Q&A with Entrepreneur Jenny Dorsey
Jenny Dorsey is a professional chef and artist using food to promote introspection and organic social change. She specializes in content and experiences fusing food with emerging technology (especially AR/VR) and runs an experiential dining series named Wednesdays in New York City. You can see more about her and her work at http://jennydorsey.co.
Can you tell our readers about your background?
I was born in Shanghai, China and raised in Seattle, Washington. After I graduated from the University of WA with a Bachelor’s in Finance, I wanted to make the move to NYC to pursue a career in management consulting and work within luxury and fashion goods. I thought it was what I wanted… until it wasn’t. After a while, I realized that while I looked “successful,” I couldn’t keep ignoring my burgeoning materialism and my deep unhappiness with my job. I knew I had to get out, but I wasn’t sure how. So I procrastinated.
I applied to Columbia Business School and was accepted early admission in 2011. Once I had this “safety” in place, I decided to take a leap of faith and pursue what I always loved: food. I went to culinary school and graduated just 3 days before starting at Columbia. Once I graduated culinary school I knew I couldn’t stay in business school or I would be lulled into complacency yet again – I decided to forge ahead into the unknown and “find myself” in the food industry. I won’t say that journey is over – or will ever be over – but I’m so much happier now than I’ve ever been.
What inspired you to start your business?
I have two separate businesses. My main line of work is culinary consulting – I work with restaurants and food brands to create content and experiences that are different and compelling. I decided to go into independent consulting as a way to combine both my culinary abilities with my business background. It is relatively rare in the culinary industry to find someone who creates menus and also crunches numbers! After culinary school, I spent time both cooking at Michelin-starred restaurants and working in the corporate food world. I learned a lot from all these experiences and wanted to be able to help others with the business perspective I’d gained without charging the asinine prices as other consulting houses.
My other business is Wednesdays, a dinner popup series I’ve been running with my husband (our mixologist) for almost 4 years now. We originally met at Columbia Business School and bonded over a mutual desire to get to know our peers on a deeper level.
Our thought was, if really want people to talk honestly, we have to create a safe space for them to do so. At the time I wanted an outlet for my creativity and he wanted to play with cocktails, so what better way to go about our mission than make an “intellectual dinner party”? The most important element of our concept was (and still is) finding a way to incorporate meaningful conversation into organic interactions. The food, drink, and ambiance serve as ways to elegant prop up that mission.
Where is your business based?
New York City
How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?
As silly as it sounds, I started both my businesses with a simple website. There’s something scary about declaring to the world “Hi! This is what I do!” It’s a commitment to take yourself seriously. After that, I focused on gaining clients for my consulting business one at a time – networking, applying to jobs, taking a million coffee meetings, rinse and repeat. The same applies to Wednesdays – my husband and I hustled our butts off trying to strum up interest. We talked and invited everyone to our dinners, posted on our social channels a lot (sorry friends!), constantly wrote to the press, etc.
At the start, everything was a struggle – as I think it is for many entrepreneurs. Being told “no” over and over is devastating and feels like a fight you just keep losing. But over time, things changed. I learned, I grew a ton as a person and a professional, and my husband and I kept fighting for recognition that this concept was worthwhile and important.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?
Consulting-wise, referrals are a big deal because the food community is tight-knit, so if someone says “Yes, I really enjoyed working with her” that helps to alleviate a lot of concerns of other prospective clients. Investing money in SEO has been extremely important as well – people don’t look past maybe the 3rd page or so on Google, so you need to get yourself in the top few listings. For Wednesdays, as much as I loathe to say it press is important. It opens the gates for people you’re not connected to in any way to come through the doors. We’ve been written up by a lot of places now and have a diverse set of guests every dinner we could not have strummed up otherwise.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Recently, I would say it was being eliminated on Food Network’s “Chopped” and then, almost right afterward, turning down the opportunity to be on Top Chef Season 15. Losing on “Chopped” helped me learn that my abilities are not defined by one event, and searching for approval from others is an endless, losing battle. Turning down Top Chef was an extremely difficult decision - but it boiled down to if I felt strong enough to carve my own career path and define success differently, or follow what I knew as something widely recognized and acclaimed. This has been something that has come up time and time again in my life and it never gets easier to take my own path instead of the conventionally applauded one. I’ve had experience being on reality television show 4 times now and knew that as soon as the cameras switched on, I was filled with dread, not enthusiasm. Ultimately, I decided I didn’t want another TV competition to take away from my focus on my business or Wednesdays.
How do you stay focused?
I have a lot of issues staying focused because I want to do everything, I want to be the best at everything. Sometimes, it gets to the point of anxiety that I’m “not doing enough” all the time. To combat this I will either go to pottery or do something that allows me to move without thinking if that makes sense. It helps give me some mental clarity and refocus on what I actually need to be doing.
How do you differentiate your business from the competition?
I spend a lot of time thinking about my brand and what I want it to be. I see so many “influencers” now who write these annoying, generic things like “Oh, rise up to challenges and keep pushing!” It’s easy to be preachy when you don’t ever expose yourself or let your guard down. I think people want someone who is actually going to be vulnerable and honest – that’s what I strive to be in every interaction, client or friend or colleague. If a client wants something I’m not an expert at, I say that upfront; if I’m not sure or I don’t know, I say so. If I’m nervous about something, I say that too. Being true to yourself is about not hiding and I think the right people honor and respect that.
What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?
For consulting, SEO. For Wednesdays, press releases, press outreach, SEO.
What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?
There will never be a "good time" to take the leap or make that big decision. There will always be something - a promotion, finishing up loan payments, when the apartment lease is up, etc. - that will make you hesitate and think twice. No sunny Saturday will appear with the words "Do It!" magically in your future. It's up to you to take charge of your life and your career - no one else's.
What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?
App – I like to use Swarm to help me remember where I’ve eaten.
Blog – don’t read a lot of blogs
Book – Quiet by Susan Cain. She’s incredible. I’m an introvert and I’m SO, so grateful that she’s out there championing the needs of introverts and how they can help society.
What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?
There are some really awesome Facebook groups for food industry women, women in AR/VR and women in tech. They’ve been infinitely helpful in getting me leads, offering me advice, connecting me with the right people, etc.
Who is your business role model? Why?
I’m looking for one.
What do you have planned for the next six months?
In January I’m hosting a large-format popup for Wednesdays, so I’m head-down on that right now. I’ll also be taking over the show “Why Food?” on Heritage Radio Network, so I’m preparing to be a podcast host for the first time! Finally, I’m working on launching a VR dining exhibit named “All Together At Once” – a lot of moving parts on that one, so hoping I can have that open in Fall 2018.
How can our readers connect with you?
People can find me on Instagram and Facebook at handles @chefjennydorsey and @WednesdaysNYC.