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Rising Stars: Meet Michelle Cait

Today we’d like to introduce you to Michelle Cait.

Hi Michelle, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I am the Director of ShemeshFarms, a very unique and special social enterprise. ShemeshFarms is an initiative of Shalom Institute located in Malibu. Shalom Institute enriches Jewish life, ensures the Jewish future, and makes the world a better place through transformative experiences. We began our social enterprise, ShemeshFarms, around eight years ago because there was a need, and still a need, for young adults with diverse abilities and special needs to find community, friendship, purpose and meaningful work once they age out of the school system.

Our enterprise began with 5 Farm Fellows, young adults with diverse abilities, who were hired by ShemeshFarms to work on site at Shalom Institute and build a social enterprise together. We knew that we wanted our enterprise to involve having the Farm Fellows work in tandem with our farm and create a product that we could sell at local Farmers Markets.

Like any start up, we explored ideas, tried out products, and experienced a lot of trial and error. We made bath salts using herbs from our garden, followed by organic lip balms, then we baked rosemary challah, and we created succulent arrangements in ceramic pots to sell. We even created garden stones with recycled Malibu tile. We sold all of these, as well as some of our produce that we grew at our Farm, at local Farmers Markets. But what we learned pretty fast is that if we were going to brand ourselves, we had to be known for one thing. That one thing evolved into our team of Farm Fellows producing a high-end, organic, and kosher certified salt blend and spice line.

Everything we curate is by hand, and all of our spices are grown on our land at ShemeshFarms, then harvested, dried, crushed and curated into delicious salt blends and spices. We needed more hands on deck so we hired more Farm Fellows and quickly grew from a team of 5 to a team of 60 Farm Fellows.

Our incredible partners at Aurelia Foundation’s day program, Creative Steps, collaborate with us to ensure we hire amazing Farm Fellows. Creative Steps provides each Farm Fellow with a job/life coach as well as transportation. Regardless of Farm Fellows abilities, we make sure to pair each person at a cool work module that resonates with them. In fact, each Farm Fellow chooses how they want to contribute when they arrive to work at ShemeshFarms. Some Farm Fellows enjoy working in the garden, others prefer curating our salt blends and spices in the kitchen, and some employees enjoy working in our packaging and shipping department helping to manage fulfilling orders from our online store. With hard work and grit, we’ve built a meaningful social enterprise!

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
A smooth road?? No, we’ve had our share of struggles and out of the ordinary challenges. Our Farm Fellows, bright and adaptable individuals with autism, physical challenges, and neurodiverse, are incredibly resilient and have continued to show up to work and contribute with dedication despite our challenges. We have always endured because of our team’s dedication. In 2018, our entire Shalom Institute camp and retreat center was completely devastated by the Woolsey fire. It was a painful loss to have our entire property go up in flames. Everyone had to pivot and ShemeshFarms was fortunate to have the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue open their arms to us. We moved our entire ShemeshFarms operation to MJCS and rebooted at their site. The Shalom Institute Board of Directors, and our Partners and supporters at Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, and The Foundation of Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, as well as all of our supporters such as the Erwin Rautenberg Foundation, The Diane and Guillford Glazer Philanthropiees, Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary and individual donors were behind us. We were able to raise money to purchase six aeroponic garden towers from the incredible distribution company LA Urban Farms. These garden towers allowed us to reboot very quickly. We were able to grow our herbs from the towers and teach the Farm Fellows how to maintain them. At the same time, we began to create our own urban garden on site at the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue. In addition, we have available to us on site a kosher industrial sized kitchen for our team to curate our delicious salt blend recipes. Within around a few months, we were up and running again and selling our spice line and increasing our sales rapidly. Each morning, we start our day with a business meeting that our whole team attends, comprised of Farm Fellows, coaches, our volunteers and interns.

From there, everyone chooses which work module they will be working at. At the end of our work day we reassemble together for our wrap up meeting sharing with each other how we contributed that day to bring value to the enterprise. Each Farm Fellow is seen, heard, and valued, as well as all of our volunteers, coaches and anyone who engages in our enterprise. With joyful flexibility, we carry on, that is our motto at ShemeshFarms. Our next big challenge was of course the pandemic. Again we had to pivot and hold our business meetings online and continue to engage our team in meaningful ways. We decided to focus on marketing and we began to make commercials together from our own homes through videos and we also launched a cooking and gardening show on Instagram Live. Our online sales soared and we had an incredible group of volunteers who practiced Covid safety protocols and helped out each week behind the scenes on site to make sure our operation was in motion and sales shipped out. During the pandemic, we also created our very own ShemeshFarms: The Cookbook. We had a sub committee comprised of a few Farm Fellows, volunteers and a food blogger/ chef to work on this special cookbook project. With joyful flexibility and a very strong ShemeshFarms work culture and infrastructure, we were able to rise up even during these very difficult times and continue to sell our spices and continue innovating.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
Prior to ShemeshFarms, I’ve worked as an Entrepreneur and a Creative Arts Therapist. I really enjoy leading groups and teams of people. Each group or team has a life of its own and I’ve learned that building a strong group culture makes team members feel a real sense of belonging and that is key. I believe that a strength of mine is my intuition, as well as my ability to meet people where they are and truly see them, hear them, and connect with them. Once team members feel valued, they are willing to meet higher expectations and truly surpass their original expectations of themselves. I’d like to think what sets me apart is my ability to lead with kindness, yet I hold a strong conviction for success and particularly, collaborative success.

What was your favorite childhood memory?
My favorite childhood memory is playing sports on our front lawn. Depending on the season, we’d play baseball, football, badminton to name a few. I loved having all the kids in our neighborhood gather together at our house organically and play pick-up games and sports until the sun went down. We just learned how to get along and work things out. We also figured out how to lose and win gracefully.

Pricing:

  • ShemeshFarms Salt blends and Spices – $10-$12
  • ShemeshFarms Malibu Raw Honey -$18
  • ShemeshFarms:The Cookbook -$36

Contact Info:

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