Meymunna runs a nonprofit that helps modern-day refugee families in the US. Lack of funding caused her to shift into a for-profit business and shares the journey and the fulfillment that comes with the struggle of opening a successful purpose-driven business in the midst of a pandemic.
LISTEN to this pod right here by clicking play or choose your favorite listening platform below. You can also WATCH the video podcast below that! Check out the show notes at the bottom to get more details about the contents of this episode. Enjoy!
Show Notes in order of appearance:
- Mina got warned about the pandemic
- Being recognized by LA Magazine
- TIYYA- What It stands for and what it represents
- Providing assistance to refugees in Los Angeles.
- Muna’s mom’s journey as a refugee, being showcased and experiencing PTSD
- What is a modern-day refugee and how it can happen from one day to the next.
- Soccer without borders and other forms of assistance for refugees.
- Starting a catering business with refugees showcasing their cultures and recipes.
- How grants and funding worked for Muna’s non-profit and what happens when the government pulls those grants.
- Starting a for-profit to find a non-profit
- One for one food model used to help refugee families
- Flavors From Afar in Los Angeles
- A story about a refugee who went from sleeping on a friend’s couch to starting a successful business.
- Motivation that keeps Muna going.
- Being an “overnight success” and getting showcased on BBC and the Food Network.
- Supporting a cause through your purchasing actions.
- Muna talks about entrepreneurship mindset.
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Below is a transcript of the video podcast created by Seb’s Robot buddy, Zekton. He tends to make mistakes so please forgive him if you find errors or some funky sounding sentences. For the real deal, watch the video or click on your favorite audio Podcast platform above! Enjoy!
Sebastian Naum (00:03):
Yo guys, this interview was so freaking inspiring. How about launching a brick and mortar in the middle of a pandemic one that employs and supports refugees in Los Angeles may Muna Hussein Katon is the star behind all of this born out of the success and inspiration of the Tia foundation, a nonprofit she established with her mother flavors from a far as a social enterprise that partners with former refugees to help develop their culinary careers in their new country while building bridges between them and their so-called neighbors. Muna has been voted by Congressman Adam Schiff as woman of the year 2020, and recognized for her professional contributions by the office of mayor Garcetti of Los Angeles. She was awarded by orange County Grantmakers as an emerging leader, and co-teaches a service learning course at soca university. Muna is currently an active board member of the LA refugee forum. Man, if this stuff doesn’t get you inspired, I don’t know what will enjoy the show guys. All right. Welcome to the pod, Muna. How are you doing?
Meymunna Hussein (01:14):
I’m good. Good morning. Good morning.
Sebastian Naum (01:16):
I’m so glad you’re here. I’m super excited to have you. I love your story. I’m really excited for people to hear it. And uh, I mean, it’s just crazy what you’ve been doing and I can’t wait into getting into launching a purpose-driven brick and mortar business in the middle of a pandemic, which is crazy, crazy. But before we do that, I want to ask you, give me your last Oh, moment. And you can just come to mind. What was the last moment that you were like, Oh. And that could be good. It could be bad. It could be anything you want.
Meymunna Hussein (01:48):
Um, I would say this pandemic was the most recent, Oh, moment. To be honest with you. Um, a couple of friends had warned me and I thought they were conspiracy theorists. Yeah. They warned me a few weeks before our grand opening, which was scheduled for March 21 and way before the stay at home orders were put in place. They were paying attention to the international news and I was just like, ah, we’re okay. That wouldn’t happen to us.
Sebastian Naum (02:21):
Had scheduled for March 21. You said, Oh yeah, that’s anyone listening. Think of hot that March 21. That’s when hit the fan and you were scheduled to open your brick and mortar, which is, which is crazy. So, and we’ll get more into that. And what was your last hell yam moment?
Meymunna Hussein (02:41):
Um, when we got recognized by LA magazine, I think that was like, uh, Oh, nice. You know, this is being, um, persistent and resilient is, um, it feels rewarding. You know, people are recognizing us. Congratulations.
Sebastian Naum (03:00):
That’s really awesome. Really awesome. So before we get into flavors from afar, which is where you’re at today, actually, um, tell me a little bit about TIAA. What does that even stand for? What is it about? And just tell me a little bit more about that.
Meymunna Hussein (03:16):
Yeah. So Tia spelled T I, Y Y a means my love and aroma. It’s a language that’s spoken, um, in Ethiopia and throughout East Africa. And, um, I grew up with the language. It means my love, um, feminine, cause the masculine would be Kia kind of like how, um, a friend who speaks Farsi or who’s Persian would say your name and then June, we would say your name. And then you would say Tia or Kia as a way of like, um, endearment.
Sebastian Naum (03:51):
Totally got that. I grew up with a lot of Persian friends. So it was like Sev June 7th, June.
Meymunna Hussein (03:56):
Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Same concept, name, name Kia. So, um, but my mom and I, when we established a nonprofit, we chose that name also because it sounds familiar to the ear. So no matter what language you speak, the word Tia sounds familiar. So, um, it was a nice way to celebrate our culture through philanthropy while staying connected to, um, just a international community.
Sebastian Naum (04:28):
So tell me a little bit more about your mom and why did she start this? What is, what is the mission of TIAA?
Meymunna Hussein (04:33):
Yeah, so, um, she, his mission is to provide basic necessities and communal support for newly arrived refugees, low income immigrants, displaced American families, which was really, uh, prevalent. When you remember the Katrina, for example, families were starting over in Southern California. And my mom was very passionate about this work with around displacement and refugees because her or her own experience as a refugee from East Africa. And she lived in a camp for about eight years is where she met my father. I was born on the camp and we resettled here in Southern California, um, in the early eighties. So, um, as a passion project of first, whenever there was a local resettlement agency or refugee cause that needed support, um, she was there to provide basic necessities for them. And while I was in grad school, I was able to help formalize her vision into an actual non-profit.
Meymunna Hussein (05:35):
And my intention was to establish this organization for her. And then around 2012, um, it triggered her PTSD. So she stepped away. Yeah. And with that, I mean, it’s unfortunate. It’s just something that my community doesn’t really talk about is, um, various traumas that people experience, but it affected my mom more so because now she was in the media, she was on the front cover of LA times. She was speaking to different college campuses, retelling her story over and over about the camp experience. And her exact words to me were, um, you know, people are educated by my story, but I’m the one who walks away from, with these nightmares. And, um, it really affected me and I, I had to do some soul searching and figure out what my intentions were. How did I play a role in establishing this nonprofit for her? And, um, my husband too, is very passionate about refugee work. He, at the time he was a case manager at the international rescue committee, which is the same group that resettled us in the early eighties. So I felt like everything was coming full circle. And, um, it was actually with my dad’s blessings that I stepped in as the role of the executive director and carried the nonprofit forward since 2012.
Sebastian Naum (07:07):
That’s amazing. What a story, what a story, what does, you know, we hear the term refugee a lot and all of, I mean, if you live, um, you know, if you live away from that in a, in a sense you have an idea of what that is. You, you think about a refugee, you think about a refugee camp, you think about war persecution, whatever that may be. What is, what does that look like today? What’s a modern day refugee because a lot of people, I think don’t even realize how prevalent that really is today. So what does that, how does that even translate into what, what is it like?
Meymunna Hussein (07:45):
So I think when you think of refugees, there’s a caricature of what a refugee looks like. It’s this like meek poor person with a bag, traveling through the desert, trying to find the place to dwell. And in reality, um, that’s not the experience I’ve had. I mean, I’ve worked with refugees from all over the world and it affects you whether you were once a millionaire or if you were working in agricultural society, it’s something that’s outside of your control, just like COVID is outside of our control. Um, I’ve worked with people who had to flee their home country because it’s civil unrest like in Venezuela or because of war like Afghanistan. Um, so there’s various factors that are outside of a human beings control. And sometimes, um, the nation that you live in cannot protect you from what’s going on. So you have to flee and refugees could flee either because of political reasons, social reasons, um, maybe, you know, their sexual identity, their gender, whatever it is, where that nation can no longer protect them. Um, this person has to flee their roots. You know, these are countries where people could go point back to their great, great, great grandparents, and now they’re forced to flee and start over. So, um, yeah, refugee it by definition is someone who is displaced, um, for factors that are out of their control.
Sebastian Naum (09:23):
I think it’s important to, to, to highlight that that character teacher that you were just talking about because a lot of people really have that idea and they don’t realize that refugees could just be it’s just every day, people that just happen to be in a crazy bad situation that is out of there,
Meymunna Hussein (09:40):
The control. Yeah. And I think by, I mean, I’ve been now, Tia is 10 years old, this June. So I’ve been working, um, in this very high trauma environment for about a decade. And I could say with confidence that there’s just a lot of shame around the history of displacement and I have history of being a refugee or once having, um, your social status. And then the way, I mean, we’re talking about men and women who were doctors and lawyers and engineers and, or maybe they were an agriculture or a stay at home mom who knew all of her friends in her neighborhood now are uprooted and starting over. So, um, yeah, I think that part is the most traumatizing and, um, people internalize it as shameful. Yeah.
Sebastian Naum (10:38):
Yeah. So what exactly does TIAA do for refugees today in LA?
Meymunna Hussein (10:44):
Yes. So, um, our services are actually LA and orange County and, uh, we first started with youth focused programming. So it was all about working with children who are starting over in the us. And, um, we decided that soccer was a good start. So, um, we hosted a program with soccer without borders, um, which is still now operating under the TF foundation. And, um, from soccer, it grew into free tutoring and we did arts and recreation and did a lot of field trips, um, especially down to the home Depot center to watch the LA galaxy teams play. So, um, that was the youth programming side. And then in 2014, I acquired a government contract to, um, provide, um, job placement for the adults. So it took a few years. And then, uh, we were able to do programming for the adults, which was basically, uh, 15 hours of vocational English classes, weekly employment workshops, helping them with coaching, um, acquiring employment as quickly as possible.
Meymunna Hussein (11:58):
Um, and then in 2017, um, because of just shift in government grants, um, that contract ended. So we pivoted and continued the vocational courses and employment workshops through culinary arts and then the culinary arts side. Um, we called it flavors from afar and, um, that’s where we were able to provide these adults on the job training to explore, um, their different cuisines because we didn’t teach them how to cook. They had to, um, audition. So, um, after they showed interest in the culinary arts and like they were self-taught chefs, then we were able to help refine that through our program. Um, and then in 2000, I want to say 18, 19, 2018 and 19, it got really popular quickly where, um, our catering sales exceeded the nonprofit programming side. So, uh, we were advised to separate the two entities. So now flavors from afar is its own, uh, restaurant in bodega located in little Ethiopia where we still provide the, on the job training. And then through Tia, we do the programmatic workshops. And because of COVID our chefs work with a program instructor, Jalen, um, one-on-one versus in group settings.
Sebastian Naum (13:25):
Got it. And that’s, and that’s what you’re living in today’s but let me back up a little bit. So you essentially, you had to, you had to shift because you were, you were having different forms of funding for a non-profit. You were helping all these refugee families through all these Epic programs that you guys had done. And essentially what was happening in the world that caused this. Like why, why did you stop getting that funding that it actually made you think it got the light bulb going, Hey, we actually need to get a for-profit going because it’s actually going to help the nonprofit better than before you guys. I just want to remind you, if you want to find more content like this, you can visit Sebastian nom.com, that’s Sebastian and a U m.com. You can also get a ton of other marketing resources for myself and my agencies ranging from SEO to social media, influencer, marketing, branding, web development, and more again, that’s Sebastian nom.com. Thank you. And enjoy the rest.
Meymunna Hussein (14:20):
Yeah, absolutely. I think, um, with the nonprofit model you’re left to the whims of what’s happening politically around you. So, um, depending on your cause you could be quickly popular like overnight if, um, your cause has any relevance to what’s going on in the media or, um, you could be quickly shunned away depending on what’s going on politically. Unfortunately, um, the refugee resettlement world has never been a pipe bipartisan issue, but, um, in around 2016, 2017, you saw a very anti-immigrant sentiment that was led by, um, the white house, you know, wanting to build a wall and, you know, banning different countries. And, um, we knew that the writings were on the wall that like, um, we can’t just continue to wait for these grants. So, um, we did have to pivot and really lean on the greater community who wanted to, um, give back and support regardless of how they vote. But, um, yeah, cause you’ll, you’ll find the immigrant story on all sides of the spectrum.
Sebastian Naum (15:44):
That’s what America really is about. And that’s an amazing pivot that you guys did. That’s a really cool pivot. So, uh, tell me a little bit about, you started flavors from afar. It was actually more of a catering business. And then we started the show by saying that you’re going to be launching or that you just were going to be launching brick and mortar in March. And so that is, which is where you’re at today and that brick and mortar is going to be a restaurant. And tell me a little bit about the mission of that restaurant a little bit. I know you guys have a one for one model and how you’re pivoting and what that looks like.
Meymunna Hussein (16:22):
Yes. Um, so currently, um, the, the way that we are staying relevant right now during COVID-19 is by having a one for one campaign, cause food disparity is a big deal right now in LA and orange County. So for every item that you order from us for takeout or pick up, we’re able to match that with a box of pantry items that is dropped off to a local family in need. Um, and they find it at their doorstep, which is really nice where these like secret Santa clauses and, um, I have some pantry items and you hear it’s like a ton of toilet paper. So, um, right now, yes, yes it is. Yes. Um, another way that we’re helping out is starting May 24th, which is this Sunday, we’re going to have, um, free, happy hour for frontline workers. So if you’re in the healthcare industry or working at a local restaurant right now, um, even stop by from the hours of four to 6:00 PM for free dinner, which we’ll have ready for them.
Meymunna Hussein (17:29):
Pre-packaged and then, um, in June, um, I’m actually now sitting in what will be the bodega. We’re going to have organic produce and we’re going to have different pantry items from all over the world and it’ll be sold at whatever you can afford. So no one will be turned away if you need some tomatoes. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you guys. So if you, if you’re having trouble paying for groceries, you can stop by you pay what you can. And um, if you feel really blessed right now and abundant, then, um, you could pay it forward for the next family.
Sebastian Naum (18:04):
Awesome. That’s amazing. That’s amazing. So you’ve got, you know, your, your mom was inspired to start this nonprofit to help refugees and help families. You ended up taking it over, you went through this transition that you had some challenges along the way that made you pivot into a for-profit to fund this nonprofit. And so I feel like you’ve, you’ve gone through a lot in that history of about 10 years, right. Or 12 years or so total. Um, is there one story that sticks out of one person or one family that makes all of this worth it and reminds you on a daily basis? Why you do this and why you have this type of business model?
Meymunna Hussein (18:45):
Yeah. So I’m actually, I have a board member currently. His name is [inaudible] he’s from the Congo. And when we first met him, it was in 2015 as a client and he was sleeping on a friend’s couch, uh, just moved to the us and he was getting $300 a month through the refugee cash assistance program to sleep on this couch. And then that $300. He was paying his rent with and taking the bus over to the Tia office for like English classes and employment workshops. And, um, he keeps me inspired because today in such a short amount of time, he’s a self-made entrepreneur who has a, um, import export company for vanilla beans and coffee beans, and, uh, has all kinds of investments behind him. Um, yeah. And you want to talk about like act as if from like day one, like this is the guy, even if he was on the bus, he was like, I’m, I’m going to make it in the us.
Meymunna Hussein (19:49):
And, um, what’s really beautiful about him is even the way he approached his networking style. He was first working at grocery stores and was making friends and like building his network and like attending a church. And then, um, from there found a really, you know, wonderful like living arrangement with some friends in orange County. And then, um, he was a, um, I guess like a bus boy at a restaurant. It’s a brewery in Tuston. If you’re familiar with testing area right off of like Newport Avenue. And while he was there, he, um, he was all about networking and making friends. So the owner was talking about how his beer would be so much better if he had vanilla beans, but it was just so expensive. And Audra was like, I know where to find the nail real. Like how much do you guys pay for vanilla beans in the U S so, um, when he did his calculations, he was like, wow, it’s just cheaper to like, buy a plane ticket, go home and like figure this out. So, um, he didn’t go back to Congo. I think he went to like, um, Madagascar or somewhere through like his contacts and, uh, came back with a ton of vanilla beans and to import export agents. And now his boss is his client.
Sebastian Naum (21:18):
That’s amazing. That’s an Epic story. That’s an awesome, awesome story.
Meymunna Hussein (21:23):
Yeah. So that, I mean, that’s one person that’s made a huge impression in my life
Sebastian Naum (21:28):
And that, and he’s he involved with you guys?
Meymunna Hussein (21:32):
Oh yeah. I mean, he’s a board member, the board member. That’s right. He’s a board member. He’s a board member and he’s going to have his product soon at trader Joe’s.
Sebastian Naum (21:40):
That’s amazing. That’s amazing. What’s amazing is that your current model too is, um, you know, it helps inspire all your workers that you hire, right. And the families that you’re also helping, they hear stories like the one you just told, they see your story, they get inspired to do big things. And to know that there’s a chance for them to, to make it and to live a good life, which everyone has the right live, you know, that we all should have the right to live at least a decent life, you know,
Meymunna Hussein (22:11):
And one of our donors, um, stopped by yesterday, um, to Tia’s office in Santa Ana dropped off like a couple of boxes of food pantry items, because she saw us on social media. This woman used to be a Tia client. So just two years ago, she was a client who just moved out here from Iraq. And, um, she’s going to school at IVC and working like at a local market. And, um, she went from client to now a donor. That’s amazing. I think it’s amazing to see just the
Sebastian Naum (22:44):
Clarify, when you say client, what exactly does that mean?
Meymunna Hussein (22:48):
Well, I’m like a program participants, so she sell classes. Yeah.
Sebastian Naum (22:53):
Just wanted to clarify that because some people may think that they were like a purchasing client, so no, no. Yeah.
Meymunna Hussein (22:59):
The terminology is like social worker. Yeah.
Sebastian Naum (23:02):
Perfect. So this was somebody that was receiving the help and then later on in their life, you saw the full cycle and becomes a donor and that’s gotta be super fulfilling. So, you know? Yeah. And so, you know, being in this position that you’re in Muna, um, how much does it help fuel your passion and also the passion of your employees? Do you see that translated into your employees and the people that work of flavors from afar and Tia?
Meymunna Hussein (23:26):
I think what’s, um, what’s really beautiful about our work with Tia and they were some afar is, um, it’s like this gem and you really don’t know how big it is and how deep of a history there is from the surface. So, um, I noticed whether it’s a volunteer or a paid employee, there’s just this over time. Like there’s just this constant growing, growing, um, loyalty to the organization and this, um, appreciation for the work. Cause I would say through our marketing, because it was very, very grassroots. Um, you know, it, when you meet the people and you talk to the people and you come to the events and stuff, but, um, it’s just now starting to translate online. You know, I think there’s a, there’s a saying that, you know, it takes 10 years to be an overnight success. So I feel like I’m living that right now.
Sebastian Naum (24:24):
That’s awesome. That’s awesome. Yeah. So you started getting on the news, you’ve been getting some press. Tell us a little bit about that. You were on a BBC Oromo and you’re maybe going to be on the food now.
Meymunna Hussein (24:35):
Yep. I will be on the food network soon. Yes. Cool. So tell us about that would show. So it’s called a unite United plates of America. And, um, we have two locations, one which is, um, hard to use right now because we do cooking classes out of the hood kitchen in Costa Mesa, but pre COVID, they were able to stop by and visit us and meet with one of our chefs who was teaching them about Kenyon, coastal cuisine. Her name is Toma and, um, getting her story and how Telma knows my mom and you know, their relationships. So
Sebastian Naum (25:10):
I love it. You know, this really fuels me and I hope it fuels other people out there, especially to me what’s really crazy is that shift that this started really, this all started as a nonprofit that needed help. And to me, it really goes out to show that, you know, nonprofits are amazing, but the, they need the funding. And so if they don’t have, if they have some sort of like funding that gets dried out or they don’t have the proper funding, they die out or they just can’t help as much as they want to help. And so for you guys to have transitioned that into a for-profit model to fund that nonprofit is amazing because it really helps scale. It helps scale to help. It helps scale, you know what you’re giving back to these families, which is amazing. Yeah.
Meymunna Hussein (25:56):
And what’s nice is like, it makes the cause, um, more approachable. So, um, maybe you don’t have time to volunteer. Maybe you don’t have the resources to write a $5,000 check, but, um, you could stop by and eat, you know, that your meal is giving back locally.
Sebastian Naum (26:15):
That’s right. So you’re basically you’re with the way that your vote, like with the POC you’re voting with your dollars. Right. So I decide to spend my money in your restaurant because I know that first of all, it’s fricking delicious. I tried it last week guys, and it’s really good. And you guys have revolving, I know that you’re going to have different dishes every couple of weeks.
Meymunna Hussein (26:36):
Absolutely. Yeah. So we had dishes from, um, Billy’s Egypt, Somalia next up is a rich area, Iraq, Syria. So it was just all kinds of foods from all over the world. Yeah.
Sebastian Naum (26:50):
Yeah. That’s awesome. Like you said, people can give back that way. You don’t have the chance to maybe write a $5,000 check, but Hey, I can go eat. And I know that by eating at flavors from afar, I’m helping families, which is really awesome.
Meymunna Hussein (27:02):
Yeah. And don’t get me wrong. We need that $5,000 check.
Sebastian Naum (27:05):
So if you guys got the 5,000, go ahead and write it up and send it off. We’ll get you the address. That’s great. So Muna, you are truly an amazing leader and a conscious leader with a, you know, a big heart and a lot of drive. So what should the new leader focus on? What is that one thing you think the new leader needs to focus on today?
Meymunna Hussein (27:27):
Um, entrepreneurship mindset, I think mindset like you could, you could easily get, um, derailed as an entrepreneur. And if you could keep like your mindset focused and understanding what that means and studying it and surrounding yourself with the right people who understand what you’re up to, um, you could go far real quickly, um, because without it, I think like the day to day culture that we live in, um, just wants you to get a nine to five and, you know, your benefit packet and, you know, that’s comfortable. It’s nice. Um, I envy it sometimes, but, but then there’s this other sense of, um, purpose that I feel like I have, because I’m able to, um, just go, just go for it.
Sebastian Naum (28:22):
And because that purpose fuels you, you need, you still need that mindset to be strong and keep that purpose feeling right. To keep going.
Meymunna Hussein (28:31):
That’s amazing. Right.
Sebastian Naum (28:33):
Well, how can people connect with you? How can they connect with flavors from afar, with TIAA?
Meymunna Hussein (28:38):
Yeah. So, um, whether you find us, um, online under Tia, T I, Y Y a.org there’s links that take you to flavors from afar and vice versa, you could go to flavors from afar.co and it’ll take you to CF foundation. Um, we are on Instagram, we’re on Facebook and we have ongoing newsletters to, uh, the Tia foundation community. And if you’re strictly foodie, um, we have a newsletter just for flavors from afar as well.
Sebastian Naum (29:11):
That’s awesome. And like I said, the food is delicious and it’s an amazing console. I hope a lot of people support you and I hope you, you really get a ton of press upcoming through the food network and you have a lot of success, so you can keep helping families and, uh, just keep fulfilling.
Meymunna Hussein (29:25):
Oh, thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you. And please stop by some time. Um, we’re in little Ethiopia, right at the pedestrian crosswalk. Easy to find.
Sebastian Naum (29:36):
Awesome. Thank you so much again. Thanks for being with me.
Meymunna Hussein (29:39):
Thank you. Bye-bye. Thank you.