Van Jones Keynote sets the stage for the industry launch

By Lara Dickinson, Co-founder, One Step Closer, J.E.D.I Collaborative, Climate Collaborative

Finding the perfect keynote speaker to launch an industry movement is not always an easy choice. Finding one that will excite an entire industry to show up and listen while being tough on them, is even harder. Luckily, our choice for a keynote speaker at Expo West this year was not a hard one. 

We introduced J.E.D.I Collaborative to natural products industry leadership in April 2020, just three weeks before the murder of George Floyd. Following this, many acknowledged the lack of inclusion in the natural products industry of historically marginalized people. And the lack of accessibility of natural and organic products became undeniable. So for the official launch of J.E.D.I Collaborative in May 2021, it was a time for tough, real talk—not friendmaking. And Van Jones delivered. 


In conversation with our advisory board member and founder of Skin is Skin, Magatte Wade, CNN Commentator Van Jones did not give the natural products industry kudos for its advancement of “ecological salvation”. Rather, he made it clear that this industry cannot hide behind that and NOT address the human side.  

Van remarked that we now face the highest stakes in history. He then looked right into the camera and said, “This is where I am going to lose some friends. I have been surprised by how slow, unresponsive, and resistant this industry has been. There is more feeling for critters in the Arctic. Is there some selection going on? Is the itch scratched enough so they don’t have to do something for the people?”

During the talk, our advisory board member Arno Hesse shared in chat:

“When this Expo started this week, there were 609 exhibitors. The directory tells us:

  • 12% are marked as woman-owned

  • 4% are BIPOC-owned

  • 1% are run by Black leaders

  • 1 Black woman as CEO (0.2%)”

If we are able to figure out Zero Waste, then what is holding us back in embracing JEDI? To paraphrase Van Jones: Why are we not able to hire a single African American or have a single Latina supplier? How can we not get moving on addressing racial justice, when it is the canary in the coal mine?—it is critical that we are able to partner authentically across differences.

Then he got really animated and offered a motivating vision: “I am the canary in the coal mine—if you can onboard me, you can create a culture that lifts up your whole organization. Because if you excel at partnering across differences, you are going to be amazing. (And by the way, my son won’t get shot by the cops). But I am talking about you. You are going to have the best life ever. You will be a better spouse, have a better family, have more fun. You are missing out on some great talent.”

When Magatte asked Van how we shift ourselves and our organizations toward JEDI, Van shared “Two keys not taught in school”:

1. A mindset of empathy

I appreciated his acknowledgement that we are a democracy and democracy is about disagreement: “If we understand each other then we can have a community. Understanding is what makes disagreement work in a democracy.” And he indicated that even before we hire BIPOC folks, we are leaving value on the table if we are not listening. That is why this is a win-win, not a zero-sum game. Or as Van stated, “When we adopt a culture of empathy, everyone wins.”  

2. A skill set of listening

Every day I attend Zoom meetings, and the more I do this JEDI work, the more I realize how much I have jumped in to talk. We have a business culture that rewards quick words, action, and solutions—but when do we listen? We cannot understand unless we listen. We cannot truly lead unless we center voices across differences. Only then will we have real leader superpowers.  

The Van Jones Keynote laid out the big reasons to embrace racial justice in our companies as well as stated the mindset shifts needed to help us get there. We followed this program with the official industry launch of J.E.D.I Collaborative—announcing our strategic plan to get us one step closer to a JEDI future. 

One Step Closer (OSC) started working on J.E.D.I Collaborative more than three years ago because we saw that the natural products industry was behind on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.  It showed in every industry convening, which has repercussions far beyond usurping our own “do-gooder” reputations.  

My Co-founder, Sheryl O’Loughlin and I shared that when we started this work in 2017, we were naive. We thought that a bunch of white folks who had previously launched Climate Collaborative and Packaging Collaborative, could seamlessly launch J.E.D.I Collaborative because we cared; that caring would be enough.

We learned through missteps that our role is not to lead,  but to support others to lead. To empower natural products industry leaders to integrate JEDI into the fiber of their organization and to support a new group of BIPOC leaders to thrive. 

When OSC was launching the Climate Collaborative, we learned that most business leaders believed we had five years or less to act in order to reverse climate change; however, these business leaders did not know how to take action. With J.E.D.I Collaborative, we started by answering the question, How do I take action? We wanted to not only foster awareness of JEDI issues, but also inspire action by providing a pathway and resources for the natural products industry. 

Our launch event highlighted J.E.D.I Collaborative’s three strategies:

  1. Support companies with long-term systemic change
  2. Connect capital to BIPOC entrepreneurs
  3. Amplify BIPOC-led initiatives

 

We created the J.E.D.I Collaborative website to be an open-source toolkit for companies to work on embedding JEDI more deeply into their entire organization. Using the “How it Works” section of the website, companies can find a recommended 10-Step JEDI Journey, a robust commitments platform under Culture, Consumer, and Communities, and an extensive Resources section with webinars, articles, videos, and books to aid with the learning journey. To support our first strategy, the website was designed so that companies can get started doing their own self-guided JEDI work. 

Over the past year, we focused on enhancing that journey through our Early Adopter Program, CEO circle, and Women’s circle. So, in addition to reviewing the journey during our program, we heard from Michelle Pusateri of Nana Joes Granola, Blair Kellison of Traditional Medicinals, and Ari Goldsmith of KeHE about their experiences in these programs.

In the coming years, in addition to enhancing strategy one, we’ll be focused on strategies two and three. It is critical that we support BIPOC entrepreneurs in the natural products industry. We heard from Noramay Cadena of Supply Change Capital and Perteet Spencer of Ayo Foods about the importance of investing with a gender and ethnic equity lens. We also heard from Arnulfo Ventura of Project Potluck as he shared how they support BIPOC entrepreneurs as they build successful businesses and careers in the CPG space—exactly the kind of organized mentorship and networking that we’d like to see more of in the natural products industry.

As part of our own JEDI work at OSC we’ve worked to address the lack of diversity within our organization, and announced the addition of key BIPOC and Latino leaders joining the OSC community:

  • Cynthia Billops joined OSC as VP of Operations, Membership, and Belonging. She will lead the J.E.D.I Collaborative project with support from the co-founders
  • Konda Mason and Jose Corona joined the OSC Governing Board
  • Funlayo Alabi, GW Chew, Julia Collins, and Sana Javeri Kadri have joined OSC’s Rising Star Chapter membership
  • J.E.D.I Collaborative co-founder, MaryAnne Howland is leaning in further, leading the development of the JEDI Institute to get companies to take corporate policy to the next level

 

We envision a natural products industry that centers at its core justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. We recognize that this is big and that this is hard work. We are inviting all companies to bring us one step closer to a JEDI industry by making JEDI commitments on our website and embarking on your own JEDI journey. If you’re interested in participating in our programs and staying up to date with the latest offerings, please fill out this interest form for us.

As James Baldwin shared decades ago, “our innocence constitutes our crime.” We no longer can use our lack of awareness to justify our lack of action. Racial justice is something to get smart about and work on at every level in your organization.