A certified trainer for the National Coalition Building Institute, Emerald Mills is the visionary behind two Milwaukee-based organizations: Diverse Dining and Turning Tables. Both are dedicated to breaking down barriers and promoting inclusivity through food.
Diverse Dining provides diversity-focused training, community events and education, bringing diverse groups of individuals or employees together for guided dialogue and interaction over meals at local restaurants. Turning Tables Tavern & Eatery and its affiliated 10-week training program, the IKEP (Incubator Kitchen Entrepreneur Program) Academy, is a combination public restaurant, incubator and teaching kitchen. Its mission: to inspire and train minority food-based entrepreneurs.
“Minority entrepreneurs often don’t have the resources, opportunities or knowledge they need to make informed decisions on the things that can really impact their odds of getting and staying open for business,” Mills says. “We try to help them understand their options and make smart choices while also giving them hands-on experience through residency training at Turning Tables. We’ve also worked with some local organizations to help IKEP graduates get established. Foodservice is a very diverse industry. The National Restaurant Association reports that nearly 4 in 10 restaurant managers are minorities, which is the highest of any industry. There’s so much great potential in this industry, but when it comes to ownership, representation by Blacks, in particular, is almost nonexistent. In Wisconsin, just 2% of food business start-ups are Black-owned. Why is that? If someone is capable enough to run somebody else’s restaurant, why are there so many barriers to ownership? We want to help change that narrative.”
Since launching Diverse Dining and Turning Tables, Mills says she’s gained firsthand perspective on the business challenges restaurant owners face, as well as greater appreciation of the need for business leaders to create positive cultures and pathways from diversity to inclusion. Achieving that, she suggests, requires vision, commitment and consistent communication from the top. And it requires human-to-human, relational interactions — what she calls making the “heart connection” — more than declarations, handouts and mandates.
“When we make the effort to really see someone else, to engage and relate to them, and to be vulnerable ourselves, those are game-changers,” Mills says. “They’re the things that we need to do as often as possible in our organizations and in the broader world. When we do, we get the gift of another worldview and that makes us better leaders and better people. It’s too easy today to disconnect and disassociate — most of us spend most of our time doing that. But just a small change in the barometer brings a level of humanness for the people who we support. That’s in part why Diverse Dining has been so effective. It creates safe spaces where people can be vulnerable, share their experiences and mistakes, and connect with each other as fellow human beings. When people can do that, and do it without judgement, heart-changing transformations can happen.”