It seems surprising that Tsunami Sushi Managing Partner Michele Ezell, who practically introduced sushi to her hometown of Lafayette, La., then later expanded to Baton Rouge and New Orleans, felt undeserving when selected to join the prestigious James Beard Foundation Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program (WEL).
Although, it “was humbling beyond measure,” she said, “of course, I went through the ‘I am not worthy’ process and really had to do some soul searching before accepting the invitation. Considering the women of past graduating classes “such rock stars,” Ezell didn’t feel worthy of her nomination. Rather, she said, “I saw myself as a mutt in a gang of Best in Show. Then the reality of the opportunity being mine to take settled in and I YOLO’d.” Ezell’s “you only live once” mantra opened doors to personal and professional growth.
Of the 120 professionals nominated, Ezell was one of 25 female business owners and chefs selected to join the 2020 class. Developed with Babson College — a private business school renowned for growing business leaders through entrepreneurship education — the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program focuses on education, mentorship, leadership development, business expansion, and management skills, among other practices.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the usual intensive week-long, in-person, on-campus course in Wellesley, Massachusetts, was restructured as an online Zoom course. “We were all disappointed that we were not able to be together to build community and connect, but looking back on the experience, we were able to take our daily coursework directly into our business and apply best practices, and then discuss the following week,” Ezell explained.
“We drilled down on finances, business model, brand management, value positioning, communication, culture, leadership, growth. We had coaches who were experts in their field during all coursework, and because it was all done virtually, Babson and James Beard were able to have some of the most incredible coaches like Ziad Moukheiber (CEO of Boston Harbor Angels, a lead angel investing group in the Unites States), Rohini Dey (co-founder of the WEL program, Chicago and Manhattan restaurateur, and advocate for women in the culinary industry), and Sarah Gavigan (2019 WEL fellow, Nashville restaurateur and chef, and author).
Ezell said her biggest take-away as a WEL fellow is access to resources. “Being a phone call or text away from 20-plus women in my industry across the country to ask a question or get advice is extraordinary.”