Employee resource groups, or ERGs, exist to help coworkers find common ground and community. At Thrive Market, the Black Thriver Union (or BTU) is one such group.
Founded in early 2020 by Kesha McNair, who oversees Engagement and Special Projects on Thrive Market’s Member Services team, the BTU comprises more than 20 BIPOC employees and allies. Its members have used their collective might to make a positive impact on the community through partnerships with Black Girls Code and Project 43.
Above all, the group offers its members a powerful sense of fellowship. In the BTU, employees have a safe haven to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences—something that has been especially welcome and necessary amid a years-long nationwide reckoning with systemic racism.
We gathered (virtually) with a few members of the BTU to discuss what being a part of the group means to them and where they hope to see it go from here.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
Austin Parks (he/him): Supervisor, Member Services
Marcus Hansen (he/him): Operations Supervisor, Member Services
Kadeesha Lockworth (she/her): Demand Planner, Food/Meat & Seafood
Sefanit Bethune (she/her): Assistant Controller, Accounting
John Reid (he/him): Senior Financial Planning & Analysis Manager, Finance
Kirby Stirland, Thrive Market Editorial Lead: To start out, in a word (or a few), how are you feeling going into 2022?
John: Honestly, overwhelmed. Me and my wife just moved [and] we have a newborn. At least for me, when it comes to pandemic things…life and family changes are front and center right now, as opposed to anything going on out there.
Austin: It’s been a wild start to the New Year so far. My household kicked it off with COVID, which was not great. You never really want to start with too many negative events and I’m a bit of a superstitious person myself. So I’m taking some time to regroup and put some positive light onto it.
Sefanit: Similarly, we were hoping 2022 would be different. It’s almost like a repeat. But I’m hopeful things will get better, or we’ll get used to this pandemic. We just have to live with it and create some kind of normalcy. I have a 12-year-old, and doing virtual learning was horrible on so many levels. I don’t want that to repeat, so I’m hopeful things will get better—they have to!
Kadeesha: I’m feeling excited. I’m still pretty new here at Thrive; haven’t made a year yet. I’m looking forward to all the new opportunities and initiatives that we have going on. Especially coming from the fashion/CPG industry…it’s really refreshing to be at a consciously sustainable company like this now.
Marcus: With all that’s happened, there’s been a sense of confusion and exhaustion. We haven’t stopped to take a breath. It’s just been full steam ahead since the jump…head down, continue to push forward without really taking the time to deal with what’s going on. There’s been this thought process: as long as we continue to force normalcy we’ll get back to where we need to be. It’s been two years now and we haven’t really gotten to that point.
John: It’s interesting you say that though. People have been so focused on work/life balance and trying to bifurcate. The corporate world as a whole has been trying to blur that line for a very long time. But COVID completely blew the line away, right? There is no differentiation between home and work and life now. That’s kind of the crazy part. You go from one thing to the next and never stop. So that’s the interesting thing to me about COVID. It’s crazy how much more people are at home and feel like they’re not doing more personal things. It’s wild because we’re all here.
Kadeesha: It’s kind of funny because while I agree with everything you’re saying, I’m coming from a little bit of a different perspective. At my previous company we were back in the office in June of 2020—forced back into the office. This time last year I was still in the office. So I had that moment of like, I was tired of being at home but I didn’t want to go back, and once we were back I was like we should not be here, and now I’m home again and I’m like thank God I’m home.
Sefanit: My perspective is so different as a mom. But I agree completely that the line is no longer [there between] your home and your work. Everybody can reach you at any time and you’re expected to be there. At the same time, I can go pick up my son, we don’t have to hire anybody. So even if I work a lot more, [COVID] did create some flexibility as well.
Kirby: How did you first get involved with the BTU, and what has being a member been like for you? Have you ever been part of a similar organization before, or wished there was one where you worked?
Kadeesha: I was really surprised that we had something like [the BTU] at Thrive. I’ve never had any kind of groups around marginalized people in my work, at all, ever. The last time I’d heard of a BTU was when I was in college, and I was a part of that. I was happy to have that community here, especially being that I started remote and didn’t get the chance to meet people organically in the office. This was a really nice way to meet and connect with more people.
John: Sefanit, you reached out to me week 1, week 2? It was pretty quick. Sefanit Slacked me to ask if it interested me and I was like, it absolutely does. I’ve had both experiences between some smaller companies not really being in a place to have something like [the BTU] from a headcount standpoint, and being at a larger bank that had every group ever…larger companies are more formally hip to that game. What that means there is a different thing, but they have it. It was nice in our first couple of meetings just to know the numbers…like, just to come in and say oh, there’s actually a decent amount of people here, a wide cross section. It’s something that I was excited to know was there.
Austin: It was super super exciting in the initial kickoff phase and planning when we were still in the office. I will say, since then, while we have been able to accomplish a few events that I feel very proud of, I also kind of feel like I’ve been walking with one shoe on because what impact can we really have purely being virtual all the time? When we’re trying to take BTU and go hit the community, it really starts to feel kind of strange after a while. It can feel like what next…that’s virtual?
Marcus: To Austin’s point, I definitely felt the same way–once we transitioned into virtual it felt like some of the energy slowed and that was kind of unfortunate…it was hard to maintain the same energy and participation. But to John’s point…all of us know that we have always had this resource. As we’ve gone through different events that have happened across the country…you can see it in our Slack channel, people discussing things in there, communicating their feelings on different events over the last two years. It’s definitely created a trusting environment where I really do feel I can share how I feel. There are things I post in there that I’ve been hesitant to post in General because I didn’t know if it’d affect someone in a negative way or get pushback. And we’re trying to protect the sanctity of corporate life, while in the BTU channel I have full freedom to express who I am.
John: I am a huge believer in the power of the group chat. It can connect you in a way that puts a nice middle ground between actual interaction and really high-level check-ins. Candidly, I’ve never believed in [the idea of “bringing your whole self to work”] for a variety of reasons. But that BTU channel is a decent middle ground…between the general Thrive chat and what you’d text to your friends at home. BTU is further along that line in a way that I think people need professionally, which is a good thing, and that maybe wouldn’t work the same way if we were in person, because you’d end up talking directly to the two or three people you’re close to. The chat in this dynamic maybe opens up a broader discussion for posting and sharing, and that’s a good thing.
Sefanit: Before Thrive I worked for Nike, which is a much bigger company, and we did have a Black network organization. It was truly exciting to see a smaller company doing this. I was very amazed how many Black employees we had. I had never seen most of the people until we had a BTU meeting. That’s when I was like, Oh ok, there’s more diversity than I see in my immediate group. For sure, BTU gave me a safe place to talk about what’s going on outside, like Black Lives Matter. When I went to regular [work] meetings, most of the time, it was business as usual. It was really hard to pretend nothing was happening that is impacting you and your family personally. BTU is definitely a safe place for me to share my thoughts, because the members can understand where I am coming from and they are more aware of the environment around us. Also, I think BTU is the reason Thrive is behind the BLM movement. It is really a platform the company used to advocate for racial justice.
Marcus: And it acted almost like a buffer…I had made a few posts over the last few years in the general Slack channel relating to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, things like that. Those initial conversations happened in the BTU channel. That confidence I gained [from] the responses I got in that channel put me in a position where I felt more comfortable to go ahead and post some of these things in the general channel for the greater good of the company as a whole. All of those generally ended up well received.
Kirby: Let’s talk a bit more about that. While issues of systemic racism are hardly new, it seems like people have been engaging with them in a new way lately, particularly since summer 2020. What has it been like for you to watch that collective conversation unfold, and how has the BTU been a resource?
Austin: In a lot of ways, the timing of the creation of the BTU was spot on for everything that was going on. That was a good thing, I felt like. It kind of allowed us to handle what we wanted to say as a business and it prepared Black employees to have the safe spaces we’ve talked about. But also, it was like, 150 heads at Thrive Market were looking at a collective group of 25 people and saying what do we do? You can have people who, in all good spirits, want to participate, learn, engage. But sometimes it’s kind of like, well I also need to work. It’s an interesting balancing act of like, I’m just trying to get my coffee right now, not tell you how you can teach your kid not to be racist. There are times when you’re like, I just don’t want to talk about it right now.
Marcus: That was spot on, Austin.
John: Marcus, you kind of touched on this with how certain conversations sort of start [with the BTU] and go outwards. I feel like summer 2020 was…ok, y’all gotta wait, we’re going to take some time to figure out how we really feel about this and we’ll get back to you. Because I mean, the conversation has been so long-standing. On the one hand…events were transpiring and it was so blatant that none of the standard denials could work. When you’re talking about things in the shadows you can dance around it: maybe it’s not really like that. But there were things that were happening in the last two years that there were no caveats to. So people had to address that directly. I had a lot of friends who were not talking outwardly; they were only talking in their direct groups. They were just trying to figure out, how do I feel? Getting their arms around it, then coming back to the “teaching moment” part of the conversation. BTU served and still serves that. People want an outlet to first get to their feelings, then they will start to figure out what that means to the broader space. It’s nice to know you have a community structure you can go to and start to work through that from the inside out.
Marcus: It’s also a tricky situation, at least in my mind. It’s almost like, as a person of color or a person of a different gender or anybody that’s been battling this sense of isolation or not belonging, we create this group to benefit us, to be more part of our community within the company, but then in some instances it almost feels like it further isolates us. There’s not a lot of people outside of BTU knocking out the door to see what’s going on. There have been a few people, and that’s fantastic. But at the same time, I wish there was more. I wish there was a comfort level on the other side to be like hey, I really want to know what’s going on in BTU. It’s a matter of finding a way to make everybody feel comfortable and inclusive with what this group represents. Our intention was never to separate, but I feel like there’s almost a sense that that’s what it is. We’re really not doing that, we’re just trying to get a group to collectively speak on the things that impact us within a broader scope of the organization. It’s hard for some people to see it that way.
John: Right on. It’s tough! By nature, people gravitate to the ERG they identify with. But it’s a weird dance. There are multiple groups and you’re like, well if they put something on the calendar I’ll show up. But are you hitting it on a random Tuesday just seeing what’s up? It’s a weird dynamic that I think is inherent to most of the groups. If you don’t feel like you’re in that group you probably wait for it to come to you.
Austin: Just to clarify, talking about that balancing act. I’m all for the BTU. I am very glad that it happened. Thrive Market did it right. We were having this conversation and had full support to do it—not as a reactionary thing. This was proposed, encouraged, and we started making it happen. As that DEI explosion happened [in Summer 2020], if Thrive had been reactionary, I don’t know if I would have immediately said, sign me up.
Austin: It would have had that corporate vibe. Thrive really let the Black Thrivers put this together. And in spite of COVID and the virtual frustrations, I want to actively commit where I can and continue to participate. And once we’re all back in person and we can really be hitting the community live, it’ll all be worth it.
Marcus: It’s definitely sweet that it happened organically, to your point, Austin. It would have been super strange if after summer 2020 they’d been like let’s start a BTU group! We would have been like what? Get out of here. I’m glad the flow has seemed organic since the start. Now it’s just maintaining that momentum, and finding a way to really share this messaging from this group to the larger team more consistently.
Kirby: What are you inspired by right now?
Austin: For myself, it’s reflection of how much I have been missing out on. Plans that had to get cancelled. My partner of 10 years and I finally just got married in November. Going through COVID, as much as it wasn’t inspiring in the direct sense, we did have to have these reflection moments…the sense of time being precious keeps being thrown in your face. I was so comfortable being a homebody, I’m a simple person to entertain and my husband’s the same way. And we don’t want to do that anymore. There’s so many places we’ve talked about traveling. There’s a hunger now to really get out there and see the world. That’s where my current fire is. To one, continue to do better at my job so I can fund said things…
John: My man!
Austin: …And get off of letting the time pass and really try to grab it by the horns.
Sefanit: I’m actually an introvert, so staying at home…that’s why I’m an accountant, right? It’s fine. But as time goes on, it’s getting too long, so I realize how much I miss family and friends. This thing is just not going away. So we have to find a safe way of reconnecting with people. Even as an introvert, I really do miss that human interaction, even with my team members. My family is in Ethiopia, so to be able to travel…things you take for granted that have been taken away and trying to go back and appreciate it more. So I would say reconnecting is what’s inspiring me.
Kadeesha: I’m inspired by just all of the change that we’ve seen during this time in the pandemic. Because I think before, a lot of us were on this hamster wheel of work and vacation and trying to fit in your personal life, but really just work, and balancing that. Now there’s so many different things that have changed in a short amount of time. And yeah, some things have been negative, but it opens up the possibility for a lot of positive change too. I feel like I’ve never been in this kind of environment before in my lifetime where so many things are changing, and it opens up endless possibilities in every aspect of life. For me that’s really exciting.
John: Yeah, it’s an exciting time because I think, at least for me, I felt like…summer 2020 through January, February ‘21 I was so micro-focused on at-home things. Like sans election, nothing outside really mattered to me that much. But for all the ups and downs, when 2021 started I think I hoped it would be better but I didn’t believe it would be. 2022, I unequivocally believe this will be a better year than last year. I do. Who knows, it could be wild, but I’m open to any outcome. That’s what this has prepared me for. Any outcome is on the table now. It could be cool, it could not be cool, but I do feel excited for this year.
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