In celebration of our 15 years empowering women, we are excited to introduce a retrospective collection of success stories from previous EWI alumnae. One of EWI’s board members, Howie Feinstein, is the contributing writer for this series.
For “Chef Ujji” Brawley, founder of Bon Vegan (food for the soul), nothing has come easy. Her niche business of healing through vegan eating has become not only an entrepreneurial journey, but a lifelong search for peace and balance, for both her and her customers. No standard template exists for the path she has chosen; no concrete goals, no textbook mileposts. But Ujji, through trial and error, triumph and tribulation, has acquired the tenacity and clarity of vision to succeed, however that success is eventually embodied.
A first generation immigrant of European, African, and Hindu heritage, native to the Washington area, her childhood was centered around the local Hindu temple, the focus of family activity. She tended to the cows, and gained considerable expertise in the communal kitchen. It was a life of spiritual sustenance, leading to her eventual commitment to vegan nourishment and healing. But it was also a life of relative deprivation, for a young girl growing up in a competitive, economically ambitious social setting. Ujji is remarkably candid about those formative years:
“I did not really fit in growing up. No one looked like me. I had an unusual name and family. I remember growing up was very difficult, because as a family we had very little, we had no car, and lacked basic necessities including food, which we had to get from local pantries and donations. I used unhealthy food as an outlet, because growing up in the urban community, I felt so different. I didn’t fit a specific profile, and was constantly judged and made fun of.”
“During my adolescence, I saw my mother working a lot to care for the household. I naturally gravitated to the kitchen. It was my sanctuary, my Zen, my peace when I needed comfort, so I took on that role to make sure everyone was fed. When I was a teenager, I balanced education and working and saw my nutrition suffer. I made the connection that there was no accessible healthy food available, specifically vegetarian, which was astray in the urban community. When I could afford to, I would travel over forty minutes across the beltway to treat myself because I was surrounded by liquor stores and convenience shops. I soon discovered that I had a sugar addiction, constantly craving sweets and unconsciously seeking them in my sleep. My environment was a barrier to my health and wellness.”
“Soon after, I was determined to begin the healing process by changing my diet as an unhealthy vegetarian to a healthy vegan, cutting out the processed foods, salts, and sugars. At the age of 18 I chose to focus a lot of my time independently researching the causation of food with physical and emotional health. I often prepared food for my friends and family in large quantities, selling vegan meals to their homes and jobs. The reaction was positive and encouraging; I began thinking about a career in the food business.”
But even an organic, naturally-evolving business idea requires systematic education and training, both of which Ujji has embraced head on. She attended classes at Prince George’s Community College and then the University of Maryland, earning a psychology degree. A period of study abroad proved to be a revelation: Ujji reconnected with her Hindu roots, and learned to use traditional spices and other food products for her cooking.
It was E.W.I. which provided Ujji with the support system that she realized that she had always needed, both personally and professionally. She learned of the Rockville E.T.S. program, decided to give it a try, and things clicked immediately: “It’s truly divine how I was introduced to E.W.I. It just felt right. The support of the women was amazing. It was my calling. I still go to E.W.I. workshops, programs and graduations, and now I’m in the Grow My Business course. If there is an E.W.I. event, I’ll be there. It is forever.”
Ujji is constantly reassessing her business initiatives, including cooking lessons; wholesale and retail marketing; personal chef services; and dreams of operating a mobile market (food truck) one day. “EWI’s ETS program challenged me to step outside my comfort zone and prepare me for a leadership role in conquering my dreams in launching Bon Vegan. I learned how to become confident and face fears head on by preparing myself and putting my best food forward in everything I care about.”
Indeed, Ujji represents the crux of the E.W.I. experience:
“We are born women. We are raised international. We become empowered.”