“When you think about stores or shelves, everything is in the category and is in a subcategory, so imagine if you just don't fit right off the bat. Then, how can that buyer or that store place you in the category that the customers can access?"
Fitting in in today’s retail shelves
Launched in 2015, Iya Foods provides a range of gluten-free flours, baking mixes, chips, and spice blends, which are created with African-sourced ingredients like cassava. When Kolawole started the brand, she struggled to find retail success, as retailers had a hard time placing her products on store shelves, Kolawole admitted.
"I [would] present my product [like] cornbread fudge brownie and all these things, and I'll probably talk about some of what I call African superfoods that are being used in multiple products ... and I will be categorized as someone selling African food. And when that happens, a lot of times they will really limit what you can do."
But when Kolawole was accepted into Target's Takeoff incubator program, which learned how to shift her messaging to attract would-be retailers and grow sales.
“I [had] to communicate in a way that customers [could] absorb, and then we started to make a lot of inroads in terms of being able to sell,” she added.
With the insight gained from the Takeoff program, Kolawole dedicated months to rebranding her products, after which one of her struggling products sold a 100 units on the first day..
Though Iya Foods broke through the initial startup obstacles to find retail success, certain challenges persist, and Kolawole says she still feels like her brand doesn't fit due to her gender and race. For instance, Kolawole found that even with an above-average personal commitment and excellent credit that she wasn’t approved for a loan.
“You have to take a step back and then force yourself to fit or find a way to fit. Those are conversations and strategies that we have to think about it. In fact, I call it the BIPOC strategy; ... there always has to be a BIPOC strategy layered on top of business strategy.”
Target look to support diversity with incubator programs
While owners and founders from diverse backgrounds often face a host of challenges to starting and running their businesses, retailers like Target are looking to empower entrepreneurs through specific DE&I and incubator programs.
As part of its DEI focus and startup support, Target explains “what it takes to be ready for retail” by providing resources through its Takeoff program, connections, and ensuring brands have the basics down, Le'Spencer Walker, director of merchandising vendor development at Target, shared. And at the core of that program is ensuring brands have the basics of manufacturing, logistics, and marketing down, he added.
“When we talked about tools that we've set up, or at least the programs that we set up for BIPOC-owned, it spans the gamut from Black, woman, Asian, Hispanic, LGBTQ+, disabled, veteran,” Walker said. “[We are] making sure that you are mass-retail ready because what the last thing we want to do is set you up for failure.”
While programs like Target’s Takeoff program can help boost diverse brands, the CPG industry needs to rethink how they approach DE&I programs, so more brands can grow in retail, Walker explained.
“We can pull all the levers and stand up pillars, but if we don't have the mindset shift that DEI isn't an expense, it's an investment, we're probably not going to continue to get anywhere as an industry. So, we're trying to do that at Target and creating the systems ... that traction continues.”