In the summer of 2013, 8,000 tasters in the nation’s capital took free samples from 19 ice-cream companies at the DC Scoop contest. The people’s choice? Ice Cream Jubilee, owned by Victoria Lai ’01. The honor launched a year of tremendous change for Lai. She returned to DC Scoop this past July, and in the same month, Washingtonian magazine included Ice Cream Jubilee in its Best of Washington list. Almost simultaneously, Lai opened a retail ice-cream shop in southeast Washington.
“I can’t even believe how far we’ve come,” Lai says.
She bought an ice-cream maker off Craigslist “on a whim” years ago and began creating flavors that she couldn’t find, but seemed obvious—like Thai iced tea, cookies and cookie dough, and mango habanero (a nod to her childhood in Texas). Then, when she had a few months’ gap in her professional life—she worked on several presidential campaigns before law school—she apprenticed herself to Four & Twenty Blackbirds, a pie shop in Brooklyn, to learn the craft of pie-making.
“I discovered I really loved it. I loved creating something tangible with my hands. I loved being around other people who loved what they were doing,” she says. “[I] loved being in those surroundings and surrounded by food.”
She sometimes brought in samples of her homemade ice cream for the owners of the pie shop. Then, one day they invited her to sell her ice cream there. (Who doesn’t love pie à la mode?)
“That was the exact same day … like two hours later I got a call from Washington, D.C., with an offer to come and join the Obama administration.” Lai took the dream job—as counselor to the director at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—but didn’t abandon her ice-cream making. When some friends opened an incubator kitchen for new food businesses in D.C., she started to ratchet things up.
Every Thursday night after work, she’d go there and make ice cream.
“I would try to leave work early, so I would make ice cream from 6:30 to midnight,” Lai says. On Fridays after work, she’d use Uber (the custom cab service) to make deliveries, because she didn’t have a car.
“[That] destroyed my margins,” she said, “but it got my product out there.”
Still, it took nudging from a property owner after the 2013 DC Scoops honor to push her toward a career change.
“I hadn’t thought about leaving my job and becoming a retail-shop owner,” Lai said. “I know that it’s really challenging, I know that an attorney job is very stable.” But retail space along the Anacostia River appealed to her; Lai decided if she were going to quit a dream job to work long hours every day of the week, this was the place to do it. “That was a lifestyle decision more than a business decision,” she says.
Lai says even though making ice cream and managing a small business were not in her original image of herself in her post-collegiate life—while working in politics and in a federal government job were—she’s found the skills honed in her previous endeavors are serving her well.
“What I love most about what I’m doing now is that I feel like I’m really utilizing everything I’ve ever learned in my past positions,” Lai says, including people management, file organization, advance planning, and media communications. “It’s a ton of fun on top of that.”