Negroni Week News

Fundraising Spotlight: The Roots Fund

September 12, 2021

In July 2020, hospitality consultant Ikimi Dubose, master sommelier, and Heitz Cellar CEO Carlton McCoy Jr., and Hue Society founder Tahiirah Habibi launched The Roots Fund. The nonprofit, which works to secure pathways for communities of color into the wine industry, provides far-reaching educational scholarships, mentorship, financial support, and job placement to BIPOC interested in all aspects of wine. Seeking to effect long-term change in the industry, The Roots Fund recently won Nonprofit of the Year and the Impact Award at Wine & Culture Fest. We spoke with Dubose, the organization’s executive director, about the specifics of The Roots Fund’s support, why the nonprofit’s work is bigger than wine, and what excites her about the future of the wine industry.

What are the different kinds of resources The Roots Fund provides to BIPOC interested in joining the wine industry?
We’re a one-stop shop. We offer educational scholarships and there’s no cap to that, meaning if you’re looking for college tuition or WSET or Wine Scholar Guild or CMS–basically anything education-related for the wine industry we support. Every [scholarship] round is open to all areas; every scholar is issued a mentor. Also, we do job placement services, so we run a live job board where any wine business can put in positions, and we match people up with those positions. We give résumé services, we give mock interview services, so by the time you’ve had your interview you’re very well prepared. At the same time, we vet the companies we work with. Some companies, unfortunately, say they want to hire diverse applicants to say that they’ve tried, but really have no intent on doing that. We track companies that we give two, three applicants to and they never hire anyone. That’s a red flag for us, that causes a conversation to happen and say, hey, we’ve given you more than qualified people you’ve never hired. That tells me that you really don’t want to hire diverse candidates, you just want to check a box and say that you interviewed a few. So, it allows us to really look at both sides of the coin. And we have to be honest, people of color have other obstacles in life that also affect their daily lives and we look at all those things. We’re piloting a mental health services program where they can receive free therapy, virtual or in person, depending on where they’re located. We look at other resources that can help them, whether it’s people dealing with rental issues during the pandemic [or our partnership] with Southern Smoke to help people in hospitality. I think oftentimes with scholarship institutions, they give people money, but they don’t think of what else comes with it. For example, someone will give you a college scholarship, but they haven’t thought about how you will get to college. How will you pay for books? Can you afford to live on campus? We pride ourselves here on looking at the whole picture. We have those hard conversations with folks about what else is going on in your life that could affect what you’re trying to accomplish.

What are some successes the organization celebrated during its first year?
Having 87 scholars. Having, right now, a 99 percent success rate. That means that our certifications are either coming in 90th percentile and above, and our college graduates are averaging B-pluses or higher. So far, everyone that has been active with our job program has been employed and is still employed and we’re at our three-month mark; that speaks volumes to our job services being legit and truly helping to advance. We’ve worked on a lot of programs with our high school program, which is super successful already in San Francisco and New York City. So far, we have had over 50 high school students engaged in the wine industry. We’re opening scholarships to them this winter, so all those kids who came to our program last year and the ones that will engage this fall will be open to receive scholarships next June to go into college to study wine or viticulture or oenology. Because our organization focuses on the BIPOC community, we’re starting to have some great conversations in other areas of color that face similar disparities that we really need to focus on. And we’re working on some great programs with a lot of tribal nations and Indigenous tribes, so those are some great wins for us. It’s taken a year to have those conversations and it’s really been about creating space to understand their culture and understand their presence in this country and what affects their communities and how we can integrate the work that we’re doing. Building trust has been a big thing for us in those communities.

Has COVID-19 impacted The Roots Fund’s work?
I think that we entered during a time when the giving was hot. Social justice was a thing and everyone wanted to be involved because it was the cool thing to do and now the pandemic—even though you have the Delta variant—a lot of things have resumed to a new normal. A big company who was [saying,] “Black Lives Matter!” is now telling you, “Well, some things have happened for Black people, so why do I need to do anything else? Why do I need to continue to contribute?” Now it’s really a challenge for me to figure out how to have these conversations and remind people that the same disparities still stand. We need to continue to look at our practices and break down a lot of these internal systems within organizations and the wine business to really see what we’re doing to make sure that the playing field is equal.

Where do you anticipate growth for The Roots Fund in the years to come?
We’re putting a lot of our attention next year on two areas: our high school program and our international program. I think that our 11th and 12th graders in high school need to know about the wine industry. If you hear every wine story, it started in the last few years of someone’s 20s and 30s. We need to eliminate that ten-year gap that’s happening so they’re not going back to study wine after they’ve completed their bachelor’s when they could have been pursuing that during their bachelor’s or associate degrees. I think having that conversation is going to be a game changer. We’re going to get a whole new rejuvenation of youth going into this industry. I think that the international program is going to be monumental. Most people of color in the United States don’t even have their passports. So that says a lot; it’s bigger than wine what we’re doing here. It’s going to open their eyes to, one, taste some of the best wines around the world, two, be able to travel and immerse themselves in cultures they’re not necessarily as experienced with here in the U.S. I think those are two great initiatives that are really going to move the needle forward in this industry and make a mark for us.

What excites you about the future of the wine industry?
I think people are starting to feel seen. There’s no one in the world who can tell me that’s not a good feeling—to be seen in your space, where you work hard, where you put the effort forward. For people to see you and acknowledge your presence—and I’m not someone that’s a big believer of acknowledgement to validate you—but I think that in the wine space now, people are feeling more seen. I think just a little bit of the curtain is opening but I think it will continue to open if we stay steadfast. The pandemic has been a wakeup call in many industries, but I think particularly in wine, being that it’s boomed so much during this time, it’s forcing the industry to look at how they do business. What are your practices? Who are you hiring? Who’s being represented? Who are you marketing to? I think all those things are a big part of the way forward, but I think that people are feeling seen in certain rooms and can’t be ignored anymore.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. Story by Emma Manheimer | Photo courtesy of The Roots Fund