In her late teens, Maria Degener left her hometown of Bremen, Germany for San Francisco, California. “SF is such a diverse city and I met people from so many different backgrounds,” she says. “It opened my eyes to the world.” Maria says that experience was the first of many that would alter her point of view and go on to shape her career. Today she heads up operations for our breweries in Germany, Italy, the Nordics and Middle East, and is one of the leading voices for diversity and inclusion at AB InBev.
Why does diversity and inclusion matter to you?
As a white woman, I'm fully aware that I come into any space with privilege, but I've certainly experienced being treated differently in situations, and I've seen how that may stop you from realizing your full potential. Ten years ago, I was the first woman in Germany to lead a team of 45 men in packaging at one of our breweries. I found some situations to be pretty difficult. Later I landed a role where I was often the only woman among senior leaders. No matter how confident my stance or sure of my expertise, the gender and power dynamics were a constant secondary soundtrack playing in my head: I had to question how I was being perceived, why certain things were only said to me. It was subtle but noticeable and it felt like I had to work harder to prove myself.
Those experiences made me even more aware of the enormous burdens that marginalized groups carry every day. I want more people to see those disparities and to shift their thinking and behaviors, so everyone feels welcome, heard and that they have what they need to thrive.
How are you brewing change?
My commitment takes a lot of forms. I'm a mentor to several women across our company and also a member of our Europe Diversity and Inclusion Council. As part of the workstream that focuses on our people and workplaces, I bring the supply operations perspective to the changes we're trying to make. The changes include reviewing our hiring practices and making sure that we, and our recruiting partners, are connecting with diverse talent, especially for our front-line brewery colleagues. We're also challenging our teams to rethink our training and workspaces, and making the changes needed to ensure more people feel like they have what they need to be successful. Examples of these initiatives include updating Europe's parental leave policy and adding family rooms that offer a place for mothers to nurse, as well as managed childcare in our workspaces.
The D&I Council has also created an Inclusive Marketing Framework to help ensure that our communications, sponsorships and other consumer-facing initiatives accurately represent the diversity of communities we serve across gender, race, ethnicity, age, ability and more. Last but not least, I have direct impact on the team that I lead and ensure that diversity and inclusion is a business priority.
Why is diversity and inclusion important for the beer industry?
After 12 years working in beer, I know there are a lot of stereotypes about who drinks it and who makes it. Some are true, some are not. For a while there's been a big uptick in women getting into the field but we have more work to do to attract more diverse talent internally, so we can attract the best talent externally.
More broadly, I think beer is diverse a beverage as they come. It's not one thing. There are hundreds of flavors, styles and local ingredients, and each beer reflects the care, creativity and quality of the people who make it. Beer goes back centuries and I'm certain our brewers will keep innovating and evolving for the next generation of consumers.
What can people do to help?
The first thing you can do is educate yourself. Read books, listen to podcasts, watch TED Talks created by people who don't think or act or look like you. Expose yourself to other points of view. Have uncomfortable conversations with people outside your network, only then will you evolve your view and become an ally for marginalized groups.
I encourage people to step in when they see or hear something that is hurtful, disrespectful or inappropriate – especially if you are in a leadership role. If it feels wrong, say something, even when someone characterizes it as ‘just a joke'. That doesn't mean you should verbally attack the person, but instead call out the action and its impact, as straightforward as saying, “When you said that, it made me feel uncomfortable or disappointed or upset.” It's not complicated but it lets people know where you stand.