In September 2019, Lillard R. Lewis Jr. (aka Chef Jay) traveled to Ghana to promote his line of specialty spices and rubs, create inroads with Ghanaian business owners, and help them learn about the benefits of doing business in Connecticut. Chef Jay spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about his mission and what he hopes will come of it.
NAN PRICE: You’re a global food entrepreneur who started off local. Tell us a little about that evolution.
LILLARD R. LEWIS: My evolution from dishwasher to Chef Jay to global chef and global entrepreneur is definitely marked by the community’s support. This community put me here and helped shape this mission.
When I incorporated my business in 2014, I deliberately chose to incorporate in Connecticut. At the time, it was more expensive and less convenient, but I chose to make an investment in the community. I wanted to have an office right here in our state. I wanted to be a good corporate citizen and I wanted to be a good community citizen as a small corporation.
NAN: Why take the message about opportunities in Connecticut to Africa? What are you hoping to bring back?
CHEF JAY: Personally, my mission as a Connecticut resident, as a Connecticut father, as a Connecticut veteran, as a Connecticut business owner, was to go directly to the source. Clearly, the United States wants to do business with Africa, in general. Specifically, with Ghana, my mission had a dynamic purpose. I wanted to connect the two communities that had helped make me an international business owner and enabled me to travel around the world and talk about it.
My larger mission was to connect the Ghanaian people and their economy to the Connecticut people and our economy. I didn’t just want to make the trip just about promoting my products—although part of my plan was to put them on shelves over there and get them into the hands of local chefs. However, I didn’t want to go over there and leave my fellow Connecticut businesses behind. The larger goal is to get people to come over here and do business with Connecticut.
The reason why Ghana makes perfect sense is because there’s a lot of activity within Ghana surrounding the new African Union, which has a market of 1.2 billion people with a $3.5 trillion consumer market potential.
I want Connecticut businesses and Connecticut’s economy to be first on the minds of Ghanaian entrepreneurs who have great ideas and are considering exporting their products to the United States. I want them to have business cards of some people in Connecticut, so when they think about entering the American market, they think about Connecticut first.
NAN: How do you convince them to come here?
CHEF JAY: You get on the plane and go there with your business cards. You meet people, shake their hands, find out who they are, and invite them back to our state. You tell them: I want to have you talk to our legislators, our governor, and our small business core and I want you to know that Connecticut is open for business. It’s up to the individual business owners, organizations, and entities to close any deal. But the first step is to get them in the room.
NAN: Once Ghanaian business owners get to Connecticut, what resources are available for them?
CHEF JAY: Really, the number one resource here is has been, and always will be, the citizens of Connecticut.
I would direct Ghanaian business owners to the Department of Economic Development (DECD), the Black Business Alliance (BBA), and the United States and Africa Development Organization (USAADO). I’m the ambassador USAADO, which is a powerful organization born out of efforts by Connecticut businesses in collaboration with legislature to understand the African market—both where it stands currently and how potential partnerships between our economies can evolve in the future. They’re all about finding innovative ways to reach this market—and so am I.
So, I would encourage Ghanaian business owners who come here to tap into these resources. They offer services to businesses that incorporate here in Connecticut, everything from funding to digital marketing to writing your business plan.
NAN: What can Connecticut learn from the Ghanaian economy?
CHEF JAY: Ghana has been growing plants and vegetables for longer than the United States has been a Republic. There is something to learn here. Millions of Western Africans, including many Ghanaians, live in the tri-state area, which makes for a dynamic support base for the type of work I’m pursuing. So, there’s some economic synergy there.
That’s why my trip to Ghana was so important. Our entrepreneurial core should be paying close attention to what happens in Ghana because their GDP is growing and it’s growing around agriculture.
Connecticut has a ton of agriculture. That’s one area where we should be focusing our future. We must keep the next generation engaged in Connecticut’s agriculture industry. That was another purpose for my trip to Ghana—to learn about their agriculture from a chef’s perspective, but also as a parent and somebody who really cares about the future of Connecticut. I know how important it is for these industries to remain robust and inter-generational.
I see the future of Connecticut in the soil. People are quietly and invisibly working hard to support our economy in major areas from New Haven and Hartford to Waterbury and Stonington. It’s very hard to sustain yourself as a people if you’re not growing your own food. I want to make sure that our next generation thinks of agriculture as an option for their future prospects in the state of Connecticut.