“Our model com­bines train­ing and work ... one can­not bring about last­ing change with­out the other.”

The Guardian - Cook - - Comment - by Niki Kopcke Niki Kopcke is the founder of Mazí Mas, a res­tau­rant that em­ploys and trains refugee women, serv­ing their home cook­ing. They have just opened an on­line store sell­ing Christ­mas ham­pers: maz­i­mas. myshopify.com; @eat­maz­i­mas

The first time I en­coun­tered Roberta, I was el­bow-deep in a pot of kid­ney beans. It was win­ter in 2011, and she breezed into the kitchen chim­ing ex­u­ber­ant hel­los, arms laden and ra­di­at­ing warmth. I was un­em­ployed and vol­un­teer­ing at a com­mu­nity café, dis­en­chanted with life and Lon­don.

It was im­pos­si­ble to stay that way around Roberta. A Brazil­ian im­mi­grant in her for­ties, she rev­elled in the dis­cov­ery of Lon­don and its culi­nary de­lights, her bags per­pet­u­ally stuffed with ed­i­ble trin­kets – samosas from Whitechapel, gö­zleme from Green Lanes, crois­sants from Kens­ing­ton. But what I most looked for­ward to were her own cre­ations: cas­sava cake dense with co­conut, ethe­real po­lenta bis­cuits laced with lime, and ir­re­sistibly gooey cheese bread. She was a gifted cook, im­mea­sur­ably ca­pa­ble, and ut­terly in­de­fati­ga­ble. And yet, like all the other mi­grant women we cooked with, she was long-term un­em­ployed. It was mad­den­ing and in­com­pre­hen­si­ble.

A year later, with Roberta at my side, I started Mazí Mas, a so­cial en­ter­prise that helps mi­grant and refugee women cap­i­talise on their tal­ent and pas­sion for cook­ing by cre­at­ing jobs for them within our cater­ing busi­ness. Some months ago, we sought le­gal ad­vice to ad­dress a per­sis­tent co­nun­drum: how to struc­ture Mazí Mas so that the char­i­ta­ble side, which pro­vides train­ing for women but does not make any money, did not jeop­ar­dise the profit-mak­ing side, which pro­vides em­ploy­ment. We were bleed­ing money be­cause of train­ing over­heads, which were de­vour­ing profit ear­marked for rein­vest­ment in jobs. Our idea was sim­ple: to cleave the two sides, mov­ing train­ing un­der the um­brella of a new char­ity, where it would not in­ter­fere with busi­ness growth, and could at­tract more char­i­ta­ble fund­ing.

Our model com­bines train­ing and work, be­cause we be­lieve one can­not bring about last­ing change with­out the other. In prac­tice, this means in­vest­ing heav­ily in a small num­ber of women rather than spread­ing re­sources thinly among many.

The Char­ity Com­mis­sion wasn’t go­ing to ap­prove any ar­range­ment that sug­gested a two-way street be­tween Mazí Mas and a hy­po­thet­i­cal char­ity. And here we reached an im­passe: they be­lieved that the ac­tiv­i­ties of a char­ity should not ben­e­fit a pri­vate com­pany – and that, in a word, was our model. We would have to erect a wall be­tween the com­pany and char­ity, which would not be al­lowed to train women for em­ploy­ment in Mazí Mas, nor priv­i­lege em­ploy­ees in al­lo­cat­ing train­ing places, be­cause both of those ar­range­ments would ben­e­fit the com­pany.

That’s rea­son­able in purely prof­it­driven com­pa­nies, which might end up in­di­rectly dis­tribut­ing char­ity funds to pri­vate share­hold­ers. But when the growth of a busi­ness is what fu­els its so­cial im­pact, more profit not only means more jobs, but also more train­ing and aux­il­iary ser­vices, such as child­care and English classes.

Un­der­ly­ing all this is an an­ti­quated un­der­stand­ing of how peo­ple’s lives are bet­tered, and of what “char­ity” looks like. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that pub­lic ben­e­fit is an ag­gre­gate of pri­vate ben­e­fit. It is for as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble to have fi­nan­cial and phys­i­cal se­cu­rity, ac­cess to qual­ity food, health­care and hous­ing, and the ca­pac­ity to ad­vo­cate for them­selves. And the surest way to that goal is not, I prom­ise you, vol­un­teer­ing. It is jobs. And jobs are cre­ated by busi­nesses.

The Mazí Mas model ap­proaches change pro­gres­sively: rather than try­ing to help ev­ery­one at once, we help a small group of peo­ple, in­vest a lot up front, and then widen the cir­cle as they find their feet and set off into the labour mar­ket. A woman who comes to us for a job may well leave Mazí Mas with a busi­ness, and can in turn em­ploy more women like her. That £2,000 spent on train­ing one woman starts to look like a pretty good deal if you take the long view.

I be­lieve this fer­vently be­cause

I see it ev­ery day. Five years later, Roberta is Mazí Mas’ gen­eral man­ager, re­spon­si­ble for re­cruit­ing women to join our train­ing pro­gramme, and sup­port­ing their tran­si­tion to other mean­ing­ful, fairly paid em­ploy­ment.

And her cheese bread is still de­servedly fa­mous – the sin­gle most re­quested of our recipes – and I have ex­tracted a prom­ise that in five years, if all else fails, I can have a job in her cheese bread em­pire.

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