Black founders speak about the difficulties encountered in their entrepreneurial journey due to the colour of their skin, as well as what the food & drink industry can, and should, do to encourage diversity on and off shelf.

Füd Cans x swoosh

Philip Udeh – Füd

Has race ever hindered your entrepreneurial journey?

I am naturally a confident people-person, so I try not to be over-conscious of being the only person of colour in most of the rooms I enter. However, I always felt like my background was a factor, especially when the vast majority of the people you deal with day to day are white. I often wonder if I could have achieved wider listings, raised funding easier and at better valuations, or even secured a manufacturing partner quicker at the outset.

Also, initially I was a bit reluctant about being the face of the brand as I didn’t want to be an obstacle to the success of the brand. I actually started this journey because I have sickle cell, which is most common in people of African and Caribbean origin. This means that my cultural background is weaved directly into my story! In time I am learning to embrace it.

“A quick scroll on LinkedIn will show you there are systemic inequalities in representation”

What can the food & drink industry do to encourage increased diversity?

The industry needs to engage talent from BAME backgrounds from bottom up and also from top down. A quick scroll on LinkedIn will show you there are systemic inequalities in representation.

A good start would be to collect some baseline data to understand the diversity at all levels of retail. 

  • Don’t muddle different initiatives; increasing gender equality is a different cause.
  • Set real, honest objectives and take it one step at a time.
  • Do more to seek out and attract entry-level candidates.
  • Ensure there is an internal process to support talent into senior roles including mentoring, career coaching and mapping a clear path.

Philip Fud

Outside of the world food aisle, I cannot see any real commitment to working with diverse founders whose brands are not targeted directly at an “ethnic audience”, says Udeh

What are retailers doing to boost diversity on shelf? What are they committed to doing?

Outside of the world food aisle, I cannot see any real commitment to working with diverse founders whose brands are not targeted directly at an “ethnic audience”. Initiatives like Sainsbury’s Future Brands and Tesco’s incubator programme are probably great vehicles to help deliver on this, but all buyers need to be actively working on this.

The Sephora model (15% of listed products from black-owned businesses) is great and shows how diversity can be locked if the desire is there. This is time for action and not talk around the subject.

How can the sector benefit from increased diversity?

Retailers and foodservice companies sell directly to a diverse range of customers. Many businesses displayed a black square on their social media channels and shared messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter campaign – this has to be reflected in how these businesses function on a day-to-day level. However diversity is not just about fair or right, it’s a business-critical decision.

By ensuring equity of representation within staff teams and suppliers, the industry can ensure they remain relevant and maximise their returns going forward. Diversity and inclusion is a no-brainer. Let’s do the work together.

Niche Tea

Amanda Miles Ricketts – Niche Tea

Has race ever hindered your entrepreneurial journey?

I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me I need to be the face of my brand. The issue with this is, in the UK, promoting Niche Tea as a black woman would have hindered the brand as a “black-owned business”, putting it in a box and limiting its potential.

The problem with me not actively promoting myself as the face of the brand means that customers don’t always get the chance to hear my story, and it’s important to have that connection with the consumer. As a black woman, I do not get the same opportunities as my white peers, and I feel I would have been invited to sit on panels, speak at events and even received investment had I been a white woman with the exact same product.

“How can a white man’s story about African food possibly be authentic?”

What can the food & drink industry do to encourage increased diversity?

The food and drink industry needs to lead by example by recognising that black-owned businesses have a more difficult time than white-owned businesses – we are massively underfunded. The food and drink business is difficult enough as it is without the added obstacle of the colour of your skin.

There is a plethora of successful food and drink brands inspired by the rich, cultural flavours of Africa and the Caribbean, yet how many of these are owned by someone of African or Caribbean heritage? Buyers are happy to support those brands founded by a white man or woman, but I know black entrepreneurs with an authentic story, an authentic voice and recipes passed down for generations, who have been turned away. There is no logical explanation for this. How can a white man’s story about African food possibly be authentic? 

The major multiples need to commit to eradicating the current nepotism when trying to get products in front of buyers, and pledge to receive a percentage of their inventory from black-owned businesses. They need to publish a concrete strategy by which they can be held accountable. How many contracts do they give to black-owned businesses? In the US, Aurora James launched the 15% Pledge campaign, asking the biggest stores in the country to pledge 15% of their inventory to black-owned businesses and the UK needs to do something similar. We are not going away.

Amanda Niche & co

“I recently wrote an open letter to the directors of all the major UK stores asking them to actively support black-owned businesses and put their money where their mouth is. I’m yet to receive any response.” says Miles Ricketts

What are retailers doing to boost diversity on shelf? What are they committed to doing?

I recently wrote an open letter to the directors of all the major UK stores asking them to actively support black-owned businesses and put their money where their mouth is. I’m yet to receive any response.

How can the sector benefit from increased diversity?

The sector already benefits from us. It benefits from our spending power, it benefits from cultural appropriation. I don’t need to call out the brands that make money from this, they know who they are and have given statements on social media because they are now feeling the heat and need to explain themselves. It’s time for the sector to give back. Give us more than a ‘world foods’ section in Tesco. By actively supporting black businesses, you give small businesses the chance to turn into big ones. Real investment can start happening and we can finally start to build generational wealth.

Bepps

Eve Yankah – Bepps 

Has race ever hindered your entrepreneurial journey?

I can only speak for myself on this and I don’t think race has hindered my entrepreneurial journey. Fortunately I’ve been able to meet amazing investors and buyers who have backed me, my story and my products. Self-belief and perseverance are two key attributes needed to be an entrepreneur, regardless of race.

Not only did Bepps secure Tesco as our first listing but I met with them during one of their innovation days, literally two weeks after having my second child and I used my lack of sleep to break the ice at the beginning of the meeting. They thought I was crazy but could equally see my passion and ambition for the brand.

“Self-belief and perseverance are two key attributes needed to be an entrepreneur, regardless of race”

What can the food & drink industry do to encourage increased diversity?

I think starting with schools, colleges and universities, by providing more young people exposure to the industry through career days and offering internships at their educational stage. This could encourage more diversity within the sector.

Eve Bepps

“By providing more young people exposure to the industry through career days and offering internships at their educational stage, retailers and brands could encourage more diversity within the sector” says Yankah

What are retailers doing to boost diversity on shelf? What are they committed to doing?

Not a lot at the moment, I think they could do a lot more that goes beyond the ‘world foods’ aisle. Maybe include more BAME founders and meals into their marketing strategies. Recently Sephora dedicated 15% space in store to BAME-founded brands and I think this could be a nice initiative for retailers to adopt across the sector.

How can the sector benefit from increased diversity?

More innovation when it comes to products and brands on shelf. Showcasing more ingredient stories that people aren’t used to eating but could eventually love.

That’s what I did at Bepps, by bringing black eyed peas to the healthy snacking category which is heavily influenced by UK and Mediterranean peas, pulse and grain options including lentils, chickpeas and quinoa. When in actual fact, black eyed peas have both less fat and more protein per 100g than all of the above.

Whitewashed: the race gap in food and drink, and how to close it

Uncle Johns

Samuel Mensah – Uncle John’s Bakery

Has race ever hindered your entrepreneurial journey?

Race has definitely had an impact on my entrepreneurial journey. Being a black-owned business, we receive fewer opportunities than companies owned by the majority race. This is due to various factors, such as not having as much social capital, institutional racism within certain structures, as well as a lack of generational wealth. This means that in order to gain good opportunities, we often have to work harder than average and avoid the negative stigma associated with black business – which includes a lack of professionalism.

Although we have to work 10 times harder to compete with other companies, a benefit of this is that my company is always prepared for opportunities that come our way. This is because we understand the importance of maintaining good systems and always being professional. Through this, we have become a successful black-owned business and have joined a new line of social capital for black and minority ethnic groups to thrive upon.

Samuel Mensah Uncle Johns

“In order to gain good opportunities, we often have to work harder than average and avoid the negative stigma associated with black business – which includes a lack of professionalism” says Mensah

What can the food & drink industry do to encourage increased diversity?

I feel as though it is important for food retailers to employ more ethnically diverse individuals – especially within positions of power. This is so that a better understanding of what the demographic needs is obtained rather than assumed. Embracing diverse thinking within a workforce is advantageous in generating ideas and gaining useful feedback whilst simultaneously creating an atmosphere where everyone feels significant and part of a shared mission.

Moreover, when a conscious effort is made to hire diversely, companies are able to naturally think in diverse ways. This is as all decisions are underpinned by the opinions of people from different backgrounds and generations, who often have varied perspectives on all sorts of issues.

“In order for a march of progress to occur, it would be beneficial if all ethnic products were integrated within main stores in order to avoid the segregation of ethnic goods”

What are retailers doing to boost diversity on shelf? What are they committed to doing?

From what I can see, major retailers are diversifying their shelves. If you walk into most supermarkets you will find ‘world food’ aisles, dedicated to ethnic goods. This is important as it allows ethnically diverse individuals to feel welcome in these stores. However, in order for a march of progress to occur, I do feel it would be beneficial if all ethnic products were integrated within main stores in order to avoid the segregation of ethnic goods. Retailers have also understood the geographies of food, and have been able to cater specific products to areas with more culturally diverse populations.

How can the sector benefit from increased diversity?

One of the key ways is through improved sales and customer satisfaction. By catering all ethnic groups in one place, rather than consumers having to visit various stores to purchase their goods, retailers would be able to retain the capital consumers would have spent elsewhere. Customers may also enjoy not having to travel to many stores to obtain the goods they need.

Additionally, by having a diverse range of products, a greater audience can be reached which will also lead to a boost in sales. The food industry as a whole is rather diverse, with restaurants catering to a variety of cuisines. The food retail sector should allow people to experience a taste from around the world in the comfort of their own homes – especially during this period of isolation.

Sunmo

Victoria Omobuwajo – Sunmo Snacks

Has race ever hindered your entrepreneurial journey?

I have been told on numerous occasions, as a black woman, I shouldn’t be the face of my brand as people may not like me. This initially discouraged me from appearing as the person behind Sunmo Snacks and I am fully aware this is a concern many black founders have across many sectors. Some black founders hide from the spotlight until their brand has gained substantial sales, because it is believed if people know the founder is black they may not buy into the company.

What can the food & drink industry do to encourage increased diversity?

The food and drink industry should actively seek to stock suppliers from black backgrounds. African and Caribbean food and drink is loved by many, however the suppliers of our foods to shops are often not African or Caribbean. The food industry needs to be aware that the achievement barrier, as well as black men and women young and old not seeing themselves represented in the grocery supplier space, often makes them feel becoming a supplier to a major retailer is too hard to achieve.

“We need black suppliers to be highlighted and moreover we need a supermarket-backed programme specifically for black suppliers”

We need black suppliers to be highlighted and moreover we need a supermarket-backed programme specifically for black suppliers, guiding them into getting their products stocked on the major retailer’s shelves. Additionally, products on the ethnic food aisle need to be moved into the main food isles. Ethnic foods are loved by the majority in the UK so there is no need to segregate them in stores.

Victoria

“I have been told on numerous occasions, as a black woman, I shouldn’t be the face of my brand as people may not like me” says Omobuwajo

What are retailers doing to boost diversity on shelf? What are they committed to doing?

I have not heard of retailers doing anything to boost diversity on shelf.

How can the sector benefit from increased diversity?

We live in a diverse society with diverse tastebuds. Individuals want to experience new flavours from all over the world on a daily basis. The food sector can benefit from sales and footfall to their stores from increased diversity in their suppliers and foods they put in the main food aisles.

From my experience, foods that I know and love on major retail shelves will keep me coming back to that store. Many times the foods we enjoy, for example Plantain Crisps, which are also loved by my friends and colleagues who haven’t grown up eating them in the home, are not accessible in your everyday shop at a major retailer.

The Gym Kitchen Image

Segun Akinwoleola – The Gym Kitchen 

Has race ever hindered your entrepreneurial journey?

I think this is a difficult one to answer as I have not faced overt racism, but I have definitely seen the effects of the lack of diversity in the industry. I have not seen many people who look like me at manufacturers or retailer head offices. I have been fortunate enough to have worked in this industry for the past 10 years, as an employee at multinational corporations and also as an entrepreneur having recently launched The Gym Kitchen.

I suspect with a very traditional Nigerian name it is always very clear that I am black, but I have been fortunate that this has not closed doors for me. Asda has been amazing, backing me as a black entrepreneur as my brand and product proposition have a clear customer need.

What can the food & drink industry do to encourage increased diversity?

I grew up not knowing that roles in FMCG existed, not knowing I could have products of my own on the shelf. In a traditional African household, you are taught to be a doctor, accountant or engineer not a brand owner or sales/marketing person simply due to the lack of visibility of what is possible in this space.

I think there is a great deal of education needed, the ways in which this could be done are:

1. Educate the younger generation on the different roles available in the industry by going into schools, colleges and universities

2. Encourage internships & placement opportunities for students from underprivileged/unrepresented backgrounds

3. Create work schemes that focus on diversity, not schemes to tick boxes but actual programmes to identify and nurture talent this will lead to a diverse executive board in the future

4. Have an open dialogue with black employees about how they feel in the workplace and what can be done to make things better. If companies break down the results of companywide surveys by ethnicity, I’m sure you will see different results

5. Unconscious bias training for management and HR teams to ensure that people are aware of how unconscious bias can affect recruitment

Segun Akinwoleola

“I have not faced overt racism, but I have definitely seen the effects of the lack of diversity in the industry,” says Akinwoleola. “I have not seen many people who look like me at manufacturers or retailer head offices.”

What are retailers doing to boost diversity on shelf? What are they committed to doing?

Things are improving we have seen the growth of the world food aisles across all retailers and store formats particularly in areas which have strong diversity. It does need to move beyond this though and have more of a diverse strategy through opportunities on and off shelf.

A number of retailers have created incubator schemes and mentoring programmes that encourage smaller businesses no matter the ethnicity to apply and be supported on the journey. This is great and should be fed back to more diverse communities to attract broader applicants.

How can the sector benefit from increased diversity?

A different mindset, gone are the days where one size fits all, over the past couple years we have seen various mistakes made by big brands in their marketing communications, this wouldn’t happen if there were more diverse teams creating the content and at the sign off level.

Diversity also increases creativity which can be fed into processes, procedures, marketing comms, sales strategies a whole heap of things. In turn customers will be satisfied as one size doesn’t fit all anymore. It is important to represent all of the various everyday customers that are buying brands.

Rogue

Asher Flowers – Enjoy Rogue

Has race ever hindered your entrepreneurial journey?

There’s only so many times that you can tell someone what you do for them to compare you to Levi Roots… It’s often seeing a lack of diversity within trade shows from producers to decision makers, or having to be silent when you hear a racial micro aggression because you don’t want to be seen as ‘difficult to work with’ or ‘playing the race card’.

People may roll their eyes but it’s an experience that many black entrepreneurs I’m sure can relate to when it comes to securing investment, startup valuations and secure wider listings.

It’s only in 2020 that Aunt Jemima is being addressed and Uncle Bens… And while I’m focused on the issues of being black right now, there is nothing more evident than Jamie Olivers Punchy Jerk Rice or Korean Barbecue Sauce (there are 2 Koreas and 9 provinces in South Korea).

For the first three years of Rogue, I didn’t want to be the face of the brand because I was hyperaware of what limitations there are when you’re branded a ‘black owned business’. While I have felt comfortable talking about this with friends, I didn’t want to mix my personal beliefs with the business, however I feel that there needs to be a significant moment of self reflection and then action within the industry.

As a person and as a brand over the next decade, we’re going to look invest time and money into black businesses within food via mentorship, grants and investment. Starting a food business is easy, scaling one isn’t.

What can the food & drink industry do to encourage increased diversity?

First of all, we need to have a moment of honesty, reading and reflection. Ask yourself, could you have done better? And what could you do to be better? What are you doing to make opportunities more equal? How are you training your staff? And educating them beyond? What are biases within your recruit methods? Are you paying the living wage for your area to interns and employees? How are you representing your brand on social media? What do your influencers look like? Where are you giving your time? What is the representation like on those panels you’re speaking at?

What are retailers doing to boost diversity on shelf? What are they committed to doing?

This idea of ‘ethnic’ food needs to end. While there are areas dedicated to celebrating Italian cooking, African & Caribbean are distilled to a single bay under ‘ethnic’. Supermarkets do need to look at what they’re offering customers as well Punchy Jerk Rice or ‘Chinese Style’ Chicken… What does that even mean at this point?

Supermarkets aren’t going to actively come out and say ‘we may have dropped the ball here over the years’ however the shorter payment terms have helped.

Asher

“We have a long journey ahead of us, many conversations may feel slightly uncomfortable at first but we as an industry will be stronger for it,” says Flowers.

How can the sector benefit from increased diversity?

Diversity is nothing without inclusion. The sector, whether you love it or hate it is based on competition. You are looking for the best product for your shelves, the best talent in your senior team and then hopefully the best offering to your customers. It contributes to new ways of thinking and problem solving, new knowledge and experiences.

The sector already has the spending power of black customers, and profits from flavours and products that are culturally appropriated. It is time to listen to the experiences of those who’ve lived and breathed it otherwise we face another 20 years of being part of a system that erases the history and culture of those who’s food we embrace.

We have a long journey ahead of us, many conversations may feel slightly uncomfortable at first but we as an industry will be stronger for it.

GutjoyBrand

Sunny Gohel - Gutjoy

Has race ever hindered your entrepreneurial journey?

I am still in the early stages of my entrepreneurial journey, fortunately I have not experienced any direct hindrance due to my background or race. But I do echo the sentiments of other founders when it comes to being the face of your brand. It is a decision that I have given immense thought to. You desperately want your brand to succeed, but you ultimately end up having to ask yourself difficult questions such as will my race be detrimental to any potential success? Will it make people hesitant to engage with or buy into the brand?

What can the food & drink industry do to encourage increased diversity?

There are numerous things that could be done to encourage diversity in the industry. It requires a level of initiative and for the industry to be proactive. Innovative schemes and approaches such as start-up incubators/accelerators; mentorship programmes; specialist training schemes to attract talent from diverse backgrounds. There is a significant discrepancy when it comes to the number of BAME people in the food & drink industry and this imbalance can be reduced if there is the will to do so.

Sunny

“Increased diversity would bring a plethora of benefits to the sector,” says Gohel

What are retailers doing to boost diversity on shelf? What are they committed to doing?

The ethnic or world foods aisle seems like an outdated prospect in this day and age and expanding beyond that would be a progressive move. Consumers taste buds have become more diversified and their quest to try something new has led to adventurous and diverse foods being placed in the mainstream aisles by retailers.

In regards to commitment, I would like to see more backing from retailers when it comes to supporting BAME founders and suppliers as they traditionally experience more glass ceilings when it comes to getting their foot in the door.

How can the sector benefit from increased diversity?

Increased diversity would bring a plethora of benefits to the sector. For example, opening the door to more entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds could spark a flurry of creativity and innovation. And everyone stands to benefit from such a scenario - the founders, retailers, end consumers and the industry as a whole.

Bundle_mixed

Aneisha Soobroyen - Scrumbles 

Has race ever hindered your entrepreneurial journey?

The pet food industry is noticeably lacking in diversity. As a young, brown woman sometimes I’m treated differently and often stand out. On occasion, the room changes noticeably when I enter but it would be unfair to say that this has always been a disadvantage. I think there have been times where I have faced prejudice but equally there have been opportunities for me to use my differences to make an impact and challenge the status quo. I am passionate about using the business as a tool to support and promote diversity, but this is an ongoing challenge as there are fewer females and people of colour in the industry, disproportionately so.

What can the food & drink industry do to encourage increased diversity?

Leaders in the industry need to be proactive in creating opportunities like internships and work experience and making these accessible to communities that are underrepresented. Growing up I don’t think I had any idea what opportunities where available to me in the food and drink industry and I think that’s probably true for many people with similar backgrounds.

It would be really powerful if there was a universal way to better measure representation in the industry so that we can understand the scale of the problem. It’s great to see recent positive steps and targets set inspired by Black Lives Matter but we can’t tell if this will have a material impact until we can see how big the disparity truly is.

18230442-7441683-image-m-45_1567979787451

“Cultural diversity is enriching and naturally encourages creativity and innovation,” says Soobroyen

What are retailers doing to boost diversity on shelf? What are they committed to doing?

I’ve not seen any positive steps in this area. There have been some great commitments from some retailers with regards to giving a stronger weighting to eco-friendly or local businesses, and similar commitments could be adopted for increasing the presence of brands owned by people from diverse backgrounds.

How can the sector benefit from increased diversity?

Cultural diversity is enriching and naturally encourages creativity and innovation. Diverse teams in the workforce have been proven to be more productive and make for a happier team plus drives empathy, appreciation and helps break down stereotypes.

Retailers and suppliers alike may discover a new audience and exciting consumption occasions they’ve never even dreamt of.

It goes without saying that taste is key for food and drink. With the incredible diversity of the British population, a more diverse supply base will inevitably unlock some of these hidden gems. I’m still waiting to see some authentic Mauritian flavours land on the shelf of my local supermarket.

 

Contact The Grocer

If you’re a food and drink founder from a BAME background and would like to share your story with us for inclusion in this article, please contact Elena Cherubini. If you have any news about your brand you’d like to share with us, please contact Daniel Woolfson.