Maximizing Minority-Owned Brands

A new training and mentorship program in the F&B sector of consumer packed goods is helping entrepreneurs of color gain access to — and find success at — industry trade shows. 

Author: Curt Wagner       

Pauline Ang and Olivia Chen hold cans of their prodcut, Twrl Milk Tea

Twrl Milk Tea CEO Pauline Ang (left) and CMO Olivia Chen took part in the first iteration of a new program that helps minority-owned businesses in consumer products navigate their first trade-show experience.

A first-of-its-kind trade-show program is helping food and beverage entrepreneurs of color break through barriers in consumer packaged goods (CPG). The first 10 participants of the eight-week training and mentoring program — called “(included) ACCESS” — “graduated” by exhibiting March 7-11 at Natural Products Expo West 2023 in Anaheim, California.

Cindy Li headshot

Cindy Li

The program, designed by (included), a collective of BIPOC founders and executives in the F&B sector of CPG, is funded by Informa Markets’ New Hope Network, which produces Natural Products Expo events, and the Specialty Food Association, which hosts the Summer and Winter Fancy Food Shows. It provides BIPOC founders with mentorship, a peer community, media exposure, and other resources, and culminates in free booth sponsorship at a trade show — opportunities founders and CEOs of color historically have lacked.

“This program is so critical for BIPOC founders who face tons of obstacles — including the lack of capital, retail connections that can get their product in front of customers, and the resources to bring them success at trade shows,” Cindy Li, director of (included) ACCESS, told Convene.

Li, founder and “Tea-EO” of Boulder-based Uproot Teas, speaks from experience. She was sponsored by (included) to exhibit at her first trade show when there was not yet a program in place to prepare her for what to expect. “I didn’t quite understand just how critical a trade show is,” she said. “At my first trade show, a buyer from Costco came by and we had a 30-second conversation and they gave me their card.” It became very clear to her that trade show exposure can ignite retail deals for a brand.

The ACCESS program was designed using feedback from Li and others based on their first show experiences. The course’s eight virtual sessions cover everything from what materials are needed for a booth and how it should be staffed to how to attract buyers.

expo booth for Twrl Milk Tea

The founders of Twrl Milk Tea completed the ACCESS training and mentoring program before exhibiting at Expo West in early March.

Program participants, all members of (included), went through a selection process in which six judges vetted their applications. Criteria included the company being “retail ready,” Li said. “They have a product, they have the packaging, they have the branding,” she said. “The only thing that’s missing is their access to be in front of buyers and people who could help bring them to the next level.”

The founders of San Francisco–based, ready-to-drink Twrl Milk Tea, CEO Pauline Ang and CMO Olivia Chen, participated in the program’s first cohort and exhibited at Expo West in March. It was the third time they had exhibited at a trade show, but they admitted they had “limited learnings from our previous shows,” Chen wrote in an email to Convene prior to Expo West. “All the education [in the program] has been eye-opening.”

Chen cited the program’s one-on-one mentorship as being invaluable, and said they’ve gained a network of peers who they believe will collaborate with and support one another even beyond Expo West.

“It’s our hope that our brands together will reflect the diverse cultural landscape of today,” Chen wrote, “and that our children, seeing the products of their cultures made by beloved brands and enjoyed by the wider population, will feel a greater sense of acceptance, inclusion, and value.”

More to Come

The (included) ACCESS program will continue on after Expo West this year at the Summer Fancy Food Show on June 25-27 at New York City’s Javits Center and at Natural Products Expo East, Sept. 20-23 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. Applicants must first join (included) at, where they also will find a community hub and helpful resources.

Curt Wagner is digital editor at Convene. Ascent is supported by the PCMA Foundation.

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