When Hawa Sultani turned down medical school, she took a year off to do some serious soul searching.
Growing up as a first-generation Afghan immigrant in Queens, New York, Hawa’s dream had always been to help people like her. She had grown up without health insurance, and she wanted to help others get the care they needed. But after some experience in the healthcare industry, she realized that the inequities she wanted to fight were systemic.
“I learned that there are many larger factors at play in terms of why certain populations aren’t getting healthcare,” Hawa tells Poets&Quants.
Hawa knew she wanted to make a difference in the world, to help provide equal opportunity for women and persons of color. In 2018, she quit her job, went traveling — and asked herself some hard questions.
“The reality is, many of us haven’t questioned what we want, what drives us, and what our values are,” she says. “I needed to figure out what my purpose in life was.”
Little did she know that she would find that purpose upon her return home, at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Sacramento, California.
CREST CAFE: RUN BY WOMEN REFUGEES
In 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession when many businesses were going bankrupt, Hawa’s mother Monira traded in her role as a stay-at-home mom to become the owner of Crest Cafe, a small restaurant on K Street in downtown Sacramento. “No one was buying a business at that time, but my mom did it anyway,” Hawa laughs.
Despite limited English skills and no prior experience, Monira Sultani’s passion for food drove her to build Crest into a thriving business — one that her daughter says built a “cult-like following,” its modern Mediterranean menu drawing dedicated customers from all over the city. Hawa says people have driven two hours just to get Crest’s nachos.
As good as it was, it wasn’t the food that created the biggest shift in Hawa’s life — and completely changed the trajectory of her career. It was the cafe’s employees, the majority of whom are refugee women from Afghanistan, with a smaller number from Syria, Iraq, and Russia.
When Hawa returned from her travels, she visited her mom at Crest Cafe and found a line out the door. Her interest was immediately piqued; she wondered how such a tiny eatery, with an outdated register and hardly any marketing, could be so successful. When she sat down at a table, she spoke to the employees, some of whom had worked there for more than eight years. She soon realized that Crest Cafe was more than just a workplace — it was a home, and the staff were a family.
The women’s stories were inspirational — and harrowing. They had left war-torn countries suffering from trauma and PTSD, and with children to support. Hawa suddenly knew her next step: She was going to grow her mom’s business and provide opportunities, on a larger scale, for refugee women to rebuild their lives.
While her mother first declined her offer to help, Hawa wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I just started working there without her permission,” she laughs. “I wasn’t getting paid a dollar and I was living off of my savings, but I loved everything about it.”
CHANGING GENERATIONS TO COME
After Hawa developed Crest’s brand identity and social media presence, her mom eventually agreed to letting her officially work at the restaurant, and named her Head of Brand. “She was still confused about why I turned down medical school,” Hawa says. “But once she saw the momentum I was building, she realized the value of having me on the team.”
In the 13 years that the Sultani family has owned Crest Cafe, it has not only become a safe space that helps refugee women rebuild their lives; it has also become a driver of change for generations to come.
“A lot of women in the Afghan community became homemakers, and the father is the figure that goes out and provides,” Hawa says. “The opportunity for women to work helps my community to know that women can get an education, become financially independent, and meet up to everyone’s expectations with grace, resilience, and brilliance.”
For the first time in her life, Hawa saw herself in the women she was surrounded by.
“Growing up, my journey always felt so incredibly lonely; I never saw someone I could relate to or look up to as a role model,” she says. “These women are so inspiring to me. They’re my motivation. They’re my drive. Despite what they’ve gone through, every day they come into the business and treat it as if it’s their own.”
MORE THAN BUSINESS: FAMILY
Hawa’s mom treats her employees like relatives, and goes above and beyond a restaurant owner’s responsibilities; she helps solve immigration issues, steps in with childcare, and picks up their kids from school. “I think my mom did all of that because she resonated with the challenges of being a mom, a daughter, or a sister in a country where we don’t know the language and there aren’t many resources for us,” Hawa says.
“I’ve learned a lot from my mom as I’ve watched her run Crest Cafe. She says that at the end of the day, you have to treat your employees better than you treat anyone because your employees are the engine of your business. You need to make sure your employees love your business and care about it as if it’s their own.”
Since those from war-torn countries are often disempowered in their rights to education, it’s more difficult to get work. The Crest Cafe team helps to give refugee women work opportunities — no matter what their English level or circumstances — by sourcing employees from local advertisements within the refugee community and Lao Family Community Development Inc., which is an organization that supports diverse incoming refugees, immigrants, and low-income U.S.-born people in achieving financial self-sufficiency.
Crest Cafe also works with an organization called Read2Lead, and provides some of their monthly profits to help support families and orphans in Afghanistan.
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