Culture & Trends

Fixing Pet Care’s Diversity Problem: Equity, Equity, Equity, Representation, and Equity

Many leaders want to know how they can improve representation, equality, opportunity, and equity

Jul, 16 2020

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At this tidal point in American history, the need to establish Black civil rights is manifest. Many leaders want to know how they can improve representation, equality, opportunity, and equity. At the same time, employees are educating themselves to become better allies. With that in mind, Leap Venture Studio, Kinship’s in-house accelerator, hosted a virtual roundtable, “Diversity in Petcare.” The July 1 event featured Renaldo Webb, Founder of Pet Plate; Zubin Bhettay, Co-Founder and CEO of Fuzzy Pet Health; and Kinship’s own Carla Isabel Carstens, Director of Communications & Events.

The roundtable began with the question of why petcare has such a significant lack of Black founders and executives. Webb—a Leap alumnus who started his clean-label dog-food business in 2016 and appeared on Season 8 of Shark Tank the same year—said that from the outset, minorities and women have fewer introductions to venture capitalists. Furthermore, what diversity exists is pinned to a very small portion of operations and not always public-facing.

“Going to pet [care] factories, the warehouses at these factories, seeing the people that are providing the ingredients that are going into dog food, etc.” he said in reference to factory and warehouse workers being predominantly people of color. “There’s not a lack of diversity there, it’s when you look at who’s running the marketing, who’s making the financing decisions that you see there’s a lack of diversity.”

Tech shares this problem, Webb said, where leadership roles skew white and remain disconnected from such representation within the company. In a world where 81% of venture capital firms lack Black investors, entrepreneurs have to ask themselves if they’re being passed over consciously, unconsciously, or experiencing even more insidious expressions of discrimination.

“You always start questioning yourself,” Webb said.“ ‘Is it there is an unconscious bias going on, or is there some sort of racism, or are my metrics just bad?’ You get yourself in this weird cycle that’s confounding the already-difficult part of raising and growing a business. It makes things more difficult than they need to be, and stops people from pushing it further, over the finish line.”

He said one step to broaden access is to challenge traditional recruitment models: involving BIPOC business leaders in the decision-making process about the funding and shape of programs—not just the selections of candidates.

“I believe the sourcing process is very broken. Identifying how we’re picking the founders we’re bringing in to pitch is important to do,” he said. “I don’t see how you’re going to pick more Black businesses to fund if you don’t have more Black people there deciding if these businesses should be funded.”

He added, “VCs, all the time, say they like to build relationships. I don’t see this relationship-building happening in communities of color. I would love to see that happen. I think at Kinship, one of the things we could do to support is build a networking database.” 

To that end, Leap’s Asad Butt shared an in-progress list of Black-owned pet care businesses to create a growing resource for networkers and investors. Bhettay cited multiple studies by investment firms and educational institutions, saying that “diverse teams are more profitable, more innovative, smarter, and deliver better results. So if we bring it back to the capitalistic perspective, there’s a real rationale there to focus on diversity and why it’s something that’s important.”

Tierra Price, founder of BlackDVM Network, said challenges remain even after capitalizing on present opportunities: “I think pointing back to the pipeline distracts our focus from supporting the Black professionals that are currently in the space.”

Price said that she founded BlackDVM Network “because there was no support for veterinary professionals, for students after vet school and beyond. Getting people into the pipeline is awesome, but how are you supporting them once they’re there?”

The lack of “Diversity is a huge problem. It’s not something we didn’t hear about yesterday, and today we hear about, and tomorrow it’s fixed,” she said. “There’s a lot of change, a lot of growth that has to come with it.”

Price offered one solution that would become a refrain throughout the discussion. “I think on an individual level […] be intentional about finding a person of color to mentor. It’s so easy to get connected with people that are in your network. More than likely, those people are going to look like you. A person of color is not going to walk into your office. You have to be intentional about it.”

That support, she said, is crucial. “As a founder of a new company, I need a ton of support. I did not gain any support until this movement came along. No one cared about BlackDVM Network until about three weeks ago. I only had black veterinary professionals in my inbox or in my space. Now I’m being completely overwhelmed with people who want to support. That is awesome, but how do we continue to expose these people that need support, that need funding, that need guidance, mentorship?”

Bhettay recounted that he was lucky enough to work under Ursula Burns, the first Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but noted that there are now fewer Black Fortune 500 CEOs than 15 years ago, and zero Black female CEOs. Carlton Osborne from AnimalBiome, a pet microbiome company based in Oakland, said the issue can often compound into a one-two punch with gender discrimination. “There are companies founded by African-Americans that get overlooked,” he said. “You don’t even get real feedback. One of the problems we see in the petcare space is companies founded by women get overlooked.”

He recounted the time that his wife, founder of AnimalBiome, "had a VC tell her that “her team had a gender bias problem because they were all women, but said nothing of the fact that they were all men at the VC.”

Bhettay noted that the widening wealth gap has exacerbated the disparity in opportunities. “Starting a company is expensive,” he said. “A lot of people go into debt getting into it. Getting access to the first hundred or two hundred thousand dollars of capital…it’s less accessible for people of color” to raise that money in many instances.

The same, he said, applies as more people of color are accepted into doctorate studies for the still-very-white field of veterinary medicine. There’s the added burden of non-fiscal resources and tools: education, security, safety, and opportunity are all less available to Black people and other people of color—a point he recently touched on in his comprehensive Medium article “It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done.”

Price pointed out that the veterinary career path is doubly daunting: “Expensive with a lower ROI than physicians or other careers” with the same investment of time, energy, and tuition.

While leadership is a huge factor, representation overall remains an obvious problem. “If you walk into a room and don’t see anyone that looks like you,” Bhettay said, “Immediately your sense of feeling welcome is dealt a blow.” Kimberly Gauthier, who blogs about raw dog food and natural pet products at Keep the Tail Wagging, agreed.

“It’s shocking that there are so few people of color when I attend industry events or see online events in the pet community and fresh food community,” she said. “People feel that if we’re all animal lovers then these discussions of race relations and diversity aren’t needed. Until people are willing to recognize that there is an issue of diversity, it’s going to be challenging to get people to see that people of color may not feel welcomed.”

One resounding opinion was that the current focus must be sustained and made part of the norm. Lola Gina, founder of the dog care company Poochi On The Go-Go, said it was key to “Not highlight simply for the month or summer, but integrating what’s sitting right there,” by reaching out to current participants in the space who have the desire to be involved.

Beyond the fact that inclusive exposure is simply the right thing to do, Bhettay recommended a prolonged effort to help companies achieve results from a sincere effort. “Don’t do this because it’s en vogue to do right now,” he said. “Do ten a month for the next year, not a hundred this month.”

Spacing out their focus will prevent companies from inundating themselves, he said, while, broadly soliciting input from business people of color, he said, hurts more than it helps. Everyone must be selective with their time, and companies that ask for that time should respect it enough to give it due focus. Making it an ongoing, core focus for the company instead, is the difference between actual change and self-gratification.

And as awkward as conversations like these can be, Bhettay said, he encouraged white people to have them among themselves, not merely with friends who experience discrimination firsthand. The onus for education and processing new worldviews falls to white people who wish to change; people of color shouldn’t be expected to do it for them. “It’s fairly easy to find information and resources,” he said, “But we also shouldn’t be looking to shut down these dialogues.”

Kinship’s Social Media Community & Communications Coordinator Ricky Beatty pointed out that “It becomes extremely stressful for the Black community to have to teach and explain at the same time fight to exist in industry.” Allies should look to alleviate those burdens rather than create more work.

The discussion also focused on creating opportunities with internship and later mentorship. Asad Butt, Director of Ventures & Partnerships at Leap, said that Leap’s one-week boot camp this year will solicit for CEOs of color, along with its continuing focus on female-led companies. While Kinship at large has created mentorship and internship programs to commence in spring of 2021 when quarantine ends. 

Brett Yates, of Michelson Found Animals mentioned that its sister foundation 20MM is bringing its educational mission to incite “dramatic changes to the animal care space,” and welcomed anyone in the petcare space looking for more information to contact the organization and make use of its resources.

The group concluded that change at any level cannot flourish without change at every level. As Kinship and its brands institute the changes we all wish to see, Butt asked all in attendance to weigh in. “We are here to connect founders with the resources that they need. We know that we’ve failed to support the Black community in the past year that we’ve been doing this. I would love ideas for what we can do.”

From mentorship to funding and grants, he asserted that “Everything’s on the table. We’re really excited to help, to act on this in the short term and long term. So please, don’t hesitate to reach out and share your ideas, and hold us accountable.”

Go here to watch the full “Diversity in Petcare” roundtable.

Three Dots

Our in-person Coalition event is currently slated for Spring / Summer 2021. Until then, we invite you to be inspired, informed, and delighted by this series of thought-provoking and insightful conversations, featuring luminaries such as Brock Weatherup, serial entrepreneur and CEO at Metamorphosis; Dr. Zay Satchu, Co-Founder and Chief Veterinary Officer at Bond Vet; YuJung Kim, President at the Dodo; and many more.