As the plant-based foods industry came together to celebrate continued growth and success at Plant Based World Expo (PBW), leaders from across the space came to share their perspectives and stories during educational conference sessions. For the first time ever, PBW featured a startup zone dedicated to BIMPOC (Black, Indigenous, Multiracial, People of Color) companies to showcase the incredible innovation coming from brands like Atlas Monroe, The Mushroom Meat Co, and Something Better Foods LLC. 

“Now is the time for the leaders and stories behind BIMPOC brands to be represented on store shelves and menus. Partnering with Plant Based World to highlight BIMPOC brands on the showfloor was a step towards bringing this to life,” said Sabina Vyas, PBFA’s senior director of impact strategies. “We hope this is just the beginning of seeing more diverse brands in the plant-based foods industry, and more consumers connecting to plant-based foods and being inspired by these leaders who are paving the way. We are striving for equity; let’s come together as an industry and make it happen.” 

While the plant-based industry is undoubtedly unique in that many companies are united by a shared mission to create a more just and equitable food system, there is still a gap between the vision for a diverse representation and reality. Moderated by PBFA’s Sabina Vyas, the “Celebrating, Elevating, and Amplifying Diversity in Plant-Based Foods” panel provided insights into how the plant-based foods industry can take action to increase equity. The panel featured PBFA board member GW Chew, chef and owner of Something Better Foods LLC; Palak Patel, chef and owner of Dash & Chutney; Deborah Torres, founder and CEO of Atlas Monroe; and D. Le’Spencer Walker, Director of Merchandising Vendor Development at Target, and created an open forum for BIMPOC food industry leaders to share their experiences and provide advice and guidance to entrepreneurs looking to expand their footprint and grow their own businesses. 

Sabina opened the panel discussion by contextualizing the need for increased diversity, representation, and equity in the food industry. “It turns out the food industry is actually behind other commodity industries in terms of having representation in leadership,” shared Sabina. “While 86% [of food industry leaders] report wanting to move toward [make significant progress on DEI goals], and that is a big win, there is still a gap in what is actually happening from buying groups as well as at leadership levels.” Figures from a recent Deloitte and FMI survey indicate, “more than half of food industry executives recognize that their company’s senior leadership team is still not representative of the greater population.”

Food is universal and one of the core things that binds us all together as people. Ensuring equitable access to delicious, healthy, nutritious food is a top priority for us here at PBFA and increasingly this conversation is coming to the forefront of industry dialogue. 

“The industry needs to elevate BIMPOC brands by giving them the opportunity to connect with buyers in order to extend their reach and for buyers to show their commitment to diversity by showcasing these brands on shelves, online, and in foodservice,” said Sabina. 

Given the desire, from customers and leaders in the food industry, for more diversity and representation, an effort needs to be made to identify both challenges and opportunities to facilitate a shift towards greater diversity in the plant-based food space. “How is this industry adapting for increased diversity?” Asked Sabina, “And how are we adapting to increase representation?” With these open-ended questions, panelists dove in sharing their personal connection to plant-based foods and how their individual journeys can serve as both an example and, in some cases, the catalyst for other BIMPOC entrepreneurs. 

Personal connections leading to large-scale change

While the panelists all come from different backgrounds and business perspectives – be it in consumer packaged goods, retail, or restaurants – they all shared a personal connection that sparked their passion for the plant-based foods industry. D. Le’Spencer shared memories of holiday meals at his grandmother’s home in Mississippi that featured a variety of delicious vegetables and highlighted his grandmother’s connection to the farms and gardens where she lived to provide fresh produce and signature black-eyed peas. Moving to Minneapolis and not being able to find black-eyed peas like the ones he’d enjoyed growing up was a big motivator for D. Le’Spencer to promote culturally relevant, nourishing foods in his work at Target. Chef Palak also shared the nostalgia of home as being a big motivator for her, citing the joy she experienced finding warming, comforting daal on top of a mountain in Vancouver after experiencing a physically and emotionally taxing day trying to learn to ski, demonstrating foods’ ability to make people feel at home. 

The pull of nostalgia also resonated with Chef Chew and Deborah who shared about their families’ respective struggles with chronic disease and diet-related illness that led them to create plant-based alternatives to classic comfort foods like fried chicken, Philly cheesesteak, and ribs, through their respective companies Something Better Foods and Atlas Monroe. 

“It was the lack of having that nostalgic feeling of home food that brought on Atlas Monroe,” shared Deborah. “A few years back my father was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and me and my family went on a raw vegan diet for 90 days in an effort to reverse that. We started off just making salads and smoothies and we were hangry…so I realized if we were actually going to do this, we would need bomb delicious food so I went to work in the kitchen making raw lasagna, pasta, chicken nuggets, tacos, and burgers. We got through the 90 days and found out that [my father] was completely healed and we vowed to stay plant-based. As we transitioned back to eating cooked foods we wanted vegan fried chicken and ribs, which led us to create Atlas Monroe.” 

Being able to create delicious plant-based foods that allow people to still eat the things they love and represent so much to their families and loved ones stood out as a driving motivator for all the panelists.

“I had seven uncles that died by the age of 60 due to lifestyle diseases,” shared Chef Chew. “I wanted to experience the same foods I grew up on, fried foods and mac and cheese so I became a restauranteur. The joy that I had in feeding my customers and seeing the smile on their faces and the exchange of giving someone life because what we’re doing is life or death, we’re helping to save lives with the foods we’re making.” 

While all of the panelists shared a deeply personal connection that inspired them to get into the plant-based foods industry, it became clear that having a far-reaching impact on a broader community is paramount to each. 

“We just got into K-12 schools as part of our mission to democratize access [to plant-based foods],” shared Chef Chew. “A lot of my work has been in food deserts. If you look at black and brown communities, we have the highest rates of chronic disease and the least amount of access…and that’s a real threat and there are so many social injustices that actually cause that problem through red-lining and many different types of laws, and lack of access to capital in these communities.” Chef Chew also highlighted his experience running a non-profit vegan restaurant that served an area in Oakland where there was a food desert for 10 miles, juxtaposed by the wealth and abundance of options nearby in San Francisco. “So when we talk about connecting to the community when we have a person who comes to the restaurant and they’re in tears because they have diabetes and they finally taste a good piece of food – a piece of fried chicken or Philly cheesesteak. I say it looks like chicken, tastes like chicken but guess what, it ain’t chicken. So we’re making it fun for the consumer so they can really appreciate the experience.”

The importance of representation

Chef Palak, Chef Chew, Deborah, and D. Le’Spencer demonstrated the importance of not only sharing the hard realities of inequities in food access and the resulting experience of chronic disease but also why increasing BIMPOC representation at every level of the food industry is so vital. 

Sabina posed a question to Chef Palak about how being featured on top Food Network shows Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay impacted her and what the media can do to prioritize representation and diversity. 

“The word that comes to mind, and I really understood the word pride after these experiences. I would be in the grocery store and a mom would come up to me and say my daughter is so excited because she saw you on TV,” shared Chef Palak. “There’s so much pride, not even just being a woman but being an Indian woman being in a field that is not heavily represented by small Indian women…it’s that’ pride for my culture, being a woman, and the food I was able to cook and share. That is my driving factor, representing to someone that might want to follow in my path.” 

She also emphasized the “Catch 22” formula that network executives sometimes use that ultimately leads to less diversity on TV and in media, likening the experience to introducing new foods to children. “I never understood the argument from big networks that ‘[diveristy in representation] doesn’t streamline with our demographic’ and my response to them is if you don’t build it they won’t come,” she shared. ”The only way viewers will get exposed to things is if you keep giving them new people, new stories, new cultures. It’s just like training kids, ok great you don’t like sweet potatoes it is just exposure and letting audiences decide.”

Importantly, Palak highlighted the reality that women of color have to make that much more noise in order to be noticed or accepted in mainstream media. “Tabitha Brown is on Food Network, on a completely vegan competition show, that would not have happened 10 years ago, but look how much noise she had to make for them to be like ‘Oh yeah, here is a woman of color who is plant-based.’ That should have been done 10 years ago…For Tabitha Brown, good on her for paving the way for so many people who will follow. The stakes are so much higher just to get in the door.” 

The theme of having someone to champion the path forward ran throughout the panelist’s experiences. In the case of getting Better Chew into Whole Foods, Chef Chew shared, “I’ve learned from the buyer perspective, it takes people to be champions. It takes buyers in the industry to believe in the whole concept of bringing black, brown, and BIMPOC brands onto the shelf. For me, that has always been our story, somebody that has a commitment to making it happen, and sometimes that means going against the norm.” 

“With the equity part, building a path and building a network,” echoed D. Le’Spencer. “Creating a network increases your net worth so if you have a community and ecosystem that enables you to do those three things, then there is equity being passed around between people of color and other passionate businesses that want to be involved. So think of every conversation not only as a leg up for you but an opportunity to expand for your whole network.”

Advice for BIMPOC business owners

As the conversation progressed to strategies for success in business, themes around maintaining BIMPOC ownership and the importance of knowing your unique brand’s value and sticking to your priorities and values came through. 

Deborah shared her experience being on Shark Tank and ultimately rejecting the shark’s offers because she felt Atlas Monroe’s potential was much larger than what was being offered. This may seem like a risky move but enabled her to maintain ownership and continue to grow her company on her own terms. 

As Chef Palak shared, “Not all money is the same money. Especially when you’re first starting out, people will write checks but at what cost and what are you getting for that money.” 

The need for financing models that allow BIMPOC founders to maintain ownership in their businesses came to light in the discussion. Chef Chew shared a similar experience seeking venture capital funding where the expectation for a 10-year exit would leave him with very little control over his company. As his business model shifted to manufacturing, owning the full means of production for his plant-based foods, Chef Chew was able to leverage long-term relationships with his bank to increase financing via loans that would enable him to maintain ownership of his business. 

“We’re trying to figure out how to get more capital in a way that is more equitable, where they’re not expecting such large, crazy returns, but the return metrics that are built on a model that returns ownership to people like us.” shared Chef Chew. “I want to be the next Kellogg, why can’t that happen? We need people looking for equitable return metrics that allow for people like us to have ownership that allows us to have longevity in the industry.” 

As the panelists shared, others may be quick to underestimate your brand, but standing your ground, being patient, and knowing your business in and out are keys to long-term success.  “Know your business and build your valuation that way when you’re ready to make your decisions you can do it without giving up things you don’t want to,” said Deborah.

Adding the retailer perspective, D. Le’Spencer also recommended considering certifications that showcase the diversity of your business as a strategy to stand out and grow. “There are certifying groups out there for differentiation and growth. WBENC for certified women-owned businesses, NMSDC for minority-owned businesses, NGLCC for LGBTQ+ businesses so as you build your network and find those individuals who can help you amplify your business,” shared D. Le’Spencer. “They have the tools and resources to help you build your business but then also retailers like myself, my team is dedicated to minority, women-owned businesses, we look for those 51% owned businesses cause we know that equity is important and we share the resources and tools to keep the path to growth.” 

Blazing trails for the future 

As the panel came to a close, with a wealth of information and insights shared by all, the message around the importance of increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the plant-based food space – and broader food industry – rang through. 

“When I think about this industry, I talk about saving lives but we’re saving the world,” shared Chef Chew. “The earth is at an all-time crisis if we continue going the route with meat…I see this industry is literally solving some of the difficult problems our world is facing. The reason I think BIMPOC companies are so important is that we bring soul and flavor to the space, we bring that love and culture – there is a level of that ethnic groups and the flavors that our countries come to love, we bring these flavors and this joy.”

The plant-based foods industry is uniquely positioned to reimagine the way we produce foods – and people are hungry for change. “Consumers are demanding diversity,” shared Deborah. “They don’t want the same things, they want more, they want culture, they want to see us, and want to eat what we eat. I think that brands and buyers have no choice but to listen to the consumer.” 

“When you think about the next generation, what everyone is doing is laying the foundation in the next 30 years can plant-based foods in Target be the norm? Can BIMPOC companies on the shelves at Target, Walmart, and all the stores we shop at can that just be the norm?” shared Chef Chew. “We want to see that the work we’re doing is laying the foundation for the next generation.” 

Seeing the passion, wealth of knowledge, and momentum behind celebrating BIMPOC brands and food industry leaders during this panel, and through PBW, illustrated the hopeful future for what is to come in the plant-based food space. As we continue to learn, grow, and listen to one another, PBFA is dedicated to providing a platform to share a wide range of perspectives and act as a network to play our small part in building a more equitable food future.