Sonja Seiler is the Founder of Nurture, a community of creative and intentional spaces for entrepreneurs, artists, creatives and leaders to recharge, reconnect and re-nourish.
Nurture offers retreats, catering and harvest table dinners, as food plays a large role in the brand’s mission and values. Sonja spearheads the brand, along with every retreat and all aspects of custom, attentive and flexible creative catering. As families and friends might gather around the dinner table after a long day, Nurture bakes love into all that they do, helping to rebuild foundations, refocus plans and refresh ideas.
We connected with Sonja after reading “Butter in the Shadows,” her piece in Feels Zine about her journey with accepting and enjoying food. Read our full interview now:
- When did you start Nurture? What empowered you to start your own business?
Nurture started in early winter 2015 after a serendipitous meeting with a stranger who asked me what my dream was. I mentioned the dream I’ve had since I was eight-years-old: “I want to buy an old farmhouse and run it as a bed and breakfast to nourish entrepreneurs and creatives and have shared meals around harvest tables.” This stranger looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Well, I don’t have a magic wand to give you your farmhouse, but have you ever considered renting one for a weekend and offering this as a retreat?” I was floored. I went home and drew up an outline and went back and showed it to her. She took one glance and was like: “It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing. So your next step is…” It was like she gave me permission to do what was already in me to do since I was a child! I simply started and then each next step was revealed, including so many mistakes and lessons (and a lot of magic and serendipity) along the bumpy way.
- So many of the brands we feature on A Quarter Young celebrate unique pathways and journeys towards entrepreneurship. What has your path been like?
Well, bumpy is an understatement. The learning curve has been huge for me. My initial vision is what has ultimately seen me through. It’s been percolating since I was eight, so it’s very specific and really has not strayed much since then, although, it has been filled out by the incredible people whom I have crossed paths with along the way in seeing and supporting this business coming to life. The vision, or perhaps, more accurately, the feeling of the vision, is what I have used as an intuitional guidepost when making important or difficult decisions for the shape of Nurture and what it offers and what role it plays in my own life professionally and personally.
I recently quit my full-time-job-with benefits of 10 years to go full-time freelance with Nurture. I did not think that would happen as soon as it did. It’s been scary, but I’ve learned to trust my gut and my gut was strong on this choice. In fact, nothing has happened in this journey as I thought it would, except the actual offerings have always felt exactly, if not better, than I initially imagined.
- Nurture offers a creative community and a safe space for entrepreneurs. Are these comfortable places for professional and personal development hard to come by?
There are so many offerings of late exploring the relationship between self-care and entrepreneurship. I am really happy about this, because there was not as much of a natural connection between the two in the public eye when I started with Nurture even two years ago. I’m excited it’s something that needs less explanation or justification now. The one thing that always left me a bit disappointed after experiencing some of these offerings was that the answer was marketed as being in the offering itself, and not within me, the person attending. I would leave feeling so empowered and on such a high, only to return to myself and my dark thoughts and my isolation, unsure of how to use the tools without the teacher present.
My life didn’t change for the better in this area (and many others) until I allowed myself the relationship with my own soul as a teacher. Others certainly guided and inspired me, but ultimately, this adventure was my own and I was the captain. There is such freedom and creativity in that. I didn’t see anywhere (at least not in Ontario, or even Canada) where that opportunity was present for other creatives and entrepreneurs like myself, who were also interested in having a safe and, importantly, beauty-filled space to explore from that context, so I answered the call to build it myself, Field of Dreams-style.
- Why is something like Nurture so important for the future of entrepreneurial success?
If we don’t truly, honestly, vulnerably connect with with ourselves and one another, our dreams and inner callings (the ones that can change and truly serve the world), will suffer. If we don’t pay attention to beauty and small moments, they will suffer. They will stay silent, hidden amongst feelings of fear, shame, inadequacy and isolation. I couldn’t bear it in myself and it got hard and dark enough in my own life where I finally said: there has to be another way. That way was was learning to build a foundation of love for myself by nurturing my creativity, paying attention to what is beautiful in my life and surroundings and listening to what my soul really wanted to do. Can you imagine the impact that kind of personal intention and attention would have (does have) for those of us who are used to hustling at the expense of our own selves?
- On nurtureretreats.com, you talk openly about connecting and understanding hardships when on a creative, entrepreneurial journey. Why is it so important that we talk about the highs and the lows?
In many entrepreneurial spheres, it’s the elevator pitch and the well-crafted, “Here’s how I can address your pain points,” networking speak that seem to the be the common currency. These certainly effectively serve a purpose, but they are also not the whole story. I think we often forget to nurture and nourish what’s working, what feels good and true and brings pleasure to ourselves and those we work with or for.
We also tend to be trained to conveniently and dishonestly skip over the hardships in favour of a more polished presentation, which I think is a tragic disservice to others considering the same path, or considering hiring you to help them on theirs. The hardships and challenges, when appropriately shared, expose our shared humanity. They validate our integrity. They help others feel less alone in the reality that entrepreneurship and/or creative projects tend to act as mirrors to both the best and the worst of ourselves.
If we’re only showing the slick and curated version, it’s a fast road to comparison and shame, not to mention a lost opportunity for real connection with anyone considering your product or services. When we openly talk about both highs and lows, we can recognize our commonalities and the struggles feel less heavy – we can even laugh about them! We can also start the important conversation about how neither have anything to do about our real worth or lovability in this world – those are inherent from birth. That truth is vital to remember and live by in the rocky terrain of businesses and relationships that come and go. It’s not automatic though, yet: we need safe places to practice acknowledging this truth and encouraging communities to mirror it back to us.
- Why do you think we are trained to not be vulnerable in business?
I think vulnerability implies a certain level of discomfort – isn’t almost everything that’s being marketed or manufactured to provide a promise of the opposite? Ie: “How to Painlessly Get Abs, Customers, Smooth Skin, Significant Others, Enlightenment…in Five Easy Steps.” I’d say it’s a pretty natural human impulse to want to be comfortable. Thing is, I’ve only ever experienced real aliveness on the other side of that line. I also think, at some level, no matter how buried, we all desire that feeling of being alive. Often, achieving that level requires rocking the boat, shattering the status quo, maybe not making such easy money as the other route, and that’s a difficult thing to do, especially if it feels like you’re trying to do it on your own, as many entrepreneurs and creatives do.
- How can vulnerability improve the authenticity in businesses and brands?
I can honestly say any time I have witnessed vulnerability, I have been reminded of both my own and others’ humanity. Of our connection despite our differences. Of the fact that we are all feeling creatures. I admire brands and businesses who embrace the beautiful mess of it all. Who are willing to say how they have made it to where they are and own up to any mistakes they make. It shows integrity. It makes me as a follower or customer feel safe, like I can trust them because as they embrace their own humanity, it makes mine okay too. I find that so inspiring. I want to be that way in my own life and business as a result.
- The retreats you host offer a chance for entrepreneurs to explore how they define success and how they already have so much to offer, just by looking within. Where was the last retreat held? What was the turn-out like?
The last retreat (and the three before that) were held at this beautiful, magical spiritual retreat centre called Loretto Maryholme, on the shores of Lake Simcoe. It’s a rambling old farmhouse on top of a cliff overlooking the lake that totally captured my heart. I’ll be honest and say the last retreat almost didn’t happen! I can phrase it creatively and say that perhaps this kind of crucible (of getting quiet, of being creative in ways you’re not accustomed to, of gathering in community, of showing up for yourself, of taking space) is an investment that inherently implies you care enough about yourself to offer yourself this kind of nourishing experience. That implication can, interestingly, haunt people and stop them from participating. It can make them recognize all the ways in which they are, to date, NOT doing that.
There is shame, significant resistance, all forms of rationalization and the inherent comfort of the status quo that pop up as a result. It was a real test of my dream, that lack of response. It made me feel sad, because the retreat was intentionally created as an antidote for those thoughts – to provide a space to look at the fact we all tend to think them, but what if we added love and attention to the mix? I remember thinking: how is it that I feel so called to provide this service, in this particular way, and yet apparently I have designed a retreat for crickets? I decided to reframe it and offer up the spots at a third of the price. By some miracle, we filled up all the spots within a week! Incredible women gathered and shared and real magic happened at that retreat, as at the others. The kind that made it worth the financial sacrifice on my end – the kind that reminded me why I started this work in the first place.
- You must hear so many stories at these retreats – and there must also be so much emotion that is expressed by people who attend. What stories or experiences from these retreats do you think of when you need motivation or when you need a creative refresh?
The stories are so personal and specific, but the emotions, I have found, are universal. I think that sharing those stories and emotions, in a space where the horizon of experience is a given and doesn’t need explanation (owning a business, being a creative, identifying as a woman), creates the kind of safety and connection where facades are dropped and people can show up as themselves. When I look for motivation or a refresh, I am always inspired and fueled by the ways in which Nurture attendees have connected, created and collaborated together outside the context of Nurture. The fact that these retreats are a breeding ground for creative cross-pollination is what makes me so, so happy. Nurture alumni have collaborated on incredible workshops, art, movement work and published books after having met at the retreat. They have formed lasting, real friendships.
I take the name of my company very seriously: if you have an idea that your heart can’t let go of, it needs the warmth and encouragement of others to feed it and bring it to life. Food is a favourite tool I use to help create that connection.
- Nurture also offers unique catering experiences for entrepreneurs. What does this entail? How can our readers look into securing a unique catering experiences for their programs and projects?
Let’s say you have an idea. For example: a workshop. You’ve got the content and you’re set up for sharing what you’ve learned with others. There is a lunch break from 12-1pm where your attendees will leave the space you’ve so carefully created, grab some food and be subjected to all manner of external stimuli, then need to re-adjust and settle in for the afternoon session. It’s disconnection you might not have considered. What if the food was included? What if it was served family-style, so that attendees would connect during the hours you’d initially need to write off? What if the food also carefully and intentionally reflected the spirit of your offering? If you’re diving deep into inner work, then foods chosen specifically for their grounding properties will ensure your attendees are in the right space to move forward with what’s next. If your event is more of a celebration (a book or album launch, a dinner for your hardworking staff), how does the food reflect what you’ve put so much energy into building? All of this and more goes into planning custom menus to support your offerings and ensure a cohesive experience for anyone attending. It all feels like you and the spirit of your brand.
One important area of focus at Nurture is how food plays a role in connection. I pay a lot of attention to those with food restrictions (allergies, sensitivities, strong dislikes and the like). Instead of seeing these sensitivities as restrictive, I intentionally work with them as creative restriction, so as not to inherently isolate diners in a group setting, but deliberately use food as a tool for inclusivity. Food sensitivities are addressed and embraced in each menu so that everyone at the table feels welcome and included at the table and can participate fully in the sensual and connecting experience of sharing a meal together. I sometimes feel it is my life’s mission to help people avoid cardboard baked goods and sad fruit bowls. Food is such an incredible palette to explore, even with restrictions. Life is way too short for it not to be delicious!
- You also host harvest table dinners. What are these like? When is the next one and how can we get involved?
Nurture Harvest Table Dinners is a monthly series I run out of the incredible culinary pop-up space, The Depanneur. Part supper club, part community incubator, part discourse on the subject of self-care and creativity. Each month, I design a menu inspired by the creative work of a local entrepreneur or artist. Creatives and entrepreneurs of all kinds (graphic designers, artists, architects, bloggers, makers, musicians, community leaders, etc.) gather together over family-style, organic food to connect and share and get inspired. Between the main course and dessert, I interview the collaborator(s) and we get real about how their journey got them where they are today. It’s delicious fun, and open to everyone. They are usually held the first Sunday of every month, the next one being on Sunday, January 7, 2018. Upcoming collaborators for 2018 include: Souvenir, Papirmass, Calica Studio, Timberlost, Soft Focus, & Artery.
- Everything that you produce and curate is all about nurturing. In addition to wellness and getting in touch with ourselves to improve our business plans, you also share wonderful recipe and food ideas on your social media channels. Where do you get this recipe inspiration from?
Once I have an initial inspiration, whether it be a flavour combination, a presentation concept, or an era of cooking, I take it to my friends Google, Pinterest and the Toronto Public Library. I nerdily research the heck out of whatever I am into, and the end result is an amalgam of what I’ve discovered. The story from one source, the technique from another, an ingredient combo from another, and the presentation from another. Add a dash of divine inspiration that shows up in “aha” moments, and that’s my process.
- What are some self-care tips that you find useful for your own subjective definition of success?
To me, self-care is listening. Honouring the tugs that come from your intuition, your heart, your soul, especially the little ones. It’s how you build the foundation of self esteem, self love and feel comfortable in your own skin. The peace that that feeling brings you ends up being the reward for the currency of anything you end up sacrificing (mostly because the truthful, honest, deep part of you has recognized what’s really of value).
- With a presence on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, where does the Nurture brand see the most engagement and response on the social-sphere?
Some of my closest current friends and collaborators have materialized out of posting on Instagram. I love how it acts as both a filter and a meeting place. People of like mind tend to gather and be drawn to what is shared there, algorithm be damned. There are a handful of Instagram friends I have yet to meet in person, but would feel comfortable telling where I keep my extra set of keys, or what my dreams are. The connection is real.
- What kind of pressures are there when sharing content on social media and how do you balance between sharing curated content and authentic pieces that represent you and your brand in a relatable way?
I made it a rule never to post unless I feel personally moved. Some people have not understood this intentional boundary. Others are glad for it. My engagement is always stronger for it. I feel settled in my skin because both the comments and the posts tend to be genuine as a result. I also have a (very important) rule not to share anything vulnerable that I have not yet gotten familiar with within myself yet. I am not immune to the pressure, but at the end of the day, I would much rather get one genuine comment than have so many likes. I consider that a real win: one person was moved! I write all my content for that one person: EVEN IF SHE’S ONLY ME.
- You wrote a piece in Feels Zine about growing up with a complicated relationship with food. What was it like to write this piece, where you identify eating things you enjoy in private as a way to safely indulge?
It was really liberating to write this piece. Once I made the connection to my secret indulgences being more about my relationship to my own passion as compared to my relationship to food itself, it felt exhilarating to bring both out into the open. I am passionate about food. I am passionate about many things in my life. I think anyone who meets me now usually discovers that in about 2.5 seconds. I am no longer ashamed of my passion. I used to be, and it hurt like hell. Instead, I listen to it now. I get curious about it.
- Why do you think relationships with food are so complicated and unique across the board?
They are definitely both. For me, my relationship with food centres around my relationship to passion. With others, it’s their relationship with creativity, selfhood, love, maternity, belonging, etc., or a blend. Uncovering these connections through the creative realm is a somewhat unconventional approach to bringing nourishment to these relationships, but it’s a self-directed path. The map reveals itself the more you listen.
- I know when I create something, I often feel really spent thereafter – because creating can take a lot of energy! What do you hope your writing and your Nurture brand debunk about the creative process (one that is always different for every creator)?
I feel you! I think, again, it’s about listening. What is nourishing and nurturing to your creative and personal process one day may not apply on the next. The only way I know to connect to the voice, the part of me that does know, is to get out of my head and into my body. The act of bringing an issue or a feeling to the creative sphere means I can now have a dialogue with it, and it can tell me things. It can also provide a safe space for me to retreat to when the things that voice tells me are uncomfortable or unconventional. I hope that by sharing my process in my social media or blog posts, in person at the Nurture events, and, importantly, in private in my own life, I can help inspire others to consider the same when they are faced with similar roadblocks or inner questioning.
- Being open about complicated and unique relationships with food requires being vulnerable and really connected to emotions and feelings. There is a sense of shame that sometimes comes with being an open book, because of some of the risks involved. Were there any risks that you were worried about before hitting “submit?”
Vulnerability hangovers are a thing. My ego wants everything to be tied up with a pretty bow to tell both you as a reader, and me as myself that everything is attended to correctly, properly, perfectly. That being said, I have honestly never felt such freedom as when I acknowledge my fallibility as a human. It’s been the times where I’ve risked the most, hit “Send” or “Publish” or showed up for an uncomfortable conversation in person that the real reward has proved time and again, to be worth every risk: that feeling of peace in a mess. That feeling of confirmation that you have done your soul’s bidding, even if no one else, even if you don’t quite understand why yet.
- What inspired you to write about your experiences and relationship with food?
I read cookbooks like they’re novels. I grew up with parents who encouraged my palate and let me into the kitchen at a young age. I see mine and other people’s kitchens like tarot spreads, revealing much about our relationships to ourselves. I see food as nourishment, a tool for connection, and a source of deep, primal pleasure. It’s sensual, and therefore vulnerable because it also makes us feel things in both the indulgence and the abstention from it. I’ve also been a voracious reader and eater since I was three. Books are my friends. Butter is my soulmate. I often describe my favourite books in words I could also use for food: “I literally ate her words. They fed me.” “I devoured it.”, etc. Writing is a way for me to take time and space to say the things I want to say, but that, as a card-carrying INFJ introvert, I usually am not able to express in the moment verbally.
- What do you hope that Nurture does for your prospective and current client-base?
I hope Nurture gives them a space where they can connect, even for a moment, to the creative relationship that is available for them to have with themselves. I hope that the fact that this exploration is done in community means that anyone experiencing the feelings that accompany creative work, entrepreneurship, and self development knows they are not alone. I hope that everyone feels warm and well fed, really seen, heard, nourished and encouraged to listen to the inner call that will inform them exactly what to pursue and how their unique expression can be of service to the world. To the voice that will also, ultimately, help them feel at home in their own skin so they can face the inevitable ups and downs of what their calling entails.
A huge thank you to Sonja for sharing her journey with A Quarter Young and for putting subjective success, happiness and goal-making at the forefront of her brand. We continue to be inspired by your work and can’t wait to see what 2018 brings to the Nurture table.