After a deposition leaked in the racial discrimination lawsuit filed against Grand Rapids-based Founders Brewing Co., the brewery again made national headlines when Graci Harkema, its diversity and inclusion director, publicly resigned after less than a year in the position. Founders went on to settle the lawsuit, although the case has remained a topic of conversation in the craft beer industry. Meanwhile, Harkema has started her own business, Graci LLC, to focus on sharing diversity and inclusion best practices within the adult beverage industry.
What was it like for you to leave Founders so publicly?
Exiting so publicly certainly was very intense. I did not realize that my resignation would hit national news and be covered by the likes of The Washington Post and NBC and The Chicago Tribune. The reason why I posted my resignation on social media was due to the advice of my attorney, to ensure that I was being open and transparent about my reasons for leaving in order to prevent others, including Founders, from saying that I left for reasons that were not true. It certainly was very intense, especially with a lot of media interviews afterward. However, as intense as it was, I believe that it was important for me to be open and transparent with the public on what I stood for and what my values were.
When did you realize you wanted to start your own business?
I didn’t realize I was willing to start my own business until I had the demand for it. I resigned without knowing what I was going to do. Within a week of my resignation, I had nine breweries and distilleries, primarily from West Michigan and a few from the West Coast of the country, reach out and tell me that they appreciated me being so open and vulnerable, and that I was able to give them perspective on some missteps that they had in their own companies. They realized that they had an obligation to do better and they wanted to do better, and be ahead of diversity and inclusion challenges that they were seeing, before it would turn into an escalated situation or a lawsuit.
What has your new company allowed you to do?
Most notably, I spoke at the Brewbound conference in L.A., where it was a large beer conference with some big players in beer, most notably MillerCoors. It specifically was about how we can move toward equity within beer, and what are some missteps that we’ve seen, and how can we learn from that.
What’s on the horizon for 2020?
My goal is to continue to be not just open and engaged in the industry, but really be a voice for all identities in the industry, and to be able to elevate the other voices that perhaps have been silenced. I’m writing a book as well. I’m working with a public relations firm on finding literary agents to pitch my story to publishers. The overall premise of the book is a memoir of my entire life story, but the themes are overcoming adversity and also driving toward your purpose. Right now, my clients are breweries, and then I’m having conversations currently with some restaurant groups. It’s primarily in Grand Rapids because I’m still living here. However, I do have some other clients that I’ve engaged with who are in larger cities.
What are some of the common issues among companies in the craft beverage industry?
The most common by far is they’re having challenges in building a diverse workforce, and that ties into the second challenge of having an inclusive environment. Most importantly, especially when it comes to building a diverse workforce, is those in hiring capacities need to realize that your workforce is only going to be diverse if you are intentional on having it be diverse. Often times, when there’s issues, especially when it comes to breweries’ hiring practices, they’ve been started by groups of folks who are very similar to one another.
As the company grew, they were thinking, ‘OK, who in my circle would be a good fit here? Who do we know that we would want to work here?’ Chances are those people are exactly like them. Then it becomes this multiplying ripple effect where we’d just continuously hire people who are exactly like us. If people like us in that core group are not diverse, chances are who we’re hiring is not going to be diverse. It’s important to make intentional efforts.
How do you think the Founders situation informs conversations about diversity in the industry?
I think the silver lining of the Founders situation as a whole, even prior to my resignation because that had already hit national news, is it created an opportunity for others to have real-time conversations about injustices and discriminatory actions that we’re seeing every day. I think it made people realize, ‘Hey, this isn’t just an isolated situation,’ that really this could happen anywhere and it’s important to no longer ignore the issues.
Where does that conversation go in 2020?
It is trendy right now, and so with some organizations you hear it because it’s a hot topic and from others we’re hearing it because we’ve realized that diverse teams have proven to have higher or more increased rates of productivity. We’ve also seen a diverse consumer base result in increased sales as well.
Outside of it being trendy and outside of it being a buzzword, the true benefit to companies is you’re going to have increased sales, increased products, increased value, and more longevity as opposed to circling within the same market over and over again. As breweries are becoming more and more competitive, it’s imperative that they’re expanding who their audiences are and expanding who their internal teams are.
Where can craft beverage companies or other businesses start?
If your own interior and internal team does not have diversity — diversity of experience, diversity of background, diversity of thought — if the core internal team is very homogenous, then be intentional on networking, utilizing resources and gaining insights and perspectives from others who have a different experience than you. Those are going to be the voices that will help keep companies competitive and also help keep companies aware of some of the areas that they may be missing.
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