WASHINGTON DC — When it comes to diversity and inclusion in the workplace, baking companies have to walk the walk.

That’s what four industry professionals drove home in a panel on diversity, equity and inclusion at the American Bakers Association (ABA)’s NextGen Baker Virtual Leadership Forum. Nikki Lang-Perkins, head of diversity, equity and belonging at Horsham, PA-based Bimbo Bakeries USA (BBU); Isaac Rocha, director of West Zone, McDonald’s and chief inclusion officer for Tulsa, OK-based Bama Cos.; Felisa Stockwell, senior director, global people and culture, Jackson, MI-based Dawn Foods; and panel moderator Kelly Mariotti, NextGen Baker co-chair and director, people programs and processes at Weston Foods, discussed all things diversity and inclusion, implementing policies from the top down and prioritizing authenticity.


Considering where to start, some of the panelists said it’s critical to involve the c-suite. Rocha had high praise for Paula Marshall, Bama CEO, who considers diversity and inclusion initiatives a personal mission with programs such as tuition reimbursement and equitable access to education as well as being a second-chance employer.

“Paula was critical in spearheading this for the company, the city and the entire state of Oklahoma,” Rocha said. “She and our senior management team have helped us benchmark our practices, see our gaps and implement new internal policies to address those areas for growth.”

Stockwell echoed his statement about the importance of executive involvement in diversity and inclusion initiatives.

“For Dawn, it’s been important to our leadership team to broaden our perspectives,” she said. “We want to empower our team members to be who they are and create a shared understanding as to what DEI is and why it’s important.”

“People want to know that we in the baking industry get it, especially with everything the pandemic has put us through,” Lang-Perkins said. “They want to know we can have honest conversations and can make employees feel supported.”


Panelists also said it’s crucial for everyone to be educated on terms and conditions that will be discussed. Rocha said it’s important to meet people where they are, even if it’s hard.

“The importance of defining terminology is imperative so we can know all these terms and perspectives,” he said. “Team members want to know how this will impact them on a daily basis. You have to meet them where they’re at and have humility because these can be hard conversations.”

Another critical element to building an inclusive culture is active listening. Hearing others’ experiences and concerns is the path to making truly actionable change. It’s critical to prioritize that for current employees and also to attract new talent.

“One of the most important things is to listen to each other,” Lang-Perkins said. “We want to represent the customers and markets that we serve, so that bleeds over into recruiting diverse talent. We want to make sure everyone feels like they belong — because they do.”

For the baking industry, a key part of that puzzle is stepping up to the plate and delivering on initiatives. Stockwell highlighted the importance of assessing progress toward DEI goals honestly, identifying opportunities for improvement and focusing on filling those before moving on to something bigger. DEI is not something you conquer in one day, and companies have to be “all-in” to truly make change and drive inclusion within the organization. In a world where more external diversity pledges are being made, it’s natural to want to jump in. However, you have to make sure your own company’s DEI programs are having the intended impact before focusing on the next project.

“You have to look at where your company is, because communities can see right through that lack of authenticity,” Roca said. “You have to put it into action. As Paula says, ‘Do we have our house in order?’”

As priorities and cultural expectations shift when it comes to the working world, employees want to be seen as whole people. It will not only make the workplace feel more equitable but will also welcome new people come into the industry knowing they’ll be respected and celebrated for who they are.

“People want to know that we in the baking industry get it, especially with everything the pandemic has put us through,” Lang-Perkins said. “They want to know we can have honest conversations and can make employees feel supported.”


Making them part of the conversation and listening to how they want to give back can also develop a sense of company pride. As workforce challenges ravage the industry, having a responsive and inclusive company culture will be an important step in getting new people in the door.

“I am proud to be a part of a company with a strong vision and commitment to DEI,” Stockwell said. “It’s important to be authentic to drive inclusion and pride throughout an organization.”

ABA’s NextGenBaker DEI Working Group is chaired by Kelly Mariotti, People Programs and Processes, Weston Foods and is comprised of the following members:

  • Nikki Lang, Head of Diversity, Equity and Belonging, Bimbo Bakeries USA
  • Patricia Richards, VP, Organizational Development & Recruitment,
  • Hearthside Foods and Chair of the ABA HR Professionals Group
  • Isaac Rocha, Business Development – West Zone, McDonald’s & Inclusion Officer, The Bama Companies, Inc.
  • Felisa Stockwell, Senior Director, Global People & Culture, Dawn Foods
  • Tonja Taylor, Chief Human Resources Officer, Flowers Foods
  • Chris Wallace, Site Leader, The Kroger Co.

ABA Staff Liaisons:

  • Christina Donnelly, Director of Industry Relations
  • Jennifer Colfelt, Vice President of Operations and Membership