Stories / Interviews

A Patron's Journey to Empower Her Local Community of Women Entrepreneurs

Janae Butler

February 27, 2024


Photo: Caili Wilke

The James Beard Foundation (JBF) Patrons are a community of supporters that believe in our mission, including both food lovers and the people behind the plate. In this series, we’re highlighting Patron Program members who are working to improve our food system and embody our Good Food for Good™ mission.

Meet Michelle Barrera, an Industry Friends level Patron and an advisee in the 2023-24 Legacy Network cohort. Barrera is a grassroots community leader based in San Luis Obispo County, California and founder of local community events website EnjoySLO and the nonprofit At Her Table. On March 1, Barrera is launching the fourth-annual At Her Table Festival as part of Women’s History Month, inclusive of a Friends of James Beard Benefit dinner at Sensorio.

On the heels of her upcoming events, we talked to Barrera about how mentors have supported her in building communities and resources designed to support and celebrate other women entrepreneurs.  

JBF: How did you first hear about JBF and what made you interested in joining as a Patron?

Michelle Barerra: My interactions with JBF started as a young adult, when I was living in Los Angeles as a registered nurse and would often go to food-related events in the area. When I moved to San Luis Obispo (SLO), I didn't feel the Foundation’s presence and researched that it had been over two decades since JBF had been involved in the county. I was really surprised by that, especially with the culinary industry here. So, I signed up as a Patron and applied for the Legacy Network program and have since become very active within the organization.  

JBF: As someone with experience in community building, what has your experience in the 2023-2024 JBF Legacy Network community been like? What learnings have you gained?

MB: It's an amazing program and participating was one of the best decisions that I made this year. The core of the Legacy Network is uplifting each other and forming connections that enable us to make bigger changes within our communities. My mentor is Rohani Foulkes of Folk in Detroit and I love her because she continuously advocates for me. When I was struggling to obtain sponsorships for At Her Table, she suggested I go to JBF’s Financial Literacy Workshop for Women. I flew to New York last minute and ended up sitting next to a woman from a global beverage brand who was able to connect me with people in LA! It’s a magical story of where the Legacy Network program takes you.  

I'm very thankful for my cohort. Being involved has changed my life and shifted my mindset. I used to be skeptical of those types of conferences and now I see that they’re where you meet your tribe.

At Her Table Sip & Soak networking event (photo: Caili Wilk)

JBF: How did you create EnjoySLO and At Her table? What gaps in the community were you looking to fill?

MB: When I first moved to SLO county, I didn't know what to get involved in and there was no way to find out about events in a condensed, easy way. A lot of the marketing campaigns didn't have a soul for the customer, and I couldn't relate to them. I created EnjoySLO to fill the need to share events in the area, and focused on highlighting small, local businesses that people didn’t think about.

After launching EnjoySLO, I was having a conversation with my role model Dina Sampson about the needs in my county. She asked me how many women-owned businesses were in my area and I could only think of five to ten businesses off the top of my head. It was a sign for me as a community leader that if I didn’t know, there must be a majority that doesn't know either. After learning of Dina’s similar nonprofit in LA, Regarding Her, I was eager to create something similar in SLO County. Dina is a testament to a voice being so powerful that it can reach another community and help create new things. She became my example of leadership and how your voice can create tremendous change.

With Women's History of Month coming up, I knew we needed to put something together fast. At Her Table was born in three weeks! We grew from 36 businesses in 2021 to 350 today. It's been a crazy amount of growth in just three years.

JBF: What makes SLO special? How would you describe the county’s personality?

MB: The heart of SLO is local and the community support for entrepreneurs and small businesses is very strong. It's also about preserving nature and caring for where you live through sustainability and environmental protection practices. SLO is a gem and once people come here, they fall in love, but they don't make it well known because they gatekeep so hard!

When it comes to the creative community, inclusive of the culinary industry, they are hungry for new ideas and different tastes. That’s where EnjoySLO and At Her Table really succeed. Without losing SLO’s essence, we welcome diverse experiences and shake up familiar concepts just enough to spark curiosity.

At Her Table Untamed Dinner 2023 at Barton Family Estate in Paso Robles (photo: Rebecca Sligh, The Collectiv Creativ Co)

JBF: What are you most excited for as you look ahead to the At Her Table Festival?

MB: Definitely having JBF back in our community for the FOJBB event. We also just got approved to have fireworks for International Women's Day! It’s a huge deal because it’s hard to get approved in the area. It's going to happen in the city of Atascadero, which has a deep-rooted history in women’s empowerment. It was one of the first places a woman could own land—before the right to vote—and she didn’t have to be married. Radical thinking for that time! But I'm excited to bring awareness to that history on such a special day because it’s a testament to what this county and city believe: women should be uplifted, empowered, and celebrated.

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Janae Butler is manager of development operations at the James Beard Foundation.