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Doing a lot with a little.

GIVING BEGINS WITH AFFINITY. Our life experience usually informs the things we care about. As we gain a deeper understanding of giving over time, we move away from pure affinity, but it’s a foundational step of making philanthropy a lifelong habit. We are what we repeatedly do. And it isn’t just about giving more. A small, meaningful gift is often more effective than a large, detached one. If we keep at it, we find we can do a lot with a little.

In starting the Mitten Brewing Company, Max and I certainly had to learn to do a lot with a little. Besides our limited fundraising ability, we also had limited hospitality experience (read: next to none). We had to fill many day-to-day roles ourselves (including management), even though we weren’t particularly good at them. Thankfully, our staff was gracious and gave us the thing we needed most: their patience. They afforded us time to learn about our roles and forgave us when we made mistakes. They went through the journey with us and rarely quit along the way. Sometimes we were lucky and got things right the first time. One of these was building giving into our plan from the start. 

We made our first company gift in December 2012. It wasn’t as well-organized, large or effective as we wanted it to be, but we knew we had to start somewhere. Every journey starts with a single step, and each cause starts with an emotional connection. And this was a deep one.

For the better part of eight years, I was a part-time caregiver for a boy named Nathan Hurwitz. Nate had been diagnosed with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy as an infant, but when I first met him in the third grade, the disease hadn’t yet taken a very noticeable toll. He had some mobility issues but was able to walk mostly on his own when I became his classroom aide. Although he faced a daunting diagnosis, he was one of the sweetest people I’d ever met.

The school eliminated all non-essential aides (me) the following year, but Nate and I had become such good friends that his family hired me to work for them privately. I enjoyed my time with Nate but it was heartbreaking to watch his physical faculties fail him over the next eight years. After being admitted to the hospital for an internal infection, Nate’s heart and lungs failed and he tragically passed away at the age of 16 in 2012, just weeks before The Mitten opened its doors. He had tested our newly-poured wheelchair ramp only days prior.

My time with Nate both opened my heart and broke it. I had worked in special needs classrooms for years but never formed a bond like I did with him. He taught me that even in the face of our own impending mortality, there can be genuine positivity. Nate had his dark times, but he was rarely without a smile and never wanted to be treated differently than anyone else. He loved baseball and video games, and was fortunate to have a loving family that took excellent care of him and saw that he wanted for nothing.

Nate’s favorite song was George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” and his father asked me to perform it at their temple for Nate’s funeral. Though I had dreaded it for days—unsure of whether or not I could even make it through the song without breaking down—I felt a strange surge of happiness course through me as I stepped up to the bema where Nate had read from the Torah at his bar mitzah three years before. I strapped on my guitar, did the song fair justice, and stepped off the stage. Under my breath, as I walked down the aisle flanked by sobbing friends, family and classmates, I thanked Nate for being there with me and for one last time, reminding me to always look on the bright side. A few hours later at the interment, the thick clouds that had darkened the day since morning suddenly broke, and warm sunlight bathed Nate’s close friends and family. We all thought of the song.

Before he passed away, Nate and his family had been raising money for The West Michigan Miracle League Field, a fully-accessible baseball field in nearby Rockford that now bears his name. The cause made perfect sense for The Mitten, and we chose it as our first company donation. A gift of $590.10 to an enterprise with a total budget of more than $600,000 was how we inauspiciously launched The Mitten Brewing Company’s charitable giving program. While it was small, we had a feeling it was the start of something big. And it was. I have Nate to thank for many things, but particularly for inspiring our first of many gifts. He sure taught me a lot in the little amount of time he had been given on earth. 

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Mitten Strong.

THE SOUND OF MY phone vibrating jolted me out of a dead sleep. 

“Hello,” I mumbled groggily. 

“Hi Chris. I’m sorry to bother you so late.” It was Lindsey, one of our longtime staff members. Her voice was shaking. 

“I wanted to let you know there’s been an incident.”

I woke up in a hurry. She told me an employee had been attacked outside the restaurant. Pete (not his real name) had been smoking a cigarette when a passerby struck him in the back of the head with a metal pipe. No one had witnessed the attack; they only became aware when they heard Pete—lying prone and bleeding from the head— tapping on the side door.

“Is he okay?” I said. 

“I’m not sure,” she replied. 

The staff had called 911 and was waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Lindsey—like me—was afraid of blood and was hiding in the brewhouse, making calls while the other employees attended to Pete’s injuries. They had dragged him inside and were holding bar towels to his head. 

“What can I do?” I asked Lindsey, inertly.

“There’s really nothing you can do tonight,” she said. “We’ve got it handled as best as we can.”

I tossed and turned through a fitful night of “sleep.” Six hours later, my business partner Max and I somberly arrived at work. Max spotted a smear of blood on the door the staff had missed and wiped it off. We drove to the hospital together where we found Pete in his bed, sedated with 40 fresh staples in the back of his head. His pillow was covered in dried blood. We were sickened. 

We spent the morning speaking to neighbors and anyone who might have seen something the night before. We didn’t know what else to do—there was no playbook for this kind of thing. Our team’s safety had never been called into question before. Our business was located in a neighborhood with a decades old (but mostly anecdotal) “rough” reputation, but there had never been an actual act of violence on our property.

That night, Max and I stayed with the staff until close. Armed with baseball bats, we walked each staff member to their car. The police were on call. I spoke to the local news and all I could think to express was confusion. But inside I was angry. Angry that this happened. Angry I hadn’t been there to stop it. But most of all, angry that after everything we had given to our neighborhood, it was (presumably) a neighbor that had done this to us.

The anger soon gave way to guilt. What could we have done better? More lights in the parking lot? Surveillance cameras? Security guards? All of which were good ideas, but none of which would have likely prevented the incident, which occurred without warning or pretext.

Seven days later, the police made an arrest. It turned out the alleged assailant—who lived only a few houses away—was a troubled man with a long rap sheet and well-documented mental problems. His sister tipped off the police when she overheard him confessing the crime to her dog. He was locked up in county jail and his attorney was given 15 months to determine whether or not he possessed the mental capacity to stand trial. His incarceration, though necessary, was little solace; justice delayed being justice denied. After awhile, my feelings about the attacker turned into something resembling pity.

It’s human nature; to try and make sense out of the senseless. So Max and I did the things that made sense to us. We installed security cameras. We worked with the insurance company to bring about the best possible financial outcome. But it all felt so hollow. We had been reminded in tragic fashion that the world—even our cushy craft corner—is a capricious place. It was a terrible and empty feeling.

What brought us through this painful chapter was our staff. They didn’t dwell on what had happened like I had; they put all their energy into ensuring Pete’s well being. They visited him daily, both in the hospital and his home. They brought him food, books and movies. They organized the GoFundMe (though the company’s insurance took care of all medical costs) which covered Pete’s rent and living expenses while he recovered. Donations poured in from customers and the entire hospitality community. Bar and restaurant employees, who saw their own vulnerability reflected in the incident, spread the information widely. The staff communicated with donors and provided updates along the way.

Their efforts—not mine—allowed the company to get through this experience, and even come out stronger for it. 89 days later, doctors cleared Pete and he returned to work. I couldn’t imagine what would make him want to come back to the place where he was nearly killed. But I understand now.

We’re family. 

This didn’t happen to one of us. It happened to all of us. And the staff’s actions after the fact demonstrated that.

We had shared a life-changing experience; albeit a terrible one. But traumatic bonds are often deeper than pleasant ones. We had been visited by mortality. We had shared pain and love. And though we all wish it never happened, we went from a close knit group to a tribe. We were now #mittenstrong.

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The Power of Support.

GIVING HAS BEEN A part of The Mitten Brewing Company since the very beginning, but it took us a while to learn how to do it right. We began (as most organizations do) with affinity; in our case, we partnered with organizations that our investors chose. And this was a good way to get started—it engaged our earliest supporters and ensured our early fundraisers would be a success. But the relationships with these causes weren’t as deep as they should have been. No disrespect to our investors, but these weren’t our causes; they were theirs. My business partner Max and I knew that if we wanted our giving mission to grow and thrive, we had to develop the same conviction for it that we had for our business mission. In early 2013 we sat down to think about what truly connected us to the neighborhood, and though it was rare in our 50/50 partnership, for once we completely agreed on what that was.

Most startups with deep pockets hire lawyers, architects, and contractors to guide them through the process. We could afford none of the above, so we had to figure it out ourselves. In the winter of 2012, months before we opened, we went exploring in our new neighborhood. Our talks with other businesses in the area pointed us to the City Development Center, where we learned that because alcohol production was considered a “change in use” for our real estate, we had to work with the city Planning Department to make our use meet the zoning standards. Planning encouraged us to seek the support of the local neighborhood organization before we went any further because if this group opposed our business, it was unlikely our idea would become a reality. And that was horrifying to prospective business owners, to learn their dream could be dashed with a single stroke of the Planning Commissioner’s pen. 

Max and I contacted the West Grand Neighborhood Organization (whose office was only two blocks away from the engine house) and told its members weʼd like to discuss our intention to open a brewery. They invited us to attend their next public meeting, which, it turned out, also happened to be their Christmas gathering. When we walked into the “gathering” and saw that it was actually a cocktail party, one bustling with a veritable “who’s who” of local business owners and politicians, we were nervous. Expecting a completely different atmosphere, I had prepared a very professional speech about our plans for the Mitten. I had even practiced it in front of the mirror. Yet it now seemed silly. As we looked around for anyone who appeared as if he or she might be in charge, a woman yelled out from across the room, “Hey! Are you the brewery guys?!” 

A hush fell over the room, and everyone stared at us. 

“Yes,” we said meekly. 

The woman then ran across the office, bear-hugged both of us, and tearfully whispered, “Thank you for doing this here.” That woman was Nola Steketee, the executive director of WGNO, and as long as I live, Iʼll never forget that moment and how important it was. In an instant, we went from hat-in-hand to feeling wanted and welcome. We soon learned that Nola always radiated that kind of emotion and selflessness, and that night she galvanized our relationship with the West Side. We felt at home. But her support didnʼt end there. She spoke to neighbors on our behalf, pointed us toward property grants, and even showed up to our Planning Commission hearing to support us. It was overwhelming, and it bonded us to the organization for life. Iʼm proud to say that years later, I jumped at the chance to serve a term on its board. 

Although Nola has since retired, her impact on the West Side is still apparent, and we think and speak of her often. She taught us never to underestimate the power of supporting things we believe in. No matter how insignificant it may seem to us, we often have no idea of the difference it can make to someone else. Nola had changed our lives. She had given us our first deep nonprofit connection. 

Nola was instrumental in showing us the need for community giving in our neighborhood, even in unintentional ways. Although her organization ran programs for impoverished residents and seniors, it was, in fact, impoverished itself. It was always on the bubble of insolvency and relied on small grants and timely donations to stay afloat. This was disheartening to us, so in May 2013, Max and I chose WGNO to be one of the first non-investor nonprofits we benefited.

After the fundraiser, I called Nola to tell her we had raised $1,200 for the organization and would deliver the check the following week. She thanked us profusely but asked whether it was possible to bring it down sooner. She needed to pay the group’s electric bill to prevent the service from being shut off. Max and I were floored. We had no idea how dire the circumstances really were. Though we were saddened, we felt some pride in knowing we had just given this vitally important organization the ability to continue to provide its services, as opposed to spending its time and energy raising funds just to keep the lights on. This was a real and meaningful gift.

Whether a gift is big or small, the impetus to giving it is connection. Nola cemented our connection to the West Side. Her support encouraged us to invest here—not only in building our business, but also our mission to improve the West Side. We wanted to give in the way that she gave to us. Seven years and more than $300,000 in gifts later, I hope she’s proud of what she started.

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The Last Straw.

Plastic straw bans may be flawed and practically inconsequential, but they’re a flash point in the battle to change the way big companies behave.

“EXCUSE ME, BUT YOU forgot to give us water,” the woman at table nine said to her server. Like many restaurant customers, she possessed the expectation that water is always served with a meal. But the server hadn’t forgotten. It was by design.

As a brewery, we use a lot of water. It takes water to make beer, of course, but it takes even more to cool it down after it boils and clean all the equipment involved. Breweries have become increasingly conscious of their water use and have adopted methods of conserving and reclaiming it. Customers applaud the effort on the brewing side but not necessarily in the dining room. Most people still order water by habit though they rarely drink more than a sip and usually leave a full glass on the table. After witnessing just how much we poured down the drain each day, our sustainability team asked our servers to serve water only if a customer asked for it and if they did, to serve it in 10 ounce water glasses instead of the standard pint. The server filled the customer one of these and brought it to her table.

The woman stared at the small glass before her. “There’s no straw,” she sighed. “Yes,” the server said. “About that…” Thanks again to the influence of our sustainability team, we had just discontinued the use of straws. We kept some on hand for customers that required special accommodations, but we no longer used plastic straws in our business and they were on their way to becoming a thing of the past altogether. 

After nearly 70 years of widespread use throughout the world, plastic straws fell out of favor with American hospitality in 2018. “Utensil non grata,” said the Wall Street Journal. And for good reason. They’re too small to be recycled, they don’t break down in landfills and they’re everywhere; some estimates say Americans alone use 500 million daily. The movement to ban straws and other single-use plastics had been slowly gaining steam but when a video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw being removed from its nose went viral in the summer of 2018, it reached its tipping point. Cities like Seattle and even entire states like California pledged to ban their use; corporate giants Starbucks and Disney vowed the same. Locally, restaurants and breweries announced their straw bans on social media and before long, our staff was pressuring us to follow suit.

Activists rejoiced at the victory against this high-profile single-use plastic, but it wasn’t unanimous. Critics were quick to point out that straws account for less than one quarter of one percent of the plastic waste in our oceans. They condemned straw activism as being a mile wide and an inch deep and warned it may distract from more useful efforts to ban plastics. Plus, the bans affected the disability community in very real ways. And all of this is true. Banning plastic straws is obviously a very small and flawed step. But what’s most notable about the bans are the avenues through which they arrived. This wasn’t companies suddenly recognizing a harmful practice. It was the tail wagging the dog. For us, the tail was our own young team members. They made it happen, right down to sourcing paper straws and developing a customer education plan. I’m not sure something like this would have happened 20 years ago. Joined with like-minded others across the country, our staff set out to reverse a nearly century-old consumer habit in the span of one summer. And by many metrics, they did it. And they didn’t need an employee resource group or suggestion box to get started; they simply got together to find ways to see their interests reflected in the way their workplace does business. 

It’s easy to see how industry’s influence on the marketplace is shrinking. Gone are the days of corporations being able to use their power and influence to control customer attitudes. Our team members are prepared to speak up for what they want and with their mastery of the digital platform, they possess the most powerful megaphone of all time. This alone gives them the ability to shape our business faster than we can. Though we’re privately-held, they are very much our stakeholders. When they weigh in, we must listen. And if we pay close enough attention, we’ll see we can learn a lot about the future of our companies from the fate of the lowly straw.

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A Free Lunch.

The summer of 2019 was the best yet at The Mitten Brewing Company Northport. Ten months out of the year, Northport is a scenic but sleepy town at the northernmost tip of Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula. But in July and August, it swells with tourists, and our fourth summer saw sales up almost 25 percent from the previous one. We felt grateful and were looking for ways to pay it forward when our bartender Joe made us aware of a growing student lunch debt problem in nearby Suttons Bay, where he worked as a substitute teacher. 

Though located less than a mile from an affluent downtown resort area, Suttons Bay schools serve a diverse population thanks in part to a nearby Native American reservation. Many students there carry lunch debt, as well as the stigma and shame that comes with it. Being a “lunch debt” kid can be tough. Not only do many districts provide these students with lower quality meals than their debt-free peers, some even stamp notices (see photo above) on their arms that read “I need lunch money.” This rightfully angers educators like Joe. He and his wife Jennifer personally pay down some of the debt every year, as do many other teachers, but the issue persists. 

The total debt at Suttons Bay was about $2,700—the perfect size for a Mitten Foundation project—so we made arrangements with the district to wipe it clean. We presented the giant check in front of the school sign, snapped a picture, and posted it to our social media—just like we had for dozens of donations before. We shook hands with the grateful superintendent and headed back home. We honestly didn’t think much more would come of it.

The next day we received several press inquiries regarding the donation and I did a quick phone interview with MLive, a large Michigan media group. The following day, the article was published online where it was shared more than 138,000 times. It was everywhere. The Associated Press picked it up and ran it in major news outlets including USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. As one online commenter wrote, it was “the cheapest advertising we (n)ever bought.” 

We were obviously happy but a bit puzzled because it really wasn’t unlike any of the other monthly donations we had made in the past. In fact, the amount paled in comparison to the $25,000 we raise at our annual food pantry fundraiser. But it struck a chord. School lunch debt had been an issue in the national press, with 75% of districts in U.S. reporting some amount of it. Certain schools were even punishing students for it and refusing help from outside sources.

The coverage wasn’t all good, however. The comments section of the news articles (where reason and sanity go to die), was full of criticism, including statements like: 

• “The school superintendents should pay off the debt. They make too much!” 

• “All they’re doing is letting the lazy parents off the hook.” 

• “No one paid my debt when I was a kid. Why should these kids get theirs erased?”

And this was to be expected. Comment threads are strongholds for trolls and self-appointed ideologues, and the “perfect solution” fallacy—the notion that a solution should be rejected because some part of the problem would still exist after it were implemented—is evoked often and with impunity. But per usual, they completely missed the point.

For starters, it’s the district—not the parents—that ultimately assumes the unpaid debt. Since students can’t be denied lunch if a parent is unable to pay, schools must use district funds—likely appropriated for different things—to pay back the third-party food provider. So relieving lunch debt is essentially giving a gift to the school, an action that would rarely draw scrutiny outside of this context. Plenty of parents donate money to schools for far less useful things (band and sports boosters come to mind). But critics can’t get past the idea that these parents should be punished for their poverty. They are regularly (and rhetorically) assumed to be lazy, prone to vice, or guilty of prioritizing frivolous things over their child’s lunch. 

Of course, these assumptions are baseless and reflect our pre-conceived biases about poverty, which can lead us to draw over-simplified conclusions about it. But the truth is much more ambiguous. The majority of poor Americans are in fact gainfully employed (59 percent of poor adults who are able to work, do), and the gap between low wages and high cost of living is often at the root of their poverty. And when we add things like addiction, abuse, racism and disability to the equation, poverty becomes even more complicated. The simple truth is that we rarely actually know why a particular student can’t afford their lunch.

Though the causes of food insecurity at school may be complex, the solution really isn’t. If you can afford to pay the debt, pay the debt. And we could, so we did. It was easy. We were simply following the lead of the countless teachers who often reach into their own pockets to make lives better for their students. Over the years, we’ve learned that sometimes our best role is to multiply good things that are already happening. Then these good things can become great things. Nine days after our Suttons Bay donation, we paid off the lunch debt for Fennville Public Schools, a district near our Saugatuck location. But it didn’t get as much coverage, and for good reason—it was overshadowed by another story. Inspired by our Suttons Bay gift, Fetch Brewing Company in nearby Whitehall had cleared the lunch debt from not one but two of their neighboring school districts, donating more than $5,500, on the same day. The story traveled wide, diminished not a bit by the amount of coverage we had received the week before. 

A few months later, Little River Casino and Resort announced that through a joint effort with 25 neighboring businesses, they raised more than $14,000 and cleared the debt for students in their home of Manistee County. They too had been inspired by our gesture. “The Mitten Brewing Company (’s gifts) got me thinking a lot about what we can do together,” said the casino’s food and beverage director. 

Several weeks after that, 42 Applebees restaurants throughout Michigan held lunch debt fundraisers for the communities they do business in, and Trail Point Brewing cleared lunch debts in their home of Allendale. As each story appeared in the news, we were thrilled and felt a little like proud parents. Albeit a little self-conscious. It was such a cheap and easy way to do some good, it felt like we were getting far more praise than we deserved. 

But sometimes things really are that easy, despite our best efforts to complicate them. Making school better for kids with barriers is an incredible opportunity with a low price tag. Our modest gift—which more than paid for itself—sparked a movement that has eliminated the lunch debt of thousands of Michigan students so far. And I have a feeling there are more gifts to come.

The old axiom tells us there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and it’s true. Someone absolutely has to pay for every single one of them. But punishing children because we can’t agree on who or what that should be? That’s not worthy of us. Of any of us.

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Mental Health and the Entrepreneur.

“I suffer from depression.

I have a beautiful, loving wife and two incredible children. I own a successful business with my friend Max and we employ nearly 100 people. But I struggle with inadequacy and constant feelings of dread.

I have amazing, supportive and caring friends. I have a loving family and I want for nothing. But everything is difficult.

My sleep isn’t restorative. I wake up with chest pains from anxiety each morning. I must stay constantly busy or else dark thoughts creep into my mind.

I have no reason to feel this way. But I do.

I have mental health issues. For as long as I can remember, I have battled them. I take medicine every day and it helps. Most people would never know because I’m an expert faker. But it is always there.”

This is from a Facebook post I made last year on Mental Health Awareness Day. Though I was nervous about posting it, I felt obligated to. For too long, I had suffered in silence. And I’d seen friends and family members take their lives, succumbing to their illness. My hope was that it would be useful for those who may be struggling to hear someone who—by many metrics “has it all together”—admit this painful truth. Personally, it was freeing. My friends were wonderfully supportive, and I think that in some small way, my admission helped de-stigmatize mental health struggles for those in my circle.

As comments expressing support and empathy poured in, it was plain to see my problem was not unique. Depression is a common but often unspoken part of the lives of many. Including the self-employed. The unfortunate by-products of the creativity and seething ambition that drive the building of a company can often include emotional fragility, perfectionism, fatigue and neglect for personal health.

There are the obvious factors—long hours, financial stress, lack of sleep, etc.—but there’s more going on. Professional isolation, owing to lack of workplace peers, looms large, but not nearly as much as impression management. Writing for Forbes, Megan Bruneau says this is “the idea that for optics we have to come across as “having it all together” and not show weakness. Many entrepreneurs believe that, in order to be considered competent by stakeholders, we need to be perceived as infallible—a stark contrast to the stigmatized stereotypes of a person with compromised mental health. This perpetuates shame and disconnection (which both cause depression), and discourages help-seeking behaviors. There’s also evidence to suggest that impression management prevents the development of a ‘sense of self,’ contributing to insecurity and identity confusion.”

And she’s absolutely right, especially about the sense of self. For better or worse (often worse), I view my business as an extension of me. When an aspect of it fails, it feels like I fail. When we get a bad review, I’m devastated. When an employee quits, I feel like they quit me. Rarely does a week go by without a crushing blow to my ego and sense of self-worth. 

These struggles aren’t unique to entrepreneurship, of course. Mental health issues are present in every workplace, and I don’t mean to discredit or lessen anyone else’s experience. But the experience can be different for the entrepreneur. It’s not only the ennui that typifies the American workplace; it’s the near-complete fusing of work and self-worth. The job crosses over into everything. You bring it home. You bring it to dinner. You bring it to bed. And you even bring it to dedicated “time off.” As most entrepreneurs will attest, the notion that vacation is a time to “recharge” is laughable. While everyone else is relaxing on the beach, you’re on the phone solving an HR issue that just can’t wait. You’re stepping away from the table at the restaurant to call a plumber to fix a water leak thousands of miles away. The march of responsibility is relentless.

This commentary reeks of privilege. I get that. The ability to own one’s own business, take vacations, etc., is not an opportunity afforded to all. But that doesn’t make the mental struggles any less real. The notion that affluence or professional success equals happiness is patently false (see the relationship between winning the lottery and depression). We’re talking about a mental disorder. One that no one group is immune to. One with poorly-understood causality. And one that festers untreated and unacknowledged because of the generations of shame surrounding it.

Thankfully entrepreneurship teaches you plenty, especially about rejecting the traditional. When it comes to mental health, it’s time to reject the expectation of strength for strength’s sake, and understand that vulnerability can be an asset. Especially for the boss. My experience has taught me the inefficacy of stoicism. Our staff doesn’t look to me for strength; at least, not always. Certainly there are times when it’s required, and they depend on me to make the tough decisions. But they don’t expect me to be unhappy. They want me to be strong when it’s time to be strong, and vulnerable when it’s time to be vulnerable. They want me to afford myself the same kindness they desire for themselves.

Thanks to influential authors like Bréne Brown, a new narrative is emerging, one that paints vulnerability as an essential part of leadership. This includes being honest about our mental health struggles. As Brown says, comfort is the enemy of vulnerability, and we have to be willing to be uncomfortable. For the entrepreneur, this is far easier said than done. It’s completely contrary to the attributes that have always defined the archetype, and requires a constant and conscious effort to achieve. Just last week, I admitted in front of a classroom of students at an area community college that I take a daily antidepressant. It was in response to a student’s question about the role of managing mental health in the workplace. It wasn’t something I planned to discuss, but I saw right away how it deepened the connection between us, and turned what might have been considered a lecture into a conversation. It was uncomfortable, sure, but in the best way possible.

In that moment, I also realized something else. When it comes to demonstrating vulnerability, young people are light years ahead of the generations that preceded them. Both in terms of prioritizing their own happiness and actively shattering mental health stigmas, they’re leading the way. They teach us that no matter what our age and experience may be, we have to find what provides us with meaning in our professional lives besides job performance if we want to be happy at work.  

Being ashamed of our struggles is a vestigial artifact of an old and toxic ideology. It’s unnecessary and potentially fatal baggage, and it’s time we put it down for good. To do so, we must reject toxic masculinity. We must educate ourselves about mental health stigma in order to reduce its deadly toll. Most of all, we must activate the support systems we have but may not recognize.

The people in our lives that truly love us don’t expect us to suffer unduly. They esteem our “strength” and unflappable resilience far less than we do. They simply want what’s best for us, and they can’t help us if they don’t know we’re suffering. If being an entrepreneur is about nothing else, it’s leadership. Admitting our own struggles makes it easier for others to admit theirs and get the help they need. That’s what a true leader does. Let’s accept that responsibility above all.

When “Politics” Isn't.

OUR MANAGER WALKED UP to me. “I need to talk to you about something.” He showed me a small rainbow sticker. “One of the staff members stuck this to the wall behind the bar. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to make political statements inside the pub.”

I agreed. “Let’s take it down,” I said. I was afraid of angering patrons and figured it was best for our company to stay out of the “political arena.” I thought it would be bad for business. And to some extent, it is.

But protection, visibility and affirmation for LGBTQ+ persons isn’t political.

And I know that now. And I suppose I knew it then (this was years ago). But I was afraid. Afraid of placing a wedge between the customers of our fledgling business and potentially losing them. But really, what I was doing was not affirming our staff and patrons who belong to this community. And that’s not okay. There is literally no upside for taking such a gutless stance. 

Ensuring equality in the workplace isn’t political, nor is it zero-sum. No one loses when everyone has the same opportunity, but the affected communities certainly lose when they don’t. The numbers on workplace discrimination (courtesy of Equality Michigan) show us just how much so:

  • The unemployment rate of the transgender community is three times higher than the national average. 
  • 46% of LGBTQ+ workers report being closeted at work.
  • One in four LGBTQ+ employees report experiencing employment discrimination in the last five years. 
  • 52.8% of LGBTQ+ employees report that discrimination negatively affected their work environment, and nearly one in two have left a job because the environment was unwelcoming. 
  • 51% of LGBTQ+ individuals have considered moving to a new location to live in a community more accepting of all sexual orientations and gender identities. 

The Elliot-Larson Civil Rights Act, adopted by the State of Michigan in 1976, does not expressly protect sexual orientation and gender identity from discrimination in public accommodations (education, housing, and employment). Without legal protections, people from these communities often have no recourse but to move from job to job until they find a place they are welcome. Many companies aren’t proactive about these issues because the law doesn’t require them to be. But some are, and The Mitten tries hard to be among them. This took a lot of learning on my end.

The restaurant business is notoriously casual in the sense that offensive terminology and actions have long been tolerated as “part of the culture.” This culture has been particularly unkind to members of the LGBTQ+ community. In 2018 I joined the OutPro Council at The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce to advocate for our staff (15% of whom is LGBTQ+), and I asked our team members to tell me their stories so I could be more informed. It was eye-opening. One told me how she had been called a “dyke” by her manager at a major restaurant chain. A transgender employee shared all the times they had been asked inappropriate questions about their body by co-workers and management, and how they were laughed at when walking into a gender specific bathroom. Another recounted how as a manager of gay and lesbian employees, she was sometimes called to tables by guests who did not want to be waited on by “fags” or “dykes,” and how defending her staff in these cases was not an action supported by upper management.

And on and on. A recurring theme was how complaints are often trivialized and glossed over by management in the name of workplace harmony and “not making a fuss.” They are consistently told to be patient with their co-workers.

Allowing this kind of behavior to continue is not only morally bankrupt, it’s bad for business. The benefits of being allowed to show up as a whole person at work (and in all aspects of life) are plain to see. Courtesy of Equality Michigan once again:

  • 89% of Americans say they are very likely or somewhat likely to support or shop at a business that does not discriminate on sexual orientation or gender identity. 
  • 68% of Americans say they are likely to shop at or support businesses that take a public stance in support of LGBTQ+ equality. 
  • LGBTQ+ supportive policies and workplace climates are linked to less discrimination, greater job commitment, improved workplace relationships, improved health outcomes and increased productivity.

In the small business environment, where the biggest issue most companies encounter is talent recruitment and retention, the benefits of protecting and attracting good employees from this community (and every community) simply cannot be ignored. 

Of course, this isn’t just about the workplace. It’s about equality everywhere. And though we we see broad progress in popular culture, not every group has made inroads equally. Acceptance and protection of gender identity lags far behind sexual orientation, and the consequences are tragic. Transgender youth are three times more likely than cisgender youth to commit suicide, and name and identity affirmation are a large part of the reason why. A 2015 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded when transgender youth are affirmed with their correct name and pronouns, their suicide rates return to near cisgender rates.

Many things about entrepreneurship are confusing and difficult. But some aren’t. If either our staff or our customers expect their counterparts to be anything other than who they are, we should show them the door. And put up that rainbow sticker. Simple tokens may seem trivial, but they can contribute immeasurably to a sense of safety and welcoming for others. It’s the least we can do.

To join the voices of small businesses dedicated to amending the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include explicit protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in public accommodations in Michigan, visit www.smallbiz4equality.com and register your company today.

Disclaimer: I do not speak for the LGBTQ+ community in any way. I’m an ally who hopes to add my voice and platform to the fight to expand our State Civil Rights Act.

The Overhead Myth.

There is an implacable, deeply-rooted idea about nonprofits: that they should be lean and grateful for any help they can get, no matter how small.

Nonsense.

In his now famous 2013 Ted Talk, philanthropist Dan Pallotta elegantly dismantled the long-held notion that a charity’s overhead is a measure of its worthiness. We encounter this misconception often. When our staff engages customers about a particular nonprofit we are supporting, they sometimes hear the question: “What’s the administrative overhead?” They’re looking for a low number, and anything more than 10 percent raises an eyebrow. Nonprofits are aware of this sticking point and often preemptively share their overhead percentage on their marketing materials. It’s a question designed to give a donor more information about how their dollars are being spent, and though it’s an admirable impulse, the answers can be misleading and beg the question: 

Would any charities be more effective if they had fewer resources?

Pallotta and his organization, Pallotta Teamworks, have been criticized for operating very much like a “for-profit” business by employing hundreds of paid staff who earn high salaries relative to their counterparts in the nonprofit sphere. But even his critics must admit the money the organization has raised by hosting popular multi-day events is staggering: Its HIV/AIDS bike rides netted more than $236 million during their tenure, and their breast cancer walks brought in $333 million. Both figures represent the fastest and highest dollar amounts raised for those causes in history.

Would those events have been better served if they operated on a shoestring budget? I find it difficult to say yes. Perhaps the main reason they were so successful was the massive amounts of paid advertising that was created by Pallotta’s team of skilled, well-compensated employees. There are certainly many leaner groups fighting for the same causes, but I doubt there are more impactful. Pallotta once said “Want to know why nonprofit organizations aren’t solving the world’s big problems? Because that’s not what we asked them to do. We asked them to keep their overhead and salaries low. So guess what they did.” This pithy bit of wisdom flies in the face of what we hold as true, but it strikes a nerve. I listened to Pallotta speak to a room of hundreds of fundraising professionals, and to say that the group was enthusiastic about his philosophy would be a staggering understatement.

We expect charities to be pure; to conform to our ideas of what they should be, even at the expense of executing their missions. In 2010, the Susan G. Komen Foundation attracted widespread criticism for filing trademark oppositions against other charities — mostly small ones — using the color pink and the words “for the cure” in their marketing. Outrage ensued and it was easy to see why; it smacks of big bullying little. But that’s not really what was happening. All of the overlapping marketing confused donors about where their money was actually going, and was detrimental to Komen’s financial mission of actually curing cancer. Not to mention it’s a completely different standard than we would hold a for-profit business to.“We see it as responsible stewardship of our donor’s funds,” said Jonathan Blum, Komen’s general counsel. 

Ultimately, we have to understand it’s difficult to judge the worth of a nonprofit simply based on one impression or metric that may well exist for a very good reason. Whether it’s overhead, size or tactics, snap judgments serve only to perpetuate misconceptions and harden them like stone. We found it’s most effective to do our own research and provide our customers and staff with a clear and earnest description of what our donation will accomplish.

MONOCULTURE: The Diversity Failures of Craft.

Monoculture farming is a widely used but problematic practice. The cultivation of one crop in a farming system at a time increases yields and reduces costs, but it comes at a price. These crops are particularly susceptible to pests and disease. Not to mention unsustainable—the repetition rapidly depletes the environment, discouraging healthy growth as time goes on. Variation is required for long term success in an organic system.

It’s no secret that craft brewing has a bit of a monoculture, too. The industry’s diversity problems have been well-documented in the national press and the Brewers Association is recommending action. Suddenly, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies are everywhere. Yet for all the jargon and well-crafted handbook additions, breweries look essentially the same as they always have. Why? Because most policies are well-meaning at best and toothless at worst. The inefficacy of “checking the box” for DEI is plain. 

This isn’t uncommon for social initiatives in the workplace. Like DEI, phrases like triple bottom line (3BL) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are fashionable but suffer from a lack of definition. They disconnect us from the very intentional actions they’re supposed to measure. There are no ethical standards they must adhere to (see greenwashing), and businesses rarely attack them with the same fervor as financial goals. They’re “good-to-have,” not “have-to-have.” Not deemed truly essential to a company’s success.

The same can be said of the craft brewing industry’s DEI efforts. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not anti-craft. Craft is my life. I’m a brewery owner and I adore our industry, which is made up of mostly great people who have been out in front on a number of progressive issues. So where did we go wrong with diversity?

In a word, bias. Specifically, unconscious, “similar-to-me” bias. We tend to hire people that think and look like us, and it’s perhaps the single biggest reason craft’s monoculture persists. And since our employees are largely industry enthusiasts (88% of whom are white), we’re essentially guaranteeing the culture will stay the same. This is bad for business in the long term; study after study reveals that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones, but business owners cling to their established culture because they believe its responsible for their success. This is a huge obstacle when it comes to making major cultural changes. When we are able to attract and hire diverse candidates, our casual culture and fast pace can prevent us from recognizing things like microaggressions (aka micro-inequities), and quick turnover of diverse employees is the tragic opportunity cost.

In order to be effective, DEI efforts must be approached with vulnerability. This is why it eludes many of us in the industry. The wind has been at our back for a decade, and beer is built on bluster—which gives us the false assurance we’re doing everything right. Entrepreneurs—brewery owners particularly—are used to being ahead of the curve, and and being rewarded for it in the marketplace. This often leads to the mistaken assumption that we are inclusive because we say we are and feel that we are. But the tragic reality of the “hot hand fallacy” is many don’t realize they’ve fallen victim to it until it’s too late.

In an article for Forbes, author Glenn Llopis recommends moving DEI out of the purview of HR altogether, and instead into the center of an organization’s strategy for growth. Craft beer has always lionized its product, emphasizing quality above all. But it’s time to move the focus from the product to the people. In this respect, DEI policies alone aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on unless they’re part of an earnest strategy to put opportunity for individuals at the center of the company. This isn’t to say we should settle for less in other areas. It’s about recognizing that our offering alone is no longer exceptional just by virtue of its existence. Craft culture is now mainstream. Quality is largely assumed because in order to compete in a marketplace nearing saturation, you have to be good merely to exist. But being good isn’t enough, and changes in the industry point to an unfamiliar future.

By any metric, growth is slowing. In 2018, craft beer “grew by just 4 percent in marketplace volume, down from the double-digit growth to which the industry had grown accustomed over the last decade,” says Julia Herz of the Brewers Association. Brewery closings continue to mount. The decline of mature brands is seen industrywide, and their purveyors have little choice but to consolidate to survive. We all feel the ground shifting beneath our feet. The very survival of our industry hinges upon how we combat the challenges we face, and we can’t take meaningful action without understanding what they actually are.

“What companies struggle with, it turns out, is not solving problems but figuring out what problems are,” said leadership expert Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg in The Harvard Business Review. In diagnosing them, we have to be honest about our failures, half measures, and most of all, our history. DEI policies alone won’t uproot a century of the industry’s lack of representation of people of color. The non-diversity among brewery owners certainly has overtones of institutional racism: barriers to entry like lack of access to capital are on full display. Though not craft-specific, race was used to sow division among the working class during the fight for Prohibition. Teetotalers like the Anti-Saloon League used racism to stoke resentment of alcohol, painting it as the drink of immigrants and the lower class. Beer emerged from Prohibition wholly changed. “[The post-Prohibition] consolidation of most beer brewing in the US into very large corporations probably hurt all sorts of minorities who would have potentially owned breweries,” said Allison McKim, an assistant professor of sociology at Bard College. The effects persist today. The neighborhood brewery is once again the prevailing archetype, like it was leading up to prohibition, and the ghosts of the Eighteenth Amendment still haunt it. 

And of course, our neighborhoods are still segregated. Author Bill Bishop’s influential book, The Big Sort, details the ever changing demographic makeup of America’s cities and neighborhoods. Its thesis is that as time progresses and wealth grows, Americans increasingly choose to live in neighborhoods made up of people like themselves. This is the world in which craft beer has risen to prominence: a landscape of compartmentalized affluence. Though craft’s unprecedented rise may be due to this clustering of the like-minded (and like-skinned), its survival will have to be in spite of it. Demographic uniformity is not good for business; it’s considered a contributing factor in craft’s slowing, and for that we have the Millennials to thank. 

Millennials are now the biggest buying generation ever, and they are drinking less and less. The “sober curious” movement and the mainstreaming of cannabis loom large in craft’s future, and not in a good way. We can’t survive by catering to GenX and the Baby Boomers alone. We have to connect with younger generations in a big way, which will require new approaches that have little if anything to do with brewing beer. But fortunately, they’ve been vocal about what they want. For all of the generational disconnects, one thing about Millennials is clear: they expect companies to stand for social justice, and they value and appreciate diverse workplaces. How dare they.

So how do we get there? We have to start with understanding what inclusion actually looks like. This past October, Boston’s Harpoon Brewery announced it was hosting its first ever career fair, the aim of which was to cultivate diversity in its workforce. “It’s about making connections and inviting people into the fold who may not have thought about a career in craft beer, but who can flourish here,” said Dan Kenary, CEO. The company also brewed a special beer—“Hopportunity Pale Ale”—whose sales benefited career development for the unemployed and underemployed in the Boston area.

Harpoon shows us a way to provide opportunities for people we don’t often encounter. But the goal can’t be just to hire a more diverse staff. That would be callous and likely fruitless because it isn’t just about changing the skin color of our team members. It’s about acknowledging the value of diversity, notsandwiching diverse people in to your existing culture. This requires being vulnerable enough to give them room to shape and change the culture. As someone once said, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” Without the latter, the hiring aspect alone is premature and destined to fail. 

Ultimately, it’s about creating opportunity for everyone, ourselves included. We need new customers, and we can’t reach them without the type of innovation we can only gain from diversity. But we can’t get either without moving people to the forefront. Diversity and acceptance alone are low standards in this respect. As my friend and fellow OutPro Council member Jennie Mills says, “I’m sick of just being accepted. I want to be affirmed.” Affirmation requires far more than progressive policy. Diversity without inclusion prevents people from bringing their true and authentic selves to work which, unfortunately for employers, drastically limits their contributions; it turns invested employees into transactional ones. Craft must do the hard work to cultivate a truly diversified culture if it is to endure. Otherwise, it may find the environment that once nurtured it has become too depleted to support it.

Calling out Karen.

IT WAS AN HOUR or so before dinner rush when I walked into the pub for my after-shift beer, or “shifty.” I noticed the servers were huddled by the server station comforting Rachel, one of our newer team members. The manager told me there had been a bad interaction with a customer the night before and Rachel was still upset by it. I pulled Rachel aside and she told me a family had brought their elderly father in for dinner. My face burned with anger as she described how the man sexually harassed her repeatedly throughout their meal, even touching her inappropriately on one occasion. Rachel was visibly bothered throughout the interaction and the man’s daughter explained he was in the early stages of dementia and encouraged Rachel not to take it personally. Rachel tried her best to be patient but as his behavior grew more aggressive, she felt compelled to speak up. 

She told the family he was being inappropriate and that if the behavior continued, she was going to get the manager. The daughter laughed. “You’re in the service industry,” she snarled. “You need to get used to this kind of thing.” They asked for their bill and left. Rachel cleared the table and noticed that not only had the group left no tip on an $83.17 tab, but they had also written “change your attitude!” on the check. Though she was hardly a confrontational person, Rachel walked outside and demanded an explanation from the guests. The daughter swore at Rachel and insulted her appearance, and Rachel came back inside in tears. Soon after, our manager fielded an angry phone call from the patrons, complaining about their dining experience. The manager apologized — unaware of what had actually occurred — took down their address and dropped a gift card in the mail. The incident was soon swallowed up in the chaos of a busy Wednesday night. 

But the next day Rachel was still upset and so was the rest of the female staff. I felt guilty because to some extent I knew I was responsible. I was all too aware of the times in the past I had turned an indifferent eye to this sort of thing. Patrons demeaning servers has been a part of restaurant culture for too long, largely because the people in charge (me) accept it as a cost of doing business. Most women in the service industry become numb to it or skilled at playing it off, but there’s usually real pain not far beneath the surface. I realized it was well past time for a gesture. 

I found the customer’s address on a crumpled up piece of receipt paper in the office trash can and wrote her a letter. I explained her conduct was unacceptable and though the gift card we promised had already been mailed, we wouldn’t be honoring it. Her patronage didn’t give her the right to demean our employees and she wasn’t welcome in the restaurant ever again. I sent Rachel a copy of the letter and I shared it with the staff as well. I posted the customer’s name and photo and asked them to inform a manager if she ever set foot in the restaurant again. 

Though the damage couldn’t be undone, I learned it’s never too late to make a positive change. The staff was understanding when I apologized for not doing a better job in the past, and were quick to forgive me. The experience taught me something about leadership I didn’t know: Humility is one of the biggest gifts I can give my team. It breaks down the wall between boss and employee, and shows that everyone has a role to play in shaping the company. Admitting mistakes isn’t weakness; it communicates authenticity, builds trust, and most of all, demonstrates that transparency isn’t just for customers. Our team deserves at least the same degree of respect, honesty and engagement that we afford strangers who walk through the door, and it’s important for me to acknowledge that the customer isn’t always right. Sometimes the customer is a jerk, and our employees have to know I’ll defend them when it’s necessary. They’ll never truly believe in a company that doesn’t do right by them.