The Taste of Immokalee entrepreneurship program helps students, community thrive
In 2014, as part of a youth entrepreneurship education program, a group of Immokalee High School students created hot sauces using family recipes. After they tested the products at the Stone Crab Festival in Naples the following year and sold them all, they got help from the program to incorporate the business. Part of the deal was that profits from the business would return to Immokalee — an agricultural community with a poverty rate above 37% — to fund youth entrepreneurship education and scholarships. The business broke even in 2020 and has become a model for others.
The Big Idea
“Student-created, student-operated” Taste of Immokalee provides real-world business experience for students. Students join a business department — operations, human resources, accounting, marketing, sales — that’s managed by a student leader. Before they can become paid interns, students must complete a program of workshops and trainings in business fundamentals and soft skills.
Many students enter as freshmen in high school and stay involved all four years and often longer. In addition to day-today duties, including creating a marketing strategy and catalog for their holiday sales campaign, they have to keep up with industry trends and changing consumer tastes. Products are made 100% from fresh Florida produce, including tomatoes sourced from Immokalee’s Lipman Family Farms.
Taste of Immokalee is guided by a board of directors, chaired by Tim Cartwright, CEO of the Tamiami Angels venture capital group. It includes other CEOs and executives, professors, a lawyer and an accountant. A college advisory board includes representatives from a dozen colleges and universities. All of the founding students — now college graduates and working in medicine, finance, education, HR and business — mentor students and provide guidance.
Through the years, students have made, marketed and sold hot sauces, salsas, barbecue sauces and cookies. Their best-seller is its mangopineapple salsa, which was added to the line a couple of years ago based on customer requests for a less spicy salsa. A Christmas special offering, Orange Zest Chocolate Chip cookies — made with oranges from Immokalee groves — are also popular. At this writer’s family reunion cookout, the mandarin tangerine barbecue sauce was a hit. The students plan to introduce a new hot sauce this year. Through a social media campaign, they are going to let their customers decide the flavor.
- Dieulerne Deceus
Deceus, a recent graduate of Immokalee High, will be attending the University of Florida this fall. Her mother works in a packinghouse, and she has been involved in Taste of Immokalee since she was a freshman. She manages financial records, reconciles the books and makes sure everyone gets paid. This summer she added another key duty: Training her successor. In college, Deceus plans to study health education and behavior and pursue a career as a pediatrician.
- Yvelande Astreide
Born in Haiti, Astreide moved to Southwest Florida when she was 8; her parents worked in Immokalee packinghouses. As a high school senior, she joined the program, worked in every department, got comfortable with public speaking and managing projects, and continued working with Taste of Immokalee as an administrative assistant while attending Florida SouthWestern State College. She graduated this year with a business degree and was hired at Taste of Immokalee to run operations full time as No. 2 to Marie Capita, the business’s executive director.
Taste of Immokalee broke even for the first time in 2020, and the student-run company looks forward to its profits one day sustaining the student educational program. Until then, a sister non-profit — Taste the Impact — raises funds to sustain the program.
Taste of Immokalee is piloting five new partnerships with non-profits in other parts of Collier County and may offer the career readiness soft-skills curriculum to Boys & Girls Clubs in other low-income areas of the state.
Since 2014, 432 students have participated in the program, and 204 have been paid interns. Capita says about 98% of them have gone on to college. That’s significant because in Immokalee, just 40% of adults have a high school diploma and only 5% of adults have a bachelor’s degree.
Most memorable day? When Publix accepted Taste of Immokalee into its Buy Local program in 2016, allowing the company to sell its products in up to 276 stores from Tampa to the Keys. The team at Taste of Immokalee found success marketing its products — two hot sauces, two salsas and two barbecue sauces — by traveling to Publix stores and sharing samples along with the Taste of Immokalee story. They also set up booths at craft fairs and holiday markets. Because the program scaled back during the pandemic, products are only available in Southwest Florida Publixes. Still, in 2020, the students managed to sell more than 900 orders.
Read more in Florida Trend's August issue.
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