Pippa hosting a supper club at Escape the Onion

Pippa’s Foodie Venture

Pippa’s delicious food made an immediate impression on me. But it was the tales of her intrepid venture into setting up a sustainable catering company – Escape the Onion – that really grabbed my attention. Pippa had been working in marketing in the food industry for a while, but it never really satisfied her and when she hit crisis point in an unfulfilling job it was clear that she needed to find a new direction. She just didn’t know what that was. We talked through her recent journey and that initial cluelessness about what to do, as well as all the fears that initially blocked her path to making a change, well, they really, really resonated with me. I wanted to know how she moved past the things that held her back, what she learnt along the way, and how I could learn from her journey towards finding a new, fulfilling direction.

 

Before you set up Escape the Onion, what were you doing? What did life look like?

Right before I made the change I was working for a food and homeware brand. I’d been working there for quite a while and – for me – it was not a good place to be. The dreams, values and goals for the business didn’t align with where I wanted to be. I kept trying to find change within the organisation, but I came up against barriers every time. I was just feeling really stuck and my confidence was rocked. But when I started job-hunting, I kept pushing into the same areas using the same skillset. And I really wanted a change to be more significant than that. Friends and family would say ‘just find a new job’, but I didn’t know what would be next or how to find the next thing. I was desperately unhappy.

 

So, what did you do to make the break away from that situation?

A friend suggested I look at the Escape the City job board. I was trawling through it, but I just couldn’t figure out what offering I had. I’d known for a long time that food was what I was interested in, but I had no idea of how to work with food in a way that was going to tick the boxes for me in terms of career satisfaction.

While I was looking for a job, the Escape Tribe information kept popping up. It’s a 12-week course where you meet one week night and five weekends. The first half is about self-reflection: learning about where you’re coming from, what’s stopping you from moving forward and about starting to break some of that down. The second half is about getting out there with experimental testing. The whole time you’re learning from a place of action. It’s about figuring out what is the thing that’s going to make you fulfilled and getting the hell on with it. That doesn’t necessarily mean an industry, job, everything change. For some people, it’s about negotiating a 4-day week.

I looked at it but thought there’s no way I could spend that time and that money. But by the end of that year, I was at real crisis point. I needed something. It seemed like a good place to start.

 

How did the course help you get out of that old job rut?

I was in an accountability group and everyone was incredibly supportive. Every week they sat down with me and pushed me to test my blockers – things that stopped me moving forward. To find out if they were actually real or something I was creating in my head to stop me. They forced me to sit down and really face up to them. I was so terrified that if I just quit my job I wouldn’t get another or that I would run out of money. I was too scared to even really consider it fully because if that really was an actual blocker, if I actually couldn’t financially do it or if I couldn’t get another job, that was so terrifying.

You get perspective when people ask how realistic a blocker is. By saying ‘you think you need x amount for a month – why is that? Do you really need that much money? How much does it cost for your groceries, rent, bills? How can we shave this off so you can get to an actual minimum, not this inflated version that you want?’ When you start getting real about that with yourself, you suddenly see that there are sacrifices you’re going to make there, but they’re short term.

The support from the community aspect of the Tribe changed everything so radically for me. Being able to have that support of people who are doing the same thing and they’re holding you to account – that part of it was massively missing from my life.

Pippa chatting all things food waste
Pippa in her happy place – photo by Jess Dowse

 

When did you figure out that a catering business was the answer?

The food thing just kept coming up again and again. So, I contacted loads of different people within the food industry. I rang 4 or 5 street food vendors before realising I didn’t want to do that. I talked to people who ran pop-ups. I talked to people who were in catering. I talked to people who were in other food brands, at supermarket level, at farm level. Nothing was really speaking to me.

By this time Escape needed someone to come in and run their venue – a hospitality job – and I knew I could do it in my sleep while I was looking for another job. While I was there, they were ordering in food for an evening course and for staff working evenings. The cost was just phenomenal. I asked them if I could cook dinner for them – just for a week – because I felt we could save ourselves a lot of money. I love cooking. This would be a real joy for me. Everyone really loved it and I got a real buzz out of it. So we continued on for a few more weeks.

At that point someone said, ‘dude, this is something clearly sparking for you – every time you cook you are in this joyous state and you get into that zone’. Week on week people kept saying this was clearly a business I could test out. I realised there was something in it and cooking could actually be more than just something I do at home. It was something I actually want to pursue. That’s where it started really. That was where it finally clicked.

pippa_shopping-for-food
Pippa shopping for Escape the Onion – photo by Jess Dowse

 

Where did the wonky/sustainable part of it develop?

The sustainable side of food production has always been really important. I studied agribusiness and one of the things that really fascinated me in my degree – and I’ve been drawn back to again and again – is organic, biodynamic farming. It’s a way of growing plants where you’re putting the best energy and nutrients in the soil instead of using pesticides and chemicals. When I moved to the UK I really struggled because there wasn’t a strong understanding of the benefits of organic biodynamic food. People aren’t prepared to pay the premium – some are – but there is this real gap in understanding why it is good in terms of feedback to the environment. I’m not going to try to claim health benefits but it’s about protecting the planet, ensuring the survival of bees and all sorts of things. Alongside that, I’d been working in wholesale food for a number of years and one of the things I had been utterly appalled by was the amount of food waste.

I’d tested a couple of organic business ideas at Escape, and they kept getting knocked back by the general consumer. When I started talking about food waste instead, I thought people would outright reject this like they’d outright rejected the idea of organic. But I explained that food waste is basically surplus. It’s sold at a cheaper price point because either there has been a bumper crop and a farmer or a wholesaler hasn’t been able to find a customer, or someone has over-ordered and not ended up taking as much, or an order has been totally cancelled. They were like: ‘Wow, hey, there’s something in this. We’re happy to buy a wonky apple – why would I not want to buy that?’ I started to realise that there was this real pick up in interest, so that was something that sparked for me. With food waste, I can’t guarantee that I’m working with organic produce all the time, but I am fighting the battle on some level. I’m still contributing back to the general sustainability problem. Which for me is a wonderful thing

At my first supper club, people came because a supper club was this interesting thing to do, but they all had something to say about food waste when we started talking about it. They could all contribute something to the conversation. And they walked away being really excited that they’d learnt something new. That part has been really exciting. I never want to be lecturing people on what they should do, but showing them how they can easily do something different. I want to showcase how beautiful this produce is, to share that love – that comes from a genuine place for me. That is the thing that really drove me to create Escape the Onion in the way that it is.

 

What’s been your toughest learning curve?

My husband and I made the plan that 2016 was the year that I was going to do all this testing and we thought somehow I’d have it all resolved by the end of the year. Which was clearly not the case. It’s going to be at least I’d say 2-3 years before the business is up and running in a significant way. And I’ve come to terms with that. We’ve both realised that’s OK. Has it impacted on my down time and my time with him? Yeah, it’s been tough. There have been weekends or evenings where I’ve had to carve out time for this. Sometimes he’ll be part of that and come to some of the events. But sometimes I’ve had to say this is this thing I’m working on and I need the space.

And there have been times where trying to run things alongside my job has meant that I’ve worn myself out. And there’s been a real push and pull between whether my priority is doing my current work or trying to get this business set up. It’s been a real internal struggle to get my head around that. I’m in such a fortunate position because I’m in a company that allows a lot of flexibility, but being able to carve out time has been challenging.

A sample of the delicious food from Pippa's Escape the Onion
A sample of the delicious food from Pippa’s Escape the Onion – her own photo

 

If you could go back to the beginning of your journey, what advice would you give yourself?

To understand a realistic timeframe. In the beginning I thought everything had to be wrapped up in 12 weeks, or 6 months. But after I’d finished the course at Escape, I talked to a guy who said ‘I’ve given myself a three year plan’. The idea of that terrified me and I thought ‘woah, three years is so long’ but then I realised that’s so realistic. He’d got it so right. As soon as I said I’d give myself a year, I thought I could make that happen. I had been so anxious in my 20s about having to get everything done by a made up point in my life. Realising there’s not that deadline has been a big thing for me. If you think that with modern medicine you’ll probably live to 100, and you’re realistically going to work until about 80, you’ve still got so many years of work. I’ve only been working for this small amount of it. If I could’ve known that two years ago – I’d think ‘get over yourself’. It would’ve taken so much pressure off. Now I feel so free to play.

Setting up a side project and making that into your full-time job is a brave and bold thing to do. If you’re thinking about making that leap, you can definitely learn a lot from Pippa’s story. Getting past all the reasons why you can’t walk away from a steady job is not an easy task, so I took some really useful insights from Pippa…

  • It’s OK if you don’t know exactly what sparks you straight away… chase a few ideas until you find one that sticks
  • Speak to as many people as possible about their work: you’ll find out if it’s your thing too or you’ll know what to discount
  • Surround yourself with like-minded folk who recognise the challenge of finding your way
  • Start small and invest in tests so you’re keeping the risk low
  • Give yourself a break and some time to develop your plans – it doesn’t have to all happen straight away

Find out more about how to eat Pippa’s yummy food at Escape the Onion here:

 

Jenny teaching in the Adult Learning Centre

Jenny’s Story

I heard Jenny’s story at an alumni event for a charity we’d both volunteered with. She was talking about her time in a refugee camp where she set up an adult language learning centre. She spoke in such a matter of fact way that was totally relatable and honest. Jenny decided to help some people who needed it using skills she already had – the simplicity of it was so approachable, and her passion was infectious. She was the first inspiration for this blog, so naturally Jenny’s is the first story I’m keen to share…

How did you first get into volunteering?

I was working in a bar and teaching English in Paris, pretending I was still a student after university. I was lacking direction. I thought about travelling, but I wanted to get my teeth into something. One of my friends had done an International Citizen Service project and I applied for one on a whim never thinking I’d actually go. But I didn’t really know what to else to do, so I went to Nicaragua with Raleigh International – a sustainable development charity. Without trying to sound cheesy, literally everything changed from then.

I was in Nicaragua for three months and halfway through I didn’t want to leave. For the first weeks, I had major FOMO and I didn’t want to be away from my friends in the UK or Paris – everyone was doing amazing things and I was stuck in some little mountain village. But after a few weeks I realised that I couldn’t go back to my previous way of living – to going out and not thinking about the world beyond that. I was helping people and that was something I wanted to do more. It was definitely a gradual change. I didn’t wake up one day thinking ‘this is it’.

 

So what took you to the refugee camp in France?

When I got back to the UK, just before Christmas in 2015, the refugee crisis was all over the news. My mum had been going back and forth to Dunkirk to volunteer while I was away, and she was so animated by it. It was all she talked about. She was going back in the New Year and asked if I would go with her. She thought that I could help with speaking French, because there weren’t many translators. So I went for a week. And I ended up staying four months.

 

Did you have any worries about going into an unknown – and pretty intimidating – environment?

Oh, yeah. It’s one of the scariest things I think I’ve ever done. But part of my personality is being spontaneous so I don’t really overthink these sorts of things. I just dive in. If you think about something like this too much you can just talk yourself out of doing it.

 

What were your initial reactions to being in the camp?

It was a massive shock. I remember the first day I walked into the camp and the conditions were insane. The tents were set up in this really squelchy mud, it was up to my knees, and everything inside them was covered. There was a massive pile of rubbish – like a mountain – in the site and there were rats everywhere. It was cold and it was wet. You hear about the camps and see reports on the news but nothing really prepares you for being there. That first day I was just horrified.

After a few days though, being there became quite addictive in a weird way – I don’t know if that’s the right word to use, but it’s the best word I can find to describe it. You start getting to know people, you start being productive, you realise that there is so much to do. And you just can’t leave. It wasn’t something just I felt; all the other volunteers – people from all walks of life and all ages – were the same. They would keep coming back or they stayed longer than they’d planned. My mum is still there more than a year later.

The informal refugee camp in Dunkirk
The informal refugee camp in Dunkirk

 

Why did you want to start teaching languages?

In that first week I was helping to put up tents, make pathways through the mud using wooden pallets, and I was sorting through donations. I worked a bit in a little playroom too. My time with Raleigh had taught me that sustainability is key in voluntary work, and I realised that the everyday stuff we were doing wasn’t really sustainable. It wasn’t going to help the refugees in the long term.

At the beginning, it was really casual. We just thought we’d do a bit of language teaching and see what happened. I had a TEFL and my mum had worked in HR so she knew how to bring groups together for learning. Between us we were a good team. We went into the kitchen tent with flash cards and just started speaking with people to find out whether they wanted to learn. We had a really positive reaction. So we started organising little language circles in people’s tents. We’d sit down with 5 or 6 people and just encourage them to speak. Some had no English so we’d spend half an hour covering ‘hello, how are you?’ The aim wasn’t necessarily to get everyone speaking fluently, but to help people get used to the idea of speaking a new language, which they’d have to do when they moved on from the camp.

 

And did the teaching evolve organically into a school, or did you have a plan?

After a while we wanted to create some structure and to get a routine going with classes at a regular time every day. We started using a wooden structure in the camp as a school and made a timetable, but some days no-one would turn up, and that was disheartening. We had moments when we thought it would never work. Then about two weeks after we started, it all just suddenly took off. Sometimes 15 or 20 people would be there. We had groups of all levels – some who couldn’t say hello and others who spoke good English and helped to translate for everybody.

We were in that building for just two or three weeks when everyone started being moved to a new camp. The old camp was on a derelict site – just some fields outside town – and it was completely makeshift. So the local mayor had decided to build a more official humanitarian refugee camp, which was being funded by Medecins Sans Frontieres. It had wooden shelters, a medical tent, a school for the kids, but it was difficult to get a space for the adults. Nobody was thinking about that, so we had to be very persistent that the refugees needed this. We talked directly with the local government – there was no other formal organisation in the camp itself – and finally we were allocated a site and had a building funded by a company in Jersey. We had a permanent space and we called it the Adult Learning Centre. We felt more official. That was two months after I’d arrived in Dunkirk.

Jenny teaching a mixed group in the Adult Learning Centre
Jenny teaching a mixed group in the Adult Learning Centre

Were there any moments when you thought ‘why am I doing this’?

Sometimes it was pouring with rain and we were covered in mud and maybe no-one had turned up for a lesson. Then we’d feel so cold, and so depressed with the whole situation. Especially at the beginning when lots of other volunteers would ask why we were bothering to teach languages when there were so many things to be done. That could be quite difficult. We felt like others didn’t believe in what we were doing.

But one of the great things about the learning centre was it brought a bit of normality to the lives of the refugees. On a day to day basis they had somewhere to sit and have intellectual conversations. We’d talk about politics or cultural norms. That was one of my favourite things. Getting to know people in the camp and building those relationships. I made such good friends there. So many people there were my age.

In Spring we would get lunch between lessons and sit in the sunshine – we just had a laugh. It felt just like at uni being sat in the park with friends. My friends would make Kurdish food and we’d have dinner together. We had Kurdish New Year and organised a big party – people cooked and we had dancing. It was like normal life. There were so many nice days. And each night I knew that I’d done something good with my time, that I had helped someone. It showed me that I need to keep doing things like this. I want to feel some meaning in my life by doing something worthwhile.

 

Would you say your volunteering experiences had an overall effect on who you are?

Yeah, definitely. I know that I want to work in the humanitarian sector. Now I have a job with the UN’s World Food Programme. On a day to day basis I read about emergency situations on the ground and it’s difficult to ignore or switch off from those disasters and crises. But I can’t go back or un-see what I’ve seen – and I don’t want to. I wouldn’t be happy in a job that didn’t try to make an impact for people in those situations. Very few people get this kind of energy from their job. I’m really lucky to do something that I’m so interested in and to work in an organisation that I really care about.

Now I meet a lot of people who have done similar things too. They’re just normal. You don’t have to be completely selfless to want to do something good in the world. I’ve learnt that when you see an issue or problem that you want to do something about, just go for it.

 

I think there’s a lot for anyone to learn from Jenny’s story, whether you’re reading this because you’re looking for a career break, thinking about what to do after uni, or feeling moved by the refugee crisis and want to give some time to it. For me, Jenny’s experiences helped me to see a few  specific things in a new light…

  • Talk to friends and family about their experiences to get ideas for new opportunities
  • Find something that makes use of skills you already have
  • One opportunity will often lead to another
  • Having no clear life plan can lead you to finding new unexpected paths
  • Try to avoid overthinking new opportunities – don’t talk yourself out of taking the first step!

 

If you’re particularly interested in volunteering with refugees, like Jenny, here are some UK organisations to look at :