Graci Harkema wants to break the craft beer industry’s bearded white male stereotype. In January, she became diversity and inclusion director at Founders Brewing Co., where she’s working to give employees opportunities to “be their authentic selves and achieve their goals.” Her hire followed a pair of controversies at Founders. The company reneged on cancelling its membership in the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce in a show of support for the LGBTQ community related to a gubernatorial endorsement. The brewery later faced allegations of racial discrimination from a former employee who filed a federal lawsuit, which is currently ongoing. Harkema spoke with MiBiz about her approach to diversity and inclusion at Founders, which employs more than 600 people.
What was it like coming to Founders on the heels of recent controversies?
It was really intense, to say the least, and it still is very intense. From an internal perspective, I have been welcomed very well from the employees. What I gather is they were excited to have someone also representing them, someone that is helping to execute and exemplify the principles of our Founders culture. I also gather that they were happy to have somebody as the champion that isn’t necessarily in HR who they can feel comfortable to share their experiences with, but they don’t have to feel like they’re telling on someone or that they’re complaining, but more so that it’s constructive and productive.
How would you describe the community’s response?
There are a lot of people that have read very one-sided social media articles or that didn’t have the full insight of what happened in the fall, and there have been a lot of media outlets that had created the narrative that was separate from our narrative. I’ve had people in my life who I thought were very supportive who I am no longer friends with because they didn’t believe in the work that we’re doing. … That’s heartbreaking, but I also have to believe that as we continue to do this work and the more that people see the impact we’re creating from an internal and external perspective, people will believe what we’re doing is genuine and authentic.
How have you worked on diversity and inclusion internally?
I’ve met with nearly every employee of the company and with the department leads to understand how we can best support those departments and those employees. From there, I created focus groups for people of color, females and also those who identify as LGBTQ, because I also understand that their work experiences in a traditionally male-dominated industry may be different than what we see more traditionally. I started doing diversity and inclusion training. We’ve done three phases thus far. We also did unconscious bias training. The premise of that was to understand that as humans, we all have a bias, but what’s most important is how we react to that bias and how we allow ourselves and how we allow others to be able to learn about one another, so we’re not letting our bias be based on previous experiences and affect current situations.
What are the benefits for companies that focus on diversity and inclusion?
We have a global presence and a global customer, and in order to attract our products to our customers, we need to ensure that we’re connecting with them, that we connect with them on an emotional level and we connect with them in regards to visibility. When you’re consuming a product, it’s easier to be a consumer of that product when you see others like you consuming the same product. Ensuring that we’re not just simply catering to a white male with a beard, it ensures that we’re being creative in how we can reach other audiences.
Does the diversity and inclusion work help provide business opportunities?
If you only catered to one demographic, eventually, that one demographic is not going to be as large as it once was. We’re going to have new consumers that are hitting the market. It’s important to stay competitive to the newer consumers coming on to the scene as well. Otherwise, you wouldn’t grow.
Do you think the craft beer industry has some catching up to do on this front?
Coming from the technology industry, most large companies in technology have established diversity and inclusion practices as a part of their business. In the brewing industry, it’s very, very new. The aspect that I’m most excited about isn’t just about Founders and what Founders is doing, it’s all of this that we’re doing to prioritize diversity and inclusion in the craft beer industry as a whole.
What’s the opportunity for breweries to embrace inclusion?
As we look at the beer industry, historically, it has not been very diverse. Especially with such a large brewery since we have grown immensely, I’m thrilled to stay competitive with what other large companies are doing, but create a legacy where people will look to Founders and know that this is a place where everyone is welcome and supported and can grow their careers.
Do you think employers’ commitments to fostering inclusion have progressed over time?
I really do. I think looking forward to the future, it will continue to be equally as important, if not more important, especially when you think of Grand Rapids. We are bringing a lot of new talent to Grand Rapids and our city is more diverse than it used to be 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, because we have a lot of large employers here. It’s absolutely crucial, not just for Grand Rapids, but for industry as a whole, that we are focusing on diversity and implementing inclusion from a business standpoint. It’s important to stay competitive as a business and it’s also important for retention.
How is Founders working to spread these practices to the rest of the industry?
We want to be known to be a leader in this space. We wouldn’t be where we’re at without learning. We had opportunities in the fall where we looked in the mirror and realized we want to be better, and we can do better. That’s our commitment to our employees and to our customers. We know what we’ve experienced isn’t going to be something that’s brand new in the industry, but we do want to take our experiences, learn from them and grow from them and help others as well.
Interview conducted and condensed by Sydney Smith.
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