At 16 years old, Téa Ivanovic moved from Belgium to Blacksburg to play tennis at Virginia Tech. Neither she, nor her parents had ever been to the U.S., so the decision to move across the Atlantic by herself was a leap of faith.

“I remember getting this offer with my coach, and we looked Virgina up on Google Earth,” Ivanovic said. “I thought, ‘It's close to D.C.? I can do that,’ and I loved it. I wouldn't be the person I am today on so many levels without having had that experience.”

After graduating from Virginia Tech in 2014 with a degree in international studies, she attended Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies where she earned a master’s degree in international economics and in European and Eurasian studies. After exploring careers in fashion, journalism, and public relations, she cooked up a different career path for herself — restaurateur.

In late 2019, she co-founded Immigrant Food, a restaurant group that serves a wide variety of international fare and advocates for immigrants in the process.

“Immigrant Food is a different type of restaurant group,” Ivanovic said. “We wanted to advocate on behalf of immigrants, educate against misinformation, and have great discussions around the table.”

Ivanovic’s success keeps growing. Forbes magazine named her to its annual list of 30 entrepreneurs who are under 30 years old, in the food and drink category for 2023. The list highlights up-and-coming superstars from around the country in a variety of business categories.

The Forbes entry stated that more than 50 percent of Immigrant Food's staff are women. Their "gastroadvocacy" work includes a partnership with five nonprofits, a weekly engagement menu, which provides recommendations for guests and followers to support immigrants, and a monthly digital magazine on immigration called "The Think Table."

A sampling of dishes from Immigrant Foods' menu.
A sampling of dishes from the Immigrant Food menu. Photo by Andrew Adkins for Virginia Tech.

Ivanovic and her team coined the term “gastroadvocacy” to describe the alignment of the brand’s political mission with a love for sharing food from around the world. With support from the community, Immigrant Food has three locations around Washington, D.C.

“Poll after poll shows that Americans believe immigration is good for this country, so we want to celebrate that through food,” Ivanovic said. “The plan is to open up a few more locations in D.C. and then if we're lucky enough and have the investment, move to a different city.”

From Venezuela to Vietnam, the restaurant boasts a globally-inspired menu and partners with local immigrant service organizations and NGOs to support immigration efforts. As COO of the group, Ivanovic’s plate is filled with a mix of business responsibilities overseeing finances, marketing, advocacy, and operations.

“Lately I've been much better at taking at least one day off a week, so that’s been a change for me,” she said. “It’s a startup, so you’re kind of on 24/7, but the key for me has been to not see your job and your personal life as such different, completely isolated things. I’ll usually end the day going to one of the restaurants and having a drink or a meeting or dinner with a colleague."

Even with a busy schedule, Ivanovic made it clear there will always be time for Hokies to visit.

“They have to come — absolutely first on the list — and they have to let me know when they do,” she said.

-By Savannah Webb