A Q&A with Stephanie Lui-Valentim, Co-Founder and President of Quell Now Inc., and Dr. Leland Harper, Associate Professor of Philosophy, who set the agenda and brought together DEI thought leaders for the Unblock Unconference.
At Evergreen Brick Works this past March, Quell Now Inc. hosted the first of its kind Unblock Unconference focused on highlighting underrepresented voices in the food, drink, and hospitality industries.
Designed within four streams of learning, Leadership, People & Culture, Marketing & Brand, and Food, the agenda included 30+ experts and speakers on topics such as: Local Food is Indigenous Food; Appropriation vs. Appreciation; Recruiting & Retaining Equity-Seeking Leadership; Neurodiversity at Work; Decolonizing the Table; Addressing and Overcoming the Labor Crisis; and more.
Terminal editor Kathy Motton recently chatted with Stephanie Lui-Valentim and Dr. Leland Harper to discuss why the unconference was necessary, the outcome, and the changes they’d like to see happen in the food, drink, and hospitality industries.
Tell me a little bit about how the Unblock Unconference came to be, where did the idea come from?
The purpose of our work is to help organizations advance in their DEI journey and create a more authentic and sustainable DEI strategy that is embedded in the ethos of their business.
Stephanie Lui-Valentim: The Unblock Unconference was created and designed with the same purpose and mission as our agency Quell. We are a purpose-driven agency focused on breaking down barriers and creating space for underrepresented voices, lived experiences and expertise within the food and drink industry. Our work in the last 2.5 years has evolved into consulting businesses and organizations – from policy and government to Fortune 500 to academia and community organizations. The purpose of our work is to help organizations advance in their DEI journey and create a more authentic and sustainable DEI strategy that is embedded in the ethos of their business.
Unblock was our opportunity to bring the industry together to learn, network and celebrate DEI in food, drink and hospitality. We wanted to create a safe space where attendees would be inspired, learn, unlearn and take back tangible action plans to drive purposeful change in their personal and professional environments. We formed an Advisory group with myself, Leland Harper, Trevor Lui, Joshna Maharaj, Ren Navarro and Altaf Sultani and challenged ourselves to design the content, approach and experience that would create healthy conversation, unique learning opportunities and meaningful connections.
What is an unconference? Why did you take such a different approach?
Stephanie: The most important guiding principal for Unblock was to center underrepresented voices in our industry. From there, we identified the pain points of attending conferences and participating in DEI learning and dreamt of what this experience could be. Then we made it happen.
There were four key drivers to our approach. Firstly, we wanted to create an experience that we believe does not currently exist in Canada - an unconference focused on diversity, equity inclusion within the food, drink and hospitality space.
We wanted attendees to leave empowered to ignite change and be accountable for their next actions.
Second, we wanted to showcase speakers, panellists, facilitators, and vendors who were one hundred percent part of underrepresented groups – female, 2SLGBTQIA+, BIPOC, disabled – and most importantly were able to provide lived experiences and stories that are less often shared.
Third, it was important for us to highlight small businesses and entrepreneurs in our industry. Joshna and Trevor curated a food market with eight diverse local vendors that served dishes ranging from beef patties to Bahraini deer kebabs to lasi lemak to wild rice pudding and more. In collaboration with Foodpreneur, an incubator for black entrepreneurs, Auntie’s Supply, an Asian-owned superette, Chef Joseph Shawana and Indigenous Tourism Ontario, we spotlighted twelve local small business vendors to highlight their entrepreneurial journey and passion to create their packaged food products.
Lastly, we aimed to create learning experiences that not only inspired, but also created space for attendees to apply their learning and create tangible actions plans. We wanted attendees to leave empowered to ignite change and be accountable for their next actions.
Leland Harper: It was all about stepping away from talking the talk and moving into walking the walk. That's what we're trying to encourage the organizations and businesses who attended to do. In putting on this unconference, we had to go as far as we could in demonstrating how we walk that walk and what that looks like in practice. We had to consider every single angle that any external organization could potentially consider when trying to go from theory to action.
That was the main goal. Sometimes you come away from these conferences having these conversations and attendees will say, we've listened to the theory but now what? We didn’t want that, we wanted attendees to be able to start thinking about how they can implement what they learned right away. We've done enough talking. The time for talking is over. We've been talking for hundreds of years, let's start doing things now.
You had an impressive slate of speakers and keynotes, how did you decide what content to include and who to invite to speak?
Our keynote speakers were fully integrated in the rest of the unconference because they wanted to be there. I think that's a really cool experience to have.
Stephanie: When we were in the planning stages, we discussed the most common DEI areas organizations focused on and we landed on our four pillars of learning: Leadership, People & Culture, Marketing & Brand, and Food.
We designated a content lead for each of the pillars who then designed, co-created with subject matter experts in their network and facilitated the sessions. We leaned on our networks and connections within the industry and people who were already on their own DEI journeys. As Leland mentioned, we wanted to showcase organizations, brands, people and leaders who were already walking the walk.
Leland: Everybody that was involved with this from the planning perspective or a talent perspective were all pretty heavily involved in this kind of work. We've done enough of it to understand the common pain points that we see in different organizations.
We lined up subject matter experts and thought about who was going to be engaging and in what format, a panel discussion, a fireside chat or whatever session made sense for their personalities to make it a little bit more engaging than what you might see at a typical conference. One of the big things for me was, we’d have someone up on stage as a keynote speaker and then five minutes after they're eating, they're drinking, they're talking to folks. Our keynote speakers were fully integrated in the rest of the unconference because they wanted to be there. I think that's a really cool experience to have.
What went well, what are you most proud of, and what would you like to be different if the Unconference returns?
Stephanie: There are certain sessions that definitely stood out with our attendees, such as ‘Decolonizing the Table’ with Chef Bashir and Joshna Maharaj’s ‘Appreciation versus Appropriation’. These two sessions gained a lot of engagement and healthy discussion and that's what we wanted. Both sessions challenged the status quo and encouraged uncomfortable conversation.
We were grateful for the number of individuals and organizations who stepped up to help design this unique learning experience. It takes a village and whether they were sponsors or speakers or vendors, we could not have achieved this success without everyone's kindness and graciousness.
How would I do it differently? It would definitely be ‘more time’. We conceptualized, produced and executed the show in four months. One of our measurements for success was to have half the room include decision makers that do not look like us and emphasize why DEI is good for business. We welcomed these c-suite and executives to learn, unlearn and listen to how we can come together to be more diverse, inclusive and equitable collectively. Many organizations tell us that they have the intention to be better but don’t want to do or say the wrong thing. This unconference was an opportunity to start that journey.
Leland: The bodega was great and the sense of community that was created there. There was mentorship from companies that have been running for years with companies that had just started a month before. And the other thing we're seeing is increased exposure for some of the businesses where attendees are saying, “hey, I had this great product at this unconference, let's try to get it over here.” I think that’s a really amazing thing.
I think we’d really like to increase the reach. We had a lot of the folks who have those lived experiences in the room, but from my perspective, it would have been great to have more representation from some of the larger national and multinational companies since they are the ones who have the resources and capacity to really expedite meaningful change in our industries. And I think that was largely a function of time and the constraints of having to do it in a few months. But I think it's a matter of expanding it and being able to get that reach whether it's people to fly in from Alberta, BC, or the Maritimes or being able to broadcast and live stream to folks who maybe don't have the means to travel to Toronto. Those are the things to look at as we potentially start to think about next year.
We had a lot of the folks who have those lived experiences in the room, but from my perspective, it would have been great to have more representation from some of the larger national and multinational companies since they are the ones who have the resources and capacity to really expedite meaningful change in our industries.
Where would you like to see the unconference go? What is your hope for the future?
Leland: Ideally I would like to see this be an annual thing that moves across Canada to different regions. I know I have friends who are in BC, who are interested in coming. I know this is something that's needed across the country. And probably more broadly than that. I think being able to grow it and start to plan it two, three, four years out. I think that's how I would like to see it grow in the future.
Stephanie: My hope is to see this grow as well and provide more opportunities for the industry to come together to learn, unlearn and centre underrepresented voices. From a content perspective, I’m proud of the conversations and experience we created. I just think it needs more. It's funny, sometimes you think 75 minutes is too long, but 75 minutes is short and every single one of those sessions could have gone longer.
Any final thoughts?
Leland: I think the range of subject matter experts that participated in some form or another was something that was really special. You had folks who just started their company three weeks earlier to honour their mother to the GM of the Toronto Raptors and everybody in between. I thought it was really cool to see all these folks interacting with each other
Stephanie: Our hope is that this unconference sparked the urgency for change in this industry. We created this unconference as a moment in an organization’s journey and as a reminder that we all can do better together.