Cooking Up Diversity, Equity and Inclusion with the Culinary Femme Collective

MBA students presenting to the Culinary Femme Collective

Good. Black. Food.

Those are the three words Piri, a family owned and operated food business in East Durham, uses to describe the southern and Afro diasporic fusion of its menu that includes foods such as spicy lentils, crispy fried chicken and savory mashed potatoes. Taking joy in the fact that each dish is crafted in connection with their black identity and roots, the owners of Piri have always had the mission of serving their community first.

However, small food businesses with a desire to do good, especially those run by traditionally marginalized or oppressed populations, are often left out of the billion-dollar food industry due to structural inequities, such as racism, sexism and classism, among others. As a result, it becomes much harder for smaller socially-minded enterprises run by minority populations to both make a profit and give back to their communities through practices like using sustainable products, paying employees a living wage and offering affordable prices.

“We often struggle because, at the end of the day, we are a business, we have to make money and we don’t want to fail just because we have social good desires,” said Courtney Smith, co-owner of Piri. “We want the people in the community where we grew up to be able to afford our food.”

The owners of Piri knew that there had to be other food businesses in Durham struggling with some of the same challenges, which is why they co-founded the Culinary Femme Collective with the owners of two other local food businesses, Sour Bakery and So Good Pupusas. Launched in 2019, the collective is made up of small business owners, chefs, researchers and community organizers who are all dedicated to advancing femme-owned food businesses and creating a more equitable and just local food economy in Durham.

To help provide support in the collective’s first year, CASE Senior Fellow for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness, Aliyah Abdur-Rahman, helped facilitate an independent study with four Daytime MBA students in the fall of 2019 to create business tools and resources for the collective.

“I was so delighted that we could all come together in a learning community and bring different skills and knowledge to the table to create actionable next steps for the collective to take as its network continues to grow and we aim to close the gap between inequities in race and gender in our local food system,” said Abdur-Rahman during the students’ final presentation to the Culinary Femme Collective members on December 9, 2019.

At this final presentation, the students provided a framework to help the businesses in the collective start: 1) identifying opportunities to share resources, such as equipment and labor, 2) standardizing documents that will make applying for funding and creating business plans easier and 3) exploring legal structures that will help the collective add value to the individual businesses.

“I came into this independent study thinking we were going to formally set up a cooperative by the end of the semester but quickly learned that, first, we needed to engage in our own deeper learning and help collective member businesses with foundational issues that will set them up for long term success individually and as an group,” said Matthew Calvert, Daytime MBA student who participated in the independent study. “I honestly have to say that this was my favorite project that I have worked on at Fuqua and is also the one where I have learned the most.”

In fact, one of the students that participated in the independent study, Elizabeth Towell, enjoyed the independent study so much that she offered to help the Culinary Femme Collective during next semester as the members begin to turn the framework into action. In addition to offering the support of a future student team led by Elizabeth, CASE has also granted the Culinary Femme Collective members access to its CASE Smart Impact Capital™ online toolkit, which will help provide resources and tools for identifying the right funding sources for their goals.

“We are so grateful for access to a resource like the CASE Smart Impact Capital toolkit and we know it will be critical to next steps,” said Smith. “So much of what we heard from the students were things that we were already discussing, so having this framework not only reaffirms that we are on the right track, it also provides us with a clear way to continue our conversations moving forward.”

To sign up or learn more about the CASE Smart Impact Capital online toolkit, visit the website. For more information on the Culinary Femme Collective or the independent study opportunity, contact Robyn Fehrman at