Graduate's journey speaks to importance of diversity, inclusion
Graci Harkema’s journey to becoming the owner of Graci LLC — her diversity, inclusion and equity consulting firm — began in a mud hut in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Harkema shared her story during the Peter C. Cook Leadership Academy’s Wheelhouse Talks speaker series on February 11 at the Loosemore Auditorium on Grand Valley’s Pew Grand Rapids Campus.
Harkema has faced a series of challenges in her personal and professional lives, but the journey showed her the importance of understanding and accepting her identity.
“Being in a supportive and inclusive environment meant I could come to work as my whole self,” said Harkema.
As an infant, Harkema suffered from four diseases and wasn’t expected to survive. Adopted by a pair of missionaries from Grand Rapids, Harkema moved to the U.S. at 4 years old.
Harkema said growing up as one of the few young Black women in her high school left her questioning her identity.
“I didn’t know anyone who looked like me growing up,” she said.
After graduating from Grand Valley in 2009, she was interviewing for a job when she was asked about how she overcame adversity in her life. Instead of talking about her adoption, Harkema said she found herself coming out to her future employer.
“I knew from the age of 6 that I was gay,” said Harkema. “I didn’t want to risk losing family and friends, so I kept it a secret for 22 years.
“The company’s director said he was proud I could be my authentic self with him. It felt like this weight of bricks coming off my shoulders. For the first time in my life, I could just be me.”
Her greatest professional challenge came when she accepted a job as the diversity and inclusion director for a craft brewery. The brewery was facing a racial discrimination lawsuit, and Harkema said she saw the opportunity to effect positive change.
She said she was the only woman and person of color on the brewery’s leadership team.
“The criticism on social media kept coming in, and I started having panic attacks,” said Harkema. “I had to recenter myself through prayer and faith and focus on my purpose — helping people work more authentically.”
She resigned after nine months on the team, leading her to create Graci LLC. She said her firm will work with any company who’s willing to put in the effort to provide a more equitable and diverse environment.
Her professional and civic leadership has earned her a spot on Grand Rapids Business Journal’s “40 Under 40,” list twice and among the publication’s “200 Most Power Business Leaders of West Michigan,” in 2020 and 2021.
Her memoir, “Rising from the Mud,” is expected to be published later this year.
“Your voice is powerful,” said Harkema. “Make each day your mark and stand up for what you believe in. Start going to work not just for yourself but for those around you.
“We all have a story. By the grace of God, I was found. I took risks, I came out. I lost some people in my life, but I also gained a true support system.”