Culture & Trends

Conflict Is Good: Pet Care Leaders on Diversity’s Necessary Messiness

Last month, the Kinship Coalition gathered to discuss ways our industry can effect social change in this moment of opportunity

Aug, 20 2020

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Last month, the Kinship Coalition gathered to discuss ways our industry can effect social change in this moment of opportunity—particularly for Black Americans as business owners, investors, employees, and pet owners. 

This month, we reconvened for a Q&A between entrepreneurs and two key industry figures: Kinship President Leonid Sudakov and Dr. Eleanor Green, Senior Consultant at the Animal Policy Group, and former Dean of Texas A+M University School of Veterinary Sciences. The entrepreneur panel was moderated by Melissa Mitchner, Founder of NYC’s The Bark Shoppe, and Carlton Osborne, Co-Founder & CEO of mail-in health analytics firm AnimalBiome

The group chat was moderated by the previous roundtable’s featured guests, Renaldo Webb, Founder of subscription food company Pet Plate, and Zubin Bhettay, Co-Founder and CEO of all-in-one animal care stop Fuzzy Pet Health. Kinship’s own Carla Isabel Carstens, Director of Communications & Events, hosted the event.

With that powerful array of personalities in attendance, the roundtable began

How are universities preparing pet care of tomorrow to change?

Higher education remains a powerful beacon for change. With veterinary school enrollment just 19.6% of underrepresented populations (up from 12.2% a decade ago, but practicing vets are 85.9% white), Osborne asked Dr. Green, “What can you tell us about what veterinary schools are doing to ensure greater diversity of students?”

She replied that her tenure as Dean emphasized and iterated: “Diversity, inclusion, engagement, and equity in front of whatever we do.” Tracking the performances of diversity efforts and sharing them among other veterinary colleges has sped the process

Green recollected what a revelation it was for her, twenty years earlier, to hear that “the multicultural golden rule,” is an inversion of the popular maxim. Since empathy requires attentive listening, diversity says, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”

Broadcasting that commitment is important, she said, because “My goal is to make sure that every single person that crosses our threshold will feel engaged, will feel important, will feel at home, will feel comfortable, and will feel free and supported to reach their dreams.”

She recalled a class of 132 students, of whom just two were Black. Both had been highly sought after by the school, were popular with their peers, and leaders in campus life. When one left for Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship, the other came to the dean’s office in tears, overwhelmed by the solitude of now being the only Black student. Despite her active social life and presidency of campus organizations, she felt completely alone. “It speaks to what we need to do,” said Green, “in providing support and providing mentors, and doing what we can to help these students be comfortable.”

Bhettay asked, “What opportunities do we have to drive more awareness at a grass-roots level?” 

Vet colleges are on a perpetual hunt for tools to keep their worlds fairly accessible, Green said, such as 2+2 programs and active recruitment from diverse areas—but schools can’t be everywhere. They need veterinarians to find and foster interest in animal care among minorities. 

What can startups do to inculcate diversity and inclusion?

Mitchner, who last week won Leap’s 2020 Pet Project Virtual Pitch Competition, asked for ways startups can hire, invest, and otherwise make an immediate impact. 

Green put forth a comprehensive approach favoring repetition and deliberate practice. She said once an organization recruits diversely, it should create intentional interactions that foster respect and understanding. During these challenges, leaders should “Find the good and praise it,” by publicly recognizing achievements. And finally: if best efforts fail, it’s okay to admit that it’s time to part ways so both sides can find a better fit. 

Bhettay disagreed on that point, saying that selecting only for cultural matches creates a homogeneous culture. He agreed, however, that intentionality in hiring is crucial. He asks his executives about every hire, “How does this person complement the culture that we have?” 

Sudakov qualified what both sides had in common. “This system is not made up for diversity,” he said, “and you need to invest passion, time, and conviction,” to source the right candidates. “Diversity is messy,” he concluded. “It takes a lot more effort, a lot more guardrails, and a lot more careful processing than if it’s all white guys from the same business school trying to apply the things they’ve learned from the same professors.”

What guides these values to root and flourish at each level? 

Next, Osborne asked how Sudakov educates industry peers about the need for equity. The reply was to keep the corporate aspect minimal and let employees be ambassadors. Additionally, he’s found Leap growing into a fantastic forum for discussion as it seeks ways to support businesses. 

At that point, Hannah Penfield of the Oregon Humane Society asked, “What are steps we can take to close the racial disparity in pet ownership: 58% of white families, 24% of Black families?” 

Green suggested educational programming on the benefits of animal ownership. Sudakov cautioned that affordability was the elephant in the room. Innovation, he warned, cannot exclude new arrivals to pet care. As premium pet care options flourish, accessibility must too, keeping pet ownership viable at all income levels. 

Mitchner stressed representation, saying, “People can’t aspire to be what they don’t see.” But as new sectors of the population grow in their share of pet ownership, how can they hold executives accountable to meet their needs? What action items, she wanted to know, would they recommend?

Green testified to emphatic repetition. She tells her direct reports, “Your job is to challenge me and challenge each other in order to get better.” Given orders to directly engage, the team is less likely to take criticism personally or as a breach of hierarchy. They must report on their efforts, as do their own teams in person as well as writing. And since economics are a huge part of equity, her organization scrutinizes salaries for consistency across demographics. 

How can entrepreneurs initiate difficult conversations about diversity without damaging their chances?

Startups face a dual challenge of finding investors who share these values then impressing them into collaboration. It’s daunting to offer constructive criticism to someone even as you’re seeking a financially dependent relationship. With data showing the absurd disparities in Series A funding to women and people of color, Osborne wanted to know how entrepreneurs could bypass implicit bias and help investors make diversity a priority.

Sudakov admitted that replicating Leap’s accessibility in the broad capital market was stymying. While one pet-focused incubator is unlikely to influence the larger VC space, those “small cracks” must still be made. 

Bhettay posed a follow-up question: how spaces only beginning to include people of color could make their institutions welcoming and supportive to new arrivals?

Green stressed a never-ending exercise in empathy, especially in an academic setting, where students and faculty turn over constantly. “With diversity, we’re never there,” she said. “It’s not something any organization will fix. It has to be constant and you can never tire of trying to advance it.” 

“Have you ever passed on a qualified white male to ensure you hired a woman or person of color?” How action beats talk 

The final question proved the worth of tough discussions that challenge those with power. “Have you ever passed on a qualified white male to ensure you hired a woman or person of color?”

Sudakov was able to recount recent examples, as the CEOs of Whistle & Wisdom are both female, immigrants, and non-white. Perhaps surprisingly, he found the pushback was stronger towards the fact that both hires were women than persons of color. “The reaction I got was whether I was hiring women who would just say yes to everything I would want to do, versus a male who would challenge me back,” he marveled. It was a telling example of the mentality and stereotyping that society levies even on a personal victory.

Green underscored the need to “Educate, educate, educate” at the front end of the hiring process. Preceding individual applicants with an effort to be more diverse is “not giving preference, it’s another dimension on the scoresheet.” As the college hires for a variety of experience, age, race, and gender, anyone is welcome. And because of that, ultimately, everyone is present. 

What is Kinship doing to diversify pet care?

Perhaps the defining question was the first one posed. Mitchner asked how Kinship’s goals changed in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, and what Kinship’s response was. Sudakov said the company’s integral quest for diversity remains the same, but its intensity has changed. “Innovation in the pet care space,” he said, “requires us to have a very different approach to the multitude of opinions about the future for this industry.” 

As for the response, the movement was a wakeup call, “a massive opportunity to all of us to consider how big a priority we made this to be,” he said, as well as the impetus to fight for “something else on the table.”

In addition to expanding its female founders bootcamp to attract minority entrepreneurs, Kinship’s incubator partnership Leap Venture Studio is launching a mentorship program for people of color looking for ways to break into the pet care industry.

Sudakov also announced that a paid internship program had been approved that morning specifically to give people of color “a ticket into the industry. For us, the value is, it’s very congruent to what we want to be.” Pet care, he said, deserves a different group of people to transform the industry and perpetuate the urgency of today’s protests into 2021 and beyond.