20 January 2011 7:24 AM
By Jeff Higley
If Ben Justus has his way, underprivileged children around the world will help the hospitality industry fill its growing need for employees.
Justus isn’t your average 25-year-old Cornell Hotel School graduate. He has devoted a good chunk of his time after graduating in 2008 to establishing EGBOK Mission. The organization’s goal is to give children around the world the training and tools they need to work in the hospitality sector so they can support themselves and their native communities. The EGBOK acronym stands for Everything is Going to Be OK.
Ben Justus, a 2008 graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, teaches students during one of the sessions of EGBOK Mission’s hospitality program aimed at underprivileged children in Cambodia.
Justus has spent the last 18 months in Cambodia—he’s living at the Palm Tree Orphanage in Phenom Penh—getting the mission stabilized.
The roots for the mission started when Justus was a junior at Cornell and went to Cambodia for the first time as a part of the school’s Semester at Sea (cruise ship) program.
“I’ve seen all of these hospitality cultures around the world and most of them, particularly in Cambodia, weren’t hiring local people,” Justus said by phone from Cambodia. “Cambodians are naturally gracious people and hospitality comes natural to them, but hospitality companies were still hiring workers from outside the country.”
The mission originally was going to be a short-term project in Cambodia, but as awareness and results have grown, Justus is looking to take it to Peru this summer. In addition, he is hoping to launch a program in inner-city Chicago sooner than later.
Putting hotel knowledge to work
The ambitious young philanthropist worked for a commercial real-estate company upon graduation, but said he felt unfulfilled.
Veasna, one of the students participating in EGBOK Mission’s hospitality program.
“Many Cornell (Hotel School) grads leave their passion because doors open in other industries,” Justus said. “I wanted to use my skill and education to help others.”
Most of the volunteers he utilizes are recent graduates from or current students at Cornell, but he is reaching out to other hospitality schools. There are no paid employees for EGBOK Mission.
The mission teaches its own hospitality curriculum during a three-month period. It currently has 75 students involved in the program.
The curriculum includes a month of teaching hospitality related English terms and two months of industry-related curriculum that covers a broad number of topics.
“We want the students to find something that interests them, that’s why it’s so broad,” Justus said. “There’s a lot of hands-on learning to expose them to as many potential jobs as possible.”
The students listen to more than two dozen guest speakers, visit tourist sites and hotel and other facilities to help understand the broad spectrum of the industry.
“Once you start working with the students, you really understand how you are helping,” he said. “(All the volunteers) get personally invested in the project.”
EGBOK Mission students come from a variety of fractured backgrounds. “We work with students that come from the streets, students whose parents were murdered or are in jail or whose parents have HIV or AIDS,” Justus said.
That 70% of the mission’s students are orphans creates the need for housing, which the mission provides. It partners with other established organizations to help get what it needs.
The mission’s work doesn’t end when the three months are over: Students who finish the course will earn funding to attend a hospitality vocational school.
“Once they graduate, we will fund them for a year to live,” Justus said. “From there we will supplement their work with more education so they can advance and become managers.”
The money for the mission currently comes from individual donors in the United States. The group also conducts fundraisers and a large amount of its funding comes from silent auctions.
“Our money goes so far here,” Justus said. “We’re able to help a huge number of students with not a lot of money.”
Chharan, one of the students participating in EGBOK Mission’s hospitality program.
He knows the mission will eventually have a payroll, which is why he’s trying to spread the word now.
“In Cambodia, tourism is one of the few growing industries,” he said. “The students can make decent livings.”
Justus’ long-term plans are as ambitious as his early ones.
“We want to start a domestic program in Chicago to work with at-risk students there,” he said. “We want to ultimately create restaurants and possibly a hotel in the U.S. as learning centers. We’d like teaching facilities so we can bring students in to train, and then help place them into internships and jobs.”
Justus is quick to downplay the personal sacrifice he has made to get the mission off the ground. He left a good job with medical benefits and a 401(k) plan to live in an orphanage with 100 children.
“Sometimes I think I am crazy for doing it, but when you work with the students and see what they’re doing, it’s worth it,” he said.
If you’re interest in hearing more, you can catch up with Justus when he speaks at the annual Hotel Ezra Cornell event in April.