The United States is at a point of reckoning.
While coronavirus cases, wildfires and an impending important election are setting states ablaze, the national conversation is largely focused on the persistence of systemic racism. Sparked by the death of George Floyd—and the following widespread protests—many brands are asking what they can do to be a part of the solution.
John Foraker, CEO and co-founder of the organic baby food brand Once Upon a Farm, sat down with us via video chat to share what he and his team are doing to help minority food and beverage founders scale via an initiative called the Entrepreneur Ally Program.
Designed to make an impact by assisting BIPOC entrepreneurs in the food and beverage space, the three companies involved in the initiative include A Dozen Cousins, Partake Foods and Pipcorn.
Find below the details of the program and advice to help your business mitigate lack of diversity as well.
What is the Entrepreneur Ally Program and where did the idea come from?
John Foraker: Like so many companies, in the wake of the George Floyd protests and the social upheaval, we were asking if we were doing enough. Companies saying the right things on social media are certainly not harmful, but is that enough to drive systemic change? We had a lot of conversations as a team, and we thought we could have the most benefit in the space where we had a lot of experiences. We came to the conclusion that the best way we could help was to get involved with some really great entrepreneurs and black-owned companies who were beyond the incubation stage.
Our team has a lot of experience helping companies scale. So we found three entrepreneurs we would work well with, asked them if they were interested in an Ally Program and we were off.
How did you choose the three companies you are working with: A Dozen Cousins, Partake Foods and Pipcorn?
JF: We looked around at brands that had gotten some notoriety and founders that we were either aware of or we had heard about. We looked at around a dozen companies and chose three that we thought were doing great work.
We reached out directly to the founders and asked if they would be interested in participating in this new program. We kicked the program off formally last week.
How can participants benefit from the Entrepreneur Ally Program?
JF: The reason I like the term “ally” is because it means a mutual partnership. Many entrepreneurs face challenges such as scaling, supply chain complexities, improving margins and presenting to important retailers. It’s valuable to have a group that you can call and say, here’s a challenge I’m facing, can you help me work through it?
Each company in the Entrepreneur Ally Program will have an internal Once Upon a Farm team to track the company and frequently talk to them about their pain points. I’ll be on each one of the teams, and we will connect companies with the best resource to help them with their problems. We will also be setting up a Slack channel to be on call for each one of the companies.
We'll do everything we can to help, and if for some reason we don't have the right access to the right resources or experience, we have enough industry contacts to go out and get it.
So it’s kind of like a formalized mentorship program?
JF: Yes, exactly. Our organization is saying, we're going to collectively be available to you on whatever issue you need. And then we'll try to efficiently deliver that help to companies in the way that they need it.
Most companies are asking themselves how to support minority-owned businesses. Is this type of Entrepreneur Ally Program scalable? Do you hope other companies will take smaller brands under their wing?
JF: Yes. We wanted to create a mentorship model that can be replicated across the industry. My business philosophy has always been, “Don’t let perfect get in the way of good.” We thought about taking four to five months to put all the bells and whistles into this program, but in the end, we just decided to start it.
This will help us learn. As we work with these entrepreneurs, we’re going to hear more about the kinds of things that can be most helpful. We want to build a format and a template for the program that will be open source so we can share it with anybody.
We’ve already had other companies reach out who are interested in doing something similar.
Why do you think there is a lack of diversity in the natural products industry, particularly when it comes to founders?
JF: Like many things in society, it’s systemic. It’s hard for anyone to start a business. It’s extra hard to raise capital if you are a woman, and it’s extra, extra hard to start a business if you are a woman of color. Consumers in the U.S. have become much more diverse, and the industry really needs to reflect the consumers that it serves.
It will be important to create huge winner stories of entrepreneurs who build incredible brands in this space. They can then build a platform to attract more diverse entrepreneurs. We want to help enable the cycle of capitalism to work to the benefit of black-owned and minority-owned businesses. That’s the goal.
Do you have any advice for other businesses who also want to take action on improving diversity in the natural industry?
JF: The first thing businesses can do is to offer to personally mentor another entrepreneur. Be willing to be that resource someone can call if they have a problem that needs to be addressed. Talk is cheap, and action is all that matters. Just get started.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.