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Solving life’s challenges in the kitchen with Co-Creator of the Zen of Slow Cooking and Yogini LLC Founder Meg Barnhart

“Dining together can radically shift people’s perspectives: It reduces people’s perceptions of inequality, and diners tend to view those of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than they would in other social scenarios.” Meg began her career in the mid-1980s in sales for the hospitality business at The Drake Hotel in Chicago. […]

“Dining together can radically shift people’s perspectives: It reduces people’s perceptions of inequality, and diners tend to view those of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than they would in other social scenarios.”

Meg began her career in the mid-1980s in sales for the hospitality business at The Drake Hotel in Chicago. After her husband, Steve, finished graduate school they relocated from Chicago: first to Philadelphia and eventually to Florida. During these years, Meg shifted gears and began working in event management with Reed Exhibition Companies. One of her favorite clients was the International Fancy Food Show. As her family grew, she formed her own event planning business in 1993. In 2003, they returned to the Chicagoland area with their three children Phil, Doug and Lucy. In 2012, she launched Yogini LLC and co-created the zen of slow cooking with her business partner, Jane McKay.

As a parent of a child with complex learning challenges, Meg is a passionate advocate for children with learning disabilities. She served on the Board of the Central Florida Learning Disabilities Association, and on the board and as President of the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Learning Disabilities Association.

Meg received the Business Leadership Award from the Specialty Food Association. She and Jane have also earned awards for their commitment to employing adults with developmental disabilities, as well as the Specialty Food Association’s 2017 sofi award for best new spice.

When Meg isn’t experimenting in the kitchen with one of Jane’s delicious creations or selling one of their Zen spice blends, you’ll find her enjoying her family, on her yoga mat, watching old movies or traveling the globe.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you please share your “backstory” with us?

In 2012 I had a vision and a dream. I wanted to create a business that would employ individuals with learning challenges; adults like my son, Doug. When I started slow cooking in 2006 to ease my mom-guilt and get a healthy dinner on the table, I never imagined that six years later, the slow cooker would become the vehicle to achieve that dream.

When I created the business, I began looking for a partner to turn my dream into a reality. My friend and employment consultant, Joanie Munch, called during this time to say, “I met a young mom named Jane McKay. I think she’s the person you’ve been searching for.”

Jane had just moved to Chicago from the UK and was developing recipes and writing for a local food artisan. When I met her a few weeks later, it was clear that she was the person I had been looking for and that we were meant to co-create the zen of slow cooking together.

In the fall of 2012, we launched the zen of slow cooking food blog. The blog shares both my passion for helping people find a little more Zen in the kitchen with Jane’s desire to create whole food recipes for the slow cooker. As our subscribers grew in numbers, drawn by our contemporary twist on slow cooking, Jane and I knew we were onto something.

Using our most widely searched recipes coupled with customer requests, we created even more simplicity for the home cook. In the fall of 2013, we debuted a series of gourmet inspired spice blends at the Lake Forest Farmer’s Market. The blends consisted of a tin of single-use spices, a featured recipe and a shopping list. To our amazement and delight, we sold out all of the tins in the first week; blended more and started receiving email orders after the market closed for the season. By year-end we had sold over 1,000 blends.

The sheer volume of sales meant we needed to move from being a “cottage industry” to an operating company. We found our workforce by partnering with Planet Access Company (PAC.) PAC provides training and employment for adults with developmental disabilities.

What role did mindfulness or spiritual practice play in your life growing up? Do you have a funny or touching story about that?

I grew up in a small suburb north of Chicago. We lived across the street from our non-denominational community church. Our village was interwoven with church, so it was an integral part of my life. My father was a family doctor, so it was not an unusual occurrence for people to drop by our house after church for their annual flu shot. My mother ran the church’s rummage sale, which supported various mission projects around the Chicagoland area. It was so much a part of my life, that the first phone number I learned was for the church office. When I called the church, I would simply ask to speak to “Mom.” The church secretary always seemed to know who was calling!

Having a faith-based life has been at the core of my journey. Incorporating spirituality and mindfulness as essential practices into my daily life evolved after I had children.

How do your mindfulness or spiritual practices affect your business and personal life today?

As the Founder/Co-Creator of a social impact business, my personal and professional life are completely intertwined. I’m fortunate to have a home office. Without a daily commute, it is simple for me to start each morning with a 20-minute meditation. With clarity of mind, I’m able to create focused intention for my day. Co-creating this social impact business has allowed me the opportunity to infuse a purpose into my work each day. Whether it’s working with a young mom, who is trying to figure out how to get food on the table; supporting our Zen team, who are out helping to spread a little Zen; or creating employment for an adult with a developmental challenge, who is looking for a pathway toward independence — all of these have created a sense of purpose and intention in my life and work.

Do you find that you are more successful or less successful because of your integration of spiritual and mindful practices? Can you share an example or story about that with us?

I don’t think there is anything that really compares to a daily practice of calming the mind. It prepares you to be more present to your work and team. It allows for more creativity and brings a sense of calm to your leadership.

My business partner and I were recently faced with an extremely challenging business situation. We were picked up by a large grocery chain, who essentially ignored our advice on the best way to merchandise and promote our products. We became overstocked in a variety of locations, which didn’t make sense for our brand. As such, we ended up with excess inventory in various warehouses. Following that challenge, we were offered placement in an even larger retailer. After carefully considering our numbers and based on our recent experience, we decided that we weren’t in a position to work with this other retailer and very thoughtfully declined their offer. It was a very tough business decision for us and one that we didn’t take lightly.

When we shared our decision with our category manager at that retailer, he said, “We really want you to join us.” His enthusiasm and commitment helped us create a pathway to become part of their brand reset.

It was an amazing experience that demonstrated to us the continual need to be OK with “letting go,” but simultaneously being present to the opportunities that lay ahead.

What would you say is the foundational principle for one to “lead a good life”? Can you share a story that illustrates that?

This might sound esoteric, but I would suggest that people step back and reflect to discover and define what “leading a good life” means to them. For me, having a child who faced a myriad of learning challenges gave me an opportunity to really evaluate what a good life looks like.

Some questions I asked myself: What will it mean, if my child can never play with his brother or sister? How will our family thrive, if we are so fragmented? What does it mean to be successful?

All of these thoughts poured through my mind at a very early stage of my parenting journey and forced to me to examine my beliefs of what it means to have a truly good life. For me, it’s waking up each and every day trying to do my part to make the world a little better.

Can you share a story about one of the most impactful moments in your spiritual/mindful life?

Yes — I remember a moment when my children were all running around the dinner table and I just lost it.

In that moment, I clearly realized that, if I wanted to change the energy in my house, I needed to change. It was at that time that I called a dear friend to ask for her help and she suggested I buy a “Crock-Pot.” I know it sounds amusing, but that little device became a vehicle for healing and health in my home. It gave me a way to bring my family to the dinner table over a daily home cooked meal. It provided an opportunity for me to slow down and savor the aroma.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Absolutely — my parents. They were both committed to serving in a variety of ways. My father was the “town” family doctor so our home was a place, where people came to be comforted and heard. My mother was gorgeous, bright, bold and fearless. She was active and participatory in everything she did; she ran her first political campaign, when I was four years old. My parents were role models for leading lives with integrity, kindness, humility and generosity. They encouraged me and my siblings to do our best and empowered all of us to take risks. From their perspective, living enthusiastically, taking personal responsibility, being kind and considerate, and telling the truth always trumped getting good grades in school.

I’ll never forget one gorgeous sunny day in Florida, when my mother and I were looking at the sunset. I had just received a series of dismal diagnoses about my (then) 3-year-old son, Doug, and was feeling very sad. As I shared my feelings with my mom she said “Can’t you see the beautiful evening?” I responded with “My glass is half-full; can’t you understand that?”

She quietly replied, “Margaret, if it’s something you can’t solve, it’s not a problem. It’s a fact.”

At the time I was fatigued and annoyed by her comment. But over time, I understood her wisdom. In business/life we often try to solve a challenge by pushing through it. Sometimes it’s better to sit back and fully evaluate the situation at hand.

Can you share 3 or 4 pieces of advice about how leaders can create a very “healthy and uplifting” work culture?

I would encourage business leaders to spend some time creating guiding principles for their business. It can be a challenging process as it requires an investment of time and energy to evaluate one’s core values. However, once it’s done, these principles provide an excellent way to build a corporate culture, create a solid team, and evaluate key business decisions.

I would also encourage today’s leaders to spend time understanding what motivates their team. By leading a social impact enterprise, we have naturally attracted people to our company, who are more motivated by making a difference in the world, than by making a big salary. As such, we work to create impact events, where they can go out into the community to cook/teach. Everyone on our team is motivated by helping people.

Before each team meeting, we allow everyone to take 15–30 seconds to describe a high/low in their life, so they are prepared and ready to engage in the discussion.

StrengthsFinders is an excellent and affordable tool. We have someone who is a Certified StrengthsFinder Coach, who works with each potential team member to make sure they are ready to embrace our culture. We also spend a lot of time helping people marry their strengths to the tasks at hand.

I am begin believer and actively involved in the movement of conscious capitalism. My business partner and I made it a goal to become a Certified B Corporation. It’s a rigorous process, but well worth the time and energy. There are about 2,500 Certified B Corporations around the globe — each committed to the principle that “for profit” businesses can be a force for good in the world. B Corp offers a free assessment tool on their website. I would strongly suggest today’s leaders go through the assessment as it will help them understand how they can offer a higher level of inspired leadership.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement, that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We are working hard to create a dialogue around the shared meal. Our business is devoted to helping people slow down and connect over the shared meal.

There was a terrific article in The Atlantic a few years ago, The Importance of Eating Together. To quote from the article, “dining together can radically shift people’s perspectives: It reduces people’s perceptions of inequality, and diners tend to view those of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than they would in other social scenarios.” It’s been shown that family dinners build relationships, and children do better in school.

I truly believe this. Steve and I bring people into our home each month to break bread. It’s offered us an opportunity to create deeper connections within our community and a fabulous way to deepen friendships with our neighbors.

How can people follow you and find out more about you?

Please join us on our slow cooking journey at www.thezenofslowcooking.com where you will find recipes, words of inspiration and purchase our spice blends so you too can slow down and savor the moment.

About the author: Jacob Rupp is a coach, author, speaker, podcaster, and rabbi. He is the founder of Lift Your Legacy, a community that helps people live a more authentic life. He has a regular, syndicated column that appears in ThriveGlobal and Authority magazine. To learn more about him or to listen to the Lift Your Legacy podcast, search iTunes or visit his site: liftyourlegacy.live

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