As organizations prepare to expand outside the US, experienced executives are keenly aware of potential pitfalls and go to great lengths to prepare accordingly. The most successful initiatives certainly include a significant investment in research to help understand the new environment and the local conditions the association is set to operate in.
What are the issues that must be taken into consideration? How do we better understand those different audiences we are trying to reach? How do changing demographics come into play? How do we ensure that we capture the diversity of that specific market?
And while those are concerns for associations going global, that does not mean national organizations with no presence overseas get a pass when it comes to understanding the global context.
In the United States, home to the largest immigrant community in the world, often, global is local. According to data from the Migration Policy Institute, immigrants and their U.S.-born children number approximately 84.8 million people or 26 percent of the U.S. population. And by 2065, Pew Research Center has projected that the immigrant-origin share of the population will rise to about 36 percent.
In today’s interconnected world, associations planning to remain relevant – and viable in the next decades – cannot afford to ignore such a large percentage of the population. What this data shows us is that even if an organization has no global ambitions, currently more than a quarter of the American population is an immigrant or the child of an immigrant.
With labor shortages and the need to expand into existing and often still underserved markets, it is critical that associations find a way to engage and connect with many populations who have traditionally been left on the margins.
But it is not only the racial and ethnic makeup of the US population that is shifting. Change is all around it. Including our tastebuds. More than ever, what was once considered “ethnic food” or “exotic cuisine” has become part of the American diet. Kids today are being exposed to a variety of foods from a very young age. So, it is no surprise that, at the School Nutrition Association (SNA), we have seen this shift up close.
Over the last decade, our schools and cafeterias have seen a significant change. As the student population becomes increasingly diverse and globalized, their needs have also shifted. According to many of our members, requests for halal meat or vegan options, once rare, are now becoming mainstream. Plant-based protein is a staple in many school kitchens. Thus, many school nutrition professionals need to look for resources to make school lunches more diverse and nutritious. School nutrition directors and their teams have had to rely more and more on their creativity when it comes to menu planning and staff hiring and managing. And to meet our members where they are at SNA, on our website, we have launched a recipe library where our members can use different filters (types of cuisine, meal patterns and special diets) to find what they need to better serve their students.
Our industry members have certainly taken notice. Lincoln Yee, co-founder and co-CEO of International Food Solutions and one of SNA’s most engaged members saw this shift coming more than a decade ago when he decided to turn his MBA project and lifetime passion into a successful business. By the time Yee graduated, his newly launched company, International Food Solutions (then called Asian Food Solutions), already had $11 million in sales.
Growing up outside Los Angeles in a multicultural community, Yee, who spoke Chinese at home, learned Spanish as a child and says it was in his school cafeteria that he got a true taste of the world. “I remember bringing my lunch sometimes and trading it with friends who had also brought different types of food from home. That was quite an experience. One particular time I recall vividly, my Indian friend Meenesh would bring his curried vegetarian food to school, and I, my Chinese food, eventually we traded food weekly.”
But what Yee saw, as a student, was the lack of options outside the typical cafeteria fare. Convinced that there was enough demand for global flavors, he decided to do something about it. His bet paid off, and today, his company works with more than 5300 districts across the country and has now expanded to both Asian and Latin food offerings – among its most popular products are Tangerine Chicken, Teriyaki Chicken and Barbacoa Beef.
“Last year, we sold over $5 million in dumplings to a school district in New York. What it tells me is that it is not only the Asian kids who are eating the dumplings but that the product is the favorite of many. Food, from our vantage point, is a cultural bridge that helps to bring understanding not just in food but understanding others. Period.” Yee explains.
What Yee discovered with International Food Solutions is that we don’t have to expand to Asia to want to have a better understanding of different Asian cultures. Different cultures and people of different backgrounds are already part of our workplace or neighborhood, for instance. As associations try to attract a more diverse pool of staff and members and stay relevant, it is crucial that as association executives, we develop this perspective as well.
Before we start thinking about expanding into other countries or leading an international team, we should first seek to understand the people and the circumstances around us. What members and business leaders like Yee can teach associations is that, as staff leaders, we can use a similar approach when engaging our community, one that is rooted in curiosity, respect and appreciation. As more and more organizations embark on their DEIA journey and strive to foster belonging in their workplace, cultural competence is the key to building diverse and truly inclusive and equitable environments.
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