Mariam Parker stands on the shoulders of the women who helped her become the passionate organizer she is today.
Photo by Chelsea Laine Francis
After graduating from the University of Texas, I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do with my career. So I took a job at a local bank, where I eventually met a great mentor in Sheila Bostick Lastrapes. In addition to taking me to some fabulous luncheons, she encouraged me to focus on my strengths and nudged me into facing challenges. She also made it a point to introduce me to dynamic and hardworking women. Including Melinda Garvey, the founder of Austin Woman magazine.
After meeting Garvey, I would faithfully grab a copy of the magazine each month so I could read about all of the wonderful women featured while trying to find myself in their stories. One day, in the December 2010 edition, I did. I happened upon an article about a culinary consultant named Cathy Cochran-Lewis. She worked with chefs and traveled the world doing marketing and PR. Eager to combine my marketing talents with a lifelong interest in the food world, I quickly emailed her and asked if she would consider an intern. I wanted to learn from her so badly I was willing to work for free. Though she kindly declined my offer, she did give me some invaluable advice and we stayed in touch.
A year or so went by and she reached out.
She asked me if I would consider being the interim executive director of a new nonprofit that would plan food events and give grants to local food businesses. I protested. I had never run a nonprofit nor planned an event for more than 200 people. She replied, “Let’s just see what happens.” Little did I know, she was handing me my dream job.
That nonprofit turned out to be the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, which became the Texas Food & Wine Alliance in 2020. For the past 10 years, I have had an opportunity to grow in unimaginable ways. Running a nonprofit in any industry isn’t easy or glamourous. But every day, I feel grateful to give back to the community. I work with incredibly talented chefs who are passionate about making an impact; plan an annual conference for high school students interested in pursuing a culinary career and work with amazing business owners, farmers, artisans and other professionals who are innovating the way we look at and appreciate food.
I can’t imagine being able to accomplish all that without having a supportive board, an incredible team and my mentor, Cathy, to back me on some of my crazy ideas. Through our efforts, we have hosted around 3,000 high school students and have given away over $362,500 in grants to support businesses, nonprofits and school programs. How cool is that? I still can’t believe I get to give money away for a living.
Last year, the alliance was set to have an incredible year…
…with record-breaking grant-giving and an expansion across Texas. Then the pandemic happened. After spending a few days (okay, a week) curled up in a ball, eating ice cream in bed and watching Tiger King, I decided that the only way for the organization to get through this difficult time was by focusing on what we could control. Just because we couldn’t plan culinary events didn’t mean we couldn’t continue helping others.
We planned bake sales to support local bakers and pastry chefs, rolled out a relief fund to help support some of our grant recipients, helped our friends at Good Work Austin apply for grants to fund their AISD partnership and supported programs like Austin Shift Meal that feed unemployed hospitality workers. That was just the beginning. We launched an online cooking show called Alliance Academy to showcase chefs and provide them with some revenue, and curated a holiday box featuring treats from Texas chefs. All the uncertainty was scary. But I still went with Cathy’s initial words of encouragement: “Let’s just see what happens.” It has frankly gotten me pretty far.
That included saying yes to continuing our expansion across the state.
Some folks may think it was a crazy idea. But I know that our organization can impact Texas food when this pandemic is over. Our friends in other cities need our support as they rebuild after the pandemic. There are so many amazing makers, farmers and food businesses who could use grants to help propel them to the next level.
If you asked me at 22 years old if I imagined this for myself, I would have thought you were out of your mind. But this is a classic Austin story. Many of our careers have been shaped by who we met along the way. I owe so much to the women who opened doors for me, believed in me even in those times I was uncertain of my own capabilities. In return, I consider it my duty and passion to pay it forward. Whether it’s a young high school student interested in being a grocery buyer, an artisan who needs a nudge or an employee who has immense potential, it has been a joy to “see what happens” with a new generation.