Gerry Fernandez’s “aha” moment happened many years ago. He was an apprentice cook at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, and an unusual number of African-Americans came in for a dinner event. The chef was accustomed to cooking the filet mignon medium rare, but he was warned to prepare it medium well this time. It’s what his customers would expect, but the chef did not listen. He cooked some 400 steaks at medium rare.
“Just like clockwork,” Fernandez said, “those steaks started to come back. That was my earliest lesson on being culturally intelligent. In early black America, they cooked everything well, to make sure they didn’t get sick. The preference stuck.”
Fernandez culturally identifies not with the descendants of black American slaves but with the nation of Cape Verde on the northwest coast of Africa. His descendants came from there, located on the northwest coast of Africa, but Fernandez also claims ties to the Spanish. In fact, his father spoke Spanish. At an early age, Fernandez was exposed to the nuances of nationality and ethnicity. As a man of color, he saw “the good, the bad and the ugly” of society’s handling of race and class. But he didn’t imagine that day in the kitchen that he’d become what the chief financial officer at the National Restaurant Association called “the leading voice of cultural intelligence for the past 20 years.”
As president of the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance, or MFHA, Fernandez spends his workdays now with some of the country’s foremost leaders in his industry. He founded MFHA to help companies discover the economic benefits of diversity and inclusion and provide information to build cultural intelligence throughout the industry. Because of his and his team’s workshops, webinars, conferences and hands-on instruction, cultural intelligence – the capacity to relate and function effectively across cultures – is a growing phenomenon.
“Gerry’s going to change the world,” said the National Restaurant Association’s CFO, Marvin Irby. “The word ‘passion’ comes to mind. You cannot spend time with him and his team and not come away truly inspired.”
Fernandez found a final bit of inspiration to create MFHA in a trade journal. It was the mid-1990s, and he was flipping through a magazine when he saw an advertisement for a women’s foodservice organization focused on creating opportunities for women in the industry. “Why isn’t there an organization to increase opportunities for people of color?” he wondered.
Working for General Mills in Minneapolis at the time, Fernandez assembled representatives of 17 companies in Chicago to discuss the concept of creating just such an organization he envisioned. A year later, MFHA was incorporated, and Fernandez became a “loaned executive” from GM to run the fledgling organization full time and pursue the mission of bringing “the economic benefits of diversity and inclusion to the food and hospitality industry by building bridges and delivering solutions.” Today, MFHA consists of 60 corporate members.
“We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s still large portions of companies in our industry that aren’t on board with this,” Fernandez said. “As long as they’re making money, there’s no motivation. But millennials don’t have the baggage of boomers. They’re more inclusive, so, the dial is moving.”
Fernandez urges companies to build a multicultural strategy rather than wait for a misstep that’s splashed all over social media, bringing down a business’ reputation and brand. He also urges companies to include people of color into their workforce at all levels. You can’t get good talent, he said, if you don’t have people succeeding who look like the job applicant, he said.
At one company, executives wondered why talented workers weren’t applying for upper management jobs and queried MFHA for help. Fernandez clued them in – for some Latinos, especially those from Central America, a promotion isn’t asked for, it is given as a reward for good work. These Latinos may feel overlooked and undervalued and leave the company after they feel they’ve been passed over. “This is a case of understanding what culture norms are and going to Hispanic employees and communicating to them, saying, ‘You must apply,’” said Fernandez.
To Fernandez and others who support his cause, cultural intelligence makes more sense in the foodservice industry than perhaps anywhere. Fifty-six percent of the workers in the industry are women and people of color.
According to the National Restaurant Association, one out of every four people have worked in a restaurant, and lots of people are eating out. “For many of us, it’s where we learned our first job skills,” said NRA’s Irby, “and everyone has a favorite restaurant.”
More and more companies are adopting cultural intelligence, Irby said. “It’s probably needed more than ever before.”
Fernandez and his team – their arguments and their workshops and other instructional opportunities – have been a unifying force, Irby said. Pepsi and Coca-Cola, for example, are fierce competitors who “don’t agree on anything, but they both decided to support Gerry. That’s really a tribute to Gerry,” Irby said.
Fernandez hammers the benefits of diversity inside the workplace with one primary argument. Money. He believes that for business people, the color green trumps shades of brown.
He credits the Rev. Jesse Jackson with revealing to him why people of color have excelled in sports so notably but not as notably in the upper ranks of other professions. “It’s because the rules are public … and the playing field is level … and the goals are clear. We want MFHA to help people figure out how the game works. It’s about giving people the opportunity to function at their highest level,” Fernandez said.
If employees aren’t performing or being utilized at their highest potential “you’re leaving money on the table,” Fernandez said. “That’s the most respected argument – diversity makes sense.”