The Power of Passion

Major change does not happen organically. For there to be a significant shift in mentality and policy, specific individuals must fight against the current to make progress a reality. Brown-Forman, an internationally known Louisville-based company, has always been on the forefront of forward thinking; however, thanks to several passionate employees – four of whom Modern Louisville was lucky enough to sit down with – the company has become only makes astute business decisions but one that always does the right thing.

Kirsten Hawley, chief human resources officer; Emma Hutchens, regional compensation manager supporting corporate groups; Lottie Chestnut, Jack Daniel’s global marketing director; and La Toya McClellan, people development manager for global production, are four extremely intelligent and driven women who have ardently fought for diversity inclusion and equality at Brown-Forman. Although they each, through their own journeys, have made contributions to this forward movement, it has not been together as a cohesive unit.

“We are not a formal group,” Hawley asserts. “We are women who work in various parts of the business who support women, who support African-Americans, who support Latinos and Latinas, who support LGBT employees. So I think what you have here is a group of women who are very committed to diversity in all its forms – formally through the work we do in our Employee Resource Groups and informally in just how we come together as colleagues.”

barrels3_web-5Hawley, at 19 years, has been with the company the longest out of these four and has seen absolutely extraordinary growth since she began at Brown-Forman. But it was in 2007 with the hiring of Ralph De Chabert as the company’s chief diversity officer that she really noticed how unique the company’s commitment to diversity inclusion was. “To have such an expert in the field choose to work at Brown-Forman – and that there was a job title and real work that started to coalesce under his leadership – that to me was a defining moment,” she recounts.

With him, De Chabert brought the formal creation of Employee Resource Groups or ERGs, one of which was GROW – Growing Remarkable and Outstanding Women. Hawley’s first foray came in the form of membership in GROW. Her greater aspiration though was a leadership role in Bring Your Own Diversity (BYOD), the LGBTQ-focused group that was developed in 2009 and would later be rebranded as PRIDE. She eventually conveyed to De Chabert her interest in the position, but her passion for the fight for LGBTQ equality is longstanding and indeed personal.

Hawley has been a champion of LGBTQ rights from a young age thanks to one of her most influential family members. “My uncle is gay, and he is one of the most important people in my life,” she says. “And knowing his journey as a gay man and what he had to endure in many cases – I do this to honor him. That’s really where it comes from. I honor him and his partner every time I stand up for the LGBT community.”

barrels61_webEmma Hutchens’ story is similarly personal. She arrived at Brown-Forman in 2008 but was not yet out as a lesbian to anyone save a few close friends. In 2010, however, Fabricia Mounce, a co-leader of BYOD, reached out to Hutchens and personally invited her to join the group. Hutchens was reluctant at first, but after much persisting, she gave in. “It was through the course of a number of conversations with her and a number of invites that I passed on because I just wasn’t ready yet – and then maybe it was maybe the sixth or seventh invite, I received that I said, ‘OK, I’m just going to do it. I’m going to show up.’ And I was out at work before I was out at home,” Hutchens recalls.

From there, Hutchens’ voice only got louder. She got more and more involved with diversity on campus and, in fact, learned that diversity and inclusion was actually a priority at the highest level of leadership at Brown-Forman. She still believed though, at her level, that homosexuality had a sort of covertness to it. So when she and another prominent voice for diversity, Jill Jones, were part of an ally drive, she never expected it to be as successful as it was.

Roughly 300 magnets that said, “I’m an ally” were ordered, and Hutchens remembers thinking only a few – if any – would be picked up. By the end of the event, only a few remained, which hit Hutchens hard simply because it represented a major shift in mentality. “The point was to make it visible, to have a marker around campus that it’s safe,” she explains. “A marker that it’s OK. So that people like me who hadn’t come out yet but wanted to could see – visibly see – that it’s OK.”

And the visibility only increased. In 2010, Mounce had led the charge to take part in the Kentuckiana Pride Parade. She saw 12 people – which was a big number – show up to participate. But in 2015, roughly 65 attended and marched in their rainbow, Jack Daniel’s t-shirts. “It’s one thing to march in Louisville under the banner of Brown-Forman, but it’s something else entirely to march under the banner of Jack Daniel’s, our most well-known consumer brand,” maintains Hawley.

barrels1changed_webChestnut, global marketing director for Jack Daniel’s, recalls the process of bringing the brand’s logo to Pride. “We simply approached it from the vision of the brand, which is ‘Make every friend a friend of Jack,’” she says. Meanwhile, Hutchens believes this moment is more representative of a larger truth at Brown-Forman. “That’s something I want to make sure we don’t understate, and that is it was just about asking the question,” she emphasizes. “I think it’s a theme here at Brown-Forman. It’s not that something won’t be supported – you just have to ask. Because while there’s always a strong business case for diversity, I think what makes Brown-Forman unique is that we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. Because we care.”

Perhaps, at least for Chestnut, there was no greater illustration of Brown-Forman’s genuine care for its employees than when she received an assignment to go to China. Chestnut’s partner, Brenda, is a cancer survivor, and Chestnut was trepidatious about going to a country where the government would not recognize Brenda as being under Chestnut’s healthcare plan. “So Brown-Forman made Brenda an employee in order to enable that medical card membership so that she could have her name solo and there would be no question should we need to have medical in China,” Chestnut recollects. “That was phenomenal to me. It brings tears to my eyes every time I tell that story.”

Chestnut’s impact on the LGBTQ community on Brown-Forman actually started long before her China assignment – before she even arrived a the company, in fact. Whenever a new employee is about to start at Brown-Forman, an internal email goes out, proclaiming “So-and-so and his wife moved to Louisville from…” and when Chestnut accepted her position at Brown-Forman four and a half years ago, the email went out saying, “Lottie and her partner…” – for the first time recognizing an
LGBTQ relationship.

Hutchens recalls seeing the email: “It was loud. It was visible. It was palpable. It had an impact on the conversation. Of course, Lottie didn’t even know!” However, that announcement was very much in line with how Chestnut wanted to live her life in Louisville, coming from a company where she worked for 19 years without anyone knowing she was gay. “I made a vow coming here that I was going to be truthful and live fully and just be free,” she expresses. “That was my personal journey.”

Now, Chestnut is immensely respected for her assertiveness and leadership in the LGBTQ community, but she doesn’t necessarily see herself in the same way others see her. “I feel like I show up,” she simply says. “I don’t use the word leader in the sense most people would use, but when you show up and make the time, that makes a statement, and that makes an impression. And you’re doing something by showing up.”

McClellan, while the newest to the company, has still been a part of this movement. She’s been with the company for almost four years but has always had an ingrained fervor for inclusion and equality. “For me, diversity inclusion is a passion,” she affirms. “And I think it comes from values of equality but also experiencing being a minority personally. I feel like I get, from my perspective, what that feels like, and I really want to make sure I can be an ally to all groups because there’s a need to really galvanize together.”

And what can be accomplished when forces align is truly astounding. Take for example a momentous occasion that took place on a national level: the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. Hawley in particular recalls being so overcome with emotion and so desperate for an outlet for her feelings. On that day, she took to the company’s internal communications site and wrote a letter expressing how she felt about that moment in history and published it.

“And then I caught myself,” she says after posting it, “and I thought, ‘I’m the head of HR. Did I need to get anybody’s permission to do that?’ So I went to Paul, my boss, and said, ‘Do I need to run this kind of stuff by you? Because I recognize that I’m speaking from what I truly believe, but I don’t know if my beliefs align with the company’s beliefs so – are we good?’ And he said, ‘Of course we’re good.’”

barrels4_webHutchens recalls reading the letter and becoming similarly emotional. “That letter was one of the most impactful things that happened in our Brown-Forman LGBT diversity journey because that letter demonstrated on the day that we were all celebrating, so was our top ally in the company,” she describes. “It
was monumental.”

Indeed, Hutchens goes on to say that the LGBTQ presence within the company has grown exponentially in recent years thanks to the voices of people like her and people like Hawley. “The level of visibility of the groups, of the allies has significantly changed,” she asserts. “And that’s important for people like me, but it’s also important for parents who may have a daughter who’s just come out or a son or a trans child. But if they walk around and see Kirsten Hawley who is the chief human resources officer with [an ally pin] on her badge and an ‘I’m an Ally’ sticker on her door, then that signals that this is a safe place to have a conversation if you need to.”

But, as Hawley insists, this sort of tone of inclusion is set from the top. She and her colleagues have undoubtedly been proponents of change, but Brown-Forman as well has made diversity inclusion as priority in its policy-making. “The way that work is distributed across an executive leadership team says a lot about a company’s priorities, and it will also be an indicator of what will be discussed when executives get together to figure out how to grow the business,” she reasons. “Our CEO has created a set of teams that are co-led by executives that speak to the most important priorities of our business, and they include the things you would expect from any global company, but they also include a diversity and inclusion team.”

So of all the things Brown-Forman could be discussing at the highest level, diversity is one of them, which speaks not only to the integrity of the business but to those like Hawley, Hutches, Chestnut and McClellan – those who have been advocates and voices for this sort of policy since they arrived.

And there’s no end in sight. “Right now, we are figuring out how to include a training module on unconscious bias for everyone who’s engaged in the interviewing process,” Hawley explains. “That to me shows the more exposure, learning, conversation, dialogue that can happen between and among people who care about this company and care about each other, the more we can actually make change happen that doesn’t feel like people screaming at each other.”


Hutchens agrees that the culture of the company is truly conducive to this sort of dialogue as it’s right in its foundation. “All of these conversations are aligned with our core values, which are trust, respect, integrity, teamwork and excellence,” she says. “If we are really living by those core values, then that happens naturally.”

Again though, change of this magnitude cannot happen organically. It takes a team. Perhaps not a team, but a collective mentality of what the forward direction must be. As Chestnut points out, “Even the four of us – or the five including Jill Jones – we may not work directly with each other, but there’s a connection. Through interactions with each other indirectly, we somehow make each other different and better.”

What these women have done, with and without each other, is significant. It points to not only the progressive culture of Brown-Forman but to the power of passion. To what an individual’s voice can do alone and even more so when that one voice becomes a chorus invoking change and equality. And those voices make moments happen. Critical moments that direct the future. As Hutchens muses, it’s not one moment that has brought this company and ideology to where it is now; it’s the collection that makes the here-and-now what it is. “If there were one moment, it would be disingenuous,” she asserts. “That’s one event. This is a collection of behaviors and actives and reinforcements that demonstrate this is who we are. It’s not what we’re doing – it’s who we are.”