Ben Weiss: Social Work, Bakeries, and Robots

Ben Weiss has been busy these past four years - he danced with Yale Danceworks all eight semesters, served as a First-Year Counselor (FroCo), and cooked for the student-run restaurant Yale Pop Up, all while completing his major in mechanical engineering.

One thing, though, will continue on after his time at Yale – Havenly Treats, a bakery run by and for refugee women that he co-founded along with Nieda Abbas, a chef from Iraq, and two Yale students, Caterina Passoni (YC '18), and Alessandro Luciano (YC '18).  The food powered program is designed to ease the barriers to employment that refugee women often face. Its mission is to “help refugee women prosper, uplift their families and shape their communities.” At the same time, it’s been providing the New Haven area with baked goods for the last two years.  ​

The four-month training program, the Havenly Fellowship, allows trainees to earn a living while learning crucial skills needed to enter jobs in the food industry. Classes cover food safety certification, digital and financial literacy, English as a second language, resume building, community organizing and culinary skills. At the end of the program, fellows are equipped with the skills, resources and networks they need to access better jobs and shape their communities.. 

It started after Weiss joined the Yale Refugee Project, a coalition of undergraduate students helping refugees who have resettled in New Haven.  

“It was clear that New Haven had an incredible community of refugees and that the city itself seemed to rally around them, so I was looking for ways to get involved,” Weiss said. He teamed up with fellow Yale students Caterina Passoni and Alessandro Luciano. At the time, the team was running a program that paired refugees with Yale students who assisted with resumes, interview coaching, and other aspects of the job search. 

Passoni introduced him to co-founder Abbas, who now serves as its head chef. A refugee who came to New Haven six years ago from Iraq, Abbas ran a bakery, a juice shop and a sandwich stand in her home country but struggled to find a job in the U.S. After trying her baklava, though, Weiss had an idea. 

“I said Nieda’s an incredible chef, why don't we sell her foods in Yale’s butteries?” he said. That was the first iteration of Havenly, which scaled up quickly. They initially focused on baklava, but the menu has expanded to include basbousa, chocolate kunafa, and other treats. 

The new business was a success, and they considered opening a full-fledged bakery employing refugees. But they realized they could have an even bigger impact by transitioning refugees in and out of their bakeries, preparing them for jobs elsewhere. Havenly is currently operating out of a space on Court Street made temporarily available during the pandemic. In addition to the fellowship program, they’re also running a food relief operation for families in need during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Although the current circumstances have made things a little uncertain, Weiss is pretty sure he’ll be going to Italy after graduation. As part of the Robert C. Bates Postgraduate Fellowship that he was awarded from Yale, which funds a year of academic research, he’ll be at the BioRobotics Institute of Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa. There, he’ll work with a team that’s building a small crab-inspired robot. It’s an underwater vehicle that roves around coastal regions picking up plastics as it goes. 

“I will be performing a biomechanical analysis of crab feet to get insight how crabs remain so stable under water, despite external disturbances,” he said. “Then I’ll use whatever I learn and apply it to their system and hopefully improve its locomotive abilities.”

Ben will work as a full-time employee of Havenly this summer, serving as the Head of Sales and Product Development.  Next year, even though he’ll be an ocean away, he intends to remain engaged with Havenly Treats as a member of the board.