Jin-Ya Huang BS’95 has spent a significant portion of her life in the food industry. Raised by refugees, the UT Dallas graduate and her family relocated from Taipei, Taiwan, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, when her parents were offered work at a relative’s restaurant. At 13, Huang learned the ins-and-outs of the restaurant business and was impacted by what she witnessed behind the scenes.
“I used to watch my mom train refugees and immigrants in the kitchen,” Huang said. “She was so mindful about it and intentional about teaching them job skills.”
After her parents purchased a fast-food franchise in Dallas, Huang’s parents moved her and her five sisters to the Metroplex for better educational and job opportunities.
Huang attended UT Dallas with the intention to major in international business before she switched her major to arts and humanities. Her artistic talent was the perfect fit for a career in advertising, an industry she spent years in as an art director and packaging manager for Neiman Marcus, JCPenney and most recently, Fossil.
“I thought for a long time when I left the restaurant business, ‘Never again will I touch food,’” Huang said.
And yet, in 2017, Huang felt called back to her roots after a dinner she planned to help tell the stories of refugee women in Dallas took on a life of its own.
“Initially it was just supposed to be an art project — a beautiful community dinner to have tough conversations about borders, identities and equality,” Huang said. “It turned into a catering business.”
In response to the success of the dinner, Huang created Break Bread, Break Borders, a catering business that offers food certification, training and mentorship to refugee women. Huang describes it as a for-profit social enterprise and nonprofit training program in one.
“I had seen this business model done throughout the world, I just didn’t see one here in our backyard,” Huang said.
Through Break Bread, Break Borders, Huang works with local refugee resettlement agencies to offer women on-the-job apprenticeships. Depending on the women’s goals, they can receive a food handler’s permit, a food manager’s license and mentoring from professional chefs, restaurant caterers and culinary consultants.
“We find experts in the business to mentor the women and help them learn about the commercial kitchen process,” Huang said. “We try to partner with different people who have the backgrounds to bring this whole village together.”
From birthday parties to conferences, workshops and personal events, the women work with chefs to set menus based on their own family recipes from their home countries. Traditional dishes like kebabs and hummus are usual crowd pleasers, but the women aren’t afraid to introduce diners to more adventurous options, too.
“It’s not any kind of food that you could consume at any Dallas restaurant,” Huang said. “We let their own recipes, heritage and culture shine.”
Each event is also an opportunity for the refugees to tell their stories and make connections with the communities they’re serving.
“Our program is not just about changing the cooks’ perspectives, but also the diners’ perspectives,” Huang said. “It’s about compassion building. We’re really focused on women and people of color, and amplifying the voices that aren’t being heard.”
Over the past two years, Break Bread, Break Borders has trained about 20 refugee women in the Dallas area, and Huang hopes that number continues to grow as she focuses on the business full time.
“For an average refugee to acclimate to a foreign country, it takes seven years,” Huang said. “We’ve seen it take two years. We served 9,000 people last year, and through that 60,000 have probably heard the refugees’ stories.”
Break Bread, Break Borders was recently accepted into an accelerator program through BBVA, which will allow Huang to network with other entrepreneurs and receive resources to increase the impact of the program as well as continue to make the business profitable. Huang was also accepted into the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, a six-month commitment that allows scholars to explore a personal leadership project, intended to solve a problem or pressing issue in their community, country or the world. Above all, Huang hopes she is able to continue to empower the refugee community while spreading social good.
“I have always felt like being an artist and entrepreneur, we have a job to do in society,” Huang said. “Our job is to tell the truth and stand up for the values that are core to society and the world.”
No matter what the growth of Break Bread, Break Borders might look like in the future, Huang is focused on building off of the groundwork her mother laid, before she lost her battle to cancer in 2015.
“My mom was removing the barriers to success for so many people,” Huang said. “Every day I strive to live up to that, to honor her legacy. That’s how Break Bread, Break Borders was born.”