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Published in Economic Development

Q&A: Christina Keller President & CEO, Cascade Engineering Inc.

BY Sunday, February 16, 2020 11:00am

Christina Keller has led family-owned plastic-injection molding manufacturer Cascade Engineering Inc. since 2018. Keller recently spoke at an event focused on women’s leadership and increasing opportunities for women and others in the West Michigan workforce, and detailed the efforts Cascade Engineering has taken to increase diversity and foster an inclusive working environment. A 10-year veteran of Cascade Engineering, Keller spoke with MiBiz about why being inclusive is important for West Michigan businesses that want to keep growing. 

How does diversity and inclusion fit into Cascade Engineering?

Cascade is a triple bottom line company, so we focus on people, planet, profits. Diversity and inclusion is a key piece of our founder’s vision. We believe diversity drives innovation. We believe that diversity drives you to be a better organization overall. We’ve been on this journey for over 40 years, creating an inclusive work environment. It’s not just about having a diverse group, but it’s also the inclusivity. 

Christina Keller president & CEO, Cascade Engineering Inc. COURTESY PHOTO

How do you put that into practice?

We have our leaders go through the Institute for Healing Racism, we have diversity theater for all of our employees where we challenge ourselves with scenarios that have happened within the organization that we then talk about in a group setting as to why it was good or bad. We really create a culture that recognizes that inclusivity is a positive value that we want to embrace. The environment is super important.

How did you get to this point as a company?

We learned a lot of that through our prisoner re-entry program. A lot of people were having about a 20-percent success rate with hiring people with former felonies or welfare records, and what we found was if you really sit with people and understand what the barriers are and what they’re experiencing, you can create a lot more retention. We’re up to 90-percent retention with a lot of those groups now because we’ve addressed childcare, transportation, other types of things that might be barriers — sometimes unseen barriers — for people to progress. It’s really about sitting with people to understand what their needs are so that we can help bring people forward. For example, we got public transportation to come out to Cascade Engineering from downtown Grand Rapids. That helped a lot of people. We’re looking at the whole system and how we can support our employees.

What are some best practices for creating this kind of environment?

Everything at the beginning is uncomfortable at some level. It’s just staying with it. We did not have success our first time around. We had success because we had the will to continue and the openness to be able to fail. You might have awkward conversations, you might be having difficult situations, but you can embrace those and learn from them. Create a diverse pipeline of candidates — have at least one female candidate, have at least one candidate of color. You’re more likely to be able to at least have exposure to people who might be a great opportunity to add to your team. That’s a pipeline across the board, across the organization, and with board membership. 

For you personally, what made you decide to lead the company this way?

I spent my younger career traveling. I wanted to solve problems internationally. I went to Africa and Latin America, and it was an experience in Africa I had where I noticed people were homeless, asked a local why they were homeless, and they said it was because World Vision gave grain, and all the local grain farmers went out of business. This whole side of unintended consequences really struck me. We can really do bad when we’re trying to do good. I recognize that in bigger cities and international locations, I was outside of the network I knew. I was really inspired to come back to Grand Rapids where I’m from and to join a privately held company because I believe regions are units of change and we can change West Michigan for the better because of the power of the networks, and we understand some of those unintended consequences in a deep way. My passion is around making a positive impact, and I found the fit with businesses because I believe they are a force that can be used for good.

Is diversity and inclusion everyone’s job?

I think we put a lot of burden on women to get women in power, or on African Americans to get more African Americans in power, and I think we need to all collectively work at it together. If somebody says it’s not their problem, they might be early on their journey and be a little bit nervous to stick their neck out. We need more people who are in a position of power and comfort and ability to be able to think this way. I think we need to make sure people are OK with different viewpoints, with different ways of thinking. If that’s something someone doesn’t want to take on right now, they might end up driving their company not into an expansive, innovative way. 

How do you feel about the direction West Michigan is going in terms of women in leadership?

It’s great to see more women in leadership roles. You look at the major industries that we have —  you have a furniture maker (Herman Miller) with Andi Owen; you have a car maker (General Motors) with Mary Barra; we have an energy company (Consumers Energy) with Patti Poppe; we’ve got the city with Rosalynn Bliss; we’ve got the state with Gretchen Whitmer. We’ve got engineering with Cascade Engineering. This is pretty exciting momentum to have women in these key leadership roles. I’m excited about where we’re going. 

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