Jo Um: ‘I dream of a rich and dimensional city’

In serving Madisonians, I have learned that I have a sense of responsibility to the community, and Saints is bigger than just me and my silo.
phillip lee with Jo Um
Photo by Sharon Vanorny
Jo Um (right) says she agrees with Phillip Lee (left), co-owner of The Shop, who says “a food and beverage program should be about feeding the community and not about the ego.”

When I launched Saints Madison Juice Co. in August 2017, I had no idea what impact it would have on my future, aside from a career change. I was a fashion designer for 15 years for multibillion-dollar companies, and I was certainly a slave for my paycheck. 

But I knew I needed to get out — I yearned to feel creative again, find work-life balance and work with far fewer “cooks” in a big proverbial corporate kitchen.

I made my career change thinking mostly about how it would affect me and, in the beginning, I did not realize how I could impact the community as a whole. When I started this little juice company, it seemed impossible that my journey could extend beyond my own bubble and touch so many people.

Having this position in Madison as an Asian American small business owner means I have a platform and can help highlight issues for those who are underserved and unseen. In serving Madisonians, I have learned that I have a sense of responsibility to the community, and Saints is bigger than just me and my silo.

I’ve learned a great deal about myself in the process, too. I’ve discovered that it is with a sense of necessity and urgency that I need to hold on to strong bonds that I have created with like-minded people. I couldn’t agree more with Phillip Lee, co-owner of The Shop, a nail salon on East Johnson Street, when he says that “a food and beverage program should be about feeding the community and not about the ego.” Lee and his partner, Jacqueline Le, hope to break into Madison’s food scene in the near future.

Indeed, for me as an entrepreneur, Saints is about understanding the role we play in society — to make it a more just place and to dive into advocacy and not simply profit. “Accessibility is important,” Lee says, “and can symbolize the mantra of the business. Our future food business will be engaged to show community connection and solidarity, especially with Black and brown folks.”

Jo Um

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

That could not be more true. Like other Asian business owners here, Lee and Le want to draw inspiration from their upbringing and honor it. They intend to take a deeper dive into the history and narrative of their motherland and not “whitewash” their food, but rather strengthen its identity. 

My hope is that we can bring people together and support each other. I hope for a future when business owners like Lee and Le get the support and resources they need to start, without systemic racism standing in the way. We need to make this industry thrive and ensure that it is diverse. 

I dream of a rich and dimensional city with more restaurants and businesses that represent the changes that need to be made. 

“The pandemic confirmed that our concept of being accessible, unpretentious, joyful and transparent is exactly what people are looking for,” Lee says. “In the midst of this painful history we are walking through, the businesses that are showing resilience are those that have been able to maintain these values.”

That resilience is incredible and needs to be part of the fabric of the small business community. So, what are the ways that we can make that happen? 

Vote. Shop local. Support minority-owned businesses year-round. Collaborate with organizations that have similar goals. Actively uplift those who need a boost (but avoid performative allyship because it does not help), and remember that we are all in this together.

Jo Um, a guest columnist to Madison Magazine, is the owner of Saints Madison Juice Co., a cold-pressed juice company on Williamson Street.