Born in a mud hut in central Africa and given only a day to live due to disease and malnutrition, Graci Harkema has walked a long road to her current position.
Harkema is founder of the newly minted, Grand Rapids-based speaking; consulting; and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leadership training firm Graci LLC.
She left her previous position as Founders Brewing Company’s inaugural diversity and inclusion director on Oct. 25 over what she described as Founders’ failure to listen to her feedback and counsel as the company sought to “increase (its) reputation in diversity and inclusion and regain the trust of the LGBTQ and people of color communities” in the midst of former Detroit taproom employee Tracy Evans’ lawsuit accusing the brewery of racial discrimination.
The Detroit Metro Times on Oct. 21 reported on a deposition as part of the lawsuit in which Founders’ Detroit general manager Dominic Ryan, who fired Evans, claimed he didn’t know Evans was black.
Harkema said in an open resignation letter she posted on her Facebook page that she gave Founders “explicit feedback” after the leaked deposition on how to repair the company’s reputation, media representation and employee morale, in step with similar guidance from PR firms, but she said the leadership team “blatantly disagreed” with her advice and chose not to take it.
Although Founders had internally implemented most of the DEI strategy and plans she designed for the brewery during her hiring process, she said the leadership team’s actions showed they “truly didn’t prioritize equity, diversity and inclusion, that they were more focused on winning the lawsuit than they were about understanding the perspectives of marginalized groups and … acknowledging the overall systemic issues that were seen in racism and discrimination.”
She told Founders in her resignation letter: “Your actions have explicitly shown that you are more interested in the optics of my face than the impact of my voice. I have dedicated myself to a life and career of equity, ethics, integrity and morals. I cannot represent a company who doesn’t stand for the same.”
Within a week of her resignation, Harkema received five job offers from companies based in Grand Rapids, two from national companies, and eight or nine potential contract opportunities from other breweries, distilleries and restaurant groups.
“They communicated to me that my resignation sparked in them that they wanted to ensure that they had equitable practices in their businesses and didn’t want to fall into the footsteps of others that didn’t have as equitable of practices,” Harkema said.
So instead of taking the “safe” route, she opted to form her own LLC that would give her nationwide exposure to organizations to inspire, educate and guide them in their DEI practices.
Harkema’s journey to becoming an authority in the DEI space didn’t happen overnight.
She was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, about a mile from the Rwandan border, to a young, impoverished single mother, MariJani, whose family had died from disease and malnutrition and who couldn’t afford to feed and raise a child.
MariJani took Harkema to an orphanage when she was a week old. Weighing only 3 pounds, Harkema was given 12 to 24 hours to live because of the four diseases ravaging her body. The nurses assigned the cribs to healthy babies and placed Harkema in the back of the orphanage in a toy basket outside the bathroom.
An American missionary family, Ray and Jayn Harkema and their four children, happened to be visiting the orphanage that day, and Jayn Harkema had to use the restroom. She paused next to the basket, thinking Harkema was a doll — until she moved her head.
“She touched my head, and she heard a voice inside of her say, ‘This is your daughter.’ She told her husband that they were called to adopt me, and they adopted me that very same day,” Harkema said.
The family stayed together in the Congo until Harkema was a healthy 4-year-old. At that point, political conditions became too volatile to stay, so the family moved home to the U.S.
With a significant age gap between herself and her older siblings and living in a homogenous suburb of Grand Rapids, Harkema said she used her social personality to gain acceptance, even though she didn’t feel like she truly fit in.
“Because I didn’t have anyone in my life that looked like me, I knew what it felt like to not feel included, and I think that sparked my initial interest in wanting to go into diversity and inclusion,” she said.
Harkema graduated from Grandville High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications with a focus on advertising and public relations from Grand Valley State University in 2009.
Her family wasn’t well off, so Harkema put herself through school over the course of six years while working full time at Varnum as a central services assistant.
She spent a couple more years at the law firm after college, then did a brief stint at Farmers Insurance while also doing PR for the Arena District.
When a full-time IT recruiter position opened up at the local office of TEKSystems — a Hanover, Maryland-based IT staffing, talent management and services firm — Harkema applied.
Her interviewer asked her to think of a time when she had to overcome adversity. The “easy answer” that came to mind was the story of her adoption and life in a homogenous subculture.
“But I realized the real answer to his question was the fact that I was keeping it a secret that I’m gay. And so, in that interview, I came out,” Harkema said.
“The truest obstacle for me of overcoming adversity was being out as my authentic self in the workplace, and his (affirmation) and the way that he responded changed my life. He said that he was proud of me for being my authentic self and that he wanted a work environment where everyone felt like they could be their authentic selves, and he also saw me as a leader in that, as well.”
Working for TEKSystems opened many doors for Harkema. During her time there, she discovered that contrary to what she and her family had thought for years — her bio mom died during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 — MariJani was still alive and well. Harkema was able to meet her about four years ago and possessed the financial means to build her a home in the Congo. They have since kept in touch.
Harkema left the TEKSystems recruiting team and became a regional inclusion and diversity manager for the company’s DEI department in late 2017.
In her last year at TEKSystems, she accepted the opportunity to tell her life story as a keynote speaker in front of 2,000 people at a company meeting. The speech was recorded and shared by many people, which led to an opportunity for her to speak at Google later that year.
She wasn’t planning to leave TEKSystems — “I thought I would retire from there,” she said — but then she got the call from Founders, and the rest is history.
While there are plenty of DEI consultants who focus only on policy and internal structures, and while she will do that, too, Harkema said she wants to do more by speaking from a platform.
“If my voice can help empower others, and if I can uplift the voices of those who haven’t been heard and other marginalized groups and identities, then that’s exactly what I’ll do.”