All posts by Simran Brar

Festival Illuminates Japanese Culture

This past weekend, despite the dreary and cloudy weather, thousands of Boston locals flocked to Boston Common on Sunday for the annual Japanese Festival. It was free to anyone interested.

Visitors, some dressed as anime characters, overtook the usual calm of the park as they bounced among the hundreds of booths that the festival boasted. Two stages on either side of the festival featured Japanese music, contests, and auctions.

Now in its sixth year, the Japanese Festival in Boston began in 2012 in response to the 100th anniversary of Seattle’s Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival. Previously held in Copley Square, the location of the festival moved to Boston Common last year when the festival attracted over 60,000 attendees—almost double than it had the year before.

In Boston, many different local Japanese societies organize the festival. Starting in October, these societies get together to begin the foundational work for the festival in April.

“The operation of the festival is both unique and challenging because it is put on by a 100 percent volunteer effort, using no professional advertising or marketing companies either,” explained Keiko Isomura, one of the volunteers who deals mainly with the public relations aspects of the festival and also helps to coordinate the vendor booths.

A central group of 30 volunteers is devoted to the planning and execution of the event, and also double as the individuals who handle the bigger logistics of the festival. The total volunteer pool has increased from 200 to 400 people in the last year alone.

But operating on a volunteer-only basis does have its challenges, Isomura explained. Since most volunteers have jobs, no one solely focuses on the festival, and planning takes a backseat to daily life. Getting all the volunteers in the same place at the same time is no easy feat.

Those visiting the festival had the chance to interact with various aspects of Japanese culture by not only seeing, but also by touching, feeling, and tasting the culture. Booths featured Japanese arts and crafts, businesses, education, culture and life, food, and sports—providing an opportunity for visitors to immerse themselves in a little bit of everything. Various workshops offered a more hands-on approach where attendees had the opportunity learn art forms like origami paper folding.

According to Isomura, the festival’s ability to share these unique qualities is what makes it essential to the Boston community.

“The goal of the festival is to share Japanese culture with our local community and to give back our appreciation to them,” Isomura said. “It is a continuous process of the sharing of ideas and culture.”

The festival’s importance, however, does not mean that organizers are exempt from challenges. This year, challenges took the form of the number of food vendors.

“Last year there was a lot of backlash with the food booths because people were waiting in ridiculously long lines for food or in some cases were not able to eat at all,” Isomura said. “We hoped that the increased number of food vendors this year will help fix the problem.”

Another option available to those attendees who hoped to avoid long food lines, was the availability of a “fast-pass” that allowed people to skip lines if they donated $30 or more to the festival.

One of the biggest attractions of the festival was the Omikoshi, a portable Shinto shrine for thankfulness and celebration of the community. In the afternoon, the shrine was carried around the park in its demonstration of thankfulness. Isomura shared that in the near future, the festival committee is working closely with Harvard and MIT to upgrade the shrine to feature some technological aspects.

When visitors got tired and wanted to take a break, many chose to sit on the lawn in front of the stages to catch a glimpse of what was going on there. The first stage featured live Japanese musical performances, dances, and samurai demonstration. The second stage displayed “family-friendly” acts such as kid’s dance, cartoon music, and anime contests where prizes were distributed to the best dressed. No matter which stage you were viewing, both attempted to blend old and new Japanese culture, so that the community could show how smoothly they melded.

An entire year’s worth of work and effort on the volunteers’ part culminates into this one day, as they create innovative ways to share Japanese culture. While the festival continues to grow and gain more traction in the community, Isomura shared that organizers hope to attract more locals in the New England area outside of the Japanese population already involved.

“It is all about the continuous sharing of culture and creating a more connected community in the end,” Isomura said.

Featured Image by Simran Brar / Heights Staff

CommonWealth Kitchen Opens Pop-up at The Street

With the warm weather peeking through during the past few weeks, The Street at Chestnut Hill is often a go-to spot for locals to hang out, grab a bite to eat, and make new discoveries. And the newest discovery to be made is The Street’s most recent pop-up, CommonWealth Kitchen. Nestled behind Shake Shack, CommonWealth Kitchen has taken over the pop-up storefront in its first-ever retail venture.

Until May 31, the light-filled pop-up space will showcase some of Boston’s local culinary treasures, many of which are created by small, local businesses that lack a physical storefront. The wide shelves of the CommonWealth Kitchen pop-up will display local sauces, cookies, granola, and many more options that visitors can enjoy between its airy, pastel-colored walls. All of this innovation arises from CommonWealth Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that is one of the country’s biggest food business incubators.

Started in 2009 by founder Jen Faigel, CommonWealth Kitchen has undergone incredible growth over the past eight years. Originally based out of Jamaica Plain in a 2500-square-foot space with only two to three staff members, the facility relocated to Dorchester in 2012 to fill a 15,000-square-foot space with a staff that now includes 15 employees.

Faigel, who used to work in real estate, conceived the idea when she came across an empty warehouse. Hoping to put the space to use, Faigel considered the limits of her experience with affordable housing.  

“We were putting roofs over people’s heads, but we weren’t doing much to change their socioeconomic status,” Faigel said.

After observing other food incubator models that had tried and failed, Faigel decided to give it a shot as well.

Now, almost eight years later, CommonWealth Kitchen is home to over 50 food businesses including food trucks, caterers, and wholesalers. Dedicated to the mission of helping minority groups, 70 percent of the small businesses that CommonWealth Kitchen works with are owned by women and minority racial groups.

“What we are trying to do here is intentionally invest in groups that have been left out of the marketplace and provide the resources and chance that they need to enter it,” Faigel said.

The typical process of developing each business ranges from three to six months. Prior to even approaching CommonWealth Kitchen, the organization requires that each business have a license, permit, and insurance, and to display its full dedication and intent on following through with this venture. Once businesses are accepted, CommonWealth Kitchen employees emphasize their role as a helping hand, widely encouraging the business owners to develop their own problem-solving skills.

“We help them with anything like label design, to market place entry, or even with community reception. The main focus here though, is that it is all collaborative work,” said Pat Gray, senior advisor for strategy and development.

Businesses that are a part of CommonWealth Kitchen all operate on different schedules. Some cook in the Dorchester facility every day, while others may only appear once a week—all depending on the needs of its company. When not in the kitchen, many business owners are out- networking and talking to retailers and wholesalers, trying to further their footing in the marketplace. Due to the differing scale of each company, with some businesses operating in 80 stores while others are in 200, the businesses have varying levels of experience. This difference offers an unique opportunity for collaborative work between the businesses themselves, not just with CommonWealth Kitchen.

When looking ahead for the future, Faigel hopes to create a model for other communities seeking to set up food incubators and to further the collaborative work and integration of services that the CommonWealth Kitchen operates on. Gray explained that CommonWealth Kitchen has involved lots of “ trial and error,” which has ultimately bred a community of “problem solvers,” and an organization where those involved are “always looking to be better and can recognize everyone’s unique contribution”

Specifically, the organization is working on getting some of its shelf products into local universities within the next few months. It has already made some headway with Harvard and Northeastern.

“College students love local products these days,” Faigel said. “They would be the perfect consumer base that many of our businesses are trying to extend out to.”

All the items stocked are made in the Dorchester facility. But instead of each business individually selling its product through the storefront, they are bought by the organization, and then sold through the pop-up.

And so far, the shelves offer a variety of local options to explore. During the warm weeks to come the small-batch ice cream from Little G’s will certainly fly out of the shop, and honey-sweetened, homemade marshmallows from Apotheker’s Kitchen will satiate anyone’s sweet tooth.

In addition to the goods on the shelves, the store will have a rotating schedule of two food trucks cooking in-house, so fresh daily options will be available as well. The month of April will feature the food truck Jamaica Mi Hungry, while May will feature The Dining Car.

The pop-up will also feature special events during its stay in The Street, including an upcoming Cinco de Mayo celebration that will offer succulent pork tacos from The Dining Car.

And even though May hearkens the end of CommonWealth Kitchen’s stay on The Street, Fiagel and Gray look at the departure with resolute optimism.

“Hey who knows,” chuckled Fiagel. “Best-case scenario this could become a permanent space for us.”

Featured Image by Simran Brar / Heights Staff

BC Grads Take Innovation Tips From a Beetle With NBD Nano

Innovation is key to the constant evolution of our society—or so say Miguel Galvez and Deckard Sorensen, the co-founders of NBD Nano.

Galvez and Sorensen, both Boston College ’12, shared that it was at BC that the idea and growth of their company began. NBD Nano specializes in surface wettability products through the use of various coatings and additives. Galvez and Sorensen were both biology majors, and in their studies they encountered the Namib Desert beetle. The beetle, which is small and round with spindly legs and a bumpy, shining black shell, has the unique ability to alternate between hydrophobic and hydrophilic regimes. Inspired by this advanced trait, Galvez and Sorensen aimed to produce products that mimicked properties of the beetle’s back.

“This particular beetle can hold up to 12 percent of its weight in water, while alternating the properties of the surface of its back, something that we kept in mind as we developed our technology,” Sorensen said.

Once the idea was born, Galvez and Sorensen immediately immersed themselves in finding opportunities to further develop what would later become NBD Nano. The perfect opportunity arose in the spring with the Shea Center’s annual Venture Competition. The duo entered and was accepted into the first round as one of the five companies selected. Each company was given $1,000 and three months to develop their product and compose a 10-minute pitch to a panel of judges consisting of executives and entrepreneurs from the Boston area. With an immense amount of dedication and hours spent adjusting specifics, Galvez and Sorensen snatched first prize, which included $10,000 that went directly to the development of NBD Nano. Now located in Brighton in a 4,400 square-foot office and lab space, the startup has been operating for five years.

“There has been a lot of change in the last five years as innovation develops,” Galvez said.

While NBD Nano is constantly evolving its technology and working on new materials, right now the majority of its focus centers around three major products: fingerprint coding for glass, water-repellent glass, and water-repellent plastic additives.

In a typical day, the company starts off with product development meetings geared toward its specific products. The work of the startup also relies heavily on the collaboration of the scientists with whom Galvez and Sorensen work closely with each week. Together, the team figures out and manages what technology must be modified or prepared for customers in the coming days. As of now, the Brighton office retains 10 employees, along with two additional part-time employees in South Korea. Despite being a relatively new company, NBD Nano already has strong connections in North America, Asia, and Europe—showing its versatility all over the world.

And although NBD Nano has met impressive success as it has grown over the past years, Sorensen and NBD Nano made the Forbes 30 Under 30 List in 2015, the company has faced challenges just like many other startups.

“One of the biggest challenges with entering this market has been competing with others to work for large companies, while at the same time differentiating our product from everyone else’s,” Galvez said.

The duo has also faced quite a few other obstacles while building its company. Having come straight out of college and immediately founding their own startup, management skills were something that Galvez and Sorensen had to learn in the moment, growing from experience as issues arose. Another challenge was hiring employees. Galvez and Sorensen originally searched for candidates with Ph.D.s and other similar qualifications.

As Galvez and Sorensen look toward the future, and toward the direction that NBD Nano is heading in, they are optimistic. The duo hopes that NBD Nano will further establish its reach in the marketplace, while still continuing to increase revenue. They emphasized that the first few years very much revolved around research and finding the best market fit. Now having done so, opportunities for branching out are much more attainable, especially with a hopefully increased staff.

“Now that we’ve had some time to settle in, we are really seeing a lot of traction in product integration in some of the larger Fortune 500 companies which is really exciting,” Sorenson said.

Galvez and Sorensen’s story truly hits home with BC’s philosophy. They grew an idea that they developed on campus through hard work and persistence, have established themselves as a market force. Looking back, Galvez and Sorensen are most thankful for BC’s commitment to entrepreneurship, and the school’s ability to aid students in pursuing their interests.

In his attempt to give back, Galvez is now the co-chair of the BC Technology and Entrepreneurial Council, serving as a resource for current BC students as they develop their own ideas. As ideas and innovation continue to evolve throughout the world, Galvez and Sorensen hope to be apart of this change through their work with NBD Nano.

Featured Image Courtesy of NBD Nano

GSSA Symposium to Connect Students, Medical Professionals

Leading surgeons from all over the Boston Area from the field of global surgery will gather on March 4 to speak in front of over 200 medical and undergraduate students at the Boston Global Surgery Symposium. And this number does not include the thousands of students who will be in attendance via live-streaming from all over the country.

As she entered her first year at Harvard Medical School, Parisa Fallah, a student at Harvard Medical School, knew two things: She wanted to pursue the field of global surgery, and connect students around the country—and the world for that matter—who had a similar passion. Thus, the Global Surgery Student Alliance (GSSA) was born. Fallah, along with 14 other members from Harvard Medical School, Boston University Medical, and Harvard School of Public Health, comprise the team that is pulling the conference off all on their own, while juggling medical school simultaneously.

“As much work as it is, I think that the power of students and youth has something special to it, that can make these things come together,” Fallah said.

As the day of the symposium nears, Fallah gave some insight into what the day’s events will hold. The conference, which begins at 8 a.m. and runs until 1 p.m., will kickoff with keynote speaker Dr. John Meara, co-chair on the Lancet Commission on Global Surgery, and will feature two different panel-session times, each with four different panel topics to attend during a designated period.

For those who are nervous about missing panel topics that run simultaneously, the leadership team is already one step ahead, and arranged for each panel to be recorded. This feature will allow students, whether they are in physical attendance or live-streaming, to go back and watch anything they missed.

The majority of the speakers at the symposium are leaders in the field from around the Boston area who have agreed to speak probono. Word of the symposium, however, has quickly spread, even reaching the ears of a doctor in North Carolina who will speak.

Fallah and the rest of her team hope that the symposium will help connect students within the field of global surgery and will make them aware of all the opportunities that are within their reach. All students need to do is simply take action.

“Our main goal is to make students more aware of global surgery as a whole,” Fallah said. “But if we could get students interested enough to start similar programs at their schools, that would be an added benefit because I truly believe that the best way for us as students to learn is through collaboration.”

One of the biggest challenges that the leadership team has faced in putting together the conference is the lack of funding. As a new organization, having different departments donate money to a group whose success is unpredictable was one of the hardest aspects of pulling off the Symposium.

After reaching out to about 30 different departments, the group was able to raise enough to lock down a space for the conference and really began to pull it all together. While ticket sales are another source of funding, the team wanted to make sure that the conference was still affordable and accessible to the majority of students, by keeping ticket prices at $15 per person. Fallah hopes that the success of this year’s Symposium will ease funding difficulties in the following years.

While putting together the conference itself has been the main focus of GSSA in the past few weeks, national outreach is also a large focus of the group’s philosophy. So far, the leaders have already arranged to have a live-streaming event of the conference with 15 other schools. After the Symposium, one of the main goals of the group will be to gather materials that will aid other schools in organizing their own group in the proper manner.

“We want to make sure than anyone who has an interest, can be involved in our program and that it is all inclusive and not just limited to those students in Boston due to location,” Fallah said.

In continuing the work of the GSSA, Fallah explained that in the time in between their conference next year, the group’s leaders hope to expand awareness of global surgery by organizing workshops, putting together research presentations, and linking students to practicing doctors to work on case-studies.

Another exciting opportunity stems from a potential collaboration with the international equivalent of GSSA. Whereas the United States group’s leadership is entirely located within Boston, the international team includes students from all across the world, presenting an exciting opportunity for further collaboration. Fallah was particularly excited about this opportunity because it would be the first time that global students could be on the same page with regards to the available knowledge in the surgical field.

For students with an interest in the field of global surgery or the medical field in general, Fallah hopes that the symposium this weekend will unite passionate students from around the Boston area and beyond.

Featured Image Courtesy of GSSA 

Cafe Breaks Grounds With Vegetarian Treats

One of the newest food crazes that has grabbed the nation by storm is the juice bar, and for those living in and around Newton Highlands, the Broken Grounds Café might just fulfill their juice and açaí cravings, while still offering choices for those seeking more variety.

Nestled on the corner of Walnut and Floral Street, a short two-minute walk from the Newton Highlands T stop, the café’s appearance and backstory make its authenticity evident.

Prior to the establishment of Broken Grounds, this same street corner was occupied by another coffee shop that owner Amelia Childs worked in right out of college.

Her love for coffee and cafés kept her there for two years until she moved on to manage other juice bars. But calls from previous customers to let her know that the owners had left the coffee shop rekindled an interest for Childs.

At age 26, she put a bid down in August 2015 for the store and began her journey as a business owner.

After purchasing the space, Childs and her business partner immediately jumped into work.

All the tables and counters were built by Childs’s dad and friends. To add her own mark, Childs built the menu—not just what’s on it, but the physical menu posted behind the counter.

She spent three days nailing the frame together, repainting the board, and tediously, symmetrically writing out all the menu items.

During last Thanksgiving, another 18 hours went into it as Childs rearranged the menu with additions and changes.

She remains an active participant in the day-to-day operations of Broken Grounds, giving customers the same personal connection her family gave when building it.

The entire essence of the café focuses on impressing guests with the availability and accessibility of its healthy options, a core part of Childs’ background.

After becoming a vegan 14 years ago, she was focused on keeping Broken Grounds a meat-free zone.

As Childs created the menu, she wanted to provide customers with appealing vegetarian options, without forcing tofu and fake meat on them.  

Broken Grounds features a wide variety of juices, smoothies, and açaí bowls, as well as heartier dishes such as sandwiches, wraps, and salads.

In addition, local pastries are brought in every morning.

The menu also boasts quite a few coffee options that are all locally sourced from Jim’s Organic Coffee.

All of the menu options align with Childs’ philosophy regarding simple and wholesome food, but it still features enough that regardless of whether you eat meat, you are sure to find something on this menu that will satisfy almost any craving.

“I really do believe that Mother Nature is our best cook and that there is not really a whole lot that we have to do to change the food she provides,” Childs said.

Childs recognizes the Boston College community as a steady part of her patronage, making sure to point out that BC favorites are the “Strawberry Fields” açaí bowl and the breakfast burrito.

To make it more accessible to BC and the community, Broken Grounds now delivers through Foodler, Grubhub, and Doordash.

She believes this will eliminate the extra transportation cost that might inhibit students from making the trek out.

As the café gains increasing popularity in the community, Childs is optimistic about the opening of a second café within the next few years.

Watertown would be an ideal location, she said, so that it would be easy for her to travel back and forth between her two establishments.

And, while simultaneously running her café, Childs launched Manipura Body and Mind this past December—her company through which she sells high-quality vegan products such as body scrubs, balms, creams, etc.

Much like her philosophy about food, her Manipura products are created with wholesome, organic ingredients, and each harbors Reiki energy, which relates to the natural energy of the flow of life.

But for now, Childs’s main focus is her quaint, street-corner café, a place that she can finally call her own.

Featured Image by Simran Brar