It’s a weeknight, sometime after 2am… I’m fighting sleep (because, why sleep?), scrolling through my Facebook news-feed, one eye open, when I come across a video. I see street food, lots of street food, a Seattle backdrop and a story of immigrant entrepreneurs. Both eyes open now. Driven by my (late-night) appetite for non-American foods and genuine curiosity for entrepreneurship, I’m canvassing the internet for more information. Mission accomplished: sleep averted.
Fast forward a week and a few days, I’m sitting across the table from Philip Deng, founder of MarketShare, a nonprofit organization set on transforming the second floor of King Street Train Station into a permanent street food market intent on incubating immigrant and refugee-owned startup restaurant businesses. Ambitious. So I came to this meeting prepared with questions, but only time for a few…
Ahmad Corner: What what was the tipping point for you? What made you say “MarketShare is something that I need to take charge of and take charge of now?
Philip Deng: I actually didn’t see the tipping point when it actually happened. I was applying to business school actually and one of the [required] essays was “why do you want to go to business school”? I had this whole vision of community organizing our way to better public spaces beginning with international food markets – So I was writing about this and a friend of mine was helping me go over the essay and was like “why don’t you just do this?” And I thought about what it would cost to go to business school for a year and realized starting [MarketShare would] costs much less.
So I had a lot of meetings with people, asking all sorts of advice – kept filling in pieces and just ever closer to connecting the circuit. What I didn’t realize is that I had already created a plan from [that day] through opening day of the market through community organizing and here I was, writing about it through an essay thinking I needed to go to business school first to get some sort of training. My friend was like “no… you have everything lined up” and I was like “holy smokes, I do”.
The tipping point, the decision to do it, came from a sense of duty. I am healthy, I’m relatively young, I have a very supportive stable family, I’m single, no dependents. If I’m not the perfect guy to take a risk on a behalf of communities that are just getting by, then who is? I really feel like I have the duty to do this so I just kind of did it. I don’t regret not going to business school
AC: Why food?
PD: (laughs) That’s an easy one. I’ve lived in many different places and countries around the world.
I was born in San Francisco, I grew up in Minnesota where my mom is from, I’ve lived and worked [in Seattle], Ireland, Marshall Islands [and] in two major cities in China. So all of that relocating meant new communities almost on a yearly basis. And sometimes it meant totally new social norms, languages, cultures. So when you land in a spot like that, you need a starting point – something that is common – and that often times was food.
My first hour on the Marshall Islands, I sat [at a table with my] host family where food was prepared for me. That was my first language lesson. All of those words [about food] were my first words I learned in Marshallese. And even though I couldn’t really say anything back, I could enjoy the food very expressively. It was an immediate way to communicate and build trust and start forming a relationship, [which is] done so many times in this community. Even on a date here [in Seattle], you often initially connect over food.
So, why food? It’s because [food] is such a powerful unifying force that everybody in some way identifies with. In this time now, where facts aren’t even enough to have a civil conversation, we need something that can’t be spun or twisted. Food, in general, can be a really powerful unifier.
AC: Seattle is a community of resources, if you know where to look, but unless you have experience launching a business or any major initiative then ideas often die. Was there any one person or resource you relied on in moving MarketShare from the idea phase to the this-is-a-real-thing phase?
PD: I mean, I’ve leaned on the whole community. I’d say I’ve leaned on a principal and a belief system more than a specific resource. That’s sort of an unshakeable belief that the community has the answers.
I’ve come to see – maybe it’s over simplified but it’s held thus far – in life, whether it’s individual lives or collective experience, we’re always going to run into problems. To me there are two fundamental ways to solve [a problem]. First is to organize and find a solution and the second is to pay for a problem to go away.
I think one of the things Seattle is beginning to discover is that we have paid for a lot of our problems to go away. While that can often beautify a block or make [a block] economically productive, it either doesn’t address fundamental problems or it creates more long term ones [by] causing rifts in cultures and communities. What you lose is [an opportunity] where a community can come together to organize solutions,have a shared experience and emotional connection with a problem and its eventual solution. That’s community.
I think that the resource I continue to come back to every time I run into a problem: this faith that the resource is somewhere out there in the community. Every piece to make this Market a reality… every dollar, every stove, every graphic design, every customer, every dish. It’s out there. There is nothing we actually have to invent or recreate it’s just a matter of doing the work to organize and get out there and help people see the picture of the puzzle that’s on the [outside of the] box – now everyone is holding their individual piece and [is saying] “oh, this is where I add my value” and eventually you get the real “Market”. So I think my job is trying to figure out what the picture on the cover of the box is and then, once we start campaigning, it’s holding up that [box and its] picture to every group that can see and saying “this is what we do”. Every problem that I have experienced with MarketShare has a solution from within the community.
AC: I noticed that you guys ran a fellowship program as a pilot last year. What were some of the obstacles you, and the fellows, encountered and how do you plan on overcoming them if MarketShare takes off?
PD: We need to be working with the experts in our community who specialize in helping people launch businesses. We didn’t have resources at the time to hire experts. We also didn’t have the resources at the time to do an exhausted applicant phase. We had 37 applicants from 18 countries, 5 part time volunteer staff and just a few thousand dollars. We had to raise money to create the [food] stall… did everything on our own from designing logos and the [food stall], which I built in my parents garage. It was very DIY.
We picked the two [applicants] which we felt the best about and all of us went forward really without any experience in launching a successful business. I think what we learned: for our second round, we really want to make sure we have people [involved in] the recruitment and evaluation process who have seen many entrepreneurs come through the door pitching to them. We’d like to make sure that we are benefiting from the type of wisdom that people with a lot of experience have, in order to know who’s ready to start a business.
In the end, if there had been an expert evaluating the applicants and us, the service providers, they would have said “all of you need a little bit of work”. But we just didn’t have that – had to move forward knowing that there were a lot of unknowns. Most important thing is to, again, go to the community and connect with experts who know how to evaluate candidates.
AC: Regardless of the results, it sounds like you learned quite a bit through the fellowship pilot process. Would you consider that a relative success?
PD: Absolutely. I think, again, my metric for success for MarketShare is really simple, and that is square footage. Not just any square footage but beautiful, central, permanent, well crafted space for some very qualified immigrant refugee entrepreneurs to start a business. So, we have not succeeded yet in financial terms because none of the two Fellows we picked [for the pilot program] have decided to move forward with food stalls but they have each continued with their pursuit of a culinary career in their own ways. The fellowship program helped us tell our story, helped us learn and get closer to securing space for people, community and cultures. In the moment it’s really hard to say ‘the food stands didn’t succeed’, but hopefully, through further reflection we all see that this was something we all had to go through to get to where we’re going.
AC: You and I have talked a lot about the community being a resource in building towards success. If I’m a member of the community, and am excited about the Marketshare vision and really want to support this initiative, how would I get involved and help move the Market Share campaign forward to get you guys closer to your definition of success?
PD: There are many tiers of involvement: basic level, get online, find our Facebook page, like and share our content, talk to your friends and get them excited. We’re a very lean operation and do a lot with very little, so we do appreciate donations as well but we’re now rolling out our grassroots organizations.