinner provides not only produce and meals to senior centers — where many seniors are isolated or face mobility issues — but also handwritten notes in various languages to help bring comfort and connection.
All three speakers discussed the emotional challenges of dealing with the anxiety and fear around COVID-19 and the economic fallout, but highlighted the generosity of the community coming together in response. Bronstein noted that Second Servings had 100 volunteers, many of them new, assisting with daily delivery routes, and added that generous support has enabled the Dinner’s on Us meal distribution program to expand from hospitality workers in Houston and Galveston to all Houstonians in need. Cat Nguyen said that seeing so much good work in the community as well as the gratitude people have shown when receiving a meal kit or produce box serve as a great reminder of why so many people joined the hospitality industry in the first place.
In discussing plans for the future, Helen Nguyen said she will take a 10-day break to assess the future of her restaurant, Saigon Social, and to carefully consider plans that would allow for continued work with the nonprofits while safely offering al fresco dining to the public, per the guidance of New York City’s Phase 2 reopening plans. In Texas, with growing numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, both Bronstein and Cat Nguyen reaffirmed their commitment to continue their services through their respective organizations as long as needed. “As long as there’s a need and as long as we have support, we will continue our work to support the community,” said Cat Nguyen.
The speakers noted that the pandemic has been a learning experience for each of them, with Bronstein highlighting the need to think creatively to solve what can seem to be insurmountable problems. She said it is important to be willing to take some risks in the face of tremendous uncertainty, because it often pays off — as was the case for not only Second Servings but also Houston Shift Meal and Saigon Social’s partnerships. Cat Nguyen also emphasized the need to be flexible and tenacious. She said she’s learned to never underestimate the heart of people: when people know there are others in need, she said, there are always those willing to help.
Helen Nguyen agreed, sharing two things in particular that resonated for her during this experience: the importance of checking up on friends, family, and neighbors and not being afraid to ask for help, to reach out to other people and organizations in the community. “You’re never really alone,” she said.
About the Speakers
Barbara Bronstein is founder and president of Second Servings. Following a successful career marketing some of America's leading brands for Unilever, Mars, and Coca-Cola, Barbara founded Second Servings to address the staggering rates of food insecurity and food waste in Houston. Under her pro bono leadership, Second Servings, in just 5 years, has become one of the city’s fastest-growing nonprofits, helping to nourish over 170,000 Houstonians with high quality food all year long through 90 local charities. When the Covid-19 crisis struck, Second Servings was on the frontline, rescuing valuable perishable food from disrupted hotels, business cafeterias, sports venues, restaurants, and schools. The need for food was skyrocketing, so Second Servings sprang into action, forming new collaborations and creating an adjunct program called “Dinner’s On Us”, to provide 100,000 chef-prepared meals for Houstonians in need. Barbara has been featured in local and national media, and honored with the Mayor’s Proud Partner Award, the Houston Humanitarian Award, and the Compassionate Action Leader Award. She currently serves on the Board of the Houston Culinary Guild.
Cat Nguyen is a local sommelier who has curated a number of award-winning wine programs for casual to fine dining restaurants all over Houston, Texas. To assist with the COVID-19 effort, Cat used her network from working as a Vanguard representative for Republic National Distributing Company and her role with Houston Sommelier Association to team up with a friend and colleague, Jonathan Beitler, to create Houston Shift Meal (HSM).The mission of Houston Shift Meal is two-fold: 1) Provide free meals to employees in the food service and hospitality industry who have been furloughed or laid off due to the COVID-19 crisis, and 2) Support local restaurants during this time by providing them with funds to help subsidize the costs of preparing these free meals and offering an additional advertising avenue to let the public know they are still open for business. To date, HSM has distributed over 20,000 meals to out of work hospitality industry workers and over $100,000 to restaurant partners.
Helen Nguyen was raised in Seattle with roots in California and Vietnam, and has always had a passion for food. After a decade in real estate business and sales, she pursued her passion and moved to New York and attended the Institute of Culinary Education. While at school, she started an apprenticeship at L'Appart under Chef Nicolas Abello, who led his team to their first Michelin star within the first few months of opening and then worked her way into the kitchen of Chef Daniel Boulud's famed Restaurant Daniel. There she trained with the Feast and Fetes catering and private events team for 3 years. Though trained in classic French, Vietnamese comfort food is where her heart resides. Helen has shared her love for food, culture and community via her monthly Pop-Ups. Her restaurant Saigon Social was slated to open in March this year, but before the restaurant could open, she had to pivot to curbside and deliveries once stay at home orders were issued in New York City due to COVID-19. In her effort to give back to the community during this crisis, Helen has partnered with non-profits such as Heart of Dinner in providing cooked meals through her restaurant to vulnerable community members especially seniors. Heart of Dinner is providing home cooked meals and groceries to Asian-centered nonprofit organizations in New York City like the Chinese-American Planning Council which runs five senior centers in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. She has also partnered with Frontline Foods and Off Their Plate to help provide meals to local hospitals and healthcare workers.
About the Moderator
Niloufar Molavi leads PwC’s Global and U.S. Energy practice serving Global energy clients in the oil and gas industry. She is responsible for all client services – assurance, advisory, and tax. From 2011 to 2016, she served as the Greater Houston Market Managing Partner for the Greater Houston Market. From 2009 to 2011, she served on PwC’s leadership team as the firm’s Chief Diversity Officer. In this role, she oversaw the firm's diversity strategy, and all of its related programs and initiatives. With 25 years of tax experience with PwC, Niloufar has served a wide range of energy companies both in the U.S. and abroad, advising clients on international and U.S. tax structuring, mergers, acquisitions, and potential public offerings. Niloufar earned her bachelor's degree in Accounting as well as a master's degree in Professional Accounting with a concentration in Taxation from the University of Texas at Austin. She currently serves on the Advisory Board of the McCombs School of Business and Accounting Advisory Council at the University of Texas. She serves as the Chair of the board of Dress for Success Houston and Awty International School. She also serves on the non-profit boards of the Alley Theatre, Central Houston, ALPFA, and the Greater Houston Partnership.
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The Women's Leadership Series (WLS) celebrates influential, diverse women making a substantive impact in both the business and culture arenas, locally and globally.
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