Alumni Spotlight: Ikimi Dubose, The Roots Fund

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Ikimi Dubose is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Roots Fund Incorporated, a nonprofit organization created to empower communities of color by providing resources and financial support through educational scholarships, wine education, mentorship, and job placement. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Ikimi about the Roots Fund’s commitment to investing in communities of color in all aspects of the wine industry, and her experience in the Center’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with so many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career in your particular field?

Dubose: I think that just in general, when you choose to work in the nonprofit space, the people you encounter are great at what they do. They work on things that they are truly passionate about or directly affect them. For me, being a chef in the industry was where my hospitality career started. Working as a chef in the back of the house and then transitioning to the front of the house then to management and then to regional director, I have always had a passion for the wine space. The wine industry never has a shortage of money, so I thought, why not build a nonprofit around this space that can be funded to actually get some great work done. Seeing the disparities directly from my own experience at restaurants and never seeing people of color in the beverage space, I’ve believe that we can really do something important to change that. I thought about what I can do that can really make a major breakthrough and impact.

CPNL: As the Executive Director at The Roots Fund Incorporated, what motivated you to found this organization and formulate its mission?

Dubose: We formulated the Roots Fund right before the pandemic but more importantly during the major social justice movement with the murder of George Floyd and all that was going on with black and brown communities’ involvement with police. It was a time to take a step back and consider what am I doing to create systemic change. I think that it’s on communities of color to be part of the change because a lot of the issues were not created by us, but we want to be part of the solutions. We wanted to found the Roots Fund to center on how we can be solution-oriented and actually create actionable change.

The organization’s name came not only from the aspect of the wine industry being from roots and vines, but also from looking at communities of color and how our time started here in this country. A lot of it has to do with growing things from the ground, so that’s a big part of who we are, how we formed our mission, and what key issues we can help with. Education of course always creates that foundation of support. Also, mentorship is so important that it’s one of our pillars; being able to have someone who can help guide you through your path is really important and who has connections to help you is pivotal. Then looking at the job aspect, we wanted to increase the workforce and create more people that look like us in these spaces, so we needed to create a job platform that would allow that to happen.

CPNL: With your experience in the nonprofit sector, what are some of the institutional or systemic issues that you have noticed or feel compelled to address? How has your personal experience impacted the way you respond to these issues?

Dubose: One of the issues that I’d like to really address is the lack of education and awareness around DEI. I think that at this point, you have to be blind to not see what’s going on in the industry. Especially now since there haven’t been as many protests going on in the community, it’s quieted down as if there isn’t an issue or it was solved a year ago when the same problems still exist. I’m always addressing the lack of energy that’s being put forth right now versus what it was 6 months ago; where is everyone that put up their black squares? I’m interested to see what actionable work you actually took during this time.

A big part of the core problem is organizational hiring practices. How do we expect to create inclusive spaces when people are still hiring and training in the same ways they’ve been doing so for 10 to 20 years because in their minds it’s successful? That’s when you walk into a room and everyone is white and there’s no one else except for a token person that’s just blending in. I feel like HR and hiring practices are big issues and we need to look at the core of where you solicit your employees and how you are valuing and treating them.

I worked in the corporate sector for a very long time, for large well-known fine dining restaurant groups. I’ve had hundreds of managers and staff and I think about how I’ve treated my teams. The value of my work in my eyes is when people tell me about what they experienced, how they felt working for me, and what some employees are struggling with. I’ve never made major decisions without including the people who are actually performing the work. My strategy to really talk to the people I’m working with is to continuously encourage them; the same way you may have to address faults, you have to encourage the great work they are doing to keep them engaged.

My personal experience of valuing my team and engaging with their wants and values has always driven great results. A perfect example was when I worked at JP Morgan handling a lot of their food and beverage. There was a heavy Indian population and I remember Diwali was coming up. I organized a whole committee and said that while I also experience this holiday, I want to talk to people who will tell me what holds value to you, what’s important to you, and how can we incorporate that into our work culture. The people in that room were so happy just to see that someone acknowledged their feelings and what was important to them. We did exactly what that committee put together. Inclusivity means including those voices, and without that we don’t move forward.

CPNL: What is one significant challenge you have faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?

Dubose: Creating awareness has been a harder challenge because of the pandemic. It’s been a significant challenge to lead and manage my own team because there’s DEI work to do. Sometimes in the nonprofit sector, we say to ourselves that we don’t need DEI training because we’ve been doing DEI work for generations. But that training has evolved, so we have to challenge ourselves to stay current. I am still reading articles all the time and engaging with my colleagues, especially those at Georgetown, asking them what are new things they’re working on. Continuing to stay current and educating yourself is definitely a challenge for busy days because we have a million things we can do, but I literally block time out just to focus on educating myself. That has allowed me to be a great leader for my team and provide that same education to them. We’re in a social media age, and I don’t know any nonprofit that hasn’t evolved into that. But social media is also tiring, so how do we find other ways to engage since no one is mailing letters anymore. How do we engage our communities, how do we create awareness around things we are passionate about? It’s definitely a challenge, and not just a matter of putting up an Instagram post. It’s about looking at how to find the people that care about the work you’re doing and engage with them.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

Dubose: The most powerful thing about the program, and I don’t think anyone denies it, is Georgetown’s multitude of resources. I think that a big part of why we all do it is also because of the community. I met people during my class, from other classes, and even after classes; I love when I get the emails that tell me about seminars, Zooms, and other things like that. They are all enriching to us because in the nonprofit sector, most of our time is spent giving. So to have someone pour into you and offer you information that’s only gonna grow you is great. I love the fact that our program was spaced out. It gave us time to actually digest the information and use it in our settings. We had weeks to do the finance work, and I found myself in the office putting documents and tools together.

When you have the actual class and you get to talk to some of the great people there about what you’re doing and what you’ve read and the work they’ve done and the classwork, it really ties it all together. I think it’s a fabulous program that really covers all the areas of the nonprofit sector, from governance to finance to telling stories. I didn’t find any nonprofit program when I was searching to find some more education that had a section on telling stories. We’re preparing right now for our yearly auction, and everything about our auction is telling a story about our work because that’s what resonates with your donors and that’s what keeps people invigorated. I love that the Georgetown program looks outside the box and provides access to everything that the McCourt school has to offer.

CPNL: What advice would you give to professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

Dubose: You got to go into the program and really understand what you’re lacking and what you’re willing to put in to improve upon that area. You don’t see people going into the program when everything is great in their nonprofit, and I love the transparency with that. We’re all going in because we’re searching for something that’s gonna make us better. I think you’ve got to identify that before going into the program so that as you go through the coursework, you can start to engage at that level and ask those questions. Maybe that’s the day you’re in extra class time, maybe that’s the day you’re in office hours. You got to figure out what you’re trying to solve because there will be a lot of information that’s coming at you, and you want to make sure you’re processing at a high level what you really need and processing at a mid-tier level tools to put in your pocket but not something you’re focusing on at this time. When people set out for this program, if you can identify what you need, you can figure out if the program has the resources that will help you grow in that area.