Brooklyn native Ikimi Dubose-Woodson has always forged her own path. The passion, courage, and boldness that she’s shown in her own food and beverage career are highlighted in the work she’s now doing in the world of wine. Using her gifts to help people of color take charge of the stories they want to write for themselves within the wine industry is the driving force behind much of her life’s work. This is how she came to co-found and become CEO of The Roots Fund, a nonprofit organization that teaches marginalized people how to establish, own, and fund a wine business.

While based in the United States, The Roots Fund helps wine scholars and business owners around the world to realize and achieve their dreams of working in the wine industry. Her clients range from single parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet to NBA players and other notable public figures — all of whom have a passion for wine, but may not yet have the skills or resources to effectively enter the space.

Dubose-Woodson sat down with VinePair to talk about the heart of her organization, the accomplishments of her scholars, and the trials faced by winemakers and scholars of the global majority.

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1. You did a lot of work in food and beverages overseas very early in your career. What did that journey look like?

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and I started traveling when I was around eight or nine years old. My mom was going to nursing school, so she would send me to stay with my family around the country — a lot of family in the South, and some cousins in the Midwest, mostly. Then, when I became a teenager, I started to travel the world. When I left college, I didn’t really have a plan. I waited until the last minute to look for internships and I worked [in restaurants] all through college, so I was already embedded in the restaurant scene while a lot of my classmates were just starting out. So I backpacked around the world for two years, chased Michelin-star restaurants, and went to a lot of places in Asia and Europe. I came back here and landed great roles one after the other because I had so much experience overseas.

2. What was your transition point from focusing on food to wine education?

I suffered a severe back injury as a corporate executive chef, overseeing 25 to 40 restaurants at once. When you are at a corporate level and making an exuberant salary, they need you to come back to work, so they sent me to work at the front of the house to fill in for my general manager. [My boss] wanted to see if I could build a bridge with the back-of-house staff — there’s always tension between the front and the back. Everyone knew I was the peacemaker, so they knew I could go out to the front and transition very well.

If you want to be a general manager, you have to know about the wine program. It was never my passion — I was more intrigued by the management portion — and wine just happened to be something I had to cross through to be able to get there. That was my intro, and it drove me into a career of getting to the corporate level of the front of the house.

3. What is the origin story of The Roots Fund?

The Roots Fund is the baby of myself, Carlton McCoy Jr — one of four Black Master Sommeliers [in the world] — and Tahiirah Habibi of The Hue Society. We originally wanted to just create a scholarship for people of color in wine. After crowdfunding and reaching out to ask who was in need, we realized [it should be] something more. As co-founders, we all had success in wine, and wanted to create a space for more people like us. We always knew it had to be more than just giving a scholarship. No hand-outs, but support at an extremely high level, which would guarantee success.

4. What resources are provided to scholars and mentees within The Roots Fund family?

The Roots Fund is your one-stop shop with high accountability standards. Scholars receive community and scholarships to any form of wine education. This can be a certification, online courses, college tuition, or travel assistance. Tutoring is available for every type of scholarship we offer, from industry professionals and top scholars, and each scholar receives mentorship that is one-on-one. Many mentors in our program are white, and they are receiving reverse mentorship. It brings about self-reflection that is often overlooked. Lastly, we want you in a career in wine, not a job — something that is progressive for the long term that will utilize your education. We offer programs in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Fermenting the Future, our high school program, is operating in five schools in California. Those programs offer financial support for scholars and parents in English and Spanish.

The icing on the cake is our enrichment trips: we travel to wine regions around the world, all expenses paid — except luggage — for our scholars to sit with the best producers discussing wine in their vineyards and cellars. Understand, the work we’re doing is bigger than wine. Only 39 percent of people of color in the U.S. have passports, [so] the feeling I get when someone is stamping theirs for the first time reminds me that we’re on to something.

We also offer mental health services, and support at every step. Scholars come to our program for a two-year commitment and walk away strong and confident in the wine industry.

5. What’s something that you wish more people knew about when it comes to people of color getting funding and resources for a wine business and education?

This may be an unfavorable opinion, but it’s true: In business, we’re not succeeding a lot because the playing field isn’t fair. We’ve got to work harder, and it’s not as easy to get grants, funding, or investors. But I’m finding that what we’re lacking most, especially in this industry, is education. Everyone wants to give out money, but no one wants to educate around how to manage and maintain this money. If I give you a million dollars tomorrow and you’ve been working paycheck to paycheck and have never seen that much money in your life, you’ll have no idea what to do. You’re paying off bills, you’re taking lavish vacations, and no one’s telling you “this is how you keep this money going, this is how to invest, this is how to use your money so you don’t have to work.” No one has provided that education, and that’s why our program is so monumental. I want to build our program around making people successful the first time around because they know exactly what they’re talking about.

We also need more business internship opportunities so boardrooms become more inclusive spaces. I’m looking for executives to stand behind those mission statements and do the work they have asked their HR professionals to execute from their level.

6. This sounds like it would be incredibly helpful for people who are starting from the bottom, so to speak, but you also work with athletes and millionaires who are interested in entering the wine industry. What does the education you offer look like for people who are marginalized and don’t have the resources that your wealthier clients have?

A lot of times it’s about relearning: moving away from bad habits, and figuring out what they want out of this for themselves and how to accomplish it. It’s also about accepting that there may be more loss before they get the win, but knowing that this time around, they’ve got someone behind them. As a culture, we’ve been so associated with this stereotype of a “getting a hand-out,” but that’s not what people of color need or want — we need support. That’s the legacy that’s not built into us. Many of us have not been taught about the unity or the power of uplifting each other, and we find ways of creating competition among ourselves within our own minds when there’s enough space for everybody. This work is breaking down multiple barriers, which is why I tell people that what I’m doing is bigger than wine.

7. Knowing how stigmatized mental health assistance is within many communities of color, why are mental health services so integral to your program?

We offer therapy to all of our scholars. Some of them take it, some of them are already seeing their own people, and some of them take a while to come around. We do open sessions every month just to come out and talk about life. I find that, during that session, 50 percent of the people that are in there who aren’t in therapy will reach out to our office within a week and say that they want to sign up. [Therapy] isn’t something cultivated within our culture as a good thing. I told my aunt that I meditate every day and she said, “What, you need medication, too?” It’s another health-related stigma within our community. I resonate with the fact that our people need help and almost all the time we don’t know how to voice it, so we created a space where they can voice it.

8. Speaking of your international wine scholars, can you share more about your international wine programs?

Our international relationships began with [wine producer] Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac joining our mission. Before he joined the board, he was committed to this work. The relationships and support we have in Burgundy have never happened in history. It will go down in books what the Roots Fund is doing in France. To make it even more purposeful, we connected the bridge to HBCUs through our Rooted in France program. Sponsored by top Burgundy domaines — Domaine Dujac, Jean Marc Roulot, Domaine de Montille, Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Duroche, and Jean Louis Chave to name a few — Rooted in France includes two full scholarships to the Burgundy School of Business along with four trips to France to study wine for our scholars, and access to the best wines for our yearly charity auction in partnership with Zachys. We recently began talks to create a program in South Africa set to launch in the winter of 2023.

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