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Women in Business: Q&A with Erika Davis, Founder of the Minority Chef Summit

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Pastry Chef Erika Davis is known in the U.S. and internationally for her delectable desserts and chocolates. Her career has spanned more than two decades, and she has demonstrated her talents in print and television media, as well as at various culinary events across the globe. Chef Erika was one of the very first cheftestants on Bravo's "Top Chef: Just Desserts," and has also served as a Pubilx Supermarket spokesperson during their "Sunday Dinner Chefs" campaign. Chef Erika founded her own non-profit organization, Culinary Wonders USA, through which she supports and inspires minority chefs around the country.

Currently, Chef Erika is the Executive Chocolate Maker for CocoaTown, and also serves as a Brand Ambassador for Cacoa Barry Chocolate. Chef Erika is responsible for developing bean-to-bar chocolate classes for CocoaTown for all skill levels. Prior to joining Cacoa Barry, Chef Erika served as Chocolatier and Creative Director of Graycliff Chocolatier in Nassau, Bahamas.

Chef Erika has been featured in Ebony Magazine, Pastry Arts Magazine, Black Enterprise, on Heritage Radio, on The Daily Meal and more. She has made numerous television cooking appearances and has served as a judge for the Food Network's Rock & Roll Pastry Challenge. Her long-standing motto is "A day is never good without chocolate." Chef Erika resides in Atlanta, GA.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My culinary life experiences have made me an independent, big-hearted but headstrong woman in today's world. As a woman and a chef you have to be these things, because if not, the goals you want to achieve will not be accomplished.

I have worked with some amazing chefs coming up in the culinary field - most were white and/or European men, so very different than myself yet they each taught me that I had three goals to meet each day: 1. Make Great Food, 2. Team Work is Key, 3. Organization is a MUST. These three goals helped me become the leader that I am today. Each goal has a purpose and the structure not only makes you a better chef, but a better person too.

How did your previous employment experience aid your position at Minority Chef Summit?
As I mentioned, the visible culinary world is dominated by men and not many men of color at that. While many of these men are truly talented and deserve the credit they have achieved, there are also many amazing female and minority chefs out there who either do not get the attention for the awesome things they are doing, or they do not dream big enough as they themselves have not been supported by their colleagues. Working in this industry and seeing this void has opened my eyes to identify that the summit is necessary and important --a way to showcase minority chefs and to give our future culinarians role models to look up to and become one day.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Minority Chef Summit?
Highlights:
One highlight of the Minority Chef Summit is seeing the excitement of the culinarians that are involved. The students at The College of the Bahamas (our beneficiary this year) are so hungry for knowledge, and when they receive the hands-on education from the more seasoned chefs, you can see their whole world change, you can see them being inspired right in front of your eyes
(what type of feeling do you get?) I feel proud and accomplished that the dream of MCS is now a reality.

Challenges:
Sponsorship is a challenge that I believe so many people have, and has also been a challenge for us. Since this is the very first year of the summit, we have spent a great deal of time educating people and businesses about what will happen and how this is more of a meeting of the minds, vs. a traditional wine & food festival. We've had to hammer home that this is an event where minorities can come together for networking, educating themselves, inspiring/mentoring one another--something that has not yet been achieved for minorities in the culinary arts. Still many companies want to see how the first year goes before they commit to it financially, which is not ideal for us.

Another challenge has been getting the minority chefs to understand this event is meant to get them out of their kitchens and spoil themselves at a conference while learning from their peers via panels, demos and seminars.

How is the Minority Chef Summit making a difference for minority women?
I believe the MCS will also give women a stage, particularly women of color, to have a voice on issues that only women of color have in common. It is also a great networking opportunity for them to come together and be inspired by one another.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Right now there is no balance! For the last two years I have been in and out of the country making chocolate and speaking about the MCS at many different events. I am blessed to be able to do what I love and am passionate about. Right now my time is divided between working with CocoaTown, a business that creates and sells chocolate-making equipment, and spreading the word about MCS at various culinary events. My birthday is coming up in July, and I will spend a week in Paris with friends. I will be an aunt by the end of spring, so enjoying family and friends is what balances my life.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It's hard to be taken seriously as a chef in such a male dominated industry. Just walking into the kitchen can be overwhelming as most kitchens are dominated by men and testosterone. As a result, most women end up being a pastry chef or working the Gard Manger station (making salads) because the men expect you to be weaker. As such, you have to work extra hard to prove yourself so that you are seen as one of the boys. I do think that the rise of women on national culinary TV has helped the situations, however there still is a serious lack of women in the top positions in restaurant kitchens.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I watched Sheryl Sandberg on Ted.com and the platform was on "So we leaned in.... now what?" The last thing she said was we need to bring back the word feminist and get rid of the word bossy. I was happy to see a corporate woman speak about how hard it is to talk about work, family and being successful. As a black woman, having a career was not a choice--it was a necessity, because all you have is yourself. We women are the caregivers, the breadwinners, and the stress holders of the family in the majority of African-American households. I watched most of the women in my family take that role--at one time in my life it was my role--and we did it and made it happen for our families. Self-confidence and equality is what needs to be taught to our young women today. I know I speak it in the kitchen everyday.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have been lucky enough to have a mother that is an amazing teacher and watching her as I grew up truly taught me what mentoring is leadership is all about. I've also been fortunate enough to meet other inspiring women throughout my life like Jackie S. Meadows, who was my very first mentor in life. She taught me to be a proud woman and to go after what I wanted, which was to become a pastry chef. Another mentor was Chef Milos, the first Master Chef in the USA. He would cook with me, talk with me, but most importantly, he would listen to me as I discussed my hopes, my dreams and my challenges, and would always show me how to deal with adversity and how best to navigate my culinary path in life. Having mentors is so important and mine have helped mold me into the woman and chef that I am today. Someone who is determined and not willing to give up easily, and one that is always willing to work hard for what I want in life.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire so many women that it's hard to name a few, but if I had to, I will say Oprah because of the amazing work she does in South Africa inspiring and educating young women. I also admire First Lady Michelle Obama for being an inspiration to all African American women and women in general. She is a strong and educated woman that also knows the importance of being a devoted and caring wife and mother and she does it all so seamlessly on the public stage. But again, this world is blessed with so many incredible women that are leaders within their own communities vs. those doing it on the public stage. It's these women who truly inspire me on a day to day basis - they are grandmothers, aunts, daughters, sisters, mothers that work everyday to change the world. Those are the women that I admire.

What are your hopes for the future of Minority Chef Summit?
That the MCS will become the premier gathering of minorities in the food & beverage industry, and that the summit will serve as a platform to inspire minority chefs all around the world. We want to reach as many young culinarians of color as possible, to teach them to dream big and that working hard is key and will payoff. I also want the summit to serve as a platform for learning, where we go beyond our culinary school training and showcase some of the more unique techniques and learning's amongst one another. All in all, I want the MCS to be a meeting of the minds and the knives, while we all enjoy great food and fun!