Inspiration Built From Grit featuring Ayeshah Abuelhiga

This week on the Gooder Podcast I had the pleasure of talking with Ayeshah Abuelhiga, The CEO and founding partner of Mason Dixie Foods, the fastest-growing frozen baked goods company in the US. Ayeshah has thrown out the rule book, to excel in a male-dominated industry. Through sheer grit and tenacity, Ayeshah is pursuing her vision of flipping the comfort food industry on its head. In this episode we talk about how growing up in a multi-culture family influenced Ayeshah’s view on the importance of healthy food and inspired her to start her own company.  She also discusses the history of Mason Dixie Foods, why she built the company, and how she’s grown it into a wildly successful brand. 

“When you’re an emerging brand, you’re a startup and you’re creating an identity for yourself, it’s important to really think functionally about who you’re trying to be.”  – Ayeshah Abuelhiga 

In this episode we learn:

  • The origin story of Ayeshah and Mason Dixie Foods and how she landed on the name. 
  • Why immigrants have the fire to achieve their purpose, and how immigrant culture gives them strength.
  • How powerful it can be when men and women work together, rather than being set against each other.  
  • The importance of choosing the right partnerships, customers, and agencies for her business.
  • About the hurdles that women, people of color, and other minorities often face in business and how to overcome them.
  • Some fun facts about bread, and advice for the customers.
Gooder Podcast

Inspiration Built From Grit featuring Ayeshah Abuelhiga

About Ayeshah Abuelhiga:

She is the CEO and founding partner of Mason Dixie Foods, the fastest-growing frozen baked goods company in the US. She was voted one of Entrepreneurs Magazine’s 100 powerful women in 2020, as well as one of the top 100 women in grocery 2020 by Progressive Grocer and a top 10 D.C. innovator in 2017. She has worked front of the house positions for major fine dining restaurants and hotels, while also consulting and managing, marketing and business development projects for Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft, Toshiba, and Audi. One of her biggest professional accomplishments is hiring an incredibly diverse team of 15, each of whom shares her commitment to providing the best frozen baked goods in the world.

Guests Social Media Links:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ajabuelhiga/ 

Website: http://www.masondixiebiscuits.com/ 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ayeshahabuelhiga/?hl=en 

Show Resources:

Mason Dixie Foods: makes the most buttery, crumbly, gooey baked goods by taking the highest quality natural ingredients out there and mixing them with ice-cold butter and fresh-from-the-cow buttermilk. There’s nothing artificial in the biscuits, scones, or sweet roles and zero prep. 

Project Potluck: is a nonprofit leadership and mentoring program founded by people of color with a mission to help people of color build successful companies and careers in the CPG Industry.

Progressive Grocer: is the voice of the retail food industry for nearly 100 years by providing the latest news, consumer trends, data and insight.  

Better For You Foods: is the creator or award-winning natural food products for retail and private label consumers. 

Partake Foods: creates delicious, real and healthy snacks, free of the 8 most common allergens. 

Females in Food: helps foodpreneurs experience exceptional business and financial growth.

Top Insights

Transcript:

Diana Fryc: Hi, welcome to The Gooder podcast, I’m your host, Diana Fryc. As partner and CMO of Retail Voodoo, an award winning branding agency; I’ve met and worked with some of the most amazing women in the natural’s industry, food and beverage and wellness. As such, I decided to create The Gooder podcast to interview these great people and subject matter experts and have them share their insights expertize and to basically help businesses all around the world become gooder.

So today I’m really excited to introduce my guest, Ayeshah Abuelhiga. Did I get that right?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: You did!

Diana Fryc: Excellent! She is the CEO and founding partner of Mason Dixie Foods, the fastest growing frozen baked goods company in the US. Ayeshah has thrown out the rule book. Yes, thank you, girl- to excel in a male dominated industry. She was voted one of Entrepreneurs Magazine’s 100 powerful women in 2020, as well as one of the top 100 women in grocery 2020 by Progressive Grocer and a top 10 D.C. innovator in 2017. She has worked front of the house positions for major fine dining restaurants and hotels, while also consulting and managing, marketing and business development projects for Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft, Toshiba and Audi; pretty well rounded person here. One of her biggest professional accomplishments is hiring a really diverse team of 15, each of whom shares her commitment to providing the best frozen baked goods in the world. Welcome Ayeshah. How are you today?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Thank you. I’m great. Thanks for having me Diana.

Diana Fryc: You are welcome. And you’re in Baltimore, right?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: I am.

Diana Fryc: And how’s Baltimore? I know it’s a little tricky question for today may not be relevant in the future or might be, but how’s everybody kind of feeling okay over there right now?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: I think so. It’s the greatest city in America. It’s plastered all over our benches for a reason. So whatever gets thrown our way, we’re Baltimoreans, we just get over it and we get stronger.

Diana Fryc: Excellent! Before we get too much into our topic today which will mention in a moment, why don’t you give us a quick history of Mason Dixie Foods? Why did you create the brand and why does it exist outside of just the product?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Yeah, so I guess where do I even start? When I was really little growing up here in Baltimore, my parents actually used to own like a carryout restaurant, and this memory still sits with me to this day because I remember being really little and watching people come into the shop. And it’d be anyone in business suits; it’d be construction workers and the poor folks, homeless people, whatever. And really, the draw was comfort food. Who doesn’t like fried chicken and collard greens? Even if you’re vegan, they’re making vegan chicken nuggets, because people love fried chicken. So it was one of those things where I was like a cross sectional transcendental thing that I thought really unify people. And then growing up, I grew up in a low income community in Section eight housing in Baltimore, and as I got older, this has always been something lingering in my mind. I thought it was a sacrilege to watch people I grew up with that I know now being back, I know where they are and they’re still in the system. They’re still circulating through that cycle of poverty and lack of access. And when I really think about it, I’m like, what is the root causality of this? And I still to this day believe that it really has that whole phrase of that you are what you eat. That’s real.

Diana Fryc: Yeah, absolutely.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: I think about my mom, no matter how busy she was, we were latchkey kids. Even when she couldn’t do it, I made sure that me and my sisters had a balanced lunch every day and we had a very balanced dinner with multi culture family got all kinds of balanced diets. But it was how we stayed fed and stayed healthy and that’s why we got straight A’s. That’s why we went and progressed into our career path. But the folks that didn’t that I remember eating out of a vending machine or dollar lunches at school, they still are in that cycle, and I truly do believe it has to do with what you eat. So as I kind of progressed in my career and realized there was a glass floor, not a ceiling- I hate when people say ceiling that assumes that women had the chance to begin with.

It got to me and I just decided it was time for me to start out on my own. I’d always wanted to own my own business. Maybe it comes from my parents. And then when I realized that this problem that I had experienced as a kid was still there and it was getting worse and worse. When I looked at the food that I grew up with, the food that I saw my mom make, and then I was looking at the cross section of restaurants and how that fast casual world was growing. I saw that there was a huge opportunity in Southern comfort food;

[00:05:00]

Because I thought it was sacrilege that Chick-Fil-A and KFC are the global visions of American comfort food. So it was a big opportunity to say that’s not how my mom made it, that’s not how anyone’s mom made it. How the heck did we get there? So I wanted to change that and turn it upside down instead, for me it became more of a mission than just a better biscuit. It’s a better for you biscuit, but just never kept growing. So I think that’s why today it’s so important to me to keep maintaining the brand standard of being that better for you home baked happiness brand you want to be.

Diana Fryc: Yeah. Super great, and I think if you might remember, because you’re going to remember everything I said in your busy world. But the big goal of the bigger now not so secret goal, because I’ve been talking about it more and more in these conversations is, the natural’s industry has kind of created a bubble in the last three years and we’re making better for you food for people who are already healthy and have means and have access and have education, and there is a disconnect between the products that we are innovating versus what actually is needed out in the marketplace. And I really believe that there’s a larger group of people who have a need to gain access and education, than there are the people that have access. And the big disconnect is you’re not going to get somebody who’s been eating Cheetos and drinking Mountain Dew. Not that you can’t do that, but you can.

If that’s their regular diet, you can’t get them to move from there to kale chips and Kombucha in one swing. And you got to start with the basics, the stuff that they grew up with. And I love this commitment to like I’m going to make the food that I grew up with legit. Like let’s start with the real food, the best way that we can, and if we can get people back there, then we can move that journey forward a little bit, one baby step at a time. But I think it took that real food, we went backwards and we got addicted- I’m going to say to that backwards phase and now we have to kind of go backwards and fix it all.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: That’s exactly right. I remember this conversation because you’re probably one of the first people I talked to that like it clicked that there is a bigger, broader issue than just what everyone’s labeling is innovation, right?

Diana Fryc: Yes.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: I’m super grateful for functional beverage. I’m super grateful for the wonders of CBT and the healthiness of vegan. But the reality is, like you said, the distance between what I know and what I can afford and what I grew up on to you even know functional beverages; that’s a 2020 word. That’s too far of a cry and it is elitist. It is elitist in many ways to assume that somebody who’s growing up on dollar lunches or on food stamps, on WFP programs are really going to take that splurge, even if some of these items are on work. Are they going to take the splurge to go and try to get it when they have no idea if they’ll like it and if it actually does what it says is going to do that and the skepticism around a lot of these new products. So for me, familiar food is at the pinnacle of everything we do; we don’t produce anything that is far-fetched or like innovative in terms of never been seen by a human eye kind of thing. I think familiarity is crucial. It’s why the best-selling items, foods still pertain to be; pizza, burgers, fries and that’s it.

Diana Fryc: Well, and we’re making analogs to the favorites, veggie burgers, plant based burgers, plant based fish, plant based- it’s like if we’re making analogs, there is some reality benchmarked in like everybody wants to go do that.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Amen girl.

Diana Fryc: So what I just absolutely loved about when I was talking to you was just this fire you had inside you. Even if it’s like mid-December, I think we’re talking you’re exhausted. You’re in the like the busiest time of your year and here you are just full of fire and I want to just kind of go. I want to talk about the fact that I mean, obviously in my role and in your role, too, we meet lot loads and loads of other women in the industry. And, yeah, I think there’s a lot of second guessing, a lot of insecurity around what’s right and what’s not right and around decision making. I don’t get that from you, at least not now. Maybe it was there in the very beginning of it. Where does that come from? Is that true? Is that just part of your DNA? Is that part of your family or is that like test and learn maybe a combination of all of it?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: It’s probably a combination.

[00:10:00]

I will say my dad was a very headstrong, stubborn, total misogynist guy who got blessed with being a Princess maker and had three daughters, and every day he’d say, “Oh, I wish one of you were a boys. Oh you know what, you’re going to have to act like a boy.” Because that was the thing, he was so scared. If I was just some gentle flower, I get pushed over, so he always told us to be a leader, not a follower. And he always said, “If someone hits you, you hit him back harder.” And that’s the philosophy. Obviously I’m not that person but it translates.

So if I believe in something, I fight for it. If I disagree, I kindly disagree. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but when it comes to decision making, I think having that kind of confidence instilled in you as a little girl, it grows and it gets more mature with age. I think also growing up in a male dominated field where I started out in tech, obviously not very female centered and to this day still very controversial and not female centered. I remember, Google said that women can’t do this job and then there was working in automotive. Same thing, it’s not a girl’s world. So what I think ends up happening is women who are headstrong end up always getting used to having to have an arsenal of substantiating points behind every argument because you’re never smart enough to take it at face value. You’ve got to have proof points for everything.

But I think that makes us better business people and leaders. I don’t make any rash decisions. I want to know every angle, I run every risk, and I make my decision soundly based on facts, not just some guys gut because he’s been in the industry for 30 years, and that’s what goes. And you’d be surprised to this day; much of the decision making in this country that in male dominated industry still is a gut check. They hire a tiger guy who’s got a big personality who they think can field catch that ball and take it home. But when they hire women in C suite level positions, it’s usually a fixer because there’s been so much residual damage from the last guy. She’s got to clean it up. And women like to clean because that’s what we do, and then in future forward, if they are good later, everyone questions her to death to make sure she’s thought it through. Like, “Have you really thought about what’s going to, have you really?” How many times have you heard a guy say to another guy, “Have you really thought about it?”

Diana Fryc: No, I haven’t. I’ve been witness to it. I think I might be a little bit older than you are. I don’t know. I’m in my late forties now at this point. But those things have changed. I used to be questioned far more than I am now, and I don’t know if it’s because my age or because business is changing a little bit. Maybe you have a POV on that.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: I definitely think it’s changing. I’m blessed and I’m very lucky, I think now to have found white haired men who respect women and respect women as leaders like one of our lead investors only invest in women owned businesses because he genuinely believes we’re a better business people and better leaders. And that’s the thing with age and I think reasonable men have realized this. And I should say this, but one of my investors had this HR role that he said was unspoken and he said, “Don’t tell anybody but I think it’s great.” He said they had this like H.R. recruitment mantra and it was a few good men… only a few. And it was hilarious because no matter what position they tried to fill, they wanted to make sure that it was female first because we’re harder workers.

Same reason we just talked about and that you really only position men in positions where you need one or they don’t have control. But they are a bull, they can take the bull. It’s funny because I just think that that dynamic is what’s happening and despite all the chaos in the world the last four years, too, I think that the positive thing is that I think women, people of color, we finally fought a little harder. The space is dangerous. And so here comes Agent Orange and the disruptiveness of all of that and it really made people rethink how much sitting on my ass do I do versus getting up and talking about this.

Diana Fryc: I think it’s tough being a woman. You have to stand up a little bit more. But then also you’re a woman and a woman of color and it feels like every label I’m going to use requires that much more energy to prove yourself.

[00:15:00]

It’s irritating that it’s been that way, but I think you’re right, I think the last four years a lot of people have said, oh, my goodness, honestly, the last 12 months has just been enough where there wasn’t enough time to put just a general healing over because we have these big events that happen. But 2020 was like cut and then cut again and then cut again. And it’s like to the point where you can’t be blind anymore and you can’t choose to be blind, you can’t be apathetically blind and I think you’re right. Men are really great in lots of different roles, and women, I think have been not given all the right opportunities when we work together, it’s such a powerful combination. I know that you have men that are working in your organization and their strength in that it’s when we say it’s going to be all this way or it’s going to be all that way that it becomes super dangerous and I think not profitable and not powerful.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: 100%. I love and I hate — I think I told you this last time we chatted, but I love and I hate going to all women events because I love it, because I love being in the room with a bunch of dynamic women. I love the energy. We speak our language. But then I hate that we come up with all these solutions and the only people that it should be targeted towards are the people that are not in the room. So it’s like, well, I like she man, woman haters club and it’s like one of those things. So I hope in the coming years that more companies realize like, yes, it’s awesome to be predominantly female or female run, but you’ve got to convince the guys otherwise the system keeps going and it’s us against them. There’s more power and co-operation and collaboration than there is in us versus them.

Diana Fryc: I want to talk about this mode thing here, like you kind of being the breaking rulebooks. And then this is really just more along the line of what we’re talking about. But I think that some of this comes from, both of us have immigrant families, come from different backgrounds and growing up for me, we were different. I lived in the suburbs. We were like one of two immigrant families that people had ever met. Now immigration is far more and I hated being that different person at the time. Now I feel like it’s my secret sauce or my secret weapon or whatever. And I wonder if you feel the same in that way, and if you do like, what advantages does that superpower give you?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: It’s funny being I was always classified too, by the way, I always think it’s funny how people just classify immigrants in this way and I don’t. And it’s funny because people classify white immigrants is still white. I don’t. I think white immigrants are very different from American multigenerational white people, this is very important. It’s why Italians don’t fit anywhere, there’s a reason for that. But I think what makes immigrant culture so strong is, like you said, you’re fresh off the boat. You’re trying to make a living. You don’t have a choice but to grind. So that mentality, if you’re a first or second generation, you’re only a step away from you didn’t see anything more than your parents working hard as hell. So that gets ingrained in you and also like you said to the negative is you’re always different. No one could pronounce my name. I had teachers make up a name for me because they refused to pronounce it. So I’ve been anything from Ashley to Anastasia and it got to the point even where my parents gave us all American middle names. So we all have like a very Anglo, Saxon and mine is Julia.

Diana Fryc: Julia is all right.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Yeah, but they at one time did that and told me it was and it was because of all this crazy shit where we had this one teacher that was trying to change her name. So they were like, maybe we should just switch your names, maybe we should switch them to your middle name so that you’re more Americanized. And I was like, “First of all, how fucking weird is that going to be when I go into school and tell my friends, actually, my real name is Julia? Secondly, if you can’t take two seconds to listen to me pronounce my fucking name; you don’t deserve to say it.” I think there’s a fight that ends up happening because it’s a question about your identity in general and I think that’s something that immigrants and people of color all have in common, whether or not they are immigrant generations of people of color. But it’s this constant fight to hold on to your identity and prove yourself at all costs when the disrespectfulness of groupthink hits.

[00:20:05]

And that’s I think also that negative experience builds a fire to preserve yourself at all costs and I think that’s why we are the way we are.

Diana Fryc: Wow. I’m like having a moment here because I have never thought of it that way. I don’t have your exact experience, but I have very similar experience and I’ve not heard it that way and there’s a little bit of an emotional hit there, like, oh, that’s what it is. You’ve just articulated it in a way that my emotions could never do that. When you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Yeah. You don’t analyze it.

Diana Fryc: Yeah, and I think that’s great. I think that people who are who are further, you know, here generationally, I think if they can understand that, that’s also another thing that is going on in the back of your head, people of color , people that are immigrants like all of that. That’s yet another thing. Like it’s your superpower but it’s also kind of like another thing in your backpack that you’re carrying around all the time. This kind of persistence and vision, I can see this where the strength comes from, and I see how it’s impacting you in business by this one story that I’m hoping that you’ll be able to share with us. And that was just even when you were looking for a partner, and I don’t know if this was to even create the brand in general, if it was just the design of the whole thing that when you were looking to create the Mason Dixie Foods, you kept crashing into a scenario over and over again as you were talking to people. I don’t know if it’s because the creative industry or the branding industry cuts corners or likes to do what it is or if it’s a U.S. thing, or if it was that you weren’t being heard because you were a woman, are. But can you tell that story and what it was, what the situation was and maybe why you think you kept crashing into it?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Yeah, I always tell people, especially when folks are like, “Oh, I’m creating a new product and I want to get packaging done. Who did you use?” And I say that’s the worst question you can ever ask. It’s one of the biggest investments you’ll ever make and it’s one of the most important first chances you get to expose the world to who your identity is. So you don’t just pick what somebody else is doing because chances are they’re going to give you what that other person did and then it’s not you and now you’re artificial and nobody gets it right or they know that you are a copycat. It’s not who you want to be when you step out front for the first time.

And so for me, it was I need to find and maybe this does come from being in big tech and auto with million dollar budgets for all kinds of agency work, and I’m used to working with big agency and that’s also not very fun. Because you hire them because they had some kind of esthetic or they had attention, that’s why you go to them, and so that’s what you get. You pay for what you get. But when you’re an emerging brand, you’re a startup and you’re creating an identity for yourself, it’s important to really think functionally about who you’re trying to be. And so one of the things I quickly realized, like for example we’re called Mason Dixie Foods, not because I’m celebrating the fucking Confederate South Clearlake.

It’s like I grew up in Maryland and my business partners are Marylanders and it sounded weird to say, Maryland Biscuits Company, it sounded obscure because most of the companies in the country actually that sold and restaurants that sold biscuits, they were Pine State Biscuit Company and all of these. Let’s see, Maryland’s weird and I don’t want to make people think it’s all baking. So I was like, well, what’s there? We had the benefit of being; I always say it’s the land of opportunity and the freedom line is what I call it. But the line of freedom was the Mason-Dixon Line. So I was like, all right, that’s positive. But I couldn’t trademark Mason Dixon. So I was like, all right, well, how do I do this? And I was like, well, Dixie is a cute name. And I had like three friends named Dixie and it’s like this cute French name, apparently. It’s so cute and feminine or Women-Owned and so we went with it. And then all of a sudden all these like psychos in the last couple of years have come out and said I was Confederate and I’m like, I’m the last person you can accuse of this, and secondly, I was like, this is crazy. So how do we create an identity that is real and that really speaks to who we are?

So first things first, I got scouting for the top agencies. I specifically knew I wanted to tell a story, not just be a product company rebrand. So I thought of good storytelling agencies and I interviewed 17 of the 17 are all girls.

[00:25:00]

Because there’s a lot there because there are lazy folks, there’s folks that want to mold you into what they’re good at, there are folks that need you to be a certain way so that it’s easier for them. So of the 17 only four listened to me, like truly listen. And one of the things I said was, don’t come at me with some nostalgic brand story around Southern cuisine. First of all, I’m not from the South. Second of all, I don’t look like the poster child for Southern living and I don’t know how to tell that story. So if you paint that picture and they see me, this is going to be real fucking weird. So I was like, listen to the story. If you can listen and tell it better in less words that I have to do every single time then I know you got it. So out of the four that listened only two really got it; but in the end, I ended up using a company that wasn’t American because the other company was and it still had this natural tinge and tendency to try to go in this like Southern home comforts realm. And I was like this be beautiful, if I was an adopted child of a white Southern mom, we could totally go there. I didn’t grow up with a porch and sun tea and all that stuff. So, like, this is going to be real weird. And the English agency had no context of the American tradition. So they listened to me and just listen to the fact that we were a fighter brand, that it was diverse and that we were for the people and we just want to make biscuits better. The mission was there and the drive was there and they just listened and that was critical to my decision in choosing them. So, again, going back to the advice I give is constantly find the person who listens to who you want to be. No, not even who you want to be, who you are. And that is the most important thing because the want to be thing becomes very challenging because anyone could dress up like a Coke. Are you that? Are you going to prove that? No, it’s who are you?

Diana Fryc: Yes. It also requires going back to finding that right partner for you; you are very honest and transparent. There’s no hidden agenda, you’re all forward facing. If you are not an Ayeshah, you’re going to need to find your Ayeshah in order to have that real conversation because we have those conversations too. But not everybody is going to work with us or there are hundreds of other companies out there, but I think brand owners, we run into them a lot. The ones that can’t come forward and be true to what it is, who they are, you’re going to keep you’re going to keep cycling over and over and over again.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Well, I think it’s important for folks and agencies like yours, Like I think it’s important don’t take that client because you got to say no, because you have a brand to sell to and that’s what people like me are looking for. We’re looking for agencies that have anesthetic, that have a certain physical attribute to them or a brand mission to the same way that we are. If you can’t tell your brand story, then how the hell do I believe you’re going to tell mine? And so it’s really important to stay true to that, not sacrifice for a commission or a project just to get a client that has a product line. You could do it, if they’re not there. This is what always happens and I hate watching it. If there’s a failure that happens and then the client comes back and blames you when the originator of the problem was that you didn’t have anything to give them, so they gave you whatever they could. But it’s too late, packaging is done, brand identities done, and now you got to spend it again and so then you get a nasty label, you don’t know what they’re saying about you. So it’s really important too as a creative agency to be careful about the clients you choose in addition.

Diana Fryc: We are unique; no sales pitch here, but we are unique and we walk away from about 30 to 40 percent of all the conversations that we have saying is a wrong fit for a number of reasons. But you’re right; I think that’s just business in general. This could be packaging, ingredients, suppliers, anybody. If it’s not a good fit, it’s okay. Not a bad thing. And I think it’s fair to know what that looks like on all fronts of that. When we go into kind of coming down this path of immigrant and in this fire and tenacity where this comes from, there’s this work that you are doing right now with a couple of other folks called Project Potluck. And just for those people who don’t know about it, I ran into somebody yesterday that didn’t and somebody who would benefit from it. So I sent them the resources. But Project Potluck is a nonprofit leadership and mentoring program founded by people of color with a mission to help people of color build successful companies and careers in the CPG industry.

[00:30:04]

Now, this is a big announcement in 2020 in like, was it June, June ish. Does that sound right? Do make it right?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Yeah.

Diana Fryc: June, lots of visibility and activity. Can you share how things are going right now? Is it going the way you thought? Has it changed? Is it bigger or smaller or faster?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: When Ibrahim invited me to be a founding board member and I started talking to our new founders as well, we all had the same lack of expectations. It’s like; let’s just do something, everyone sitting around talking about it. Let’s just fucking do it right. And we’re like, okay, the reason I said yes to be a part of this is Ibrahim had taken such great care and coming up with three very tangible pillars. If he could be a mentor, it’s just a matter of picking people and spending some time. It’s easy to create a community on Facebook and LinkedIn and whatever. It’s easy to create that, and then it’s easy to create opportunities to gather and grow and be with one another. It’s not a heavy lift to figure out how to do that. So I was like, these are instantaneously positive or can easily become positive results, with very little effort. Even 50 people would have been to me phenomenal and the sad story that I tell is I didn’t even know 50 people of color in this industry. That’s how sad it was. And when we started the LinkedIn group, it’s for people of color only in the CPG industry and we had to go and invite some people to get it started so that this chain reaction happened. And obviously we’re having our new head folds started, and then I went in and I was like shit like, I don’t know anybody different and I felt awful. I was like outside of my employees. I didn’t know anyone to add to that conversation and it was sad.

So when there were one hundred people in there, my heart was way big and then it became five hundred and I was like, oh my God, it’s growing very rapidly, way bigger than we thought. It’s amazing and then more than that too, the ally community that’s stepping up too and wants to be a part of this is exponentially great. Our mentor database is actually larger than the mentee database, which is sad in a way, because it just shows you the state of the industry. But at the same time, it’s incredibly positive that there are that many people that recognize there’s a problem and they want to be a part of the solution. So it’s been an enlightening experience and I think it’s also been challenging because something we thought was going to be an easy way for us to connect one hundred and somewhat people. I think we had a goal to 200 people. Right now we’re actually over 3X, so we had to go 200 people and we thought, oh, this is easily manageable via email and the traditional thing. Well now when you have a thousand people. It’s like shit. You’ve got to have systems, you got to have tech and now all of a sudden it’s becoming bigger than we, we’re three CEOs.

Diana Fryc: You have a real day job.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Yeah, and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s a great problem to have, and I think for 2021, the big goal is like, let’s create something that is easier to manage and hand it off to someone who can administer this in real time and be a foundational part of what that becomes. So very exciting times and I’m blessed to be a part of that foundation and I’ve met so many amazing people. I have three people that I’m mentoring now as part of this.

Oh yeah, I’ve got two gorgeous African-American CEO, founder females and one Latina and they’re all in food one and baking one and ice cream, one in sustainable vegan foods. It’s been a beautiful exchange of female BIPAC power, and I love watching and seeing them grow and try to help them on their missions and vice versa. We’re all helping each other in many ways. So that’s been fabulous. We’ve kicked off a series of community events. They always end with a little bit of a mixer where we meet new people and ask all these right questions and it’s great because the community is also thinking about what they want in telling us. So it’s growing very fast.

Diana Fryc: Another one of my secret missions is trying to increase the number of women of color and disability and LGBTQ on my show, because as I started looking around at the people that I knew that were in leadership roles, entrepreneurial roles in food and beverage, it was very white, even the women in the industry was very Caucasian, and I thought to myself, well, how can we possibly, as a natural’s industry, help people of color and families of color and people with disabilities;

[00:35:00]

Who have bigger health needs in general, if we don’t have anybody in leadership that understands what that world really looks like. We can go and spins and Nielson’s our data all we want, but to have the legitimate POV is important. And so it’s fascinating to see Project Potluck growing and growing and growing. I mean, even at a thousand, that’s still small when you think of how big the industry is. But really excited about that. And I just love that on your website, on the Mason Dixie website, for those of you that are listening, you have this little BIPAC brunch kit, you have definitely brands that I know of. I know a lot of the founder owners. But the fact that you have been fields and a dozen cousins on there, I’m just like, that’s just so rad. And I love that kind of nod to the community contribution without it being like this big marketing. I’m doing this for Project Potluck. It’s just like this is what you do.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: This is what you do. It’s not that hard folks, and that’s the thing. It just shows you the beautiful synergy that there is between all of our companies. I mean, in that bundle, there’s, I think two Asia owned, two black owned, two Latina owned and it’s like it isn’t that hard, folks. You just got to do your research. Stop doing the same old, same old, like, get out there, branch out a little bit. They’re not selling anything that tastes like shit. It’s all amazing stuff, too. That’s the other thing. So it doesn’t hurt you as a brand to ally with them because they’re good. They’re actually good. They’re actually selling something that you want to buy. So it was just easy, and scattered throughout our site on the other bundle too. We did as much, mix and match with other brands as we could. We’ve got Pipcorn, which is also black and Latino owned. And we got Partake, black woman owned. I mean, it’s not that hard guys, just pick themes, share the wealth. Why not?

Diana Fryc: Well, I am absolutely in alignment with this kind of community building, this organic community building. And as we’re talking about this a little bit more, I wonder, you’ve got these people that you’re mentoring, you’re obviously talking to loads of other women. Are you seeing anything consistently that they’re crashing into or any kind of internal hurdles that you’re just like, “Okay, if I could just offer this one bit of advice to all y’all out there, it’s like, this is what I would say.”

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: I think one of the hardest things to manage, I think as a person who is of any minority status, you’ve always been taught to fight harder. You’ve always been taught to, again, have the arguments ready, stand your ground, but the problem becomes when you don’t listen. So it’s really easy to not take advice or feedback to let your ideas become priority over reality. And I think I frequently say it’s one thing to ask for advice, it’s another to actually use it. And being an active listener and being able to utilize the resources that people are giving in the time they’re giving to making things happen is just as important as the idea itself. And growth only happens if you’re able to absorb and take feedback. And I hate when people say, can you take feedback or are you critical or critical feedback?

And I’m like, don’t label it, just fucking listen, just absorb the information and do with it what would you will. I don’t care what happens with the information I give you, but if I’m going to have the same conversation over and over again, it’s hard because then you’re like, “Okay, who else is there that the resources could have been used on that’s going to make a change?” And again, it’s not a knock, it’s something I think we’re all conditioned to do as women or people of color or immigrant. We’re conditioned to stand our ground. Don’t let anybody get in there. If it’s your idea, hold on to it.

Yes, absolutely. But to grow, you also have to change. You have to shift. You have to mold yourself. So you have to take constructive feedback as an opportunity to grow what you’re trying to do. So that’s something I think it’s hard. It’s hard because, again, its horrible saying it out loud sometimes because I know the root cause of this issue is the lack of access to begin with. If you had mentors and access to information earlier on, you’d be more used to and accustomed and trained to being, you know what I mean?

[00:40:03]

But when you don’t have that and the first time you get it, someone’s trying to help. But it sounds like you’re changing me, you’re telling me what to do, that’s hard to take in and process. So it’s difficult, but sometimes you got to break the bone, move it and put it back in place.

Diana Fryc: Yeah. I’m feeling a little Oprah. I’ve got another aha there. I don’t have her $7000 frames on today, but I love me little Oprah. As we’re kind of coming to the end and I feel like you and I could probably have several drinks at a bar sometime somewhere and just talk some more one day. Who are the women out there that you’re watching, that you’re excited about what they’re doing and it could be in category or out of category. It could be anybody. But I wonder if there’s somebody that in particular you want to elevate or just somebody in general that you’re like, “Yeah, I really love what this person is doing right now.”

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Oh, just one, huh? I hate putting people on blast too if they’re not ready for it. But one of the women, I will say is killing and is this woman, Angela working with Females in Food. And she’s started an organization to promote community with women in the food industry. She kind of started in the whole ingredient components base and then realized all of a sudden there are more people outside of that industry that now want in. And her group is growing rapidly and now she’s got like grocery buyers and like she’s rapidly expanding and she’s done a phenomenal job of keeping up and trying to, again, create the system. All the stuff we’re going through a potluck. She did it first and she’s done it incredibly well. And she asked for help. And she absorbs every word. And in her own way, she comes up with a way to do it even ten times better than I imagined she would. So she’s phenomenal. And her organization, Females in Food Community is doing incredibly well. And she’s somebody to watch and look out for. She’s actually probably a good person to talk to on that.

Diana Fryc: Maybe you’ll have to make that intro for me.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: I will.

Diana Fryc: Before we end, I always have a few questions that I pretty much ask everybody. Before I ask that, I have to ask you about Biscuit Jam. I’m so sorry, in doing my research, I don’t know how far back I ended up going, but I saw Biscuit Jam and I was like, sign me up. And then I was like, what? It only happened I think once or something like that.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: It was, yeah. It was just an anniversary celebration. When you’re a small business and things are going well, you want to celebrate with the world and at that time, it was the world of D.C. and the community of supporters we had. And we had this amazing grassroots following and phenomenal engagement with our fans. So we were like, oh, why don’t we just put on this local community event? And that’s how I met Molly. She really helped me pull together kind of how to get this to be even more grassroots and not just another Coachella type thing. I wanted it to just be organically what it was.

If you want to come up food, it just comes up foods, there’s no charge to do it. If you want to be an artist, come, we’re going to pay you. That was a really fun event. And we just did it once because it was our anniversary. The world’s changed now. And unfortunately, in person community events aren’t feasible anymore. But it was a lot of fun. I loved it. And I think one of the best things that’s happened, too, is we tried to make it family friendly. So we have a lot of like indie or like bluegrass, safe genres. But we also had this phenomenal group called OHE Dead and they had this gorgeous, amazing black female singer.

And they had like these guys that were in the band phenomenally good. And I think they were just voted like in some big, like, indie magazine thing. They were like voted best band. So they too have kind of risen to the ranks and clients. So it’s kind of cool to see that.

Diana Fryc: That just look like so much fun.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Oh, it was. It was hot though, girl. It was like 100,000 degrees that day. So I was miserable.

Diana Fryc: Let’s not do that DC. It was in July, right?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: August it was hot. But turnout was great. I think it was 900 people and with no shade.

Diana Fryc: Do it again when you’re ready.

[00:45:00]

I’ll be there. I will fly. I will take tickets. I’ll do whatever. That sounded amazing. Hey tell me a little bit of like fact either about the industry or about like just some sort of like, “Hey, I heard about this company. And did you know that there’s 400 shades of orange lipstick or something like that?” I don’t know if you have any kind of fun fact about your business or about your background that you like to share.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Oh, girl, fun facts. I’ll do science fact because most people actually don’t know this, but really, until recently, most breads that are chemically leavened are actually chemically leavened with aluminum. So people have literally been sucking down aluminum for the last 40 years. And it’s still prevalent in most chemically. If you’re not using yeast, they’re using aluminum. And similarly, like even in icing, for example, there’s titanium in it because people want to keep it nice and white. So the amount of harmful metals that the human consumer has been consuming over the course of last 30 years is pretty volatile, which is another reason why this business is so important to me.

It’s a hard fact we never really get to share because then it gets like the nerd sciences and then you lose people. But it’s one of the central missions of why we try to clean up our label to the biggest extent possible. We were the first to eliminate aluminum in biscuits. We are the first to eliminate titanium in our icing in our rolls. So it’s important for people to understand the science of what they’re eating too. I think that’s one of the big pieces of advice I’d give to anyone, but specifically folks in our Bayport community or people of color communities, because there’s too much trust still in that. What you’re eating, if it seems natural, it is. No, you’ve got to watch the label. There’s still people doing crazy stuff.

Diana Fryc: Wow. Okay, and along that line then, do you have any brands or trends that you’re kind of keeping your eyeball on right now? Anything that’s interesting for you?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Well, I definitely think anything in the whole THCCBD world is very interesting. The world of applications people are putting this in is phenomenally interesting. But to me, I think it’s so much safer and better than cigarettes and beer. So to me, I think it’s a huge opportunity. The other thing I think is really interesting, and I never really understood until I met Denise at partake, who I needed to talk to is the number — and this goes back to bread, too. This is a common misconception. A lot of people think they need to eat gluten free because they’re allergic to bread or gluten. And it’s not the case. You’re allergic to some shitty by product that’s been put in it.

So the problem is that the human bodies and the rate of allergens and allergic reactions in children today is growing rapidly. And I strongly believe it’s because we in our generation are consuming absolute shit. So the whole allergen friendly trend, I think, is here to stay and very beneficial because I think it’s only aiding people to really look at labels closely and really understand what’s in there and realize that it’s not going to go anytime soon because we’ve damaged the current mothers of this generation have been kind of damaged by what we were consuming as children. So very important.

Diana Fryc: Yeah, I agree. And you probably have a little bit of saving grace in that because my mother was an immigrant, I didn’t eat anything that was produced, it was all homemade, literally everything was homemade until I moved out of the house.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: And that is something interesting too, because I don’t know if you’ve ever found this, but I actually think that more allies and  just in general, white Americans really need to look at immigrant populations for health and natural living because they’ve been preconditioned and always have eaten that way. And the way they eat is what we should be learning from instead of invented. Like you said, like Franco Foods. That’s one way at it. Or you could just go ask African how they’ve been getting nutrients out of, like, very few growable things, so that’s the kind of dynamic that needs to change, is that communication stream needs to be opened up dramatically. We’re a country full of immigrants and second generations that are not far from knowing what that’s like.

Diana Fryc: Yes, and farming practices, which is a whole another topic.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Oh, girl. Yeah.

Diana Fryc: All right, before we go, tell me, what do you do to keep yourself sane right now?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Oh, I go on walks, obviously indoors is getting old and hitting the gym is monotonous.

[00:50:00]

So it’s been nice as a CEO and in times like this, it’s nice to get a walk in the middle of the day and get your head clear and come back to the desk kind of refreshed and get some fresh air, some vitamin D. So I highly recommend.

Diana Fryc: Well, Ayeshah, that’s the end of our time. I have loved the process of learning about you prior to today and today, I’m just super thrilled. I think lots of good aha moments for loads of people and for us to keep kind of just continually pushing that natural’s industry to be doing the best work for everybody. And I really thank you for that POV.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga: Well, thank you for doing what you’re doing, because I think it’s important that you’re spreading the word and doing it in the most just and glorified way possible. So I appreciate the time, Diana.

Diana Fryc: This episode is sponsored by Retail Voodoo, a creative marketing firm specializing in growing fixing and reinventing brands in the food, beverage, wellness and fitness industries. If your natural’s brand is in need of positioning, package design or marketing activation, we’re here to help. You can find more information at retail-voodoo.com. And so there you go. I hope you enjoyed this episode. Thank you so much for hanging out with us today. And if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to this channel and share with your network. Until next time, be well and do gooder.

View Transcript
Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

Connect with Diana