What may just look like a jumble of letters to you means so much more to St. Joseph’s University, New York alumna Charlette Lopez. Not only does it directly translate to “my kitchen” in Swahili — a language from her native country of Kenya — it also serves as the name of Lopez’s very own business.
“Jikonikwenu is an opportunity for me to earn a living in a way that involves something I love and have passion for, which is food,” Lopez said of the catering company she began during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. “Working in the food industry, I get to be immersed in creativity and I get to continually produce things that represent my Kenyan and Mexican heritage.”
The Queens, New York, resident currently provides catering services for birthday parties, baby showers and many other types of events, with the hopes of getting into wedding venues soon. She can also be found at local farmers’ markets and pop-ups, selling homemade fruit jams and hot sauces.
Lopez, 35, said the most exciting part of owning her own business is happening right now: working with Hot Bread Kitchen, a nonprofit that supports immigrant women and women of color through their career goals in New York City.
Through the @hotbreadkitchen food incubator competitions (Prep for Success and PROOF Pitch), I am refining my craft, blossoming into a better business person and building strong community with other women entrepreneurs in the food industry — which can be very competitive and male-dominated,” Lopez said.
“These programs have allowed me to market my brand, grow, gain professional mentorship and have access to culinary experts that can take my business to higher levels,” she added.
What keeps her going and pushes her harder to succeed in this new business are Lopez’s two biggest inspirations in life: her mother Elizabeth and her paternal grandmother Elisa.
“They are the biggest reason why I can cook Kenyan and Mexican cuisines,” she said.
Lopez’s favorite thing about owning Jikonikwenu is being able to do her own philanthropic work.
“Right now, I am working with organizations in Kenya that provide support to children and their families by way of paying for school fees and giving them other needed resources,” she said. “I am a big advocate for education, and 10% of my food business goes to educating children in Africa. I am also looking to contribute to Latin American organizations, as well.”
Starting at St. Joseph’s
Despite starting her own business, Lopez’s major during her time as a student at St. Joseph’s Brooklyn Campus may surprise you.
“I received my B.A. in Human Relations,” she said. “My plans after graduation were to work at the United Nations. However, I ended up working in a human service setting with homeless families.”
In addition to owning a catering company, Lopez is also a program director at Women In Need, which provides safe housing and resources to homeless women and children in New York City.
“Over the last decade, I have led teams that provide vital social services to thousands of New Yorkers on their complex journeys from unhoused to obtaining permanent housing,” she said.
Lopez credits her time at St. Joseph’s for helping her get where she is today — not only as a program director, but also as a business owner.
“St. Joseph’s University has always had a special place in my heart,” Lopez said. “Words cannot describe how grateful I was when I got into St. Joe’s ACES program as an immigrant from Kenya. And coming from a foreign country and not knowing how to navigate the Big Apple, Professors Mik Larson and Sydelle Brooks really helped me. Their mentorship stirred me in the right direction of my life.”