The ultimate goal of social entrepreneurship is not only to provide great products, but to positively impact our communities. SocialVentures met with veteran restaurateur Sangeeta Lakhani, who is leading solutions in the hospitality industry. We discussed her social enterprise Service!, how it started, and where it is heading.
Thaddeus Jones (TJ): Can you introduce yourself and provide some background information for our readers?
Sangeeta Lakhani (SL): I’m Sangeeta Lakhani. I serve as the executive director of Service!, a nonprofit social enterprise we started a couple of years ago. We do lots of work with people in the hospitality industry. Before that, my career was in the world of restaurants, where I was a veteran for 28 years. So this is a new and exciting chapter in my life.
TJ: What is Service!? How did it get its start?
SL: Service! was set up to respond to the immediate needs we saw when COVID hit. It initially started with just resources. People were shocked at the state of the world, and those in the service industry were suddenly out of a job. People needed help with feeding their families and other resources. We launched Service!, and within the first eight weeks, we handed out about 11,000 meals to service industry workers and their families. Beyond that, we offer further education, training and workforce development resources.
TJ: Can you speak on the transition from providing a solution during COVID to where your business stands today?
SL: We’re entrepreneurs by nature. We love solving problems, so COVID couldn’t have been a more perfect problem for somebody with a mind like mine. With the help of our friends, network and city, we launched Service! within two weeks of restaurants shutting down. Eventually, the world began finding its “new normal,” which left us struggling to find our place. After seeing the impact we had made, we quickly came to realize that our work was vital. I was in the unique position of being able to sell my restaurant during COVID, so I decided to dedicate my time full-time to Service!. We were then approached by the commissioner’s office at Franklin County to take over the cafeteria in the courthouse, so we started our workforce development program at the courthouse, called The Cafe Overlook.
TJ: Are there any significant challenges with running such a multi-faceted, wrap-around social enterprise?
SL: A big part of it is our naivety. We’re still novices in this field, so we have a huge learning curve in the nonprofit world. We’re now working with grant money and with powers beyond us to serve a community that we understand but they might not. Beyond that, it’s also the demographic that we work with. We’re working with people that need barriers removed, including but not limited to housing insecurities, financial insecurities, domestic violence, and returning citizens. To meet people at all these different places that they’re at is a unique challenge in itself.
TJ: What is it that you ultimately set out to achieve with Service!?
SL: We started this program with the intention of it becoming a pilot program for services around the Central Ohio area. We also wanted to show that the public and private sectors can unite and create something meaningful for the community. Another goal we set for Service! was for it to lead to restaurants thriving. We now know there is this demographic that is willing and able to work but lacks training. If we can provide training, it strengthens the economy for restaurants by supplying them with a labor pool of trained, knowledgeable and certified workers who have had their barriers removed. Lastly, our goal with Service! is to ultimately change the mindset of restaurants. We’ve accepted this antiquated idea that restaurant and service culture is made of angry chefs, alcoholism, drug abuse, long hours, low pay, and an overall toxic environment. It’s really imperative we change that conversation and that mindset. We need to build a better business for the future and leave a better legacy behind as a restaurateur. We are here to build up the hospitality industry and the professionals within it and make it more equitable all around.
TJ: Outside of enjoying the delicious food, how can readers best support and get involved with Service!?
SL: One great way of supporting is coming to Cafe Overlook and enjoying a meal. You can also support Service! by going to our website and donating. We need money to run a project, so any sponsorship at any level is always appreciated. Most importantly, please support our cause by keeping this conversation alive. Just because we feel that COVID is over, we can’t go back to overlooking these issues. This needs to shift not just in Columbus but throughout the country.
Founded in 2014, SocialVentures is a non-profit organization that believes in people, purpose and prosperity. They develop, advocate for and help fund businesses advancing solutions to social problems in our community. Send an email to [email protected] to connect and visit socialventurescbus.com for more information.
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