Brewbound Live 2019: Graci Harkema on Moving Craft Brewing Toward Equity

Former Founders Brewing Company diversity and inclusion director Graci Harkema discussed her experiences navigating the fallout from a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based craft brewery, and she shared insights on how the craft beer industry can diversify its talent pool as well as its consumer base last month during the Brewbound Live business conference in Santa Monica.

Harkema joined Founders in January 2019 after a former employee, Tracy Evans, filed a now-settled lawsuit alleging that the company fostered a “racist internal corporate culture.” The company recruited Harkema from a diversity and inclusion role at a tech company to help fix its culture. Because the lawsuit had already begun to make local headlines, Harkema’s move resulted in backlash from friends and associates.

“It really was hard, but I also believed in making a difference,” she said.

Once at Founders, Harkema conducted focus groups with staff members from minority groups and found that the employee base as a whole supported the idea of a more inclusive environment. As Evans’ lawsuit remained in the news and the transcript of a deposition leaked revealing that the general manager of Founders’ Detroit taproom declined to acknowledge whether Evans and several other prominent African-Americans were black, Harkema urged company leadership to publicly take accountability.

“My suggestion was, ‘Hey, we need to own this. We need to take responsibility, and we need to say we messed up,’” she said.

Founders leadership did not take her advice, however, and Harkema resigned four days after the deposition leaked.

Since leaving Founders, Harkema has established Graci LLC, a consulting practice to promote diversity and inclusion in the brewing, distilling and hospitality industries.

“Diversity is everything that we have that we bring to the table,” she said. “Inclusion is making sure that we have a seat at the table and a voice at the table.”

For craft beer, an industry in which employees and consumers are largely white and male, Harkema said diversity is crucial to maintaining growth within the industry, which has slowed in recent years.

“We can only target white, middle-aged men for so long, as we all know, and we want to continue to grow our companies, we want to grow our businesses. We need to increase sales,” she said. “The reason and way we are going to increase sales is by diversifying our market force and diversifying our consumer base.”

Harkema advised craft brewers to connect with business groups, such as local chambers of commerce, to hire employees from underrepresented communities. She noted that many new craft breweries open in neighborhoods where the residents are often more diverse than the staff and clientele.

“By ignoring the issue, it only gets larger,” she said.

Watch her entire conversation with Brewbound editor Justin Kendall above, and subscribe to Brewbound on YouTube to see more presentations from the conference.

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