Growing up in Seattle, Jude Watson found a passion for community organizing by working with queer youth to find spaces to meet, hang out, and access social services. Watson (they, them, theirs) helped start the first youth-led LGBT community center in their hometown. Later, as a chef who largely learned their trade by working in Seattle kitchens, they co-founded Cooks for Black Lives Matter, a community-supported agriculture enterprise that has raised more than $100,000 to date.
Watson, now an MBA ‘23 at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, didn’t always picture themselves in business school. But their success with Cooks for BLM made them realize that they could claim entrepreneurship — and social entrepreneurship in particular — as part of their identity.
“I’m so deeply happy to be at Berkeley Haas and have such an incredible group of peers doing really powerful social change work,” Watson tells Poets&Quants.
Watson is also Haas’ MBA Association student body president. Though Watson would love to be proven wrong, they believe they are the first-ever out transgender person to be the student president of an MBA program.
Poets&Quants spoke with Watson about social entrepreneurship, Pride Month, trans visibility in business school, and what comes next. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a little about your background.
I’ve lived in Seattle my entire life until I moved to Berkeley for grad school. I had a very progressive family who was very involved in the community in a lot of different ways.
Growing up, I became more aware that I was queer and sought out other queer young people. At the time, there were some very extensive queer youth organizing in Seattle around gaining more spaces outside of school GSAs (gay-straight alliances) for queer young people to be able to meet each other, hang out, and access social services that they needed. So I got very involved in youth organizing and helped start the first youth led LGBT community center in Seattle, called Queer Youth Space. I got to learn how community organizing works, about fundraising, and honestly, just got a pretty extensive crash course in running an organization. It was a great experience for me to learn what I loved and what I was good at, which was motivating people towards a common goal around social change. It became clear early that was what I was passionate about.
At what age did you start to realize you were queer?
Pretty young, maybe like 12 or 13, I would say. I initially came out as gay because I’d hadn’t really met trans adults as a kid. It’s very hard to imagine possibilities for yourself when you haven’t seen them. Through organizing with Queer Youth Space, I met a lot of trans adults and gender expansive people in general, for the first time. I met other trans youth as well. It was very helpful for me to be like, okay, there are people out there living such a wider variety of lives than I had imagined before, and I started identifying more with being non binary or gender expansive at that point.
Career-wise, what were you doing before considering business school?
I basically did a lot of social work, student and community organizing with queer young people until I was about 20, maybe 21. I had been attracted to having a career in the trades for a long time, but had fallen into doing community organizing just because it was something I was so passionate about. So at that point, I took a very abrupt left turn, got a job as a prep cook at a local restaurant, and then worked my way up for the next six, seven years to become a chef in fine dining.
It was a wild experience: A lot of the hard things that you hear about kitchens are true for workers. There are things I really really loved about it– like the degree to which you feel so ride or die with the people you work with because you go through so many intense things together. At the end of every shift, you know whether you won or you lost. It’s almost like a sports game. You’re either like, “Yeah, we did an amazing job. I’m so proud of us.” Or you’re like, “Wow, that was horrible, something has to change.” I really enjoyed the challenge of it and how close I felt to other people. In kitchens, you really are judged by how hard you work and what you bring to the team. It was a very affirming place for me in a lot of ways, but it was also not a sustainable workplace for me over time. I’m so glad I spent the time there, but I realized at some point that I needed to find a less high burnout route in my life.
What are some of the kitchens you worked in during this time?
I was a sous chef at Stateside restaurant in Seattle, which was a fine dining Vietnamese restaurant when the pandemic hit. For a while, basically all fine dining was dead. So, then, I was an emergency meals chef at FareStart, which is a large culinary social enterprise in Seattle that helps formerly homeless or incarcerated people develop skills in the foodservice industry. I was working as a culinary instructor and helping with emergency meals during COVID as well.
Did you have any formal training or did you learn it on the job in the kitchens you worked?
I did a year of culinary school at the Seattle Central Community College.
Tell us about Cooks for BLM.
When the pandemic started and fine dining basically shut down, it was obviously around the same time as George George Floyd’s murder. There was a lot of incredible, very powerful community organizing that was happening around the country around police brutality, and anti black racism that I wanted to support. In the past, some friends and I had hosted large dinners and would invite people we knew to do one-off, pop up fundraising dinners for different social issues that we were passionate about like immigration rights. Obviously, a large dinner wasn’t an option during the pandemic.
So I was brainstorming with my friend, Max Goldstein, who was a cook with me at Stateside. We were trying to figure out what the alternative to that would be during the pandemic and came up with the idea of running a fundraiser as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture.) It’s a format where you can put a lot of different culinary or gourmet products in a box that gets delivered to people’s houses. We would get donated gourmet food products from our network of cooks and restaurants in Seattle, and then sell those as a fundraiser for BLM community organizing in Seattle.
We thought, at first, we were only going to do it for one month, and then it sold out extremely quickly. There was a ton of appetite for it. We ended up doing a CSA monthly, and put together a leadership board to lead the project. We built out this whole organization called Cooks for BLM, and it’s still running in Seattle. It’s in wonderful hands, and at this point has raised over $100,000 for Black led community organizing, which is wild.
When did you start thinking about business school?
When I decided to transition out of kitchens, I went through a lot of options. I really enjoyed teaching, and I clearly also enjoyed community work with a political angle. So, I thought about a master’s in teaching or a master’s in public policy or in social work.
At the same time, Cooks for BLM was really starting to blow up and become this project that was a major part of my life. I was deeply enjoying that work and realized that I could claim entrepreneurship as a part of who I am. I thought that business school, for me, would be a place that I would learn a lot more because I was much less familiar with, essentially, how business works, how capitalism works. Business school felt like a stretch for me, and that’s why I decided on it.
Once I really got into the process of applying for schools, it did become clear to me that there were business schools out there that did have a pretty strong social enterprise or DEI focus. Obviously, there’s still tons of work to be done on those fronts, but those were the schools that I sought out because I knew that I would have peers doing complementary work, and that has really been borne out. I’m so deeply happy to be at Berkeley Haas and have such an incredible group of peers doing really powerful social change work.
What was your undergraduate degree in?
My major was technically called Comparative History of Ideas, which was basically the come-in-and-make-your-own-liberal-arts-degree Social Sciences major. So I pulled together classes from a bunch of different departments like women’s studies and ethnic studies, and effectively majored in History of Social Movements in the U.S. I wrote my thesis on social movements and how backlash affects what progressive changes they’re able to make.
Where was that?
University of Washington.
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