Today we’d like to introduce you to Cecilia Sibony.
Cecilia showed up in Israel in 2010, ready to change the world with her smile and positive attitude and after an 8-year journey, she’s still working to build peace in the Middle East, only now through a tahini business based in Los Angeles.
She thought peacebuilding would come easy because, after all, she learned everything she needed to know about conflict resolution since childhood: navigating conflicts in her family’s business, experiencing the hardships of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Israeli side and studying “Peace and Conflict Studies” and “Middle Eastern Studies” at Colgate University. Cecilia Sibony, conflict resolution specialist, social entrepreneur, and CEO/founder of Sesamaise Tahini, has been on a peacebuilding mission since childhood, because, as she said at age 4, “peace makes you happy.”
Upon graduating, instead of choosing the financial security afforded by the family business, Sibony moved to the Middle East to fulfill her lifelong passion. Armed with a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, she traveled North Africa and the Middle East discovering the stories of the “other” and learning to build bridges over these barriers. Sibony then spent 7 years in Israel and Palestine working with individuals and organizations on both sides of the Green Line. She worked with Israeli Jewish and Palestinian youth in a community center the in the mixed city of Jaffa and learned the importance of grassroots work and interpersonal relationship building. She worked with Israeli and Palestinian policy-makers to make Palestinian trade more efficient and co-founded a group of Israeli Jewish and Palestinian peace activists, who defined a shared society in Israel, helping to frame the way nonprofits in Israel work toward building one. Through all these experiences, she was struck by the limitations in achieving system-wide change, as peace was growing further away and people like her were increasingly ostracized.
In her Master’s at Tufts University, she crafted her own degree in peacebuilding and social entrepreneurship to address these challenges because of the latter’s potential to use the forces of the market to create scalable, systematic change. The missing piece of the puzzle fell into place as she realized, through all her work and studies, that the meaningful change they did manage to create was happening over food. Since 2016, Sesamaise Tahini has been making Tahini dips and snacks that are easy crowd pleasers and especially great for anyone on a plant-based and/or gluten-free diet. On the surface, they’re yummy healthy dips but Sibony has developed an innovative approach to Middle East conflict resolution by sourcing the Tahini directly from Palestinian and Israeli family businesses. Unlike other economic peace approaches, this powerful approach plans to use business incentives created by a consumer base that wants to vote for peace with their dollars to bring family businesses to the table, over something they both love – Tahini. On February 21st, 2018, Sesamaise is launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise enough money to be able to produce Tahini dips and snacks at scale and create the opportunities for cooperation.
In her off time, Sibony also offers conflict resolution workshops in Los Angeles, CA that offer participants tools to work through hard conversations and conflicts in their own relationships.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Whenever I hit a snag in the road, I always remind myself that if it was smooth and easy, it probably would have been done already! 🙂
I have had personal struggles in pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace for years because I come from a family that is more traditional and politically conservative. One of the greatest struggles and accomplishments I have achieved as a conflict resolution specialist was to learn how to speak with my relatives about the political issues we don’t agree on without letting it deteriorate into fighting. It really is beautiful, though, because it has allowed me to understand, appreciate and not judge their opinions because I learned the experiences that led to them. We can now communicate from a place of respect and curiosity, even while we disagree.
Of course, there were professional struggles face by any peace activist/builder trying to resolve an intractable social conflict. Mainly, I think that organizational inertia and despair/lack of hope were the greatest struggles I faced when working in peace non-profit organizations in the Middle East.
In building a peacebuilding food business, probably the greatest struggle has been the sheer fact of learning everything from scratch. Many different aspects of creating and growing a food business are experiences I’ve never had before, so there’s been a ton of trial and error, consulting and learning from anyone that will meet me and talk to me and learning from mistakes. I assume that the real great challenge will arise when I finally have enough sales and financial incentives to bring these Israeli and Palestinian families to the table together to figure out how they will work together to meet the demand we generated. These are families that are not only enemies, but also competitors, so it will take some real, deep conflict resolution work and financial incentives to help them see that they have more to gain from working together than by going it alone.
Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Sesamaise Tahini – what should we know?
I summarized the company earlier, but in terms of what we specialize in: plant-based snacks made from tahini from Israeli and Palestinian family businesses and only real, pronounceable ingredients. Our flagship line of products is a line of dipping sauces in 3 flavors (Tangy Original, Creamy Pesto and Spicy Enough Tahini Dips). We also sell 5-ingredient, guilt-free, vegan fudge and power bars.
Part of what makes us unique is that every part of our company derives from some innovation- our products are adaptations/innovations of classic Middle Eastern food and snacks and our peacebuilding and collaborative supply chain model is an innovation on economic cooperation for peace theories of change. For example, we learned from Middle Easterners that you can put Tahini on everything, so we developed our dips so that they can be used in so many different ways. Our customers tell us that they ultimately become the only/last sauce they’ll ever need- they use them as a dip, dressing, spread, sauce and even roast veggies with them, making “boring food taste amazing.” They’re creamy without having any dairy in them and so nutrient-packed that they are actually filling and satisfying. While a couple of Middle Eastern companies sell a ready-made Tahini sauce, most of them are packed with chemicals and none of them offer them in the flavors we do.
As a company, I am most proud of sticking to our guns and being true to our tagline of “Real Food. Real Change.” We will not use chemicals in our food and we will not sacrifice our peace and change mission for profit. Period.
Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
First, my parents. I first learned the value of hard work from them. They built their business with blood, sweat and tears and they are my inspiration to work harder every day. Not to mention, they have supported my business since its inception. My mother and I even developed all of the recipes together.
My husband, Ohad Stadler, has been a constant cheerleader, co-founder, co-schlepper, taste-tester and supporter through all of this. He’s the one who pushed me to take the first leap, when I was terrified to do so, and start the business. I couldn’t have done it without him.
I’ve had a slew of professors and mentors in the peacebuilding field, who have given me the space, allowed me the opportunity to and encouraged me to reimagine an entire field and dare to change a conflict that some say has lasted 2,000 years. I am forever indebted to these professors and mentors from Colgate University and the Fletcher School, specifically, Profs. Noor Khan and Daniel Monk, Eileen Babbitt and Nathalie Kylander.
I have been working with the Rebecca Borough and her wonderful digital marketing agency, Knit Marketing, for the last couple of weeks and I cannot believe what a godsend they have been. Plus, the fact they are a mission-driven business as well means that we are aligned ideologically and values-wise. It’s a perfect fit!
- Our dips retail from $4-9, depending on the size and flavor, and are available for pick up at the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Main Street and for pre-order nationwide through our crowdfunding campaign (see more at www.sesamaise.com).
- Address: 6337 Primrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90068
- Website: www.tahinitogether.com
- Phone: 7325475120
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: www.instagram.com/sesamaise
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/sesamaise
- Twitter: www.twitter.com/sesamaise
Udi Katzman, Claire Oring