Taking Action Toward Equity in the Food Industry

The world has been profoundly impacted by George Floyd’s murder and the series of tragic deaths in the U.S. that continue to raise the urgent issues of systemic racism and social justice. Inspired by broader calls for racial equality, industries from tech to entertainment are reckoning with a lack of diversity and inclusion in their own ranks. The food industry is no exception.

At FoodBytes! by Rabobank, we believe it’s time to confront hard truths, and then act decisively and effectively to move the industry forward. That’s why we brought together a group of FoodBytes! alumni CEOs with diverse backgrounds and lived experiences to share how they are taking action for justice, and where the food industry at-large can replicate their initiatives.

In this FoodBytes! by Rabobank webinar, Jordan Buckner, founder and CEO of TeaSquares, based in Chicago; Julianne Ponan, owner and CEO of Creative Nature, based in the UK; and Bella Hughes, founder and CEO of Shaka Tea, based in Hawaii; joined FoodBytes! hosts Jillian Rago and Nina Meijers to discuss how the industry can do better, and do more.

Watch below and read on for their perspectives on how the industry can take action towards equity in the food industry:

Personal Stories and Experiences are at the Core of Change

Perhaps nothing was more prominent and important than each of our panelists’ own personal experiences with bias and injustice, as these experiences have informed their leadership with employees, customers and entrepreneurs who have been marginalized.

Julianne Ponan, of Creative Nature, shared a particularly stark experience of bias while seeking venture capital as a leader who happens to be a woman of color. She recalled being instructed by mentors to bring a white male with her to every pitch because this would signal stability to investors. In doing so, she found that questions were almost always directed to him even though he, in turn, almost always had to defer to Ponan for the subject-matter expertise. At one point, Ponan even took her name and photo off of her pitch decks and observed an increased response from investors. ‘I felt invisible,’ Ponan recalled.

In the case of TeaSquares’ leader Jordan Buckner, he said he’s faced the unconscious (or conscious) bias of investors who assume that Black-owned companies’ products are limited to minority communities, and not relevant to a broader market.

And, Shaka Tea’s Bella Hughes shared that she has encountered sexist attitudes and questions, as well as suggestions that her brand be marketed to moms or kids simply because she is one herself.


Listen Before You Leap

Why are these personal anecdotes so vital for understanding the times we are in? The panelists agreed that the first – and single most important factor – in making positive change, is to open yourselves up to others. To seek to understand people’s diverse range of lived experiences as the path towards equity.

In the south side of Chicago, Bucker has built TeaSquares as a company with a mission to offer employment for people who were previously incarcerated, as well as for single parents from underserved communities looking to provide for their families. Buckner shared that his employees are ‘being disproportionately affected by dual threats’ from both the COVID-19 pandemic and racial violence. That’s why Buckner has reached out and created spaces for all employees to air their very real first-hand fears, concerns, experiences and aspirations. Buckner emphasized that companies should no longer ‘expect people to keep their personal lives separate from their work lives,’ especially in times as traumatic as these. People’s personal experiences affect business now more than ever.
The imperative for companies to listen extends to social media, as well. Buckner said that while making public statements on potentially divisive issues “can be scary,” it’s worth taking the risk – even if you get criticized in return. He encouraged companies to view criticism as an opportunity to learn. ‘Instead of getting defensive, say thank you,’ explained Buckner. ‘Ask and understand why.’

Shaka Tea’s Hughes concurred: ‘The companies that are doing it best are coming from a place of humility and are always learning.’


Making Change Starts From Within

When it comes to implementing change, the most effective companies start by setting an example within their own organization.

Take Hughes and her Hawaiian company, Shaka Tea. Hughes has integrated the ‘Aloha Movement,’ which reflects the values of goodness, kindness, respect, love and humility, into every aspect of her business. For Shaka Tea, taking action for social justice means the company pays a premium to the farmers that provide ingredients for their product, offers their teas at an accessible price point, and prioritizes diversity within the team.

Hughes described that being open with her employees is in line with the spirit of ‘Aloha.’ She closed the company for a half-day to assemble the team to engage with each other, and process what had been unfolding on the mainland after George Floyd’s murder. ‘Given that we are sometimes geographically remote from the national conversation,’ she pointed out, ‘we needed time off to deeply understand systemic racism.’ In addition, she has now instituted Juneteenth as an official company paid holiday. The company has also identified Black-led organizations on the island and made donations in the names of each of their employees and interns.

Even in the U.K., where the events in the States are no less relevant, Creative Nature’s Ponan echoed the importance of looking within. To start, Ponan evaluated the lack of diversity within her own organization. In noting that the company has seen very few people of color applying for open positions, she acknowledged that they need to accelerate efforts around education and making people of color feel comfortable working for the company — which is located in a predominantly white area. And she doesn’t plan to do this alone. ‘We are looking at it from the bottom-up and working with [appropriate nonprofits] to determine the best paths,’ Ponan said.


However Change Must Extend to the Food Industry at Large

The CEOs agreed that the process of change involves looking inside your own organization, listening and then taking action beyond the company to build sustained, industry-wide impact.

Our panelists highlighted the reality that external action and partnerships are needed to realize true diversity in the food industry. For example, TeaSquares’ Buckner is working with organizations to establish a recruiting and training pipeline for people of color to prepare them for work in a professional setting. His point is well taken, that companies can’t accomplish their diversity goals by being passive. Instead, leaders must take the initiative and seek partners to build recruiting pipelines that identify and attract diverse talent.

The importance of elevating Black, minority and women-led businesses was also a key point of discussion. On the investment side, Buckner called for investors to rethink their investment criteria — challenging them to think differently about what a successful company looks like. Buckner implored investors to become more comfortable with the risk associated with investing in Black companies or those that serve diverse populations, noting that there is inherent risk in any investment. He observed that many investors are biased towards markets and products that they can relate to personally. Buckner encouraged investors to ‘get to know these entrepreneurs and do the research to become more comfortable with markets that you have been previously unfamiliar with.’

Our panelists also suggested that there is room for a new way for journalists to cover Black- and minority-owned food businesses. ‘Most of the brands covered are not very diverse,’ Hughes suggested. ‘So, I speak with journalists about their commitment to amplify Black-owned businesses, and introduce them to Black founders,’ adding that she felt the media’s response to these overtures was positive. When she heard from some that they didn’t see many Black- and-minority led businesses at industry trade shows, Hughes pointed out that the $5-10K fees to participate mean that many worthy companies are excluded from these venues for visibility.

Buckner reinforced the reality that Black-owned businesses are deserving of being spotlighted and having their voices heard for the long-term. “What I would love to see,” he said, “is more diverse coverage of businesses throughout the year, instead of just during a moment like this.”

In the final discussion of the webinar, an audience question allowed FoodBytes! and our panelists to reflect on important truth — that inclusion is just as, or more, important than diversity in creating real change. Our panelists agreed that it’s not sufficient for Black leaders, leaders of color and women leaders to have a seat at the table. Change requires more than fulfilling a diversity metric. We must listen to and value people’s diverse lived experiences and perspectives.

With regard to actions towards true cultural change, Creative Nature’s Ponan said it best: ‘It can’t just be a tick-box. It must be ongoing.’


FoodBytes! by Rabobank has welcomed more than 1,600 attendees from 50+ countries since launching its webinar series in March. To check out past FoodBytes! webinars on leading through change, startup funding, rethinking the produce supply chain, and more, visit our blog.


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