I spent many years without presenting myself authentically in my career and my company.
As a queer black man who dreamed of being a professional baker, I was afraid that my identity would hold me back. I didn’t see people who looked like me in the food industry. When I first entered professional kitchens, I just wanted to be seen as someone who is dedicated to learning and moving forward, without being “altered” by my sexuality or burdened by the negative stereotypes that are often placed on black people.
So I did a lot of code-switching, drowning out my true self and presenting what felt like a more buttoned-down version. I would never reveal my sexuality, and I would never get too close to any of my peers for fear of them finding out more about my personal life. I was trying to come across as a manly man who had it all together and I ended up feeling small. Also, keeping up the act was exhausting.
Everything changed when I realized that masking my identity was not only harmful to my mental health, but could also hold others in my community back. This was right after I had my first major TV appearance competing Bake it like Buddy with the Cake Boss, Friend Valastro I had a lot of fun doing it, but I refrained from showing my full personality. It caught my attention that there was someone who represented my intersectionality in food media, someone who was black and queer and tall and proud of both. I thought how much having a role model like this could help younger people like me see a place in this industry. I grew up watching Emeril Lagasse and thinking how much I wanted to be like him: What if a young black or queer kid could watch TV and say, “I want to be like Kareem?”
Suddenly it seemed my duty to show myself fully as myself. I have spent the last six years doing the work to be okay with the man I saw in the mirror so that I could fully share that person with others. Now, when I walk into a room to represent my business, the energy is completely different. I walk in smiling, I take up space, I feel strong and full of life, and it shows.
Instead of trying to hide my identity, I intentionally look for ways to show it, whether it’s a little girly move or using black slang phrases. I look for opportunities to bring representation to my work, such as insisting on making a cake for Mr. and Mr. Keys to a holiday special I participated in. And now, all the energy I used to put into hiding, I reach out to support others, such as through my work with C-CAP (a non-profit organization that offers disadvantaged teenagers a path to to success in the culinary world) and The Queer Food Foundation. It’s important to me to be a part of changing the face of my industry.
Other business owners with underrepresented identities may hear my story and wonder how I do it: How do I feel confident putting my all on the table? How do I have enough energy to support others? And how do I do all of this while dealing with the daily demands of running a business and supporting my own boundaries and mental health?
Here are some of the steps that have helped me take care of myself so I can take care of others while taking care of business.
I found a support network
The biggest thing that has helped me on this journey is therapy. This may not seem all that groundbreaking considering how normalized going to therapy has become in recent years, but I think it’s especially important to call it out considering the part of my black community that still avoids it. Therapy was invaluable in taking the time to understand myself better, in giving me a sounding board to process things, and in helping me realize the tools I already had to take care of myself ( as well as teaching me some new ones).
While I always advocate seeing a professional if possible, there are other ways to find support systems. For me, it was teachers, family, neighbors, classmates and friends who supported my identity and were happy to help me build my dream in any way they could . Not everyone was so accepting of me, but the love I received helped me ignore the haters.
Finally, being more open about my identity has allowed me to connect with communities of people like me, which has been invaluable. I always tell people that supporting my black and queer communities doesn’t feel like work, and part of that is because our time together builds me up, too. By organizing or participating in events that focus on black or queer business, for example, I can not only elevate their voices, but also walk away with some new tips to incorporate into my own work or meet new people that I know will help me. .
I choose carefully where to invest my energy
As I began to give more of myself to others, I had to work hard to create boundaries that made this sustainable for me. A great lesson was learning not to pour out into containers that have holes in them.
What do I mean by that? It meant avoiding spaces and relationships where I didn’t feel accepted and instead finding opportunities where I loved the people and the energy. Even better is if I can surround myself with what I call “rocket booster friends,” people who really fill me up when I invest time and energy into them.
It also meant being aware of who within my own community I was choosing to support. I used to try to pressure people to grow up, to show up for them even if they didn’t want to or weren’t ready for it. Now, I make sure they want my help before I give it.
For example, I recently opened my first brick-and-mortar kitchen as part of the Le Fantome food hall in Riverdale, MD, and was able to hire three queer employees as part of the expansion. My goal as a manager is not just to help them succeed as employees, but to help them grow as people. But I have to make sure that’s what they want, too, before I invest in doing this work together. Otherwise, I’m just wasting energy on someone who doesn’t want to take it.
Choose time to be alone
Between running my business and supporting others, I reached a point where I felt like I was constantly on empty. I was a champion for everyone, but not for myself. That’s when it hit me that if I wanted to be a vessel that pours love, I had to pour myself back into myself.
Now, the first two hours of the day and the last two hours of my day are always dedicated to me. I try to spend this time doing things that fill my cup and help me learn more about myself: meditate, listen to a motivational speaker, read a good book, talk to my ancestors, and strengthen my body, which I believe also strengthens the mind. . I also sometimes try to quit to be during this time: sitting in my backyard without an agenda. As high-performing business owners, it can be very tempting to set a goal even for our relaxation, but I’ve found it very beneficial to my mental health to create time to let my thoughts run free.
I’m not saying that every BIPOC or LGBTQIA business owner should bring their identity to work. But if you’re dreaming of being able to appear authentically in your business or hoping to help improve representation in your industry, here’s my advice: it’s going to take a while to get where I am, to have the confidence to walk into every room. proudly and fully yourself. It will be a lot of work, and it will be scary at times.
But do the work in fear, because I promise that what’s on the other side—that freedom, that comfort with who I am, and that sense of well-being—is so much bigger than living in fear.