It can be hard for entrepreneurs to let go of their creations. Starting something from scratch requires so much sheer will and in-the-weeds labor. Inviting others to take ownership and run with the fragile idea you seeded can be terrifying, if not guilt-inducing because you don’t want anyone to feel burdened. But the costs of keeping a clenched leadership grip can be steep. Your creation becomes a closed ecosystem. People can’t contribute their creativity in ways that go beyond token window dressing. Local social innovator Emily Torgrimson shared with Pollen about her own experience of loosening her leadership grip so that Eat for Equity, the organization she co-founded as a college student, could evolve from “doing for” to “doing with.” Here’s a bit of her story…
Emily Torgrimson, never set out to start an organization, let alone lead one.
Emily is the co-founder of Eat for Equity, a national nonprofit headquartered in Minneapolis that hosts monthly community feasts. Guests are invited to give what they can with a recommended donation of $10–20 to eat a home-cooked meal made from scratch. The bulk of the proceeds gets donated to a rotating roster of charitable causes. It’s a simple way of communally convening people around food while also doing something for the greater good.
Eat for Equity began by accident in early 2006 when Emily was still a student at Boston University. She was living in a cooperative house where everyone shared in the cooking and cleaning. Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Gulf Coast that fall. One night, when it was Emily’s turn to cook a house dinner, she happened to stumble across a recipe for jambalaya. Emily wondered out loud, “What if I made a New Orleans-themed meal? Do you think people in the house would throw in a buck or two?” Her friends said yes. 100 people showed up.
After college, Emily returned to Minnesota and settled in the Twin Cities. She experimented with hosting dinners in her home. For the first gathering in November 2007, she invited all of her friends and 12 people showed up. Emily told her guests, “If you like this, tell everybody you know and we’ll do it next month.”
Later, Emily took the monthly diners on the road to rotating houses, which widened the circle of who showed up. Eat for Equity eventually evolved from Emily’s personal passion side project into her self-chosen career. Today the organization has official branches in ten locations across the U.S. and is a veritable 501(c)(3). Emily is the only paid staff member.
Growing Eat for Equity up from its organizational infancy into adolescence has pushed Emily to grow as a leader.
In the beginning, she did all of the heavy leadership lifting from menu planning to cooking to shopping and more. “I invited the people, I chose the organization, I did the accounting, I did the clean up. A lot of people helped. But ultimately I was holding the cards and doling out tasks.”
But several years into her social venture adventure, Emily needed a break. It was August 2011 and she was about to start graduate school in public health at the University of Minnesota. “In anticipating that change, I felt like: okay, if Eat for Equity is going to continue to grow, then I need help.”
Eat for Equity was my passion and I loved it and I was also feeling overwhelmed and restrained by it. I’m a very independent person. It was kind of like a domineering relationship where I felt like everybody else could skip on Eat for Equity but I couldn’t. I was having these conflicting feelings of: ‘I love it and I need a break.’ And I felt some guilt about taking that break. I felt like I’d have to do a lot of work to make sure that everything went all right, and it was this extra pressure for other people. I was nervous that balls were going to get dropped but I ultimately knew that I needed that break.
At that moment Eat for Equity was like a child and I was really ready to have it go off to school and have other people take care of it. There was no way I was going to give up this child, but I couldn’t continue in the same way.
It was a really reassuring moment for our organizers who had been supporting me and the organization to realize that they could do it without me. And when there were crises and things to troubleshoot that they could be the ones to discover the answers—that it didn’t always have to be me.
I learned that Eat for Equity was bigger than me. And that if we were going to continue to grow, I was going to need to put more energy into creating space for other people to lead; that it was very powerful to create that space. I wasn’t doing enough work to create opportunities for people to really lead and not just help.
We slowly started the process of creating systems. There would be six lead organizer roles, but I might play the least important one. I might be the cleanup coordinator instead of logistics to allow some people to experiment in that role.
Now I take my lead from our organizers, asking them where they need help and trying to be a support as opposed to the one who’s telling people what to do. It feels really good to do that.
It’s also kind of funny because people either come to me with compliments that I don’t deserve or notes that I can’t really do anything with. Like, “The food was amazing!” even though I literally did not lift a spoon. Or they’ll offer a critique post-event and I have to say: “That’s not really something that I have control over. I can bring this to the attention of our branch organizers, but I want you to know that they’re all volunteers and that’s not really my role to micromanage them.” So I’ve been sitting with: What control do I have or what control do I want to have? What element of responsibility should I have for each event?
I’m the only staff member of Eat for Equity. I want to be supportive and yet I’m also kind of in a supervisory role. So how do I give loving feedback? And what’s the difference between loving feedback and micromanaging?
One of the things I want to circle back to is that I never really could do everything—even in the beginning. Not everything was my strong suit. One of the first things we started to create roles for was photography. I’m not a good photographer. It’s not something I enjoy. But there are other people who actually enjoy photography so let’s find someone who enjoys that and I won’t have to worry about it.
Since we’re a young organization and I’m the only staff member, I do a lot of administrative pieces that that don’t feed my passion for the organization. I’m doing them because I need to do them but at a certain point I’d love to pay someone else to do our taxes and file our books.
I really like public speaking. So how can I do more of that and less accounting? And how can we find people to create those systems to help fulfill those roles? Because I do believe that when we each get to explore the things that we’re most passionate about, then the organization will grow even more. And one of the reasons it has continued to grow is that it creates opportunities for people to share their skills in so many different areas. Home brewers can brew beer. DJs can spin at the events. Musicians can play. Amateur cooks can cook. People can explore the different areas where they have a natural affinity and skills.
I would ask ‘What if?’ questions. I would experiment. What if my friend hosted the next event? What if we did a breakfast? What are the places where you can experiment? You might stumble upon something that works really well. Create space for people to buy in and give to your project. And that might mean you taking a step back or doing some work to create those clear spaces.
I would encourage people to trust the people around them enough to ask for help. I needed to ask for help. And people were either going to give it or not but the only way they were going to give was if I asked.
By creating space for other people, you create opportunities for yourself to learn and grow. I’ve worked with cooks who are way better cooks than I am; people who are better web designers than I am. You learn so much from being around people who can teach you. I think that if your organization can create space for that kind of passion and ownership then it has so many possibilities.
It’s a reiterative process and you make mistakes and sometimes go back to the default, which is to roll up your sleeves and do it all. We make mistakes. Even with the intention of co-creation we can go back to our default. Hopefully we’re self-reflective enough to know that it’s just a bump on the road and the next time it’s going to be more community-driven and collaborative. I think it is always that constant balance between grace and will.
I feel like in the last couple of years I keep relearning the lesson of how important it is to do with and not for. To do together. So much so that I got the letters “Co” tattooed on my body. Just to remind myself to collaborate. “Co” the prefix means “together with.” It’s also the beginning of so many important things in my life: community, collaboration, cooking. And yet it’s also something I need to be reminded of.
Nancy Rosenbaum is a Minneapolis-based storyteller and connector who uses conversational research to discover what matters to people, what makes them tick, and how they got to be who and what they are. With a background in public media, educational counseling, and documentary storytelling, Nancy is inspired to collect and share stories about people in transition and the humanity of everyday encounters.
You can find more of her work at www.nancyrosenbaum.com
This article was originally published at BePollen.com.