As a restaurateur, best-selling cookbook author, and James Beard finalist, Chef Nicole Ponseca has made herself known as a pioneer of Filipino food in the U.S. through her critically acclaimed restaurants, Maharlika and Jeepney, in NYC. She was one of the 1.3% of female-owned businesses that exceeded the multi-million mark in revenue. Chef Ponseca now operates a pop-up version of her Jeepney restaurant in Wynwood, Miami.
Q: Tell us a little about how you got started and any major obstacles you had to overcome.
My career has not been a straight line. Rather it’s been a long, windy, curvy road filled with ups and downs. Those downs were sometimes unbearable as they test your will and intent, but they also have an unparalleled ability to propel you much further and in an intense spurt of personal growth. If you can weather the lows knowing full well that it “too shall pass” then you can prepare yourself for an unfathomable high.
There are countless lows in life. Poor health, livelihood, mental health, death, drama, and personal safety are just some of the ways life can trip us up. Some of these we have control over and some are completely out of our hands; Regardless of their origin story, the weight carried can bury us. For me, my lows have been considerable: a tumultuous childhood, domestic violence. That alone was a heavy burden to process and persevere through.
In my career, there are two acts. The first act includes college, graduating from college, moving to NYC, forging a career path and, eventually, leaving corporate America and starting my life as an entrepreneur. Every step in my first act was a journey of curiosity, stumbling, learning, creating a path and application. The lows involved insecurity, limited resources, harassment in the workplace and a lack of advocacy.
I started my entrepreneurial career by advocating for myself: assessing what I know and what I didn’t know, searching for meaningful questions to ask myself and possible mentors, learning my trade via a second job, relentless reading, applications of knowledge and eventually starting what is now commonly known as a pop-up. Though self-belief can be the hardest obstacle to overcome for many, mine were obtaining financing and building a team with nothing.
Creating a team with nothing but a dream meant forging relationships and delivering on promises, acknowledging mistakes and communicating a vision. Financing is still an obstacle in some respects, as venture capital and funding is not targeted towards entrepreneurs that look like me. This is changing, of course, and I am re-creating my career and pathways to funding in the second stage of my professional life.
Q: What kind of impact do you want to make as an entrepreneur?
I believe I have already made an indelible mark on various intersections. As a woman, Filipino, restaurateur and author, my influence as an entrepreneur has reverberated around the world. That impact has encouraged other people to follow their dreams, speak up for themselves, commit to a dream and commence their journey as an entrepreneur or enterprising person in business.
Q. What are the unique challenges of being an AAPI business owner or leader?
There are a bevy of unique challenges facing an AAPI business owner or leader. Mostly, I find communicating value and obtaining that value is challenging with target markets that associate AAPI-owned or produced products and services should be discounted or at a competitive price that can undercut profit margins. As an entrepreneur, I vocalize the impact that has on a small business, and what that means for growth in the AAPI sector.
Q. What can people do to show support for AAPI-owned businesses?
The number one thing people can do to support an AAPI-owned business is show up with dollars and evangelize products and services. Word-of-mouth is a strong marketing tool.
Q. What needs to be done to further build a more diverse and fair business community?
Mentorship and access to funding are the pathways to building a more diverse and fair business community. Specifically, allyship across the aisle with white-owned and white-male mentorship is important to build community, eradicate unconscious biases and provide access to higher level thinking, networks and financing.
Q. What can business leaders do to better support the AAPI community?
Radical transparency can support other business leaders in the AAPI community. Better business practices, supply chain, and scalability are all disciplines that are crucial to the success of business leaders and are lessons reserved for MBA programs. Access to such education can transform a business and assist a community ---any community—to thrive.
Q. What does business mean to you as an entrepreneur? Please start your response with "Business is…”
Business is the heartbeat of America, America is a diverse country of all creeds, backgrounds and religions, and the success of America is built on the success of its small businesses.