Interview conducted and formatted by Maisha Kudumu
Coordinating an interview with Jen White is no easy feat, but definitely a worthwhile honor. The busy mom conducted this interview as she transported her eight-year-old daughter, Marley to soccer practice. But she was excited to talk about how her experience with GRID as a previous Outreach Coordinator and current client manifested into entrepreneurship. Jen’s wine importing company, Roots and Vines, is completely led and funded by Black women and truly an example of women creating spaces to empower women.
Tell me a little bit about your family dynamic.
I am a single parent. And it’s just me and Marley living together. I greatly appreciate the GRID benefits of having solar. I had a $300 credit this month on my SDG&E bill.
Who are you as a person?
I am a passionate, fun-loving, world traveler who loves to connect with people and create sustainable pipelines between the US and Africa. I’ve been doing that for a long time.
As a single parent, how do you do that?
I organize trips for other people. When I organize trips, I am able to go for a discount. And I’m able to bring my daughter. She’s had the benefits of traveling to SA (South Africa), Ghana, and Zambia. It’s important because I didn’t have that benefit as a child. It’s important to enable her to see the world and feel like a global citizen. She truly does. [Also] priorities; I don’t buy clothes. I spend my money on travel.
How are you creating these pipelines between the US and Africa?
For the last 20 years there has been a policy called AGOA [African Growth and Opportunity Act] that allows for duty free imports from Africa to the US. It was started by the Congressional Black Caucus, but they haven’t been publicizing it. So companies like BMW and Chevron benefit. They’ll set up their factories in Africa. The BMW factory is in South Africa! We wanted to get in the game and show that it is possible to benefit. We are using wine.
It is really about Black women sustaining these industries for generations but never reaping the benefits. We learned Black women are the primary farmers in SA. Being from California, we know about the Latina and Filipina women grape workers movement. But we had never heard of Black women picking grapes. Then they told us the workers would get paid in sludge, the cloudy unsellable wine. So alcoholism developed as a result. Much like on the reservations. When apartheid ended, they had to start literacy programs to target these farms. It was like slavery. They had families living on these plantation vineyards for generations, not reading, not leaving the plantation, just drinking for generations.
Now there are these social movements in South Africa saying they have fair labor practices and care about their workers. But we wanted to know how we can empower Black women; when were Black women going to get paid? White vineyards don’t value Black woman wine workers so they can’t get any visibility they can't get into the stores. Half of our investors are not even wine-drinkers [, they just connect with] the idea of wanting to connect with other Black women and invest in Africa. Wine has become our first attempt at creating this pipeline.
The power of Black consumer spending–if you look around the globe, it’s like $5 Trillion. Our mission was if we just supported Black businesses with 25% of our spending, that would generate $1.2 trillion dollars for Black businesses. If we do a self-imposed African tax and tax ourselves 10% every year, that would create $120 billion dollars to replace business loans, college loans, and all the loans and funding we could never get. We could fund them ourselves. Our wine is our first effort. We picked South Africa because back in the ‘80s we were anti-apartheid activists. There was a divestment campaign thanks to many Back Americans and they credit us. On my trips, I highlight the historical connection and how we have a role to each other and each other's liberation. That’s our larger vision; the wine is our first example.
Can you tell me more about Roots and Vines?
It was a result of a trip to South Africa in November of 2018. When we got back, I started assessing the interest and doing the research and looking at the possibilities. We had our first retreat in 2019, we formalized the LLC in April 2020, and that’s when we closed the investments we had raised. Our goal was to raise $50K. We got 10 Black women to invest $5000 each; that took us about a year to do.
We want to change the conversation about wine. If Black women have been creating these products for generations, we want to control the import market which is the largest profit margin. When you think of wine, we want to think about Black women and wine mastery. If we work together and talk about what we can manufacture in Africa. Not just wine, but so many products.
What are some of your most recent accomplishments with Roots and Vines?
We just got our licenses approved this month - our import, wholesale, and offsite retail license - after nine months. We jumped through all the hoops and got that done. We imported our first two pallets of wine last year in the middle of COVID. COVID started right when we came back from our procurement trip to SA. All the parties we thought we were going to throw didn’t happen. But we were able to import from four different Black winemakers. We have the first Black women winemaker to graduate from Stellenbosch and first Black women winemaker to graduate from Elsenberg,the top winemaking universities in SA that didn’t allow Black people to attend before aparteheid. We also opened up a pop up Shop with the Sister Circle for the month of June [to host] wine tasting and create space for wine and art. It was a wine and art gallery. I was accepted into the San Diego Chamber of Commerce Urban Business Accelerator Program. The San Diego Women’s Business Center is also featuring us for Business for Women’s history month. But our biggest accomplishment is that we were able to get 10 Black women to invest $5000 each to connect with Africa. We are onto something. We were reviewed in Suite Life Magazine in 2020.
Switching over to solar: why are solar and GRID’s mission important to you? How do you use solar to tie together all your facets of activism?
First of all, I am in these spaces of import and export. Africa is in dire demand of solar. Why are they in the dark and why are they using cold water? Anyone with a solar business should be exporting to Africa. They have nothing but sun. I was on a call with one of my partners recently and they had no power.
I always wanted to go green and have solar. I did some homework and found out GRID was a nonprofit, state-funded and actually free. I loved it. I was a single mom and just had my daughter, she was 2. I was excited about GRID and also wanted my neighbors involved. We have to get out in the community, they have to see us. Making our services known and differentiating our services from the for profits. I was wholeheartedly in that mission and glad to be able to give something back to my communities, my neighbors, one who has known me since I was born. Being able to do that through GRID increased my credibility in the community tremendously.
How has GRID helped you with entrepreneurship?
Definitely through savings. I haven't paid an electric bill since 2018. It’s been golden for my electricity. That’s a blessing! Especially as a single parent. Also, to be able to see a non profit organization operate and grow and take care of its employees.
What is your life philosophy?
Love is my religion. Love, self-care and human-connection. Reflecting each other’s greatness is a very sustainable way to live. That's what I bring to the Sister Circle and try to share. A lot of Black women don’t have those connections.