Mimi Sheriff

Mimi lives between worlds and calls Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and St.John’s home. She is the owner of Gursha NL at the St.John’s Farmers Market and is the only caterer of authentic Ethiopian food in NL.

For the past six years Mimi has also been working in the tech industry, with Bluedrop Learning Network, helping governments and not-for profit-clients in over 10 countries develop the right training solutions for their workforce. Certified as a sustainability associate by the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, Mimi is an advocate of responsible business operations and leads these efforts at Bluedrop as she is finishing a certificate program in corporate social responsibility at the University of Toronto.

Mimi has a BA in gender studies and a LL.B from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She has a master’s in gender studies from Memorial University.

How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your degree?

While looking for graduate programs, I knew that I wanted to come to Canada and had started applying for programs – truthfully, Memorial wasn’t one of the options (I didn’t know that Newfoundland existed!). However, within the space of one week I met with a Canadian university adviser in Zimbabwe and she suggested Memorial’s gender studies program. A few days later, a cousin of mine who lives in Ethiopia told me that she was going to Memorial. This piqued my interest and I started researching. At the time, the master’s program in gender studies was the only one in Canada that could be completed through an internship component, instead of a thesis. Between loving the practical aspect of the internship, a good funding package and the enthusiastic and prompt responses from the department, I was sold on Memorial.

I thought that living on an island in the Atlantic would be a fun two year adventure for an African - that was nine years ago.

What drew you to do a degree in gender studies?

While I had just finished my law degree, I knew that I wanted a master’s degree that would be directly relevant for a career in international development. As a feminist with a social justice background, gender studies seemed like a natural fit.

Do any particular memories stand out from your time here as a graduate student?

Being able to do a four-month internship in Ethiopia with the United Nations was one of the most personally rewarding experiences and I will forever be grateful to have had that opportunity as a graduate student. When I look back, it’s also the little things that when put together make up my fondest memories. Being excited that I had my name on a little mailbox in the graduate office, spending countless hours in the office laughing, debating and commiserating over how much work we had, buying everything from the numerous bake sales that greeted me as I walked in the building, planning a feminist conference and the agonizing process of grading papers for the first time as a teacher’s assistant and second guessing every single grade that I gave.

If you could do any course over again, what would it be?

Feminist Theory – and not because I enjoyed it. In fact, while I loved Dr. Boon as a lecturer, I’m pretty sure that she could attest to my aversion to the course material. Besides a preference towards more practical courses, I can’t convincingly articulate why I disliked the course material. This leads me to believe that with a more open mind, I’m sure there is a lot that I probably could have learnt and maybe even enjoyed.

How did you go from graduating with an MA to becoming an entrepreneur and launching Gursha NL (and where did the name come from?)

This certainly wasn’t a linear path or part of a grand plan but, an idea that percolated over time and persisted long enough that even I got annoyed with myself for the number of times I’d say “I wish someone would sell Ethiopian food here.” I’ll share one of the driving factors. While working with Oxfam, I organized an event called “Re-Imagining Africa” – it was an evening telling the untold story of Africa through speakers, music, dance and dinner. While trying to pick the menu, I was adamant that I wanted to find Ethiopian food. While we eventually had one dish, it wasn’t easy to get but, we got great reviews on what we did have. I learnt that there was an untapped niche market for Ethiopian food and I also felt immense pride watching everyone try the food. I filed that at the back of my mind.

Ethiopian food is communal and shared – we eat with our hands and traditionally share one plate. As a sign of hospitality, we also occasionally feed each other. The mouthful of food is a “Gursha”

What sort of feedback do you get from your customers who might not have had Ethiopian food before? Any thoughts on how food connects different cultures?

One of my favorite parts about running Gursha is being able to play a role in providing a new cultural experience for someone. While I provide a meal, I also have FAQ’s about Ethiopia and a post card explaining Ethiopian food for customers to take. Food is a universal language that connects cultures. I have one dish for example that I make with split yellow peas – I sometimes explain it as the Ethiopian version of pea’s pudding, which makes people laugh but, also see a small connection between our two cultures.

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive with customers who were hesitant to try it then coming back and thanking me for providing the food, some customers explain that they have never tried anything like it before and then bring their friends and family the next time. Most encouraging has been seeing new customer turn into regular ones!

What was your biggest challenge in getting your business up and running?

Honestly, not knowing how to cook Ethiopian food - I knew what good Ethiopian food tasted like but, not quite how to make it! In hindsight, it seems a little irrational but, I was convinced that St.John’s needed Ethiopian food - the risk of feeling regret later for having not tried, was greater than the fear of failing.

I did what most adults should do when they are stuck – I went home to my mother. After she made fun of me for not listening to her over the many years that she tried to teach me, I finally spent my vacation learning how to make the food I love.

What’s a typical day like for you?

I start every day reading for about an hour and end my day writing in my journal – aside from that, I don’t have a typical day and I love that, every day is different.

How did your gender studies degree prepare you for life as an entrepreneur?

Gender studies is an interdisciplinary program that challenges you to think critically about the role of gender in every part of society. The program broadens your mind and exposes you to new subject areas, makes you learn how to ask questions, clearly articulate your thoughts through writing and speaking and ultimately for me, decide the kind woman I wanted to be. You leave the program knowing that there are endless possibilities of what’s next - there is no set path. On one hand that’s daunting but, on the other it’s liberating. Without knowing it then, these were great building blocks towards entrepreneurship.

What in your opinion is something the province of NL can do right now to improve the situation for young entrepreneurs?

I think that NL is an entrepreneurs dream – there is so much opportunity. Consolidating and creating awareness around current services and funding for young entrepreneurs would be helpful. Also, celebrating the success of young entrepreneurs will not only be encouraging for the entrepreneurs but, may inspire new entrepreneurs.

What do you say to those who question the value of an arts degree?

I get it, I think it’s reasonable to question the value of a degree that doesn’t have a direct path to getting a return on investment on your tuition expenses - there is nothing wrong with questioning. With that said, at a deeper level, I think that questioning the value of the arts degree is also reflective of people not fully understanding the breadth and variety of career options that are available and do not have degree programs. For example, I have four colleagues that each respectively majored in either business, English, interior design or political science – they are all now project managers in the IT sector.

Through my work with Bluedrop, I work with clients to provide training and technology solutions to stimulate workforce development. Research and first-hand experience indicates that many employers would prefer to hire someone who has the skills which are developed through an arts degree and then train for specific technical skills on the job. These skills include critical thinking, problem solving, adapting to change and effective communication. Never underestimate the value of a well-rounded person who is willing to learn on the job – that’s the value of an arts degree.

What would people be most surprised to learn about you?

On Friday’s, I religiously go to Sugar Mama’s and get the exact same “Say Cheese” cupcake…

What advice would you give a student who is unsure of what to study?

Firstly, don’t be overwhelmed with trying to find a program that you think will/should lead to what you do for the rest of your life. The chances are you’ll grow, have new experiences, develop different interests and change your career numerous times.

Secondly, nothing that you study will ever be a waste, even if you change programs. You learnt something new and if you look hard enough, you’ll find a way to use that knowledge again, someday.

What’s your favourite place to visit?

Anywhere that I haven’t yet been – there are still so many places I’d like to visit and experience.

What are you reading and listening to these days?

I’m currently reading two books – one for my book club, Educated by Tara Westover and the other for personal amusement, Mark Critch’s Son of a Critch.

I’m also pretty obsessed with listening to Oprah’s ‘Super Soul Conversations’ podcast

What are you most looking forward to within the next year?

Between exciting new work projects at Bluedrop, going to school, growing Gursha to meet the demands of the new market space, studying for certification exams and going on pre-planned trips, the past 12 months have been extremely busy and very well scripted. What I’m looking forward to most within the next year is the unknown. I get an opportunity to re-set and come up with my next plans and that’s exciting. For example, I’m graduating from a program in corporate social responsibility within the next month and I’m really looking forward to seeing how I can practically put what I learnt into practice.