Jeffery Keys

Jeffrey Keys

Jeffery Keys (’96)
President, Diversity Food Brands LLC

I head minority-owned Diversity Food Brands, a consolidator, operator and licensor of food service brands with a primary focus on concessions common to airports, motorways, college campuses and hospitals. I started in restaurant operations when I was very young, working in fast food places before getting my undergraduate degree in economics. I became a commercial banker until I came across a company that did specialized lending for franchising. Eventually, I formed Diversity Food Brands. It’s not a typical career path ― from operations to finance to entrepreneurship.

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What is the most important skill we should be teaching our students today?

Patience. There’s so much emphasis on instant success that I think it encourages people to take shortcuts with very poor planning. Most of your learnings come from the journey. It took me 30 years to be an overnight success. So, just be patient.

What’s the one change you’d like to see happen in business today?

I think sustainability, recycling and becoming eco-friendly has to be the way that businesses evolve. I’d like to see the best and brightest of our new leaders in business really make a commitment to reshape this industry so that it’s more eco-friendly. At Diversity Food Brands, we try to do things like use recyclables, biodegradable plates and napkins, and cut down on landfill. It is expensive, and that’s why it’s difficult for many small businesses to make the commitment.

What’s your one-sentence definition of success?

Having enough victories to feel accomplished, but at the same time enough losses to keep you humble; enough friends to keep you distracted, but enough enemies to keep you focused.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten?

I was 18 and trying to figure out what I was going to do. My father started as an engineer and was getting into marketing, and the advice he gave me was, “Do something that you love. A job without passion is a cycle of imitation.” The worst thing you can do is spend 20 years doing a job you hate because you thought it paid a lot. You’ll find out that the cost of that job is much higher than what you earn.

What are the lessons you have learned from being a person of color in leadership?

One thing that’s great about business is it crosses physical boundaries, nationalities, religions. Business is a great unifier. On one hand, you want to embrace your ethnicity so you can have an impact on that corporate environment, so that you can interject your DNA. On the other hand, you don’t want to be in a box or put yourself in situations where you’re called on for the “minority” answer. You want to represent and participate in the bigger environment.

 

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