26 Jan 2015
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The Ingredients for Success

Launching a culinary school in New Orleans takes everything Carol Ahn Markowitz learned at HBS, and a pinch more.
Re: Meredith Uram (MBA 2014); Andrew Dunckelman (MBA 2014)
by Tyler Bridges

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Carol Ahn Markowitz

Photo by Ben Depp / Getty Images

Carol Ahn Markowitz’s gambit was in trouble.

It was mid-2013, two years after she and her songwriter husband had left their life in Los Angeles for New Orleans with visions of being part of the city’s post-Hurricane Katrina revival. But even after serving a year as Entrepreneur-in-Residence for the Idea Village, an anchor organization for the emerging entrepreneurial movement in New Orleans, Markowitz (MBA 2003) struggled to find a decent job there. With an HBS degree and a background in corporate finance, she seemed overqualified for almost everything she explored. She and her husband, Donny, thought they might have to return to Los Angeles.

Through the Idea Village, Markowitz met Ti Martin, one of New Orleans’ leading restaurateurs. The two met for a lunch and talked about her options and the city’s needs. That meeting eventually led to her being selected as executive director of a new public-private partnership to launch the city’s first cooking school. Within a few months of her hire, the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute (NOCHI) had purchased an abandoned, 93,000-square-foot building in downtown New Orleans, and today is developing a $33 million facility that will open in two years and serve both would-be chefs and culinary tourists.

It is both a heady and scary time for Markowitz, who has to wear many new hats at once to create this project.

“This job is different because I’m now responsible for everything, not just the finances,” Markowitz notes. “I’m now in charge of a large-scale construction project, developing our team, developing ongoing partnerships with university administrators, managing my board, and even making sure the plumber unclogs drains in the building. In a weird, strange way, it’s exhilarating to use every weapon I have.”

Markowitz says what she learned at HBS comes into play every day in New Orleans.

“At HBS, I developed critical thinking skills that allow me to think, do, and learn—all at the same time,” she says.

Markowitz’s current venture is a far cry from her start in the business world. After graduating from Stanford University, she wanted hands-on experience and accepted a job managing a Pacific Bell call-center with 25 union employees, all of whom were older than Markowitz: at age 21, during her first week, she had to fire an employee.

The job was a difficult but useful learning experience.

“I knew I didn’t have embedded authority from my age, so I had to earn their respect,” Markowitz explains.

The job also helped her begin to develop a core value: “I try to respect everyone as a human being. You can’t succeed unless you understand all perspectives.”

Markowitz moved into corporate finance but, uninspired by the telecom industry, entered HBS with the goal of using her time there to find the career she truly wanted. After graduation, she returned to California and held a series of finance jobs in the fashion and apparel industry.

Restless again, it was then that she and Donny moved to New Orleans. They didn’t know anyone there and did little research before the move. But stories of the city’s recovery—and the HBO series Tremé, which captured its rollicking lifestyle—fired their imagination. With two small children in tow, the couple bought a five-bedroom house in New Orleans for less than the cost of her much-smaller condo in Los Angeles.

Markowitz, now 39, believes she’s found her true passion as NOCHI’s executive director.

“I’m attracted to creative people,” she says. “I think sequentially and logically. I’m bottom-line driven, black and white. It’s stimulating to me to think about something in a different way.”

Markowitz was surrounded by creative types recently as she presented NOCHI’s plans to a group that included restaurant owners, tourism officials, chefs, and food business entrepreneurs. Ti Martin stood up to introduce Markowitz. Martin’s family owns several major restaurants—including the Crescent City landmark Commander’s Palace—and Martin is the president of NOCHI’s board.

“Carol has an unbelievable background,” Martin told the crowd, and then paused. “But the hell with that,” she remarked, encouraging Markowitz to just get started.

Markowitz spoke in calm, assured tones while she delivered a PowerPoint presentation. The institute, she explained, would partner with Delgado Community College in New Orleans, which will expand its existing culinary studies program. The institute also will offer short-term classes to people who want to learn basic cooking skills to get a start in the industry and to existing cooks who want to qualify for better jobs—programs that don’t exist in New Orleans today.

The institute will also offer culinary tourism classes, something not currently available for visitors to New Orleans.

“We might offer single-day courses, week-long boot camps, or team-building activities for conventions,” she says.

Markowitz notes that two HBS students—Meredith Uram (MBA 2014) and Andrew Dunckelman (MBA 2014)—helped to orient her and her board away from their original plan to have NOCHI include an executive chef program. The students’ analysis showed that the biggest need was more basic.

“There’s a significant unmet demand for restaurant workers,” she said.

The culinary school will be housed in a failed venture in downtown New Orleans known as ArtWorks that cost taxpayers about $20 million to build. NOCHI bought the building in April for $6.2 million and plans to spend another $16.5 million to retrofit the building.

Beyond the money they already have, Markowitz and her board will need to raise an additional $18.5 million. All in all, they are off to a good start: the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers has promised to fill the five-story building with $5 million of kitchen equipment.

For the board, Martin says, Markowitz’s role is essential.

“We all have an idea a minute,” Martin observes. “She helps to focus us. She gets the bigger, broader picture.”

One person Markowitz has yet to win over, however, is her mother.

“She equates success entirely with money,” says Markowitz, who is Korean-American. “She asks: ‘Why aren’t you a Wall Street executive or a big management consultant?’”

Markowitz’s answer: “I’m ok that I’m not. I’m doing something meaningful that can help a community of people for a lifetime. That, I say, is a success story.”

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