Executive Chat with Rebecca Patt, SVP Development at Wray Executive Search
Featuring Gerry Fernadez, Founder & President of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance. He is the MFHA’s chief thought leader on multicultural business strategies in the industry. Prior to launching MFHA in 1996, he held positions with the Capital Grill, the Waldorf-Astoria, and General Mills.
What is the MFHA, and what is your mission?
MFHA is going on 22 years of advocating for diversity and inclusion as a good business practice in the restaurant, foodservice, and lodging industries. Diversity makes dollars and sense, and we need to communicate that to as many people as possible. We have a very diverse workforce and a very diverse customer base.
How do we add value through difference? We’ve been doing education, advocacy, and connectivity. We connect the ones who know with the ones who need to know. We advocate for those who are doing it well, and we advocate for other companies to start to do it. We educate the industry on how to do it and why it’s important. We educate about what’s different about it with Latinos versus African Americans versus Asians or LGBT.
We are a small group based in Providence, RI. There is a small team of about five of us full-time and maybe ten consultants that we work with on a consistent basis. This year, we will do five regional half- day events. Next year, we will probably go to full day events.
Also, we do a lot of direct, customer-to-customer work. We help develop the strategic plan for cultural inclusion: how to develop a recruiting, development, and retention strategy. We will do intervention when someone has a problem and then has terrible social media.
We look at other aspects of the business: leadership and professional development of mid-and-early career professionals to help make a pipeline process. This year we have really focused on four areas: unconscious bias, cultural intelligence, leadership, and professional development for next-gen talent which includes the Millennials, and a community engagement blueprint: how to create a strategic process and plan for working with the community so that you can drive your customers and talent.
We think those are the four solutions that everybody needs. I don’t care what sector or channel they operate in. The world is very multicultural and very diverse. If you can’t find a way to develop and retain this world, you can’t be successful in business.
How do you think restaurants are doing today with diversity?
To be very honest, and I’m always into straight talk, I think more companies have this on their agenda and their radar screen now, largely because of the political discourse in the last couple of years. The other reason people are involved in this is the demographic changes that Workforce 2000 predicted are happening.
They said that at some point in the 2000-somethings, we would start to see more multicultural growth than the white population, and that has started to happen. More than half the babies being born today are black and brown. Play that out, and that means that 17 years from now, more than half the workforce is going to be black and brown employees. We need a way to ensure those populations that might be immigrant and that might have come from low income are going to receive college education. We need college graduates, no matter what package God put them in.
I think the industry is doing more now than it had been doing. It’s still not doing enough. There are still plenty of companies that are sitting on the sidelines doing nothing. If you’re making money and you’re making your number, then you don’t worry about it. What’s to change? But visionary companies recognize what’s working today is not going to work down the road, and what is accelerating this is the Millennial population. It’s really challenged old-school, Boomer thinking.
White kids don’t want to work at a company where they don’t see black kids and Hispanic kids and gay kids. If all their friends aren’t welcome here, they don’t want to work there. Millennials are a huge cohort for the industry as consumers and the workforce, so if we can’t figure out how to engage them, we can’t win. Now, with everybody competing for multicultural talent and with low unemployment, you must get good at this. Even companies that never wanted to do it have to do it now.
What are a few quick tips that you would give for an organization that’s trying to get started moving the needle on diversity and inclusion?
First, do an inventory of where you are. We have a very simple tool called the QCIA: Quick Cultural Intelligence Assessment. We looked at the companies that do the best on diversity and inclusion and put together a checklist. It’s kind of like taking your car to the local mechanic and they put on the diagnostic and they say well, you need tires, your mufflers OK, and they tell you what your car needs, and you can get a sense of what it’s going to cost you.
So, we think it’s very simple: it’s about looking around, talking to your employees, and getting a sense of what is working and not working. Do the numbers. What percentage of your population are women and people of color? If you look around the room and you’re are making an important decision, and everybody looks like you, you’re doing it wrong.
If you run largely a Black organization and all the people making decisions are Black, you’re doing it wrong. If it’s all women, you are doing it wrong. You need diversity of thought, perspective, and experience to make the best decisions. I didn’t say anything about race, ethnicity, or culture. It’s diversity of thought, perspective, and experience to make the best decisions.
You can’t have that if everybody went to the same school. You can’t have that if everybody has the same religious upbringing. You can’t have that if everybody comes from the same socioeconomic class. It’s just not going to give you diversity of perspective and better ideas.
To me, it’s just very simple. Look around and ask yourself some very basic questions. If you see that you have some opportunity, then engage with somebody who can help you. We’d like to think it’s us because we are restaurant and hospitality people. We know who best-in-class are. We can help you from making foolish mistakes that everybody else made. We know where the potholes are. We think we are the most sensible first step. But a lot of companies want to go out and hire big time consultants. I just don’t think that most of them are focused on the restaurant and hospitality side.
Who would you say are the top three companies that are best-in-class with diversity and inclusion?
It’s hard to not include McDonald’s, Darden, and Sodexo. Those three immediately come to mind as being top performers for a lot of reasons. They do well with women and people of color. They do well with their supply chain, which means that the companies that are supplying them are women-owned and minority-owned. They recognize that if you have a Hispanic-owned company, they hire from their community and create jobs in those communities. There are other companies, MGM Mirage and MGM Resorts in the gaming space do a really good job. General Mills as a manufacturer has done an outstanding job over the course of time. PepsiCo. And there are others.
What happens is that you are only as good as your recent leadership. When you have a change in leadership and your CEO leaves and somebody else comes behind them who doesn’t have the same priorities, you can go from first to worst quickly.
In most cases, you can tell right away when there has been a shift in the emphasis away from women and away from people of color. They usually say it’s because they want to broaden their whole outreach, and that means less focus on women and people of color. Until the advancement, development, and promotion rates of women and people of color will mirror that of white men, we still have work to do.
What are you most passionate about now with the initiatives that you are working on?
Probably unconscious bias. As much as I don’t really want to say that because I wasn’t a believer in unconscious bias, but it works. That training works. I thought it was the new flavor of the month, but unconscious bias training works. Get people in touch with their own bias, and once you realize that you have skin in the game, you see we all have bias and our brains have bias.
Then you can begin to have conversations like the one I had earlier where I said I was recovering homophobe [I interviewed Gerry at the National Restaurant Association convention 2018 just after he appeared on a panel about preventing harassment]. There were a bunch of recovering homophobes in that room, they just wouldn’t raise their hand. They don’t have enough courage yet. When you begin to look in the mirror and really see where you have blind spots and you have biased, racist, or sexist attitudes, you may not know why you have it, but admit it, and that opens the door for tremendous opportunity.
That is what I’m most passionate about because it’s working, and people are opening the door. If I can get that door open, then we can do the thing I really want to do which is leadership and professional development for Blacks and Hispanics. They need the coaching and things that address the uniqueness of them being people of color and the uniqueness of them being immigrants and the unique expectations that are put on African Americans and other people of difference in addition to all the other stuff you must do to learn the business.
We all got to learn the business, but women and people of color carry an extra burden. The Unconscious Bias training is working and opening doors, and I’m very excited about that.
What do you think are some things to highlight as the most leading-edge strategies to help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?
Everybody must go back and look at their sexual harassment policies and training. Whatever we have has not been working. You must start with seeing that it’s not working, and you must do some things differently.
Then it goes back to talking to women and the people who are being harassed in your organization. Give them a safe, honest place for them to say what’s really going on. You might find out there are some things going on in your company that you did not know. You must be honest about it and see if you have a big problem or a small problem. You must look at what does “fooling around” mean. You must look at when people say, “I was just kidding.” That happens all the time. People say, “I was just kidding.” Well, pinching my rear end, I don’t consider that kidding. There is some gray area, and you must define from managers what gray areas are.
Most people know what to do. We must get them to talk about it and put priority on it. In some places, it’s homophobia that’s a big issue from a harassment perspective. You must be honest about those issues, and if you aren’t you are going to end up with a lawsuit or some other kind of damage to the brand that is hard to overcome because social media is going to be on it like this and it can go from being a conversation in your restaurant to be a conversation on the nightly news.
Start with what you currently have, look at that, and ask the key players what is not working. To change the culture, you must get the real issues and ask the really difficult questions. We have a large Hispanic population and the men come from a culture where it’s OK and the women come from a culture where it’s OK to show more real estate than maybe we are accustomed to. Those are conversations you must have that are not easy.
How can we still be hospitable but limit what we allow and not be unreasonable? Women must realize very clearly that if you alienate men, they will not support your development, and women will get hurt. If it’s to slap every man on the wrist for every sin that’s ever been committed there’s some value in that, but you need men to advocate for women, to give you stretch assignments, to give you opportunities, to be willing to stand up and advocate for you to help you recover when you make a mistake.
If it becomes men versus women, then women will lose because men are predominantly in positions of power. Let’s punish the people who did wrong. They should never get off the hook for rape and serious assault. But a hand touching your waist is not the same sin. It’s like getting a traffic ticket versus vehicular homicide.
What is your superhero origin story? How did you get to be Gerry Fernandez, pillar of championing diversity and inclusion?
I believe that everyone has an assignment on this planet, and for many people they don’t take the finding of that assignment serious enough. I think people get to the finish line and whatever life is after this, and they are unfulfilled and didn’t finish their mission. I always felt like there was a purpose to what I was doing, and it was my job to find it, and I always approached life with enthusiasm. Sometimes you have things that happen that open your eyes.
For me, it was getting fired from job that I loved but where I had begun to drink my own Kool-Aid and think that I was better than I was. The firing caused me to get serious with my faith, and for me, it was my faith that made all the difference in the world. I repaired the relationships I had damaged in my younger years and got serious about my commitment to my God and my family and finding out what I was put on this Earth to do. Once I committed to do that, things started to come together, and I was working at General Mills. This work I am doing right now is what I believe God put me here to do, and I didn’t find out until age 39.
It comes to you, but you must be looking for it. The things you focus on in life get closer. Colonel Sanders was not remembered for anything he did before age 65. KFC was started when he was age 65. There are plenty of people whose greatest accomplishment isn’t until much later in life. I had to grow and mature. I had to grow into the person I am today. Some of things I’m doing today I wasn’t ready to do three or four or five or ten years ago.
Was there some corner you turned at age 39?
I was at General Mills, and I was in R&D, and I was washing sheet pans in the sink. There was a stack of about 60 sheet pans the size of tables. I had gone from being in a suit running Capital Grills, to getting fired, to figuring out how I was going to take care of my family. I went to General Mills in R&D where I was working with the technical group testing muffins and cakes and send them to plant to be manufactured. But when you finished testing them you had to clean up your pots and pans. I’m sitting there washing the dishes, saying to myself what the … I went to school all these years and busted my butt and I’m sitting here washing dishes, what am I doing? I was looking up into the sky, saying what am I doing?
It was at that point, I said, what am I supposed to be learning? I knew I wasn’t going up the technical ladder. It was shortly thereafter I surrendered, and I started to see and hear with greater clarity, and I started to look for places to add value.
Before long, things came together, and since then, there have been times where it has been mystical almost the way things come together. I can see around corners, and I’ve seen it enough times to know. I saw conference happening. It was a magical thing.
We had never gotten a large group of people of color in the restaurant and hospitality industry together in a room at the same time to talk about stuff that impacted us. The first MFHA meeting was in Chicago at the old Michael Jordan’s steakhouse during the National Restaurant Association event. It was a cocktail party. Everybody looked around and went whoa, this is something.
A year later we did our first conference. Since then, I’ve seen those things happen, even when we went through a difficult time a few years ago when we were figuring out what to do after the economy went South. I knew we would find our way. I walked around the show here and just stumbled into four pieces of business. It’s all coming to us right now.
We have our busiest first quarter, and we have done barely any advertising. I don’t even have a marketing piece on me. I think the point where I know the work I am doing really has value and it’s purposeful is I get up in the morning and I want to run to my office. I love the work I do. I know I’m making a difference in people’s lives, helping them connect the dots and not make the same mistakes I made. People see where their career can go.
I was talking to kids on the South side of Chicago who didn’t think they could go anywhere, and I said look, I got kicked out of school for smoking marijuana, and I got in trouble, and I lost my Dad, and I was one of six kids and we were poor. But I’ve been around the world, thanks to the foodservice industry. I started as a dishwasher. I went from the dish room to the board room. If I can do it, you can do it.
Earlier this year I was in Atlanta, and I was a hotel and a young African American man screams at me from across the room, “Mr. Fernandez! I was in your showcase in 2006… You encouraged me to finish degree.” Now he has this big position. Those stories happen all the time. It’s about doing work you know has value, you know is purposeful, and that you are good at.
Now, particularly, we can help people get to a conversation they might not have on their own. We make it OK and comfortable for them. That is very gratifying. If I’m an evangelist for anything, I’m an evangelist for the industry and the opportunity. That’s our space. The industry of opportunity. That’s where we are.
To find out more about the MFHA, please visit www.mfha.net
If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe to Wray Executive Search Executive Connection. Our monthly newsletter includes industry news, executive movements and thought-provoking articles.