Black Futures: Cooking up a new recipe for creativity
Editor’s Note: Nugget is honoring and highlighting the work of Black artists and creatives — as well as educating ourselves on the barriers they’re facing in creative industries. Join us in Celebrating Black Creativity this month — and all year long!
We want you to stop for a moment and ponder: What do you think of when you picture an artist? A creative? A creator?
Meet Erica Tuggle! She’s an entrepreneur, founder, and CEO — none of which might’ve crossed your mind when you visualized a creative. Erica created her own business from scratch, Cookonnect, which connects families with personal chefs to come cook in their homes. It’s a win-win for the cooks and the families: Parents and caregivers get time back to do whatever fuels them — while the chefs get in-home experience and the chance to practice their art outside of a stressful restaurant kitchen.
We caught up with Erica about how entrepreneurs are constantly expanding the definition of creativity — and how she’s helping her kids Jordan and Aria define that for themselves, like their mom.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Nugget: Erica, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Erica: I always loved the arts, and I really loved acting. I always thought I would be a television and film actress. We grew up in Connecticut, so I was close to New York, and I was able to do some small commercials. Being an actress was kinda my dream.
Nugget: So you were naturally creative as a kid. What in your life helped nurture that for you?
Erica: My parents honestly did a lot. My mom was really into the arts, and she would find activities to expose us to different arts and cultures. My dad was always really supportive too. I felt like they were just always behind whatever it was that I wanted to do. When I started dancing, they were the ones helping me figure out schools and camps. They really fostered it. I also loved my dance studio. I trained six days out of seven. I loved being in that environment with other dancers. It fueled me and energized me.
I was fortunate and had the gift of people around me who were very supportive of all of my creative endeavors. Being able to be creative is a privilege. I'm really appreciative because I think it even impacted the career choices I made.
Nugget: How do you encourage Aria and Jordan’s creativity?
Erica: I love anything that helps them create, build, do things on their own, and have that independence. I love that. The Nugget is great for that too. They have thoroughly enjoyed just letting go. They used to do it with our couch, literally every Sunday morning. They would make a fort of some sort and create something out of our couch. And so it's nice that now they do it with the Nugget instead of our adult things, as we like to try to call them. (Laughs)
Nugget: What role would you say imagination plays in your work?
Erica: Imagination is huge for my work. You have to live in the current moment — the space and the place and challenges where you are now. But then you also have to live 5, 10, 15 years down the road for the vision you’re trying to build and where you’re trying to go. It’s the vision. That’s imagination.
There’s so many things that pop up where we have to get creative and figure out, how do we solve this with limited resources? Creativity comes out in a lot of different ways as an entrepreneur, and imagining the future is probably one of the most important ways.
Nugget: There’s so much work to be done to achieve equity for Black entrepreneurs. Can you talk about any barriers you’ve faced in entrepreneurship?
Erica: I have this conversation with other founders all the time, especially Black founders. You still see some non-minority founders getting opportunities and money — especially when it comes to the big dollars — with merely an idea and little progress. Often because they happen to have the right connections and get the benefit of the doubt. It’s not that their idea’s not brilliant. But some concepts and ideas by minority founders are even further along and proving traction — and they’re struggling to get that same financial support. That's probably where I see those barriers the most: how the dollars flow and where the investment goes. That’s critical, especially in the early stages. If you're trying to prove an idea, you can be scrappy and you should be, but there’s also a certain level of investment you’re going to need in order to prove it out.
Early on in my path as an entrepreneur, I had no idea about the funding dynamics. I remember the first time I heard the stat less than 1% of venture capital funding goes to African American females, I thought, are you kidding me? That's so far behind so many other places where we've made progress. It’s astonishing.
Some entrepreneurs also have the money and connections to be able to source initial funding from friends and family. They get that foot up because they have the network and that access. That part is really disheartening.
After the death of George Floyd, there were a lot of funding sources that came up for entrepreneurs. It was as if the floodgates were open, but everybody’s feeling the floodgates close a little bit now. Systemic change needs to happen. I don’t think it’s intentional — I think it’s a lot of bias. How do we make sure the system — not temporary programs — is supporting Black and Brown founders and female founders and underrepresented founders?
Nugget: Our theme for our Black Futures series during Black History Month is Celebrating Black Creativity. What does that mean for you?
Erica: I feel like Black culture is fueled by creativity, from artists to civil rights leaders. What Black people have had to overcome, and where we have to go is really fueled by our ability to imagine a better future and then put the blocks in place to create that. I think about just how much creativity and vision has taken us forward. One of the things I love about being an entrepreneur is the exposure to people who are building and creating things that are interesting and impactful. I think a lot about those people who are creating the next wave of Black wealth, Black independence, and Black culture. That’s exciting.
Nugget: Do you feel you’re able to help give a leg up to some chefs who are trying to get their business going?
Erica: That’s one of the many things I love about Cookonnect. What's exciting for me is that many of the chefs have talked about wanting to do this, but they didn't know where to find the customers. We’re not only providing tools to be a successful personal chef, but also access to customers who are really interested in their services. This is a way to keep them in their passion and hopefully give them the tools and experience so they can be independent.
Nugget: What do you feel you’re giving your clients?
Erica: Honestly, I feel I’m giving them time and freedom. In our own family, Sundays were supposed to be spent with our family. But our Sundays ended up being my husband sous cheffing and me cheffing — just hours and hours of chopping and cooking. I’ve gone into some of the homes of our customers and watched their experience. They use that time in beautiful ways — to do something for their career, take walks with their kids, go to swim practice, whatever it might be. Then they come home and have a nutritious meal they can feel really good about.
Nugget: Speaking of your home, we spy a Nugget over there. How do you like your Nugget?
Erica: It's funny because I got it specifically because I thought it would work well in our space. I love this about the Nugget. I feel like it's playful, but it can live in a playroom or your main room. Our kids are very creative. They have a lot of things they can create with. We’ve got paint and paintbrushes and Legos. (She paused here to note traces of sand on the countertop, left behind from a science kit the kids were working on.) We have all types of things. (Laughs) But I feel like there’s always a set-up and clean-up required — some investment required for me and my husband. I love the idea of independent play, and building your independence and confidence through play. The Nugget is great because it lowers all those barriers. It’s just so inviting.
Nugget: Universal parent question: Do you have any tips for getting picky children to try new foods?
Erica: (laughs) Let them play with their food, and build their meal or create the pieces out of a selection. That way they feel like they're in control — that’s a big deal for them. It’s creativity with your food! We also bought these plastic, safe kid knives, made for cutting soft vegetables and soft fruits. We'll give them something they can chop up. It’s not gonna be perfect, and that’s fine because it's just dinner! (Laughs) But they'll chop up the onion or peppers or whatever it might be, and put the spices together. Or they’ll help me pour the measurements and stir it in, and then they get really excited about what we're eating.
Lightning Round: Nugget Style
Erica’s dream build: “I first saw the Nugget and wanted to make the loungey-type build. The slope with the pillow behind it.”
How the Nugget can help a young creative: “It’s just easy. It invites you to try different things. There’s nothing to do but play and create.”