Met School senior wins national competition with food truck venture

PROVIDENCE – Raneem Al Suwaidani, 17, has long held a passion for entrepreneurship and food, but with high financial barriers preventing many innovators from owning a restaurant, Al Suwaidani knows that this path often feels like a lofty goal.

To help fellow food entrepreneurs in overcoming these obstacles, Al Suwaidani, currently a senior at The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center High School, is developing Lilypad, a food truck rental service that offers entrepreneurs “a low-risk, high-reward” means to test out their products and expand their customer base before making the leap into owning a restaurant or food truck.

Currently still in the concept phase, Al Suwaidani’s venture has already won national recognition. Earlier this month, Lilypad took top honors in the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship’s National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge.

For Al Suwaidani, innovation draws from personal experience and a desire to give back to the community.

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“I was inspired by my family’s passion for food and our journey as refugees from Syria,” said Al Suwaidani, who arrived in the U.S. in 2016. “I want to help people like me … and give them a more affordable way to test their culinary concept without the high costs and risks of opening a traditional restaurant.”

Once developed, the rentable food trucks will include digital screens that allow entrepreneurs to easily customize them with their own branding and menus.

Lilypad’s concept also draws from the importance of food in Syrian culture, Al Suwaidani added. 

“As Syrians, we are passionate about cooking food, and we are always gathering around a table as a family,” she said. “We want to show it to the world and have people learn more about our culture through food.” 

For her win in the national competition, Al Suwaidani received $10,000 in funding toward this goal.

The Met School boasts an impressive track record among its student entrepreneurs, with its students winning the national entrepreneurship competition in three out of the last four years that it was held. And 2021 national champion Carissa Lombardi, also of The Met School, went on to win the competition’s first, and so far only, international phase of the contest.

Al Suwaidani now has the chance to become the second. In November, Al Suwaidani and other students from around the globe will gather in New York for the second international competition, and the first to be held in person.

The Met School’s strong showing in the national competition reflects its unique focus on entrepreneurship programming, said Jodie Woodruff, director of the The Met Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

“We have the only free-standing entrepreneur center for a public high school in the country,” Woodruff said, “so we get to spend a lot of academic time with our students working through their business plan and what it means to them, and the community around them.”

Importantly, Woodruff added, the center fosters projects that are “real work” to students, and “can feasibly grow beyond the classroom.”

All freshmen at the Met School take an 18-hour introductory course in entrepreneurship, and as they progress through high school, they can apply to advanced opportunities that allow them to pursue their own business ventures as an internship, and eventually mentor their own interns.

In fact, 23 alumni who took part in this advanced programming currently make a living running their businesses, Woodruff said, and 17 of those former students continued running their businesses while completing a four-year degree.

For Al Suwaidani, the national win is already “a life-changing opportunity for my family,” she said, and solidified her plans to study business in college. It’s also an opportunity she hopes to pass on as Lilypad grows.

“I want to do whatever I can to get the food truck to people,” she said.

This will start with her own community, Al Sawaidani said – “the pop-up (entrepreneur) community and immigrant communities in Rhode Island” – and is particularly pertinent due to the Ocean State’s low percentage of restaurants owned by Black, Indigenous and people of color.

And eventually, she plans to take this support a step further, with Lilypad expanding to other cities and providing direct funding opportunities.

“When Lilypad has enough money, I want to start a Lilypad Foundation that will help immigrant families follow their American dream,” Al Sawaidani said.

Jacquelyn Voghel is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Voghel@PBN.com.