Copy of Supporting activism and encouraging advocacy

Veracelle Vega, left, Jeffrey Kruskall, Angelo Surmelis and Alison Phillips

HIGH POINT — The second panel of the Empowered event, titled “Empowering your workforce as well as your customers,” tackled questions including how to support activism and encourage advocacy in the workplace, as well as how to convey those company values to your customers.

Alex Herring, senior editor of Gifts & Decorative Accessories, moderated the panel of professionals including: Veracelle Vega, chief people officer of Resident, a house of direct-to-consumer brands in the home goods space including Nectar, DreamCloud, Awara, Level Sleep, 1771 Living and Bundle; Jeffrey Kruskall, owner of a consulting and executive coaching business, previously the vice president of business development for the Meyer Corp.; Angelo Surmelis, owner of home décor and lifestyle company Angelo:Home; and Alison Phillips, chief of design and co-founder of Powered by People, a B2B wholesale platform that connects makers from 46 countries to buyers in North America.

The professionals each shared their personal reasons for feeling so passionate about the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion, ranging from feeling “out of place,” as Surmelis, a Greek immigrant and homosexual man, described, to entering the workforce and noticing the lack of diversity and feeling the need to make a change, as Kruskall, a homosexual and Jewish Boston native, explained.

DEI has shaped Vega and Phillips’ careers: Vega has dedicated her entire professional career to doing DEI work, as a daughter of Philippine immigrants, and Phillips has championed women in design and STEM, a typically male-dominated field.

Each of the panelists offered their unique perspective and personal experiences as minorities in the workplace, but one point was raised by all: In order for businesses to be successful in their goals of DEI, those at the top of the company need to be authentic, and their personal stories need to be shared.

Vega shared that when Resident started a DEI committee last year, the mission when was: How do we enact change? Rather than start with an agenda, members of the committee shared personal stories, which began to help shape the committee’s direction.

“(DEI) is about giving back, having community partnerships, having diversity-focused education, workforce diversity and metrics, wellness and mentorships,” Vega said.

In addition, Kruskall emphasized the need for being your authentic self to encourage the sharing of stories from your employees. At his previous company, he started a “learnings forum” to share and learn from each other. “It reduces retention, increases morale and fosters an open culture at work.”

He noted that sharing was, in fact, always optional and made that clear to his employees. “You want to have a cultural intelligence within your company because that takes away racism if people understand and learn about each other,” Kruskall said.

Surmelis’ company has its values of DEI clearly laid out on the front of its homepage at

When asked how he came to the decision of complete transparency, knowing that some might not like it, he said, “You do get retail partners who don’t want to work with you.” But ultimately, he and his partner wanted to have a company people loved, but also not shying away from uncomfortable issues.

“You’re not going to please all people all the time. So every day we ask ourselves, ‘What are we trying to say, and what is it we want to learn?’”

The goal for each of the panelists in sharing stories is to bring those of different backgrounds together to find a common ground, something Phillips’ company, Powered by People, knows a lot about.

In connecting and uplifting artisans from 46 countries, handcrafted goods (with a strong story about its origin) reach retailers in North America and benefit individual makers, which benefits their families and communities.

Anne-Marie covers news and trends related to the home, tabletop, bath & body and gourmet categories of the gift industry and serves as managing editor for both print and digital publications.