How A DHS Lawyer Moved On To The Sweeter Things In Life
If you need a break from reading about Brexit, check out something sweeter: Ice Cream Jubilee. As the Southeast Waterfront shop nears its second anniversary, we caught up with founder Victoria Lai about how she swapped roles from DHS presidential appointee to dishing out sweets.
Ice Cream Jubilee (a favorite of Nationals star Bryce Harper—the 301 Water St space is just down the street from Nationals Stadium) churns out close to 1,000 gallons of ice cream a week and has been profitable since its very first year. A range of crowd-pleasing flavors include blueberry pie, banana bourbon caramel, Thai iced tea, and cookies and cream.
But initially switching gears from "white shoe to tennis shoe," as Victoria puts it, was gradual. A Wellesley grad, she worked on political campaigns including as the national director of Asian-American outreach for the Kerry campaign. Just 24 when that campaign ended, she headed to law school at Fordham, then worked on the Obama campaign and clerked for Judge Denny Chin on the Second Circuit.
In the three months before starting at Paul Hastings in New York, she worked at Brooklyn pie shop Four and Twenty Blackbirds. Her big ice cream break almost happened then: at Victoria's suggestion, the pie shop was going to serve her ice cream along with its slices. But the same day—just as she was considering how to transport ice cream across boroughs by subway—Victoria got a call from the director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services at DHS offering her a job.
She took the post of counselor to the director of USCIS (one of the three immigration agencies in DHS), relocating to DC to work on issues around citizenship, naturalization, H-1B visas, marriage visas and international adoptions. As a child of immigrants, she says it was humbling to be part of a place that makes the American dream possible.
Along the way, she kept making ice cream before and after work, and eventually launched a wholesale business selling half-pints in local grocery stores.
Mentors and friends told her that when she spoke about making ice cream, her expression would change and light up. They asked, "Have you ever thought about that as a career?" But moving from a prestigious position to a seasonal, small-dollar business felt like the opposite of what the immigrant story career trajectory is supposed to be, so she kept her future plans in the vein of going in-house, to a law firm, or to a tech startup.
In 2013, she took her ice cream (and a team of volunteers and friends) to the DC Scoop competition—and ended up winning the People's Choice Award for best ice cream in DC.
A fortuitous encounter afterward led to this storefront. In the wake of DC Scoop, Forest City Washington (the developer of The Yards and Waterfront Station) emailed saying that it was looking for a local ice cream company to fill a space on the Southeast Waterfront. Victoria hadn't been planning on opening a retail space, but an August visit when the area was brimming with children laughing and playing hooked her.
The storefront opened six days before National Ice Cream Day in July 2014, and a few days later, was named one of the Washingtonian's Best Of. It sold out of ice cream on the first day, Victoria tells us, so she (and her mom, who was in town helping out) churned more through the night.
The breakneck speed of working on political campaigns prepared her for the pace of running a small business, she says. Having a basic knowledge of law was also helpful in opening a business, between issue-spotting and handling things like employment policies and partnerships with other businesses. (But "I know just enough to know when to hire a lawyer," she adds, such as when it comes to real estate issues.)
By the time the store opened, a year and a half of awards and media attention—along with a lot of number crunching—had made her more willing to take that step into full-time ice cream. So had speaking with other lawyers about their passions.
Nowadays, Ice Cream Jubilee can go through 60 to 80 gallons of ice cream on a summer weekend day, caters law firm events and ships nationwide. In March, it expanded its kitchen to add freezer space to make room for all of the ice cream.
Customers have expressed interest in Ice Cream Jubilee opening more shops around DC (and based on our taste test, we can understand why people want a location close at hand...or mouth), but as with most things real estate-related, it'll depend on opportunity and timing. For now, the 301 Water St lease is for 10 years—good news for when events like Brexit make you want to sweeten up your day.