New BA Diversity Ambassador Addresses CBC Crowd in Nashville

One week after being named the Brewers Association’s new diversity ambassador, Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham presented to hundreds of Craft Brewers Conference attendees about the challenges of diversifying the brewing industry.

“We all want to diversify craft beer,” she said, “but why is doing this so hard?

“The question is the answer,” she added. “Because it’s hard. It’s really hard.”

Jackson-Beckham, a homebrewer and an assistant professor at Randolph College in Virginia, said she felt close with members of the beer community since getting into craft in the 2000s. Despite that feeling of comfort, she’s still wondered: “If you are my people, why don’t more people look like me?”

Recalling Tuesday’s “State of the Industry” speech in which BA chief economist Bart Watson and director Paul Gatza shared several headwinds facing small and independent brewers, Jackson-Beckham said some of the best growth opportunities lie in “exploring underexplored demographics.”

“If you’re going to grow, you cannot simply sell beer just to white dudes with beards,” she said.

According to Jackson-Beckham, beer companies have three main growth opportunities: their customers, their employees and their brand’s packaging and marketing.

For starters, Jackson-Beckham said “declaring that you care about diversity isn’t achieving anything.” Doing so, she said, only mixes up the ends with the means because diversity is an end goal.

In order to foster inclusion and equality, Jackson-Beckham said beer companies need to develop organizational habits in order to create a culture of “attitude and action.”

“If you intentionally set the standards and norms in the spaces that you have an opportunity to do so, you can change behavior rapidly,” she said.

So how does an industry consisting primarily of “white dudes with beards” achieve this?

Jackson-Beckham said beer companies need to come up with their own definition of what diversity means.

“There is no one-size-fits-all diversity,” she said. “It needs to be specific and contextually rooted in your region, in your brewery and in your organizational goals.”

Jackson-Beckham said beer companies should also connect their diversity goals to the company’s overall goals, whether that’s growth or sustainability.

Finally, she said beer companies should create a responsibility structure in which someone or a group within the organization is responsible for assessing and discussing diversity issues. And, she said, the companies need to do more than just diversity training, which she called “painful and awful” because once that training is over, employees tend to believe there’s no more work to do.

However, setting measurable and achievable diversity goals does not equate to a quota, Jackson-Beckham said. Brewers should set goals such as hiring staff to make sure their employees reflect the community and are able to better connect with new consumers.

Jackson-Beckham also cautioned brewery leaders about perceived barriers, which they may not realize exist.

“People may be seeing a barrier you may not see,” she said. “And just because you don’t have the equipment to perceive it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”

Jackson-Beckham added that there are four types of barriers.

  • Resource: Some consumers may believe they aren’t knowledgeable enough to patronize a brewery, she said.
  • Geographical: Is your brand only seen at certain types of places or events? Distance may prevent a brand from reaching some communities. She said there’s an opportunity to move your products into those areas.
  • Cultural: Are the cultural practices at your brewery narrow? Do you serve the same kind of food at your beer dinners all the time?
  • Social: Would someone be embarrassed to drink a can of your beer in front of their mother? If so, she said there’s an opportunity to address it.

Jackson-Beckham shared her own social barrier: If a brewery worker treats her as if she doesn’t belong and asks “can I help you?” she’ll immediately leave.

“I’m not coming back,” she said.

Jackson-Beckham added that beer companies shouldn’t get discouraged if their initial attempts to become more inclusive don’t work. She compared the strategy to developing a beer recipe — it takes trial and error.

Finally, she said, “the very best diversity efforts improve the experience for everyone.” She called the “stronger together” slogan — introduced earlier in the week by Brewers Association leaders who want the small and independent breweries in their membership to band together — “really meaningful.”

“It’s a meaningful way to organize,” she said, “and it’s how I feel about this particular effort.”

Following her presentation, Jackson-Beckham was asked how to implement strategies that won’t alienate people.

“Can we real talk for a second?” she asked. “You don’t. You don’t, right? We live in a world where any decision we make will get excoriated on Twitter within a few minutes, especially beer Twitter. So, again, it’s part of the difficulty. If people aren’t willing to say that you’re assuming a certain level of risk by making certain connections or decisions, they’re not being honest. But you have to be really pragmatic about the cost-benefit ratios.”

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