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Hotelie prompts nonprofits worldwide to think more like entrepreneurs

Liz Ngonzi with students at Cornell in 2010

Elizabeth Ngonzi, MMH '98, with Tom Ward, left, former managing director of the Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship, and students at Cornell in 2010 after she spoke as part of the Hotel School's Conversations with Entrepreneurs speakers series. File photo by University Photography.

When Elizabeth Ngonzi, MMH '98, was 10, she traveled to Copenhagen with her mother to attend the United Nations' second World Conference on Women, a gathering of thousands working for equality, development and peace.

"That's when I started developing my activist side, seeing all those women and understanding the issues," she says.

Her awareness of social and global issues was thanks in part to her family. Born in Uganda, she moved at age 4 to New York City with her mother, one of Uganda's first female diplomats, and attended the United Nations International School for 13 years. Her late father, John Ruganda, was a celebrated Ugandan playwright.

These days, Ngonzi is the Entrepreneur in Residence at the School of Hotel Administration. She has just signed up for a second year sharing her business expertise and activist approach with students to help them conceive, launch and manage their own enterprises with an understanding of the positive impact businesses can have on underserved communities.

Ngonzi is also vice chair of communications for the President's Council of Cornell Women, and since 2010 she has served on the advisory board of the Hotel School's Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship.

Liz Ngonzi being interviewed at Hotel School awards dinner in New York City

Ngonzi is interviewed during the Third Annual Cornell Icon and Innovator Awards Dinner in New York City in June 2011. Ngonzi served as the strategic marketing and event consultant to the gala. Photo provided.

An entrepreneur who founded the consulting firm Amazing Taste LLC, Ngonzi develops online and traditional marketing strategies and training programs for U.S. and international nonprofits.

The company took root when she was a graduate student at Cornell.

She had come to Ithaca with a B.S. degree in information systems from Syracuse University and several years in the hospitality technology industry. At Cornell, she took 21 credits each semester, served as a teaching assistant for two professors, saw every relevant speaker and contacted them afterward. "I was on top of it," she says. "I figured this was a great opportunity for me, so I wanted to make sure I took full advantage of my time at Cornell."

At the Hotel School she noticed that her courses emphasized American, European and sometimes Asian cuisine, but scarcely mentioned African cooking. Looking for a way to elevate the way African cuisine is perceived, she created a module on it that one professor still uses in one of his courses. She also put together a Hotel Ezra Cornell event featuring upscale African dishes and themes.

Then, after graduating, when the company she had been working for started to go under, she decided to revisit her business idea: a world cuisine and global events company that she named Amazing Taste -- a double entendre on amazing food and event concepts and designs.

Liz Ngonzi with Pat Harris of McDonald's Corp.

Ngonzi, left, with Pat Harris, McDonald's Corporation's chief diversity officer, at Hotel Ezra Cornell in 2011. Photo provided.

"I was tired of the same type of catering, typical cuisine and the same type of décor. This was going to be something a little bit different, and upscale at the same time. That's where I started," Ngonzi says.

The company eventually morphed into an online marketing and fundraising firm, leveraging Ngonzi's passion for nonprofits working on gender rights, youth development, educational institutions and women's health issues. Using new media and traditional marketing and fundraising strategies, Amazing Taste connects nonprofits with corporations and philanthropists to further social causes through fundraising and educational events, training and executive lifestyle consulting that leverage her experience working with executives and her extensive global contacts.

"That's where my heart is," she says. "I see technology as a tool that enables disenfranchised people to get their voices heard in larger conversations about topics that affect them. For me, it goes beyond the technological tools and is about what technology helps facilitate: positive change."

For example, last year she traveled to South Africa and Kenya to train more than 200 nonprofits on how to build their brands online. Many had had their funding cut by European Union countries. Some needed help understanding the benefits of websites to reach donors. Others needed to evaluate emerging social media's cost benefits in reaching new donors.

At Cornell, she has worked with such students as Karim Aboulnega '13, founder of Practice Makes Perfect, a nonprofit that pairs struggling fourth-graders with ninth-grade mentors for summer academic enrichment. She's also mentored Jake Marmulstein '12, partner and founder of Culture to Culture Pals Cornell, an e-mentoring organization that connects university students to underprivileged youth in such international, developing areas as Rio de Janeiro.

Whether working with clients or students, she asks them to be willing to innovate as a means to differentiate themselves from competitors.

"People ask, 'Are you an entrepreneur, or are you a nonprofit?'" she says. "I'm an entrepreneur. I happen to work with nonprofits. But I ask them to think more entrepreneurially."

Related links:

Ngonzi's upcoming keynote talk Saturday, June 9 at Reunion 2012

School of Hotel Administration's Entrepreneurs in Residence program

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