Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Project Potluck scales up to help more people of color in the CPG industry access capital, combat stereotypes and shift cultural norms
The launch of Project Potluck in October 2020 came at a time when many Americans were marching in the streets to support the Black Lives Matter movement, actively looking to buy products from brands founded and owned by people of color and as the executive director of Project Potluck put it “hungry for connection with each other.” At the same time, corporations were making sweeping pledges and donations to lift up people of color, including promises by retailers to offer more shelf space and support for brands from founders of color.
Today, Black small business owners are optimistic about their businesses in 2023 with a survey published this month by Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses Voices finding 81% of Black business owners are optimistic about the financial trajectory of their business in 2023 – far higher than the 68% of all small business owners who reported the same. Expectations for increased profits this year also are higher among Black small business owners than all small business owners at 78% vs 60%.
Despite strong growth indicators and promises from industry for more support, people of color still face system headwinds accessing capital and financing and leadership positions. According to the Goldman Sachs’ survey, 37% of Black small business owners report difficulty accessing new capital versus 23% of all small business owners. And, according to Project Potluck executive director Kathleen Casanova, only 16% of leadership teams in natural CPG are held by people of color even though they make up 40% of the US population.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, Casanova and Project Potluck founding board member Ayeshah Abuelhiga share what more needs to be done to support people of color and how with donors’ help their organization is stepping up this year to connect twice as many of its members to mentors, host five times more events and swell its ranks to 1,500 members by the end of the year. They also share how they are tackling systemic racism and the barriers that people of color face in the CPG industry. Finally, they call for action and outline ways everyone can help fuel positive change for people of color.
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A slowly evolving landscape
When Ibraheem Basir, CEO and founder of A Dozen Cousins, teamed with Abuelhiga, founder and CEO of Mason Dixie Foods, and Arnolfo Ventura, CEO of Beanfields, created Project Potluck, they wanted to bring together the existing community of people of color within the CPG space to address the disparity they saw 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 perceived consumer base.
“People of color in our industry, while we are underrepresented, we exist. And we have been helping one another, in this way, for a really long time. There’s been informal mentorship, helping, sharing of resources,” but “we just didn’t have a place to come together and to be formalized,” Casanova said.
And that is what Project Potluck has become – growing from a LinkedIn group to a formal non-profit.
Abuelhiga describes the group’s growth since its launch as exponential and the shift in energy it has inspired as unlike anything she has seen before in the industry.
“I think one of the most amazing things to see started last year at Expo West, and I’m really excited for this Expo West because I think we’re going to see even more of it. But I’ve never been to a trade show where people are so proud to be Brown,” she said. “People were running up to find one another” and meet in person or offer additional help.
‘People should be empowered to be solving the problems within their community’
Despite the optimism Project Potluck has inspired in its community, Casanova said many people are also frustrated by ongoing diversity and inclusion shortcomings and the stubborn nature of systemic racism – which underscore the ongoing need for groups like Project Potluck.
She explains that many people are still interested in equity and inclusion after turning in 2020, “but there’s this frustration that it hasn’t been resolved yet. It is still an ongoing conversation, and there’s not just one concrete answer” to such a deeply systemic issue.
She added the multifaceted answer will need to come from many partners and places, but what make Project Potluck unique is that it is led by and for people of color.
“We really believe that the solutions to this issue come from that community, and really that people should be empowered to be solving the problems within their community,” she said.
Project Potluck is tearing down barriers to capital for POC
According to Casanova, systemic racism continues to manifest in the CPG food and beverage industry as restricted access to capital, deeply entrenched stereotypes about who buys certain packaged goods, cultural norms that are uninviting and threatening to people of color and a lack of research and visibility into the existing roles people of color hold in and related to the CPG industry.
Project Potluck is actively working to change each of these, beginning with access to capital.
“There are three types of capital that research has shown is really critical for having a successful business. That’s human capital, there’s social capital and there’s financial capital,” she explained.
She added Project Potluck is focused on creating social capital for its members, which will lead to the other types of capital while also giving people of color a voice within the industry.
“Since we launched, we’ve always had a way for people to connect to one another. But because we were grassroots that looked first like… a LinkedIn group and then we had a Google Group, and now we are really excited because we have an online community portal, which is a place for our members to be able to log on, connect with one another, we have a director,” she explained.
Project Potluck is also helping members cultivate human capital through mentorship and by acting as a conduit for other opportunities.
‘It never feels good to be the only person of color in the room’
A huge component of building social capital and meeting people who can provide financial capital is networking, but Casanova says many of the current and traditional spaces where this occurs are not friendly for people of color.
“It never feels good to be the only person of color in the room,” and alcohol-fueled events at night or exclusive invites to parties are “not the safest places for us, and there’s a lot of power dynamics that … we’re trying to avoid," she said.
In response, Project Potluck will host a networking luncheon at Expo West called ‘Let’s Come To The Table,’ and it will include a full sit-down meal that allows participants to truly connect beyond a passing exchange of business cards.
People of color want healthy, organic food, too
Project Potluck is also tackling stereotypes that harm not only people of color within industry but also the consumers served by the entire CPG segment – including an erroneously narrow perception of who buys natural and organic products.
“For a long time, we just thought about healthy food as being expensive and having a certain type of consumer, and that is so deeply flawed and so deeply wrong. But in a capitalist society, a lot of times money is the motivator and so if they didn’t think that advertising to people of color mattered, because they weren’t going to buy it, it wasn’t a priority,” Casanova explained.
“Thankfully, we are seeing a shift and more people are aware that there’s a huge consumer base out there and they want to capture a new market,” she added.
Increased education opportunities coming in 2023
Because navigating the CPG industry successfully requires a deep understanding of many different systems – from negotiating with co-packers and retailers to accessing capital and driving brand awareness -- Casanova says Project Potluck plans to increase the education opportunities it provides in 2023.
“Our webinars are focused on accessing capital and investment and retail,” which are “two very complicated subjects [around which] there’s a lot of mysticism,” Casanova said. “We invite industry partners to come and be real: Tell us what we need to know.”
Balancing a safe space while welcoming allies
For the past two and a half years, Project Potluck has focused primarily on building a safe space for people of color in the CPG industry to gather and support each other, but Casanova acknowledges many in the industry who are not people of color want to help – including corporations. And in 2023, she is working to ally engagement authentically and with integrity while still protecting the privacy and safety of members.
She explained that membership will remain restricted to people of color in the CPG industry, but now allies with opportunities, jobs and other resources can reach out to her or submit through the website for consideration to be shared with the community.
There is also a donation component that is uncoupled from everything else – an important aspect that allows the group to accept funding with no strings attached. Existing donors include Once Upon a Farm, Chobani, PepsiCo Ventures Group and ForceBrands.
“Another big way people can support us is through mentorship and advising … we are really passionate about trying to connect all the people out there who really do care about our community,” she added.
Donating money helps, but is not the full answer to improving diversity, inclusion
Whether or not industry players work with Project Potluck, Abuelhiga says they need to do more support diversity and inclusion because even though some stakeholders have stepped up she would give the overall industry a D+ if she were to grade their effort to date.
She explained that many people and organizations give money to organizations fighting for diversity and inclusion, which his helpful, but then fail to take additional action.
“It’s not just on [Project Potluck] to be activators for change. We’re still not seeing anywhere close to 40% DEI employment in this industry. We’re still not seeing enough people of color in executive positions. We’re still not seeing employment, career development opportunities at large CPGs to help attract and promote internal talent to higher level positions,” Abuelhiga said, adding – increasing diversity and inclusion on the manufacturing floor won’t cut it.
Her first call to action for industry is to improve access.
“We started Project Potluck as an opportunity to improve access first. Access to people, access to resources, information, connections. It was all about helping our people gain access. And that mission still will never change. But I think the challenge is that the rest of the industry still hasn’t really created access points,” she said.
While she acknowledged she sees some activity from major retailers to create different pathways for diverse retailers, the results and extent of their impact is uncertain and more needs to be done.
For those looking to get involved with Project Potluck, either a member who is a person of color, or an ally, visit the group’s website at potluckcpg.org and either submit an application for membership or click the support us button for guidance on how allies can help.