STORY AND PHOTO BY ESTELITA HASS CARAZZAI
The sun has not even risen yet when Casey Smith gets her water bottle, starts her car and drives to her weekly meetings from Cooking Up Cultures – an Austin-based startup that fosters language learning through cooking lessons. It is exactly 6 a.m. when she joins with the two other people from the management team, every Wednesday, to discuss marketing strategies and catch up on new projects. The board meeting, that is held quarterly, is at 7 a.m.
“I don’t get much sleep. But I don’t mind,” says Smith, a 36-year-old and mother of two who is the founder of the non-profit organization.
The idea for Cooking Up Cultures, which offers cooking-idioms-classes and dinner parties in English, Spanish, French and soon Arabic, emerged after Casey and her husband moved to Chile in 2008, for a six-month exchange experience. With no Spanish skills, she found herself learning useful vocabulary and bonding with her neighbors by cooking Chilean recipes.
“I’m just a tactile learner.”
Sitting in a coffee place downtown, Smith, a spirited and petite redhead, moves her hands delicately above the table while talking, pacing the conversation.
“This is how I learn.”
When she was a child, buying a cookbook while traveling became a family tradition. Her father was in the Air Force, and her family traveled a lot. Her mother, “a great cook,” started the habit.
Back in the United States, Casey faced a professional crisis, switched careers (from fashion industry to international relations) and got Cooking Up Cultures off the ground – but with a “day-time job” and no business aspirations in mind.
“It was, and it still is, about bringing people together, sharing cultures, learning from each other.” In 2010, she organized her first classes, in English, with a help from a friend who’s a teacher. They printed out some homemade flyers – “from a Word document” and gathered the students in a church’s kitchen.
Just a few months later, she realized it could actually become a business. “Some students said they would be willing to pay for Spanish classes, that’s when we started looking at business models and how could we grow this.”
From the beginning, Cooking Up Cultures has operated as a non-profit organization, with a formal board and an organizing charter. In 2014, they were incubated by Tech Ranch Austin, a business accelerator, and one year later they gained the support of UnLtd USA, an organization which provides entrepreneurs mentorship. They recently launched a licensing strategy for their program and currently are in beta testing for online classes – which will hopefully sustain the organization in the future.
At the moment, though, Smith still has a full-time job, as do the other board members and managers. The instructors are the only ones who are paid – but she prefers to call them “volunteers,” since the work also functions as a part-time job for them.
“I would love to say, ‘Yes, I will quit my job and do this fulltime.’ But I can’t, I still don’t know,” she says. “Unlike many entrepreneurs that are younger than I am, that don’t have families or financial obligations, I can’t take those kinds of risks, to just quit. It will have to be in the slow way.”
She does consider herself a risk-taker, though. Being an entrepreneur was a lifelong goal. When she was 11, she started ironing her mother’s friends’ clothes for money – so that she could buy her first pair of contact lenses. In the last seven years, she has put a lot of effort in Cooking Up Cultures. “But I’m also pragmatic. An investor might see this as a negative because I haven’t put everything on the line for this. But this is my life; this is who I am. I can’t change that for an investor.”
Casey didn’t hesitate when asked what is the major challenge for an entrepreneur.
“Time. That’s easy.”
It was not yet 10 am, and she had already run some errands, been to a board meeting and given a one-hour interview. By then, it was time for her to say goodbye and head to work – as if she hadn’t worked enough already.