October 27

Gear Up West 2021 Review: Making Friends, Native American Dance and VERY Early Flights

Blog, Featured, Fun, Travel



“Why are you going to Montana?” my friend Eli asked as he passed me an old-fashioned on a Saturday evening at a hip bar in Desert Ridge, Arizona. 

“For the “Gear Up conference, and my flight leaves at 6:00 AM on Sunday,” I replied.  I glanced at my watch and it was already 9:30 PM, which left only a few hours to wind down the evening, try to catch a few hours of sleep and leave my home 4:00 AM to be at the Pheonix airport to go to Salt Lake City and then my final destination: Billings, Montana.

I didn’t even want to leave the bar, as it was a spontaneous evening that was yielding some very good results.  

However, this event would be my first conference in over a year and half and the desire to see a new state and meet with like-minded educators was too tempting to pass up.

I had discussed with my business coach whether it was even worth attending, due to the travel costs and I wasn’t sure how my culinary workshops would fit into the program.  My main focus was simply to get back in the game, which I had been playing for over 11 years, and attending conferences was a key part of my previous success.  

Pre-Covid, we were teaching at 160+ schools a week and had been changing the lives of over 2,000 students a session through our culinary workshops.

In the Summer of 2021, as we wrapped up 300+ hours of virtual cooking classes, a feat I didn’t even know was possible, I felt emboldened to reinvest that money back into the business.  

First, I hired a business coach to give me 1-on-1 mentorship and outside eyes to keep me focused.  Then I put aside a huge chunk of money travel the U.S. and exhibit at conferences themed around after-school program, charter schools, Gear Up, Trio and other grant-based programming.  I said no to a lot of fun events my friends were attending from the “Rebel Burn” to to “Alchemy” an Enterpreprenu Organizaiton annual conference in Reno filled with cool events, great people and unique lectures.

 Back in the Booth

Bleary eyed, but with some excitement, I stepped into the Phoenix airport at 4:30 AM on Sunday to catch my flight,  and I was surprised to see the amount of people up at that hour to catch flights home on a Sunday.

I’m a master at travelling light, and I NEVER check-in bags.  

Example:  When I spent 3 weeks in Kiev, Ukraine last summer, I only brought a carry-on and backpack and had some of the most memorable experiences of my life learning to make authentic Russian borscht, exploring the Black Sea, making new friends and attending my friend’s wedding.

The only pain was carrying my stand-up display for my booth.  It looked like a fishing rod that I slung it around my shoulder, being careful not to bump into peole as I navigated the airports.  

Two flights later, it was 12pm and I had arrived in Montana.  I had even met some other attendees on the car ride over….because who else would be going to Billings that early on a Sunday? 

The first thing you notice about the city is that it actually feels, smells and looks like Fall.  The trees were bright orange and a crisp chill was in the air.  Meanwhile, it was still 80+degrees in Phoenix. 

At a new conference, the best move is to play the “new guy” card.  I introduced and quickly made friends with Kyle and Brian of Paradigm Shift and we had lunch together at a local Mongolian restaurant.  

“Gear Up” in a Nutshell and the Conference Theme

Gear Up is a federally funded grant designed to help low-income high schoolers get into college and be prepared with key life skills.  While I don’t do SAT or ACT prep, learning to cook and making healthy meals definitely falls into the “life skills category”

In fact, at my booth, I would often joke that “you need to eat 3x a day, but you don’t use geometry 3x a day.”  Most people found that amusing…except for math teachers.

Kyle and Brian then loaded me with questions to ask attendees like “Are you cohort based?  Are you a State or Partner-based program?  What can you offer to Match their budget?”  I soaked up all their knowledge just like rice noodles to a homemade teriyaki sauce.  

Back at the booth , as attendees gathered, I put on my LIFT Enrichment apron and started talking about our program.  I sensed some excitement, as no other vendor had ever offered health literacy and culinary education before.  While college prep can be a little dry, a cooking class brings excitement to any program and boost attendance.

That evening’s key note speaker was “Mr. Fascinate” a popular Youtuber who helps make STEM education exciting and interesting for students.  He told his story about branding himself, getting big in his space and even set up a “Shark Tank”-like challenge to try and solve a world problem.  Our team, “Team Motivate,” won the contest and we felt like true winners the rest of the evening.

At these conferences, the key is to sit at a table and just make small talk.  We barely even talked about business, but instead focused on getting to know each other, what state we’re from, our experience in education, etc.  At some point it’ll come up to say  “What do you do?” and then I’d encourage them to stop by my booth later if it was a good fit.

Winding down the night, we headed to the hotel lounge and played a fun party game called “3 Things To Survive” which got pretty rowdy when you have a group of lively educators.  It bonded everyone together and provided a lot of laughs.

Day 2:  Native American Dances and Lots of Mingling

The day as an exhibitor is a LONG one, even for an extrovert like myself.  As attendees from Oklahoma, Washington, Montana, Oregon and other states (it was Gear Up “West” after all) passed by, I recorded their contact info and showed them how we could bring culinary workshops to their state.

No matter where they were I could ask:

Do you want in-person cooking classes?  We can ship culinary supplies, instacart ingredients and fly a Chef Teacher out to teach hundreds of students how to make delicious and healthy meals, like Pasta with spring vegetables.  It’s a fun and hands-on experience that teaches independence and confidence in the kitchen.

Do you want virtual cooking classes?   My Chefs can deliver an amazing 8-session series of classes for students who want to take a virtual cooking class on Zoom.  We can ship out the ingredients to each student and afterwards they can have a fresh meal to share with their family.

Was any of this possible Pre-Covid?  No!  I thought I was land-locked to California (my home state) forever.  

As they say: Adapt or Die.  And I’ve been doing this too long to do anything but teach cooking classes.

The day culminated with some local Native American young girls performing a traditional dance.  The girls wore bright dresses with lots of sequins and bells, and a few boys played drums and sang.  Everyone enjoyed the spectacle, and at a one point they asked the audience to join in the “Round Dance”

I leaped out of my chair and linked arms with other attendees as we danced in a circle together.

Afterwards, my neighbor exhibitors, Urban and Darlene of CoBro Consulting were super friendly and invited me to a dinner they were hosting for the Idaho-based Gear Up crew.  Over more drinks (yes, there is a lot of drinking at these events!)  I learned about life in small towns, often with tiny populations of less than 50,000.  It was very different from my upbringing in Ventura and having spent the past 17 years in LA.

As the clock turned to 9:30pm with my wine in hand, the same thought hit me.  “I’ve got a flight at 6:00 AM!”  I had to be back in Phoenix for an event I was hosting with Entrepreneur Organization Accelerator program of Arizona themed around how to build a marketing plan that works.  I had just spent the past 3 days marketing my business and felt confident I could deliver value, and I had an amazing group of panelists ready to drop some knowledge bombs.

My friends laughed and I politely excused myself to catch a few winks and another flight as I headed home after a conference to remember.

If you’re interested in a healthy culinary workshop to your Gear Up program, reach out to me through this link.

To book a FREE healthy culinary workshop for your school, district, or college access program CLICK Here

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Eric Horwitz

About LIFT

Eric founded LIFT Enrichment in 2010 because he wanted to help young kids develop their culinary skills so they could make healthy foods for friends and family for the rest of their lives.  He has worked with kids for over 15 years and enjoys their energy and enthusiasm for learning new things.  Eric studied abroad in Italy while at UCLA and discovered a passion for cooking.  

Eric Horwitz, Ceo of Lift

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