By Abby Sturges (Co-Founder, Culture Kitchen)
Editor’s note: Abby Sturges is a host of Founder Friday Palo Alto on October 7, 2011 – Join Women 2.0 and Culture Kitchen at Color‘s office for Founder Friday Palo Alto. RSVP for free here.
Environment is everything.

I am a firm believer that the environment you choose to surround yourself with has everything to do with what you are capable of and that anyone is capable of shaping their environment. It’s easy for these environments to shift quickly and it’s up to you to keep aware of the changes. Strength comes in realizing yourself within that environment and having the gumption to continually make sure you are in the right environment.

My first school experiences weren’t great. After my parents watched me struggle to learn much of anything at the local elementary school, they recognized that the environment I was in wasn’t working for me and started sending me an all girls k-12 school. Columbus School for Girls believes that education should be a discussion where learning happens by doing and that women need to be great leaders. So, from a young age, I was surrounded by strong, intelligent, and successful women of all walks of life. I was too naive to think that I was capable of anything but great things. I feel lucky to say that I attended a school that helped to instill values and morals in me that in conjunction with my parents love and support, made it easy for me to believe nothing but the best was in my future.

I’ve always had a visual mind and determination to make the things I saw in my head. For me, this manifested itself in the actual making of products and lead me to study Industrial Design at Carnegie Mellon University. At design school, I was placed into many situations completely foreign to me and it was in these experiences where I learned the most. I made it a goal to purposely put myself in unfamiliar situations that forced me to find a way to make something work and I have thrived on this. It was this new found goal that made studying abroad an important part of my education. While living in London, I took to traveling on my own throughout Europe and in my many missteps while traveling, I learned a deep respect for communication beyond language. It was in these initial travels that a few years later inspired me to promise myself to see at least one new country every year. Since then, various projects, jobs and holidays have taken me to India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, The United Arab Emirates, Costa Rica, Peru, Argentina, and China.

Don’t let the man get you down.

As a budding young designer excited to tackle the world, I took a Design job in Chicago. This is where the bubble burst. It was more of a slow leak over the course of 5 years rather than one big pop. But, these were a defining five years to lead me to where I am today.

I worked as a Design Researcher and then Industrial Designer within a large packaging corporation, at a consultancy designing consumer products and lastly designed outdoor furniture for a manufacturer. And I wasn’t passionately interested in any of the products I worked on. In all that time, I learned the striking difference between philosophical design in school compared to that in the professional world. At the time, I thought I wasn’t learning anything about design, but rather business and an understanding of the politics of building relationships essential to get anything done. Looking back, I realize I was learning a great deal about design. Real design. Design in the real world with all of the aspects that are a part of taking a concept to production.

While I did meet a lot of great people and mentors along the way, I found myself in an environment that did little to inspire much of anything, let alone greatness. I felt that I had developed skills that were capable of so much more than creating land filler. It was the advice of a mentor that spurred a great pivot in my personal and professional development. With my mentor’s vote of confidence, I decided to apply to graduate school with the hopes of focusing my studies on projects that did more good for the world than harm. I knew that if I was going to make a big change, I needed to be in an environment that would help me to encourage big change within myself.

The big shift.

Having been in Silicon Valley for the last two years and seeing the ‘pay it forward’ culture first hand, it is no surprise to me that I was drawn here. Mentors used to be people much older and experienced than me. What has been so tremendous about Silicon Valley is that I find myself inspired by those with much less experience than myself. I have come across younger people with incredible intellect, fearlessness, and excitement for what they’re working on that my idea of a mentor has shifted.

I have always known I would start my own business, but I never knew what the business would be or when I would start that business. At Stanford, everything fell into place. The first quarter at graduate school I met my now business partner, Jennifer Lopez. I had never worked with someone with such strong opinions, quick to express those opinions articulately and passionately, but at the same time had great listening skills and an ability to empathize with people that is unmatched by anyone I have ever met.

It was in the Spring of our first year over a discussion of our independent travels to Myanmar and Kenya that we began talking about the possibilities to connect people from different cultural worlds through food and ultimately, to spread personal culture through food. From our first brainstorm, we understood the great potential of how many people Culture Kitchen could positively reach and had every intention of making it a business. It was easy then and continues to be easy to work on Culture Kitchen because there is nothing else I’d rather be working on and with that I have learned a new level of dedication to my work. Sure, there are ups and downs, but now it’s up to Jennifer and I to create the environment we want for ourselves, soon a small team and a large team in the future. This is my greatest challenge yet and every day is a step towards something much larger than me.

Editor’s note: Abby Sturges is a host of Founder Friday Palo Alto on October 7, 2011 – Join Women 2.0 and Culture Kitchen at Color‘s office for Founder Friday Palo Alto. RSVP for free here.

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About the guest blogger: Abby Sturges is Co-Founder of Culture Kitchen. She holds a BFA in Industrial Design from Carnegie Mellon University and a MFA in Design from Stanford University.She has worked as a designer and project manager within the packaging, consumer products and outdoor furniture industries, with experience at large corporations, consultancies and a manufacturing companies. After years of frustration working on projects that do more harm to the world than good, she has cofounded Culture Kitchen to positively impact the lives of many.