Domestic violence. Homelessness. Modern slavery. Crime. The circumstances that lie behind those staffing Luminary’s bakery counter are often among the darkest women can encounter today. But as they smilingly dole out warm cinnamon buns to eager customers in London’s Camden, you wouldn’t know it.
Luminary Bakery is that rarest of beasts. A thriving business that has goodness baked right in, it offers women emerging from extreme disadvantage everything they need to create success for themselves.
From business classes to bakery techniques, management skills to trauma-support, Luminary’s two-year training programme builds positive futures with little more than flour and butter. Since its inception in 2014, led by founder and CEO Alice Williams, the organisation has helped 66 women turbo-charge their careers, offering them an opportunity to thrive, rather than survive, in a world which had often written them off.
Baking for better
Tanya is just one of those women. Having survived a brutal attack at the hands of her abusive partner, she began volunteering with a number of charities helping other domestic abuse survivors. Having also turned to cooking for respite, she was eventually referred to Luminary, where she embarked on creating a career out of her passion in the kitchen.
“Life had been very challenging prior to enrolling onto the course with Luminary,” she says, with huge understatement. “A year before, I had been seriously attacked by my ex-partner which led to me being stabbed repeatedly on International Women’s Day.
“After I recovered, I was considering how I could use my personal experience of domestic abuse and incorporate it into a business to enable me to give back to my community. I learnt that Luminary were running a social enterprise course that would teach me how to run a business.”
Luminary’s coaching, Tanya says, proved a revelation. “They are extremely passionate and invested in the women they support. Luminary’s approach enables women from a wide range of diverse backgrounds and experiences to feel safe, to overcome barriers and develop new skills through baking and other courses. It inspires and empowers women who have experienced trauma throughout their lives, and provides incredible and realistic opportunities for the women to focus on their goals and aspirations.
“It has enabled me to build my confidence and start my journey of believing in myself. The support of Luminary has been incredible, both in a personal and professional capacity. I have had opportunities to share my story of domestic abuse on bigger platforms in order to educate and empower others – I was even interviewed by Meghan Markle!”
Tanya’s story sums up what Luminary wanted to achieve when it was founded, says Kaila Johnson, who joined the Luminary staff team in 2019 after years “cheerleading from the sidelines.”
“Luminary was founded on being relational, and on a deep desire to offer second chances,” she smiles. “Our team focuses on what hope can provide, drawing out the talent and skills already within the trainees and graduates.”
For Johnson, the programme is not so much about starting from scratch as it is about building on the trainees’ existing talent, helping them to feel empowered in harnessing what they already have to offer when they arrive at the bakery.
Chief among that skill set, Johnson says, is inner strength. An astonishing 69 per cent of Luminary’s cohort have experienced homelessness. More than 78 per cent have experienced mental ill health, 24 per cent are trafficking survivors and 26 per cent have been through the criminal justice system.
“The women that come through our programmes – and those that join as apprentices and staff – are incredibly resilient and have fought to be where they are today,” Johnson explains. “The overall impact of what Luminary offers is a safe space to work through all that life has brought, to grow in skills and talents, and step into independence and possibilities.”
In its 2019 impact report, the organisation notes that while 96 per cent of graduates say they’ve increased their skills and knowledge, an astonishing 83 per cent also highlight heightened self-esteem as a key benefit of completing the course.
Johnson says that’s never more evident than at the organisation’s graduation ceremony. “Our trainees become graduates and invite their loved ones to join them in this celebration. One of our graduates made Luminary sashes to go with their graduation gowns and the graduates present their final recipes for everyone to taste and enjoy, and share about their joys and hopes for the future. There’s rarely a dry eye in the house!
“The message is that hope is contagious, and empowerment is powerful. These two words hold the motivation behind everything we do, and the women we work with, well, they are our daily inspiration. Their resilience, diversity and strength are something we admire, day in and day out.”
If Luminary was founded upon challenge, 2020 has brought it in spades. But while the last few months have decimated swathes of the hospitality and food industries, Johnson says it pales in comparison to what many of its staff and trainees have already encountered in life.
“There is definitely an ongoing process of navigating the continual changes of regulations and restrictions for the hospitality industry,” she says, “but Luminary is not unfamiliar with adversity.
“Our team continually dreams and strategises new ways to care and create accessibility for our trainees, graduates, staff and customers. We were incredibly grateful for donations of baking equipment and funding so that we could make our training programme virtual for our trainees – our customers and supporters are incredibly encouraging and loyal.”
As well as shifting to online training, the team has also been exploring new ways to expand its customer base at a time when an increasing number of people are sheltering at home. “In the summer, we launched our Letterbox Brownies, delivering UK-wide,” Johnson explains. “These were incredibly well received, with an order coming through for 2,500 at the beginning of July. We’ve also created some tasty seasonal recipes for the holidays, like our pumpkin spice brownies and our Christmas fudge.”
The Rising Hope cookbook too, she says, has offered the women on the programme the opportunity to explore their own creativity, with many, including Tanya, contributing recipes to the tome. “The cookbook has always been a dream for Luminary,” she says. “Rachel Stonehouse, our head bakery trainer, and I reached out to the Luminary community to try and include as many women as possible. Rachel went to work on curating the recipes and I went to work interviewing our graduates and helping bring their stories to life in the pages of this book. The result is a beautiful representation of empowered women empowering women, and of the hope we see rising within our bakeries.”
For Tanya, who has now created her own online platform, Strength of a Woman, “to empower, educate and advocate for women and girls who have experienced domestic abuse or are at risk of abuse,” the journey through Luminary’s programme has been life-changing.
“Luminary continues to be a significant support to me on this journey,” she smiles. “I would describe is as a family – a family that nurtures, loves and believes in you. They go above and beyond to ensure that you reach your goals and are extremely passionate about the lives and the futures of the women they support.”