Skip to main content

Meet Ikimi Dubose-Woodson, the Powerhouse Behind The Roots Fund

The nonprofit is making strides for diversity and inclusion in the wine industry

Janice Williams By April 18, 2022
photo collage of Ikimi Dubose-Woodson
Photo illustration by Pix

Ikimi Dubose-Woodson walks around with a labradorite crystal in her pocket. The small grayish-blue stone represents strength and perseverance, attributes that are fundamental to Dubose-Woodson, especially now as she prepares to pull off a major event: the first-ever Roots Fund Charity Auction and Gala in partnership with Zachys Wine.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” says Dubose-Woodson. “But my motto is, ‘Find what you love and let it kill you.’ I’ll probably die helping someone because that’s just who I am.”

Opening doors

Sponsored by Wine Spectator, the auction will take place at The Lighthouse in New York City’s Chelsea Piers on April 27. The mission? To support The Roots Fund, a nonprofit that offers resources to people of color interested in working in the wine industry, from financial to educational scholarships to mentorships and job placement. Dubose-Woodson is The Roots Fund’s executive director and a co-founding member along with Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy, and Tahiira Habibi, the founder of the Hue Society and a 40 Under 40 Wine Enthusiast Tastemaker.

Since launching in 2020, The Roots Fund has raised more than half a million dollars and helped 122 scholars access wine education and land employment with wineries and wine companies. Through their Rooted in France program, one scholar was awarded a six-month internship at Ruinart in Champagne, France. 

This year, the group aims to raise at least $1 million and help 200 more people. 

Dubose-Woodson adds, “What we’re doing with The Roots Fund is needed work, and I see that it’s affecting change, and I see it changing this industry. People are talking about our organization and this event in rooms that we never thought would be possible.”

A crusader for change from the start

Dubose-Woodson’s path into the wine industry wasn’t straight and narrow. The Brooklyn native once wanted to be a lawyer, but she was bitten by the hospitality bug after getting a taste of life in the kitchen as a youth member of the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program — where she first met McCoy — and working as a silver polisher at the Marriott World Trade Center. 

She says working in wine feels a lot like the days when she first entered the culinary industry.

“I was the only woman in all white male kitchens, or kitchens where I saw men of color but hardly any women. I definitely did not see many women in leadership roles,” says Dubose-Woodson. 

After graduating from Johnson & Wales University, Dubose-Woodson traveled the world, studying people and culture through food. Following her return to the U.S., she enrolled in the Marriott & Ritz Carlton management training program and became not just the youngest person, but also the first woman ever to complete the course.

That experience led her to lead culinary and management teams at various restaurants and organizations. It only fueled Dubose-Woodson’s drive to help others and shine a light on the underrepresented communities. 

“My mentor told me long ago to travel the world, and it wasn’t to study cuisines. I’m supposed to be connecting with people. It doesn’t matter what space it is. It’s about connecting people and helping others. That’s my purpose,” Dubose-Woodson said. 

While working in Washington D.C., Dubose-Woodson helped launch LEO MKT, a sustainable food market focused on global culinary experiences and providing chefs worldwide a space to showcase authentic cuisine. And she’s worked with organizations that have pushed for job opportunities and more exposure for women and people of color working in the hospitality and culinary industry.

Using her efforts to spark change in the wine industry was a natural progression. 

“With our work with The Roots Fund, I feel like we’re cracking open the egg. Everybody’s trying to figure out how to get inside,” she says.

“The hardest part for me is knowing that at some point every day, I have to convince an older white man that there needs to be space for us here. That’s a hard job. It’s exhausting. There are conversations with people and companies very well known in this industry that leave me in literal shock,” says Dubose-Woodson. “They don’t feel the need to diversify. They don’t feel the need to do anything.”

An accountability partner

Of course, it’s not an easy challenge. People say they want more diversity and inclusion in the workforce, but the actual operations of companies and organizations rarely match their messaging. 

“The hardest part for me is knowing that at some point every day, I have to convince an older white man that there needs to be space for us here. That’s a hard job. It’s exhausting. There are conversations with people and companies very well known in this industry that leave me in literal shock,” says Dubose-Woodson. “They don’t feel the need to diversify. They don’t feel the need to do anything.”

For this reason, The Roots Fund has a tight vetting process, seeking out partnerships with wineries and companies already making steps toward change.

“I always like to assess what’s being done for inclusivity without The Roots Fund. What are they doing? Do I see women on their board? Do I see people of color? People reach out to us when they want to advertise jobs, but our vetting process is to look at what’s being done internally. They’re surprised when I come back and say, ‘OK, you’re working on a diversity plan? Can you include me in one of your meetings? Can you show me what that plan looks like? What actions are you taking?’ Some wineries are caught off guard,” explains Dubose-Woodson. 

She adds, “I believe in accountability — it either gets people on board or scares the crap out of them.”

What comes next

Ensuring companies make good on the promises they’ve made, internally and externally, is all for the betterment of the wine industry. Providing more opportunities for people from all walks of life can expand wine’s reach and essentially help sustain the industry for years to come. 

Dubose-Woodson hopes that initiatives implemented by The Roots Fund can help introduce a broader spectrum of people to the world of wine and help the industry attract new drinkers. The next big event after the auction — a campus tour of several historically Black colleges — aims to do just that. Through panel discussions and wine and fine dining education, The Roots Fund hopes to inspire a new generation of Black students to consider a career in wine. 

In the meantime, there’s the auction. The charity gala and dinner will feature a musical performance from Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Kenyon Dixon and a VIP tasting of Heitz Cellar wines. Up for auction are rare wines and vineyard tours hosted by some of the most prestigious domains in Burgundy like Dujac, Drouhin, Duroché, de Montille, Thibault Liger-Belair, and Comtes Lafon. Items from American wine royalty like Heitz Cellars, Inglenook, Silver Oak Cellars, and Robert Mondavi Winery will also go under the hammer.  

The pressure is on. Fortunately for Dubose-Woodson, Zachys has been an ideal partner, assisting every step of the way. And there are plans for future Zachys and The Roots Fund initiatives in the works. 

“Zachys has been genuine, and their team reflects the changes we want to see across the industry. I love that they’re a diverse team. I love that a woman is leading the U.S. team,” says Dubose-Woodson. 

Burgundian winemakers, including Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Véronique Drouhin of Domaine Drouhin, and Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac have also been helpful. They’ve also contributed in the past; Drouhin took on two scholars to work as harvest interns last year. Seysses joined The Roots Fund board after becoming more aware of the inequalities people of color faced within the wine industry following the many social justice protests and outrage over George Floyd’s death in 2020. 

 Donating hard-to-get bottles that are likely to sell for top dollar for the upcoming auction was a no-brainer.

“The pandemic heavily affected the wine industry, and I think it exposed a lot of realities and flaws in the system. People everywhere noticed,” says Dubose-Woodson, noting that The Roots Funds partners in Burgundy were particularly interested in finding ways to collaborate and address issues surrounding diversity and inclusion within the wine industry. 

She adds, “It wasn’t me coming to the table, telling people they should do this and care about diversity and creating space for people of color. Domaines were coming to me with ideas and what they wanted to do to change and how we could help them make those changes.”

And Dubose-Woodson is clear about the change she wants to make. “We just want to let people know that they’re capable. You can work here. There’s the ability to have equity and ownership in this space. We’re providing the tools so people can do that.”