When Alvin Salehi worked as a senior technology advisor under President Obama, he visited the Syrian border to learn more about the refugee crisis and, in doing so, found himself looking into something of a mirror. As a child of Iranian immigrants who came to the US in the 1970s, Salehi knew firsthand that whether one has the privilege of a safe and stable life or not begins with where you happen to be born. Having grown up in motel rooms, watching his family struggle to build a new life in a new country, Salehi doesn’t take that privilege lightly. So when he met with seven-year-old refugee kids who looked almost identical to him, he saw himself and his younger brother reflected in them. “After a trip like that, there’s just so much that compels you to want to do something to help,” he tells us.
“But I felt helpless. I knew I needed to do something, I just didn’t know what it was,” he continues. In search of answers, Salehi began attending meetings with immigrants and refugees, asking them what they needed in order to resettle in America. Their nearly unanimous response was that they needed meaningful income yet had to remain at home in order to take care of their kids. This inspired Salehi, with co-founder Joey Grassia, to create Shef, an online meal-delivery service that empowers immigrants and refugees to become food entrepreneurs.
Launched in 2019, Shef—which is available in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Houston and Austin—operates like Uber Eats or Postmates in that they provide freshly cooked meals that customers can browse and order to be delivered. But unlike those services, Shef uses local, home cooks that are trained and safety certified. Their names and cultures are listed on the site, which is home to over 100 different countries’ cuisines from Nepalese to Haitian, Gujarati and Thai. For consumers, Shef offers a diverse and authentic array of meals, homemade by cooks who grew up with that culture and whose recipes have been passed down for generations. For cooks, Shef provides a platform where they can share their culture, generate income and work from home at their own schedule.