Highlighting Black-Owned Businesses: Discussing DEI, Company Culture, and Employee Experience

At the core of our company philosophy is the importance of valuing and supporting the people who make us successful—not only our own employees, but also our customers. In celebration of Black History Month, our team had the privilege of joining three BambooHR customers behind the scenes of their Black-owned businesses to learn:

Brent Reaves (President) and Juan Reaves (Vice President), Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que & Home Cooking

Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que & Home Cooking is a Dallas-based, family-owned restaurant whose mission is to nourish their community through “the joy of food, the strength of faith, and the spirit of family.”

How important is the employee experience to your business, and what led you to want to focus on your culture?

Brent: The growth of our company led us to focus more on culture. We started really growing in 2015, and it started to grow well beyond Juan and me. Between 2013 to 2017, Juan and I tripled the gross sales of the company by being very intentional about quality and service. One of the things that had been really near and dear to Juan’s heart was impacting the employee experience. We were thinking about how to get them more involved and be more intentional about caring for them.

Juan: It was important to get them to want more out of life than just going to a job and making it to the weekend. I’d worked at other companies and that had always been an issue. I wanted to know what our employees would be looking forward to, especially because it can feel like there aren’t many high points in a person’s life. We wanted to create an environment that 1) would be a fun place to work and 2) let our employees know that we’re looking out for their growth. Even if that means growing away from us, if they find something that helps them become a better version of themselves.

Brent: Also, my wife, Charity (Director of Organizational Development), is incredibly organized and a big fan of processes, tools, and organizational management. She traveled with me during an event I did with Goldman Sachs and saw how important core values are for running a company. She started really looking into a platform to monitor how we could implement our core values into the work we do. Then we found BambooHR and thought, “We could really do this!”

How do you live your company values?

Brent: We actually just had a management meeting today where we’re getting focused for the year and being very intentional about presenting our core values and our mission as a company. We’re looking at what we’re trying to do as a company and how we’re trying to impact the community. And it’s more than just food.

Our tagline is food, faith, and family, and that’s what we’re about. We’re trying to really push that mission and first, make sure that it’s in our hearts as well.

Juan: One of our core values is intention, and we’re trying to be more purposeful with that. For example, we know our core values, and our team members are at least familiar with them. But it’s one thing to know them, and another thing to live them. We’re trying to be more purposeful about how we live them and how we implement, highlight, and emphasize them with our team members, so that they are clearly projected in our customer service and in the experience that you would encounter with our business.

We actually have T-shirts that say “Food, Faith, Family.” Almost like a synopsis of our mission statement.

How has BambooHR helped you accomplish your employee experience goals?

Juan: We call [the employee experience] “people and culture.” And at one point Brent said, “We need someone who’s going to safeguard our company philosophy and make sure that it’s executed and hold us accountable.” So, that’s a big part of our approach.

Charity deserves the credit because she did the research and found BambooHR. [BambooHR] is great because we’ve been in this business for a while and we’ve had ideas to do things, but as a small business there is only so much we can do. We can invest in people to do these things for us, but for us to have a tool like BambooHR to help is great. And we’re using it. It’s been instrumental to how we’re running our company.

We use the review process, we keep notes for everyone…[a]nd Charity was able to somehow capture all our thoughts and feelings, make them into core values, and use BambooHR as the tool to make it happen. At the start of every team meeting, we ask, “Does anyone have any [BambooHR] notes?”

Plus, a lot of our staff doesn’t have computers—so we set up terminals here so anyone can go in and access their BambooHR notes. It’s really transformed how we can communicate our mission to our team.

Brent: The biggest selling point of BambooHR is customization. When you say you’re customizable, you really are. And the price point is great for what we’re getting. As a small business, we want to grow to the point where we can hire somebody, but at this level, the system is already so robust that you can’t beat the cost that we’re paying monthly.

Juan: It’s like we have a whole team on our side.To find out more about Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que, visit www.smokeyjohns.com

Marc Washington (CEO and Founder), Muniq

Muniq is an online, direct-to-consumer health company that empowers people to take control of their health, one meal replacement shake at a time. Their team includes a diverse team of scientists, innovators, and health enthusiasts creating a healthier world and closing the health disparity gaps for multicultural communities.

How important is the concept of experience to your business, and what led you to want to focus on your culture?

I’m a first-time entrepreneur, even at this later stage in my career. [I]t was always my intention to be able to launch a business quickly, but in a way that reached out to consumers, wherever they were. To me, it’s not just about physical products, but about the experience of welcoming people into this community to do this together and support each other.

Actively staying engaged is an important part of that experience, and it lends itself to allowing our team to have a direct relationship with consumers. Unless it’s inherent to your company or unless you’ve seen it, so many people underestimate the value and importance of unity and connectedness. And we’ve got a very vibrant community.

Different people are motivated by different things, but for so many, that engagement with others—whether it’s directly with the brand or with others in similar circumstances—having other people they can relate with similar trials and triumphs drives a whole other level of the experience.

How do you live your company values?

I’m a career health and wellness exec. Healthier living is a personal passion of mine. I’ve been fortunate to be in this space, helping people lead healthier lives and working to close the health disparity gap that disproportionately impacts multicultural communities. It’s what I’m inspired and motivated to do, and for me, that’s the best feeling.

The way I describe why I started this company is “head meets heart.” The head part is that I knew I loved this space, but I also knew there was a huge, underserved opportunity in transformative health and wellness. The chronic health issues that plague the public at large and marginalized communities in particular are massive, and they’re only getting worse. I thought, “I think there’s a better way to do this and a different approach for the ton of people in need.” We’re taking a different approach using science-based “food-as-medicine” to address this public health crisis.

On a personal and “heart” level, my sister Monica is my inspiration. She lived with multiple chronic conditions, and though she had an unbelievably colorful life, she struggled with her health. She tragically passed away due to health issues and that impacted me to my core.

What role does DEI play in your business?

I put a lot of weight into the quality, caliber, and ethos of the folks that we attract to the company. When I started the business, I thought, “Yes, I want to do unbelievable things and have a positive impact on human health, but I also want to do it the right way.” This is part of the joy of being an entrepreneur and founder—being able to build your team from scratch. The culture, caliber, and capability were all a part of the mix of building a team the way I always envisioned it should be.

As I think about the importance of building a team, there are a couple of key themes. Obviously, a strong performance. I need people who think big and want to have an impact.

Collaboration is also a core part of our culture. We’re solving really hard problems, and there’s no room for a bunch of sharp elbows.

And finally, something that I truly value and is so fulfilling is diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s just built into the foundation of who we are as a team, as a brand, as to how we express ourselves publicly, as well as how we operate internally.

We’re really proud to see that the mentality of the team has that same appreciation for the value of each other’s differences and what different people bring to the table. Everybody inherently understands the value of diversity of thought, background, color, sexual orientation, etc. The majority of our team is multicultural and female. That plays out in how well we perform and in our numbers.

How has BambooHR helped you accomplish your employee experience goals?

At this small business stage, we don’t have a big infrastructure. We’re at 20 employees. Despite being a small team, I consider us a full-stack business with strong operating experience.

Our foundation began in food tech—in fact, my first hire was a Ph.D. food scientist—so we have really strong capabilities in product innovation and product experience. We have a lab where we cook up formulations and perform clinical studies, and we also have typical internal operations to manage our physical product. We have coverage across all aspects of the company, essentially as a full-stack business, even at our small scale.

And so, having internal capabilities from a “people management” side has always been important to me. Accountability is on all of us as a scrappier operation, so having tools and software to develop efficiencies in our processes is quite important.

At the very outset, it was just me and a couple of folks posting on LinkedIn and figuring it out. Now we’ve got more numbers and need more of a system to support our hiring process and we’re heading down the path of having more dedicated resources on the operations side.To learn more about Muniq, visit www.muniqlife.com

Sharif El-Mekki (CEO), Center for Black Educator Development

The Center for Black Educator Development addresses educational inequities to improve academic and social outcomes for all students through the recruiting, training, and retention of diverse, quality educators.

The Center is working hard to rebuild the Black teacher pipeline. Before founding the Center, Sharif El-Mekki was a teacher and principal for 26 years and served as a U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. His school was awarded for three consecutive years for being among the top three schools in the country that accelerated students’ achievement levels.

How important is the employee experience to your organization, and what led you to want to focus on your culture?

I always knew I wanted to be involved in activism, especially racial justice. It wasn’t until I met Dr. Ryder—a veteran Black leader and educator in Philadelphia—a little while after college [that I decided to teach]. I thought I wanted to go to law school and use my activism and pursue racial justice through the courts and legal means. I went to a meeting with Dr. Ryder, who recognized my activism and said that the purest form of activism was teaching Black children well. That resonated with me, and it still does.

I love being a part of this work. I feel like it’s so important. [Dr. Ryder] really helped me and the other people in my cohort connect the dots between educational justice and racial justice. Pursuing racial justice means you have to engage in educational justice. They’re inextricably linked.

So, we really focus on the conversations and experiences that pull back the curtain and show [our cohorts] what leading a classroom looks, feels, and sounds like. We look at what are the skills and mindset necessary to become a good teacher.

And for our culture, we look at people’s will to succeed, achieve, and reflect. These are all extremely important. I have a profound respect for top talent and for people’s commitment to merging our vision with a healthy, sustainable organizational culture. Especially in a Black-founded organization where people come from a variety of backgrounds. Some may have serious wounds and negative experiences from previous places. One of the things we wrestle with is how to build a place that can challenge, but also serve as a healing space.

We want to be a supportive space and a collaborative one. We have high aspirations for ourselves, while also recognizing the culture of what a startup is.

How do you live your organization’s values?

I had this urge to work with a group of people to launch [the Center], particularly to rebuild the national Black teacher pipeline. There is a strong need for more diverse educators, but there has not been a systematic change to invite Black youth into the profession. We wanted to provide apprenticeships, fellowship opportunities, and scholarships for high school and college-age youth to support them in becoming Black educators.

One of our values is sustaining the soul. To me, that’s one of our most important values because it’s not only about the work—it’s about ourselves and how we can lead educators through deep, emotional experiences. How can we support them in doing it, and how we can support ourselves to help them.

Many Black men are not invited into the education profession until later in life. I was working with a group of Black men in 2014, and we recognized that we had not been approached nor invited into this profession when we were children—only until after we graduated college. Yet, when we asked our other colleagues, the average age they remembered being approached by an adult to become a teacher was third grade.

Through our programming, we’ve been able to engage high school youth from all around the country and give them clinical experiences and early exposure to what effective teaching can look like. We also look at who they can draw inspiration from. We have 30 individuals who have come through the program and who are now involved in education somehow.

We also have a fantastic team that I have the honor of working with every day to build this. One of the things we are doing is reviewing the historical anecdotes of how an organization transitions from grassroots, to startup, to trying to become a sustained institution, while still maintaining the energy and fervor of our values. We want our team to see themselves as part of the solution. It’s a collaborative approach that we all need to buy into and are all invested in.

What role does DEI play in your organization?

Our organization is doing the work that requires systemic change through retention efforts that match recruitment efforts. We’ve seen districts recruit more diverse educators and have attrition rates go up as well, so there are clearly systemic and institutional challenges around race, class, power, and privilege that do not get addressed nearly enough in school improvement plans.

And that’s really why we wanted to launch the Center for Black Educator Development. Every summer, we’re expanding our apprenticeship program, Freedom Schools Literacy Academy, to build the National Black Teacher pipeline.

How has BambooHR helped you accomplish your team experience goals?

Our team has about 15 full-time employees, along with our part-time and seasonal employees. Last year we had 99 apprentices in high school and college.

Our goal and vision are to rebuild this national Black teacher pipeline across 10 regions in the country. We want to continue this process of engaging consortiums of educators, activists, philanthropists, and policymakers. And it’s a challenge to try to align things, streamline them, and be as efficient as possible. The question then becomes, “What’s the balance? How do we maintain a healthy organization where people can practice self-care, and also be extremely hardworking and dedicated to a solutions-oriented mission for a pretty complex problem?”

Our advice to other businesses is to continue to be open-minded but also focused. Open-minded in the learning phase and focused on determining what you want to accomplish. It’s very easy to get distracted while you’re learning and veer off your mission. However, figure out the pillars that sustain your business and never fail to recognize who you serve within your community.

Someone on our team is actually diving deeper into BambooHR because we thought, “Hey, we’re not using this nearly enough!”

We’ll be using BambooHR to lean in even further for improving our relationships and overall leadership practices. Our team can’t tackle that with lackadaisical approaches. We have to have an all-in approach for a mission that we’re choosing to do. We’re choosing to do this. We’re choosing to lean in. That’s what our students and future educators deserve. That’s what we deserve, too.

To learn more about the Center for Black Educator Development, visit www.thecenterblacked.org