I spent a lot of years not showing up authentically in my career and business.
As a Black, queer man who had dreams of being a professional baker, I was afraid my identity would hold me back. I didn’t see people who looked like me in the food industry. When I entered professional kitchens, I just wanted to be seen as someone dedicated to learning and advancing, without being “othered” because of my sexuality or burdened by the negative stereotypes that are often put on Black people.
So I did a lot of code-switching, stifling my true self and presenting what felt like a more buttoned-up version. I would never disclose my sexuality, and I would never get too close to any of my colleagues for fear of them discovering more about my personal life. I was trying to come off as a masculine man who had it all together, and I ended up feeling small. Plus, keeping up the act was exhausting.
Everything changed when I realized that masking my identity was not only harmful for my mental health, but it was also potentially holding back other people in my community. This was right after I had my first major TV appearance competing on Bake It Like Buddy with the Cake Boss, Buddy Valastro. I had so much fun doing it, but I held back showing off my full personality. It struck me that there was nobody who represented my intersection in food media—someone who was Black and queer and loud and proud about both. I thought about how much having a role model like that could help younger people like me see a place for themselves in this industry. I grew up watching Emeril Lagasse and thinking how 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 felt like my duty to show up fully as myself. I’ve spent the past six years doing the work to be okay with the man that 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 entirely 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 off, whether it’s a little feminine movement or using phrases from the Black vernacular. I look for opportunities to bring representation into my work, such as by insisting I make a Mr. and Mr. Claus cake for a holiday special I participated in. And now, all the energy I used to put into hiding myself, I get to put into supporting others, such as through my work with C-CAP (a nonprofit that provides underserved teens a pathway to success in the culinary world) and The Queer Food Foundation. It’s important to me to be part of changing the face of my industry.
Other business owners of underrepresented identities may hear my story and wonder how I do it: How do I feel confident bringing my whole self to the table? How do I have enough energy to also support others? And how do I do all of this while dealing with the daily needs of running a company 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 Network of Support
The single biggest thing that has helped me on this journey is therapy. That may not sound that groundbreaking given how much more normalized going to therapy has become in recent years, but I think it’s especially important to call out given how much of my Black community still shuns it. Therapy was so valuable in carving out dedicated time to understand myself better, giving me a sounding board to process things, and helping me realize the tools I already had for taking care of myself (along with teaching me some new ones).
While I always advocate for seeing a professional if possible, there are other ways to find support systems. For me, it was the 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 did receive helped me ignore the haters.
Finally, in being more open about my identity, I’ve been able 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 to me, and part of that is because our time together builds me up as well. By hosting or participating in events that center Black or queer business, for example, I not only get to uplift their voices, but I also leave with some new advice to bring into my own work or meet new people who I know will have my back.
I Choose Carefully Where to Invest My Energy
As I started giving more of myself to others, I had to work hard to create the boundaries that would make this sustainable for myself. A big lesson was learning not to pour outward into vessels 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 love the people and the energy. Even better is if I can surround myself with what I call “rocket booster friends”—people who actually fill me back up when I invest time and energy in them.
It also meant being mindful about who within my own community I was choosing to support. I used to try to pressure people to grow, to show up for them even if they didn’t want it or weren’t ready for it. Now, I make sure they want my help before giving it.
For instance, I recently opened my first brick and mortar kitchen as part of Le Fantome food hall in Riverdale, MD, and I was able to hire three queer employees as part of the expansion. My goal as a manager is to not just 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 investing in doing that work together. Otherwise, I’m just wasting energy on someone who doesn’t want to take it.
I Carve Out Time to Just Be
Between running my business and supporting others, I reached a point where I felt like I was constantly running on empty. I was a champion for everybody but not really for myself. That’s when it struck me that if I wanted to be a vessel that is pouring out love, I had to pour 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 that time doing things that fill my cup and help me learn more about myself: meditating, listening to a motivational speaker, reading a good book, speaking to my ancestors, and strengthening my body, which I believe also strengthens the mind. I also sometimes try to just let myself be during that time—to sit in my backyard without an agenda. As high-achieving business owners it can be so tempting to attach a goal even to our relaxation, but I’ve found it so beneficial to my mental health to create time to let my thoughts be free.
I’m not saying that every BIPOC or LGBTQIA business owner has to bring their identity in their work. But, if you dream of being able to show up authentically in your business or hope to help improve representation in your industry, here’s my advice: It’s gonna take a while to get to where I am, to have the confidence to walk into every room proudly and fully yourself. It’s going to be a lot of work, and it’s going to be scary sometimes.
But do the work scared, because I promise that what’s on the other side—this freedom, this comfort with who I am, and this sense of wellbeing—is so much greater than living in fear.