To say the outcome of the 2016 election jolted many women into action would be an understatement, and this is exactly what prompted Michaela Ayers to start her company, Nourish. Michaela was working in HR for a tech company by day (where she was later able to take her experience with Nourish in diversity and inclusion and create a new role for herself) and by night she was hosting dinner parties with a goal of "gathering strangers around the dinner table to build community, talk about race (as a social construct), and discuss how racism had impacted them."
We had no idea when we spoke with Michaela that our conversation would become even more timely. After the recent decision by the Trump administration to ban diversity and inclusion training at the federal level, we could not think of a better way to highlight the necessity and imperative nature of this work. So we spoke with Michaela about her hard-earned wisdom, her path to racial justice work, and her advice for both employers and employees on diversity and inclusion. Her insights are powerful, and, dare we say, hopeful—as she says, "My hope is that six months from now the same individuals who are consuming the foundational information at this early stage have moved past the fear, guilt, and shame and evolved into the next phase: collective action." Us, too.
Can you tell us about your professional experience prior to Nourish, the pivot to starting your company, and the impetus behind it?
Nourish was born out of a number of compounding factors, what I like to call a series of asteroids that hit the earth. I founded Nourish in 2016, in response to the presidential election. I think that was a collective wake-up call for the entire country but, for me specifically, it was the moment I realized that people really don't know how to have conversations across our differences, especially when it comes to race.
In an increasingly polarized society, people are afraid to have real conversations. We are trapped in a binary of thought, especially when it comes to confronting racism. You are either good or bad, right or wrong. I wanted to create a middle ground. It got me thinking—what are the places where people connect? What do we share? What are the essential moments that bring us together? And I realized that it's food. In my own life, the moments where I felt most seen, connected, and heard have been around a dinner table.
So, Nourish began as a series of dinner parties. I hosted dinners in restaurants, I hosted dinners in people's homes and the format was pretty simple: gathering strangers around the dinner table to build community, talk about race (as a social construct), and discuss how racism had impacted them. I am of the opinion that even though a conversation might be uncomfortable, it doesn't mean that the experience can't be beautiful.
The dinner party planning is really important to me; I love to create ambiance, curate the menu, and put on music. I had worked in restaurants throughout college and felt pretty confident in my ability to put together something special. Not all of the dinners went great, I had to learn by doing. I hosted dinners in the evening and on weekends, during the day I worked an 8-5. My role was focused on customer education at PayScale, the HR tech company. I worked as a virtual facilitator whose primary task was to educate and coach HR professionals and business leaders on how to make informed pay decisions using data.
My day-to-day was filled with 1:1 training, workshops, and webinars about compensation, HR best practices, and pay equity. I enjoyed the role but also felt incredibly isolated as one of the few black women in the company. This was the same year that Eric Garner, Philando Castille, and Alton Sterling were killed by police violence. Colin Kapernick had started kneeling—it was a heavy time for me, personally. I experienced microaggression, racial gaslighting, and never felt like I truly belonged.
During my tenure there, there were a number of grassroots employee-led DEI initiatives, mostly around gender equity and pride. With the blessing of my manager, I helped the organization launch its first DEI Taskforce. My project was focused on researching and implementing diversity training across the organization. My role on the task force was to advance education initiatives within the organization. This was a pivotal experience for me, in terms of understanding what it takes to get leaders bought in, recruit and hire DEI practitioners, and coordinate a series of diversity training for the organization. I soon realized that what I was doing was a full-time job. I studied the market of DEI practitioners for a few months, while Nourish evolved. From the dinners, parties emerged new ideas for hosting other events—networking events for womxn of color, panel discussions that celebrate Black History. Nourish grew into a community of people inserted in inclusion and anti-racism.
During my research period, I attended a number of diversity training sessions. I saw there was a massive need in the market for more human-centered experiential learning. People don't want to spend hours in a conference room staring at PowerPoint slides about unconscious bias and racial discrimination. That's not how people learn. People learn by doing. I began to integrate action learning and more conversations into my workshops. I grew into my own unique facilitation style, though oftentimes this growth was uncomfortable. The good kind always is.
In 2018, I decided to take the leap into Nourish full time. I started offering DEI consulting services and it’s been the best decision I have ever made. Especially at this moment, I am so grateful for my work.
How has your business model changed now that we are living in a virtual event world?
Like so many others, the pandemic flipped my business model upside down. Pre-COVID, my work was primarily in-person events: workshops, dinner parties, or community experiences. I had a few consulting clients, but the majority of my business was events. Once COVID hit, all of my events and plans for the year suddenly dried up. I am extremely grateful that I was able to draw from my experience as a virtual facilitator, which allowed me to pivot into the online environment with confidence.
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I now offer workshops, community events, and coaching online. It has been both challenging and an exercise in curiosity, I am constantly asking myself: what is possible? In the virtual space, it is imperative to design for human connection. I like to embed creative moments that spark meaningful conversations. I integrate digital collaboration tools, breakout rooms, all of Zoom’s bells and whistles. Nourish is online for now, and while it is hard, it is also something that I enjoy.
The expertise you provide is essential, though some are just waking up to the imperative nature of conversations and learnings on anti-racist teachings, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace.
Have you seen a shift in demand and clientele in the past two months? And are you finding that people want to do and maintain the work required?
Yes, the increase in demand for anti-racist education is incredible. From all sectors and industries, my inbox is filled with requests for work DEI consulting and anti-racist training. We are in a period of awakening and increased awareness of racial injustice that cannot be unseen. This is a radical shift. I see a transformation happening on a few different levels: folks who are new to the social justice journey who are looking for a place to start, more mature DEI advocates who are using the momentum of this moment to operationalize change, and of course the leaders who have been doing the work for years.
I do think this moment is different. I do believe that people are willing to engage on a deeper level while acknowledging that anti-racism is a lifelong journey. We are tasked at dismantling systems that have existed for centuries in this country. It is a marathon, not a sprint. At this moment, I find that most people are overwhelmed and want to ‘fix it.’ I see people actively consuming information and doing research which is impactful but also reactive. My hope is that six months from now the same individuals who are consuming the foundational information at this early stage have moved past the fear, guilt, and shame and evolved into the next phase: collective action.
For employers: what are a few things they can do to ensure their employees of color feel safe, heard, included, and essential in the workplace? And what are a few ways they can they commit to creating consistent education and investment in maintaining an anti-racist workplace?
Psychological safety is incredibly important. If you're interested in hearing the lived experiences of your employees the best place to start is by creating a space for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, POC) employees to share their stories without fear of retribution or retaliation. Hire a professional. This is not a project for HR, find an external partner who is experienced in addressing racial trauma and holding space with BIPOC employees. Collect their feedback and take action. Co-creation is an essential part of inclusion.
Design your DEI initiatives with your BIPOC employees, give them a voice in the decision making process; equity is about sharing power. In terms of education, find a DEI practitioner that shares your values and implement ongoing training that goes beyond unconscious bias and is actively anti-racist. Get creative, BIPOC folks don’t want to just talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Take a genuine interest in their wellbeing and diversity of lived experience.
For employees: what should they be looking for in a future employers and what types of standards with regards to diversity, inclusion and anti-racist work should they be holding these employers to?
For employees of color, do your culture and leadership research. Think like a detective and look for evidence of racial bias (aka, homogeneous teams). Look at the representation across all levels of leadership; from the board of directors to hiring managers. Statistics show that the C-Suite is predominantly white and male. Has the company made commitments to DEI? Keeping in mind that DEI initiatives should be specific, measurable, and time-bound. Get really curious about their values. How do they demonstrate their values? Look beyond words, focus on their actions.
Programmatically, I encourage employees to look at companies who have made investments in mentorship programs, career pathways for people of color, and ongoing DEI programming. Diversity, equity, and inclusion should be embedded into the culture, not just a once a year training or event. .
What has been your most fulfilling experience with Nourish thus far? And what are your goals for the future of Nourish?
I like to describe myself as something who is infinitely curious about other people. Getting a chance to connect with other people is the most nourishing experience of my work. I feel truly grateful that this is my work.My goal for the future of Nourish is to help make the world less racist.