Founders Brewing Co. earlier this year hired Graci Harkema for the newly created position of diversity and inclusion director. Courtesy Terry Johnston
Despite a number of female- and minority-owned breweries popping up in West Michigan, most folks in the craft beer industry say it’s a white man’s world.
From founders and owners of breweries to brewers and retailers, the industry still conjures up images of strapping dudes in flannel more than anything else.
Hannah Lee, a native of Canada with a background in wine-making and brewing science, is co-founder and co-owner with Chuck Steinhardt of Waypost Brewing at 1630 Blue Star Hwy. in Fennville, which opened in September. It’s situated on a 58-acre former U-pick berry farm and includes a brewing facility, a tasting room and fields they are working to convert to a vineyard.
Lee, who is Asian, said at festivals, conferences and brewers’ guild meetings, she and Steinhardt sometimes secretly play a game they call, “Count the minorities.”
“It’s terrible,” she said. “There aren’t that many you can count because it tends to be so homogeneous. You just think of white men with beards.”
Suzanne Schalow is co-founder with her wife, Kate Baker, of Boston-based Craft Beer Cellar — a national retailer that has a local franchise across from the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, at 404 Ionia Ave. SW.
She is known as a champion for diversity, equity and inclusion in the industry.
“Craft beer has long been a white man’s business and industry. We continue to see, feel and experience struggles in our industry,” Schalow said.
She added the caveat that you can never make judgments about a region and where it’s at with DE&I from the outside in.
“With more breweries, the industry has grown and provides more opportunities for diverse groups. We look forward to hearing and having more inclusive conversations,” Schalow said.
Back in 2017, the Business Journal hosted Rhonda Kallman, co-founder of Boston Beer Co. and founder and CEO of Boston Harbor Distillery, as keynote speaker for an event.
She told the audience that while she has certainly experienced the “boys’ club” aspect of the industry as a white woman, she also knows that dating back centuries, women were the brewers. How and why it changed is complex, but Kallman said she now believes being a woman is an advantage in the beer industry because you’ll be underestimated and can prove your worth.
Last summer, sisters Megan Zernicke, Carrie Troyer and Amanda Johnson — who are the Dutch American daughters of VanDerZee Motorplex owners Ray and Linda VanDerZee — opened Three Blondes Brewing at 1875 Phoenix St., Suite B, in South Haven.
When they were forming their business in 2017, they did not know any other female brewery owners. Since then, they have met Lee, at Waypost; Kim Collins, at Guardian Brewing Co. in Saugatuck; and Jennifer Goodrich at Cognito Brewing Co. in Bangor.
Troyer said she believes the industry right now is about 5% female-led.
The sisters said they experienced less competition than collaboration and a mostly welcoming attitude from men in the industry.
Customer feedback has been mixed, Johnson said.
“We have had some comments on our Facebook posts/videos that have been negative toward us and our abilities,” she said. “Not only are we female, but we are blonde, too. Everyone knows that blonde jokes make blondes seem dumb. And while I can appreciate a good joke, I don’t appreciate comments that assume we don’t understand the business because we are females and blonde.”
Johnson added she is encouraged to see more women entering the industry.
“More women are becoming owners and brewers, but I think there will probably always be more males than females in the craft beer industry. But women are making their mark. We don’t need to be big in number to make a big impact,” she said.
Recent events at Founders Brewing Co. prompted the company to accelerate its five-year plan to hire a diversity and inclusion director to be on its leadership team.
The Business Journal reported Sept. 20 that Founders was one of several businesses that sent a group letter to the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce withdrawing its membership after the chamber’s endorsement of then-gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette, who in July, while attorney general, refused to extend anti-discrimination protections to those who identify as LGBTQ+.
About 11 days later, Founders deleted its social media posts of the statement, reversed its decision to end its chamber membership and blamed the initial posts on the “unauthorized” actions of an employee.
In August, the company also was sued by a former employee for alleged racial discrimination.
Judge Paul Borman, of the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Michigan, on April 4 dismissed six of eight counts of racial discrimination, failure to promote and retaliation in the lawsuit brought by former Founders Brewing Co. employee Tracy Evans against the brewery, due to the expiration before the complaint was filed of Founders' 180-day statute of limitations, to which Evans agreed when signing his employment contract in 2013. The parties are expected to appear at a scheduling conference on April 30 to agree on a plan for pretrial litigation.
By November, Founders had started a three-month process of recruiting and hiring a D&I director. In January, the brewery hired Graci Harkema for the role, formerly the regional inclusion and diversity manager for TEKsystems in Grand Rapids. Harkema is passionate about DE&I partly due to growing up as a gay African American woman in West Michigan.
As part of her interview process, Harkema built a diversity and inclusion strategy she’s now implementing.
“The goal is to ensure that all employees are safe and supported in their roles and that they have the opportunities to be their full, authentic selves and also reach their potential,” she said.
Internally, Harkema created focus groups with women, people of color and people who identify as LGBTQ+ to find out what needs to change at the brewery.
She instituted mandatory DE&I and unconscious bias training that has been deployed for all of the company’s 600 employees and will continue covering new aspects of those topics quarterly; is in the process of revamping health benefits packages to support “the whole selves” of employees, including expanding maternity and paternity leave and increased support for transgender care; and is now in charge of managing “The Big Pitcher,” Founders’ philanthropic program.
The company also will be creating permanent employee resource groups (ERGs) to make sure people are heard and have equal opportunities.
Outside the company, Harkema aims to spread better DE&I practices across the industry. She facilitated Founders’ Francesca Jasinski, communications manager, and Liz Wonder, sustainability director, partnering to start a Grand Rapids chapter of the Pink Boots Society, a resource group for women beer industry professionals.
Troyer and Lee mentioned Pink Boots Society as a helpful organization to them.
Harkema said Founders is looking to come alongside other organizations “that could benefit from having a large partner such as Founders supporting them” in their DE&I efforts.
She said groups, events and programs Founders is eyeing that already exist include Fermenta, which focuses on female brewers; a festival called Fresh Fest that started in 2018 in Pittsburgh for black brewers; and college brewing science programs such as those at Grand Rapids Community College, Ferris State University and Eastern Michigan University. Founders hopes, through the Brewers Association, to help provide grants and scholarships that are diversity-based, which would create a pipeline of empowerment from the ground up.
Harkema said she plans to do speaking engagements at Grand Valley State University to let students know about opportunities in the brewing industry.
“That’s where it begins is just showcasing what options are available and getting in front of students as they’re graduating, or beforehand, to showcase what a career path looks like,” she said.
Diversity in the talent pipeline
Kris Spaulding, co-owner and sustainability director of Brewery Vivant, said she sees the lack of diversity in the talent pipeline as a big hurdle to creating more diversity and inclusion locally in the craft beer industry.
Although inclusion work is built within the certification process for becoming a benefit corporation (B Corp), a designation her company earned in 2014, Spaulding said Brewery Vivant doesn’t get many applications from people of color when it posts job openings.
Early on, the brewery was using referrals from employee networks to drive hiring, and since she and most of the employees are white, they were getting more of the same.
Now, despite casting a wide net on online job boards and with local groups, they still are having trouble with a lack of diversity in the talent pool.
She said she is very aware that having a homogeneous staff sends the message that it’s not a welcoming place to work — but is not sure how to do better.
“I think we’re as welcoming as we can be as we do training on all of this,” she said. “But it’s a lot of like, what’s the next step that’s going to actually accelerate our progress as an industry?”
She said she would love to see a DE&I subcommittee established by the Michigan Brewers Guild or local guilds that would allow breweries to share best practices and learn together.
Lee, of Waypost, said one of the issues she sees is in marketing beers to consumers with either most beer labels showing buff lumberjack men and the few that feature women depicting them as pin-up girls. Waypost aims to be gender neutral in its labeling and marketing.
Another “annoying” problem Lee sees is women in the industry being relegated to social media, sales, marketing and service jobs, and men dominating hop growing, brewing and leadership roles.
When creating her business plan, she felt she had to cover every detail in order to not be discounted by lenders and regulators. Then, when she and Steinhardt were doing the build-out on the facilities, she had to deal with contractors questioning her authority even though she was acting general contractor.
She said her personal philosophy is to not let any of the hurdles deter her.
“I’m a twice-immigrated woman of color working in agriculture and brewing in rural Michigan. To me, the ‘barriers’ are so intrinsic, so systemic, that I don’t see them as roadblocks; rather, (they are) part of the road, like the potholes that never seem to get fixed in Michigan,” she said.
“If we waited for the road to be clear, we wouldn’t go anywhere. To me, it’s paramount that we do see more people of color, women and other minorities working in all aspects of the Michigan craft industry, and I’m proud to help cut that path.”