A car pulled into a drive-thru at a Taco Bell in Council Bluffs, Iowa, late one weekend night in 1987, and the customer demanded that no Black people make his food, yelling a racial slur into the speaker. The store’s general manager, a Black man named James Fripp, spoke to the customer when he pulled up to the window. After more obscenities and a demand to see the real manager, he sped off.
Another Black employee on the shift that night shared how impressed he was by how poised and calm Fripp remained in the face of bigotry and hate. The employee told him, “I don’t believe that you just handled that the way you did. I would have lost my mind and probably have said something bad and gotten fired.” Fripp responded, “And then, they would have won.”
It was a turning point for Fripp, who last year was named chief equity and inclusion officer of Yum! Brands, the company behind Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, and The Habit Burger Grill—with more than 50,000 restaurants in 150 countries. It’s a global role that has Fripp reporting directly to the CEO.
That pivotal 1987 experience helped solidify his mission to hire more minority employees and mentor those who are working their way up in their careers.
“If they’re an underrepresented minority, sometimes they just haven’t had the opportunity,” Fripp says. “What I wanted people to know is, you matter, and you can be successful.”
The Air Force brat’s first job was making tacos as a team member at a Taco Bell in Nebraska. After a number of promotions, he took what he thought would be a temporary post in human resources for the company, but he had found his calling. The position became permanent, and he worked his way up running Taco Bell’s national HR efforts before joining the parent company and ascending to his current C-Suite role.
Fripp’s restaurant experience helps him connect with employees he meets in the field and get insights from them to address issues that may arise. In the spring of 2020, he was working on adding more women leaders and improving diversity in the corporate positions when the pandemic hit; Fripp worried that equity and inclusion would take a back seat to the health crisis. But the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor pushed these issues back into the spotlight. “Everything that we had planned on doing just expedited to warp speed,” he says.
For Fripp, equity is about more than just having the right percentage of employees of different groups. He focuses on building authentic relationships that lead to trust, which opens channels between employees and creates a more equitable and inclusive environment. He embraces relationships with younger minority coworkers and is always looking for ways to mentor them and lean into the responsibility of being a Black business leader.
“I don’t necessarily show up for me,” he says. “I show up for them. And I find when I show up for them, I’m actually a better version of me.”