Through his family business, this MBA helps empower refugee women

Hawa Sultani, middle, with her mother and Crest Cafe co-owner, Monira Sultani, right; and Shabnam Ahmadi, Chief Operating Officer. Courtesy picture

When Hawa Sultani turned down medical school, she took a year off to do some serious soul-searching.

Growing up as a first-generation Afghan immigrant in Queens, New York, Hawa’s dream has always been to help people like her. She had grown up without health insurance and wanted to help others get the care they needed. But after some experience in the health sector, she realized that the inequalities she wanted to tackle were systemic.

“I learned that there are many bigger factors that explain why certain populations do not receive health care,” Hawa said. Poets&Quants.


Hawa Sultani: “The reality is that many of us have not asked ourselves what we want, what motivates us and what our values ​​are.” Courtesy picture

Hawa knew she wanted to make a difference in the world, to help provide equal opportunities for women and people of color. In 2018, she quit her job, went on a trip, and asked herself some tough questions.

“The reality is that many of us haven’t questioned what we want, what drives us, and what our values ​​are,” she says. “I needed to figure out what my purpose in life was.”

Little did she know she would find that purpose when she returned home to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Sacramento, California.


In 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, when many businesses went bankrupt, Hawa’s mother, Monira, gave up her role as a stay-at-home mom to become the owner of Crest Cafe, a small restaurant on K Street in downtown city ​​of Sacramento. “No one was buying a business then, but my mom did anyway,” laughs Hawa.

Despite limited English skills and no previous experience, Monira Sultani’s passion for food led her to grow Crest into a thriving business – a business which her daughter says has created a “cult following”, her modern Mediterranean menu attracting dedicated customers from all over the city. . Hawa says people drove two hours just to get Crest’s nachos.

As good as it is, it wasn’t the food that created the biggest change in Hawa’s life — and completely changed the trajectory of her career. These were the cafe workers, the majority of whom are refugee women from Afghanistan, with smaller numbers from Syria, Iraq and Russia.


When Hawa returned from her travels, she visited her mother at the Crest Cafe and found a line at the door. His interest was immediately piqued; she wondered how such a small restaurant, with an outdated registry and hardly any marketing, could be so successful. When she sat down at a table, she addressed the employees, some of whom had worked there for more than eight years. She soon realized that Crest Cafe was more than just a place to work – it was a home and the staff were a family.

The women’s stories were inspiring – and poignant. They had left war-torn countries, suffering from trauma and post-traumatic stress, and with dependent children. Hawa suddenly understood her next step: she was going to expand her mother’s business and provide refugee women with opportunities, on a larger scale, to rebuild their lives.

While her mother initially declined her offer of help, Hawa wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“I just started working there without his permission,” she laughs. “I didn’t get paid a dollar and lived off my savings, but I loved everything.”


After Hawa developed Crest’s brand identity and social media presence, her mother finally agreed to let her officially work at the restaurant and made her the brand manager. “She was still confused as to why I had turned down medical school,” Hawa says. “But once she saw the momentum I was building, she realized the value of having me on the team.”

In the 13 years since the Sultani family has owned Crest Cafe, it has not only become a safe space that helps refugee women rebuild their lives; it has also become an engine of change for generations to come.

“A lot of women in the Afghan community have become housewives, and the father is the figure who comes out and provides,” says Hawa. “The opportunity for women to work helps my community know that women can get an education, become financially independent, and meet everyone’s expectations with grace, resilience, and brilliance.”

For the first time in her life, Hawa saw herself in the women around her.

“Growing up, my journey always felt so incredibly lonely; I never saw someone I could relate to or look up to as a role model,” she says. “These women are so inspiring to me. They are my motivation. They are my engine. Despite what they’ve been through, every day they walk into the business and treat it like it’s their own.


Hawa’s mother treats her employees like parents and goes beyond the responsibilities of a restaurant owner; she helps solve immigration problems, intervenes in childcare and picks up their children from school. “I think my mum did all of this because she resonated with the challenges of being a mother, daughter or sister in a country where we don’t know the language and there aren’t a lot of resources. for us,” says Hawa. .

“I learned a lot from my mother watching her run the Crest Cafe. She says that at the end of the day, you have to treat your employees better than anyone else because your employees are the lifeblood of your business. You have to make sure that your employees love your business and care about it as if it were their own.

Since those who come from war-torn countries are often deprived of their rights to education, it is more difficult to find work. The Crest Cafe team helps provide work opportunities for refugee women – regardless of their English level or background – by recruiting employees from local advertisements within the refugee community and Lao Family Community Development Inc., which is an organization that supports various incoming refugees, immigrants, and low-income American-born people to achieve financial self-sufficiency.

Crest Cafe also works with an organization called Read2Lead and provides a portion of its monthly profits to help support families and orphans in Afghanistan.

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