Report date
July 2021
Learning Log

Learning Log 2: What stands out to you/has surprised you about your leadership development through the Fellowship to date?

When I started my Fellowship one year ago, I was starting a brand-new chapter of my life and new career - one that required reimagining and recreating my professional identity, brand, and network. My mission - to create greater equity and inclusion of local food businesses of color in the CPG industry. I did not realize the depth of hidden DEI issues in this industry, and how hard it would be to achieve that mission, in this predominantly white led private sector/CPG industry and the ecosystem that supports it.

What surprised me most was that I thought I was experience enough - well trained in diversity, equity, and inclusion – trained by the best of DEI change consultants from communities of color as well as their white counterparts. I was a person of color with lived experiences of racial and gender inequities. I not only lived through those inequities – I persevere – excelled and became stronger. I led DEI initiatives in major institutions across sectors that I used to work for. I thought with that combination of professional and personal lived experiences - that I was prepared and adaptive enough to work on the DEI challenges that I might find in this new chapter of my life. I thought I would be ready to partner and/or lead through those challenges.

My surprise - the inequities in this industry are subtle and/or accepted as “competition in business.” In just two short years, I experienced a level of emotional toll tackling DEI issues in this CPG/ entrepreneur support ecosystem far greater than I have ever in the last 2-3 decades. Yes, this past year certainly brought the most of that toll, as businesses scramble to survive through the racial reckoning compounded by the pandemic. Those tragic events brought complexities to equity and inclusion work across all sectors, but in the private sector, it is quite different. For example, after the George Floyd events, while there were genuine efforts for equity and inclusion of POC businesses and products, there seemed to be just as many, if not more, efforts that took advantage of the times and used it as a trend for better branding and marketing, making the genuine work we do to create equity and inclusion much more complex – so much harder to decipher true partners and authenticity motives.

Twice within the last 12 months, my own business has been financially impacted by efforts of white-led so-called partners who wanted to “help businesses of color” gain more customers, access more markets and sell more. Whether they were genuine or not – it was hard to tell. What was clear was that the impact of their efforts felt exploitative. The businesses of color, including mine, felt the major gain/benefit went to the white-led nonprofits and white-led businesses/consultants involved in the effort. One business of color has come to described some of the efforts from the white-led businesses and consultants as “sharky” (predatory) tactics.

Equity and inclusion work is complex, and in the business/commerce industry it has become even more complex since the tragic events of 2020. To equitably rebuild from 2020 and move forward, we need new ways of engaging in this industry. Specifically, a transparency-filtering process that vets through the so-called DEI efforts by businesses. This will be especially challenging in the business/commerce industry (big and small businesses) because of how this industry has traditionally framed “competitions, trade secrets/protectionism.” This traditional framing will continue to foster distrust and exploitation between businesses of unequal resources and power dynamics. Since the two incidences I mentioned above, I have been bolder to ask tough questions early of any organization/ person who “wants to partner to help me or to help the BIPOC businesses in my network.” I do so at the risk of been viewed as a difficult person to work with – in such a small community/ecosystem – but until there is something better – it is a way to foster understanding, transparency and ultimately trust.

In sum, the racial reckoning and pandemic have brought more complexity across our communities and systems, including the inter-business and inter-community commercial industry that I am in. We must develop new ways of leading and engaging in this system. I have much to do in the next year of this Fellowship and beyond. With more travel and businesses opening back up, I am excited to continue learning and developing.