Ibraheem Basir, CEO and Founder of A Dozen Cousins, said he was inspired to team with Ayeshah Abuelhiga, founder and CEO of Mason Dixie Foods, and Arnulfo Ventura, CEO of Beanfields, to create Project Potluck after noticing the disparity between the percentage of Americans who identify as people of color and the mostly white make up of the natural product industry’s leadership and consumer-base.
He estimates that between 40% and 50% of Americans identify as people of color, and yet only about 25% of natural brand consumers and 10% to 15% of leadership in the natural product CPG are people of color.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, Basir, Abuelhiga and Ventura discuss the root causes and impact of this disparity on entrepreneurs, consumers and the industry. They also share how Project Potluck aims to make the CPG space more equitable and welcoming to people of color through a three-prong approach that includes a year-long mentorship program, monthly community building events and a digital networking platform to raise the visibility of people of color already in or interested in joining the CPG industry.
[Editor’s Note: Never miss another episode of FoodNaviagtor-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast – subscribe today.]
‘The goal behind Project Potluck is to help improve the representation of people of color’
The idea – and need – for Project Potluck came long before the rising interest in social and racial inequality by mainstream America in recent months, and while separate from that movement, Basir and Abuelhiga explain that the organization will address many shared challenges posed by systemic or historic racism that have negatively impacted people of color in America, but through the lens of professional development.
“The goal behind project potluck is to help improve the representation of people of color in the CPG industry and specifically in positions of leadership,” and to do that the organization needs to address the root causes of the current disparity, Basir said.
A major contributor to the representation gap is differences in access to capital by founders of color, Basir said. For example, he explained, founders of color might not have a personal network of affluent friends and family.
Another contributor is “regular good old-fashioned bias,” Basir said. Said. “Sometimes people have a false understanding of what leadership looks like, what a prototypical leader is. Sometimes you have people of color that sound different, that approach problems from a different angle and maybe don’t necessarily fit the cookie cutter mold of what someone would expect to see in a leader in this space.”
While people of color face many challenges, Abuelhiga adds that Project Potluck wants to focus on positive goals rather than the negative.
“One of the most important things we can do for ourselves as a community is really just move forward in the best way we can, and so that’s part of our job here, too. The more faces, more people of color that people see and realize exist in the world in positions of power and influence, the less likely that this issue will continue to proliferate as things move on,” she said.
The first way that Project Potluck hopes to shine a light on and further foster the talent, ideas and experience of people of color is through a year-long mentorship program that Ventura says will pair industry veterans who can provide guidance and support with mentees of color across a range of verticals – so not just founders and executives, but also sales, marketing, operations and finance.
In the program, mentees will meet with mentors four times for 60 minutes for one year, which Ventura notes isn’t a big time commitment but provides a connection that can ignite powerful change. Mentees also will be in small groups with their mentors, which could also facilitate peer-to-peer mentorship, he added.
While Project Potluck’s mentorship program initially will focus on professionals who already are working in the CPG space, Ventura says that as the organization grows it wants to pair mentors with upcoming generations coming into the CPG industry.
“The second generation is really looking at undergraduate universities, looking at MBA programs, looking at entrepreneurs and residents. So, how do we reach those folks when they start tooling around with ideas and they start thinking about where they’re going to go so that they know in the CPG sector there is a community that is here to support them,” he said.
The third generation will focus on school children so that they know the CPG industry holds options for them, he added.
Project Potluck already has 30 to 40 mentors on board – most of whom have come from the founders’ networks. But Basir says that the organization is excited to open the door for more mentors in the coming month, so that they can pair even more mentees with experienced veterans.
In addition to connecting people of color with mentors, Project Potluck will connect them to each other through monthly community building events, which Abuelhiga says will initially be virtual but as restrictions around COVID-19 lift in-person events at the regional and national level will be added.
“We will have a strong emphasis on building skills, exposure, providing assets to people of color, whether it be anything from how to tell your brand story in a way that still celebrates your heritage and diversity but also doesn’t make it exclusive … to anything like topics of wealth management,” she said.
As the world returns to normal, Project Potluck hopes to leverage in-person activities that not only build connections but visibility of people of color, she said.
Digital platform offers increased visibility
The final pillar of Project Potluck will be a digital networking platform that Basir says will make people of color more visible, and also extend networking and mentorship to the peer level.
“One of the goals of this digital community pillar is to help make ourselves more visible for opportunities, whether that is someone who wants to book a panel at a conference or someone who is looking to hire a head of supply chain or someone’s looking for an independent board member. We wanted a way for people to raise their hands and say I identify as a person of color. I work in the CPG industry. I’m interested in this space and I’m open for business,” he explained.
The platform also will help companies that what to diversify their ranks identify candidates of color more easily than they currently can on existing networking platforms, he added.
Finally, the platform will help connect people of color to each other, Basir said, noting that over the course of his career he has benefit from knowing and learning from peers who were one or two steps ahead of him.
To maximize the impact of Project Potluck, the organization is free for people of color in the CPG industry, and those interested in joining can do so by sharing their email or attending the organization’s virtual kickoff event and mixer Oct. 8 at 5 ET. Basir also encourages people to join Project Potluck’s group on LinkedIn.
Ultimately, while Project Potluck was created to help break down barriers that hold people of color back, Basir says it also is creating a “place of joy and possibility” from where he expects to see new products and marketing ideas emerge from a “renewed spirit of diversity and richness that the industry can have.”