I first met Carmen Kubas, founder of Lighthouse Industries, during one of their Saturday Supper Club events held a few weeks ago at Dig Gardens.  The setting was magical, the food well-prepared and the concept brilliant.  The idea of a business that does well by doing good is both timely and progressive, and when manifested so gloriously, it’s a beautiful thing.  Amply inspired, I set out to interview Carmen to find out more.

I started by visiting her web site, where I learned a startling fact – that here in the US, we’re carrying a high school dropout rate of 30% – 50% nationwide, which sits as an unfortunate accompaniment to our falling academic rankings worldwide.  Further intrigued, I caught up with Carmen find out the connection between Dig, dinner and disturbing educational stats. Read on!


EB: So I get the supper club idea, but I know there’s more to Lightfoot than just good food.  Can you explain the concept?

CK: Lightfoot Industries is breaking ground as a hybrid organization that provides entrepreneurial training for teenagers. We use a for-profit restaurant as a training facility, using innovative curriculum to model social, environmental and fiscal responsibility for at risk kids.  Now in the pilot phase, the model is based on work from innovators like Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard program,  where kids are given vocational skills that also introduce entrepreneurism and sustainability into the core curriculum.

EB: What inspired you to launch Lightfoot Industries?

CK: I started working in restaurants here in Santa Cruz at the age of 14, and so early on began to recognize that a lot of the kids I worked with were challenged by “mainstream” teaching for a number of reasons.   Some had learning challenges like ADHD, some were at risk due to family issues.  These kids were being marginalized but the public school system because they were not able to find success within  the current curriculum.  There was no safety net.

Because I had always participated in team sports, even as a kid I recognized the parallel between team sports and restaurant work,  one environment where these at-risk kids seemed to excel.   As early on as high school, I realized I wanted to stay in the industry and help at-risk kids, which that set the direction for my education and career trajectory.    I wanted to provide vocational culinary training opportunity for kids that is not currently available to them otherwise.  And Santa Cruz is one of the biggest agricultural epi-centers and food hubs in the US, so what better place than here?

EB: So clearly your connections to the food industry and previous teaching experience made you a perfect mentor.  Besides restaurant training, what else can kids expect to walk away with after completing The Life Sciences Academy (Lightfoot Industries’ training and curriculum component).

CK: Well the main question for me is “why do we educate kids?’  The California Chamber of Commerce conducted a study of 100 CEOs to determine how college graduates are perceived by employers in terms of work preparedness.  The results showed that in these employers’ experience, our graduates are not ready for the work force.  Kids are not being taught to show up, communicate and problem solve.

I knew there were better models, and Lightfoot Industries is actually based on a new model of vocational training we developed as a design for sustainable learning.   Essentially, this is a construct for a whole-systems approach to personal wellness, which takes into consideration more than just vocation or academic curriculum.

We ask questions like ‘Are you tied and accountable to your community?  What inspires you, what does that look like through the lens of social, environmental and fiscal responsibility?   What are your work skills?”  We’re preparing our graduates to leave here ready to work.    Vocation training so students are employable.  Lightfoot industries is teaching them how to work.  We provide the structure so the kids can find the solutions.

EB: Now that we’ve covered the teaching, let’s talk food.  You also have a lot of experience in sustainability consulting, which seems to weigh into the Lightfoot model.  Can you tell us about that?

CK: Sure!  We’re creating a restaurant concept that will feature locally sourced organic dishes served family style, with an emphasis on healthy and affordable cuisine. Soul food for a new generation really.  We’re collaborating with great local chefs and we the community together to celebrate the bountiful resources we have here in Santa Cruz.

EB: What has your biggest challenge been?

CK: Funding has been a challenge, as with all new businesses, but social entrepreneurism is a new concept that can be confusing for people.  So education is a big component of our pitch, even to seasoned investors.    Fortunately the progress these kids are making, and the opportunities they’ll have access to through the program far outweigh any challenges we’ve encountered.

EB: What inspired you to choose Dig?

CK: Their aesthetic of course, and part of our mission was to create a supper club as part of our sustainability plan.  We’re all about sharing resources toward same vision.  I contacted Cara (owner of Dig) and learned that they were looking to add food to their offerings.  Based on our mutual collaborative natures and vision for urban renewal., it just made sense.

EB: Where do you see Lightfoot in the next five years?

CK: Right now we’re looking for a permanent space.  These students in particular would really benefit from the stability that would offer.  And our long-term goal is to upscale nationally – both the for-profit and the academy  eventually should be able to plug into any school in the country.  We’re developing a plan and curriculum that will offer multiple opportunities for adaptation into new communities and formats.

EB: How can the Santa Cruz community support this innovative venture?

Come to the supper clubs – spread the word!  And as a non-profit we also accept donations toward curriculum development and per student costs.

EB: What does your perfect meal look like?

CK: My favorite thing to eat is anything made with tremendous love – when the ingredients are fresh and healthy, the people are into it, I’ve had many of dishes like that over the years and I acknowledge and appreciate each and every one.

Learn more:  www.lightfootind.com