When CSI first joined the Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN), we knew it was going to unlock opportunities for an underserved group of women: women who traditionally faced barriers to access to entrepreneurship training, mentorship, and business support, and women who have solutions that put people and the planet first.
This week, we are thrilled to announce the publication of a report detailing exactly how WOSEN fosters the growth of women-led social enterprise. To celebrate the report, we are also sharing a series of stories on our program participants in collaboration with our WOSEN network partners: Pillar Nonprofit Network, SVX, and NORDIK Institute‘s Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship.
Meet Catherine Yeung.
Written by: Natalie Shore
“As an open-minded graduating youth, the world is your possibility. Maybe you haven’t been indoctrinated yet, so you can still imagine things. Then you go into this period of drudgery, where there are so many loud voices saying ‘you should do this, you have to do that.’ says Cat Yeung, founder of Monster Breads. “Coming of age, I think, is trying to reconcile that another world is still possible, even given the world that has already been so far entrenched.”
When Cat reflects on that moment of open-mindedness where the world appeared to her full of possibility, she sees a valuable stage of life. The power of imagination isn’t necessarily refined, but it’s also not corralled. She remembers hearing about co-operative bakeries for the first time in her early teens. The idea struck a chord in her as a grassroots way of making real change in people’s lives – not only for those directly involved in the work but for the community surrounding it as well.
For Cat, it was a moment where she identified a destination she wanted to travel towards. But as she well knows, it’s never as simple as traveling from point A to B. Life always has more in store – including but not limited to points z, q, and 3.
She attended university in St. Louis, Missouri, where she both studied and witnessed racial segregation and other present-day manifestations of historical tensions, including corporations polluting low-income, racialized neighbourhoods. Her five years there would leave a major impression on her sense of her place in the world and the kind of role she could play as a member of a community.
In 2013, Cat returned home to Toronto and entered into a stage marked by career pressures to “make it in a certain way,” and, more basically, the need to make ends meet. Her learning opportunities happened at notable restaurants and fancier places that didn’t represent the bigger picture for Cat. In 2015, she made her way to Victoria, BC where her tactile spirit thrived around wood-fire baking, traditional milling practices, and bakers who built their own machinery. There was so much inherent beauty in that work; however, there was also a certain privilege hanging above it. There were divisions and barriers that made this environment inaccessible to many people and addressing that did not seem to be a priority within it. The tendency for many local food movements to leave politics out of the discussion didn’t sit well with her and posed hard questions about what it meant to bake for elite restaurants in order to make ends meet.
In 2020, Cat returned to Toronto to help support a family member through a mental health crisis. In time she reconnected with some of her former coworkers and mentors, including Dawn Woodward of Evelyn’s Crackers in the regional grain economies, who connected her to another long-established baker whose work she admired. Like countless small businesses owners, many faced enormous challenges at the time: the coinciding pandemic and immense economic stress left many small businesses unable to afford staff. Seizing the opportunity that living at home temporarily afforded her, Cat began volunteering at Carole Ferrari’s Motherdough Mill & Bakery. It was fulfilling work, but after so many weeks, family pressures reinstated the need to make money. Cat and Carole put their heads together and came up with a plan where Cat could trade her volunteer hours for the use of the bakery’s space for her own project. It was an ideal prospect for Cat, who wanted to keep something very small, just for friends and family, and for Carole, who wanted to help Cat find a way to make money doing what she loved.
Alongside learning about the many food sovereignty and food security initiatives back in her hometown, Cat underwent a deep introspection of her own values, her belief in community-based food production, and her role within it. In the face of community responses towards the pandemic and to racial injustice and police brutalities at the center of the Black Lives Matter movement, certain reasons or fears that had once stopped her from starting her own project began to fall away.
She started small, taking requests from friends and family via an email list. A family friend asked for a good heritage, whole grain sourdough; someone in Cat’s family was also looking for something that was easy to prepare, nutritious, and easy to digest given their highly stressed psycho-emotional state. The family friend ended up ordering two more loaves for her neighbours, and Cat spontaneously decided to bake extra items in order to use all of the fresh-milled grain in different ways (a lightly sifted milk bread, a sourdough bread, graham crackers, bran muffins) and include it in their order.
“Some of it was good; some of it needed work. But the idea was there. You just order a box and you get what I put together. And all of these womxn gave me the encouragement to keep doing it again the next week,” Cat describes.
The simplicity suited her on two levels: it aligned with her introversion and allowed her to grow at her own pace. Each step could be made out of intention rather than pressure. Instrumental support came from WOSEN programs, which encouraged her to develop her vision on her terms, to draw from aspects of her life, and to look at longer-term work that was already happening in the community. The curriculum was like a fermentation process for her ideas, where the fruits of introspection became actionable steps.
“It’s still in the works. But I’ve always been open, and am becoming more and more open, to creating something collectively and the beauty that can come out of that, rather than trying to stuff my ideas into the usual packaging,” Cat explains.
Now, a typical week for Cat sees her baking, of course – but also closely following local food security initiatives that align with her values and the communities that are making them happen. The learning is ongoing, but these aspects of Toronto’s food culture play an important role in how Cat sources her ingredients and her partnerships in order to support work that is more labour intensive and to build relationships with co-ops that prioritize providing healthy food at affordable costs.
Cat has always sensed that bread, being a staple common to so many different cultures, would be at the centre of the kind of work she wanted to do. Bread, and baking in general, is the sweet spot where her skills, her sense of responsibility to her community, and her connection to others intersect.