How Natalie Johnson Became The First Black Female Brewing Director At The World’s Biggest Beer Company

Colleen Schrappen St. Louis Post-Dispatch

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Natalie Johnson has been named the first Black female brewing director at Anheuser-Busch. Almost 25 years ago, Johnson won a spot in a special internship program that opened the doors to her amazing career at the company.

St Louis

Natalie Johnson spent the summer after high school as an intern at Anheuser-Busch.

She returned each June, on break from studying chemistry at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. After graduation, she started full-time at the famous brewery. Then she began working her way up.

This year, Johnson, now 41, became the first Black female brewing director at the company. In September, A-B announced a million-dollar scholarship fund for African American college students, named in her honor.

"Throughout my career, there haven't been a lot of Black women," said Johnson, of Kirkwood. "We do want more diversity, not only at Anheuser-Busch but also in the brewing industry."

It's not just the beer industry that is disproportionately white.

Representation in corporate America lags that of the U.S. population, which is about 13% Black. The racial gap starts with entry-level office jobs and widens into a gulf at the top of the corporate hierarchy. Just 2% of executives are Black — and just four Fortune 500 CEOs.

But Johnson got a break. Almost 25 years ago, she won a spot in the internship program Inroads, which aims to chip away at that disparity by preparing students of color for jobs in business, technology, engineering and related fields.

Inroads was founded in Chicago a half century ago, in the wake of the civil rights movement. Frank Carr, a white publishing executive, had attended the March on Washington in 1963. He came home inspired and spent the next several years figuring out how young people of color could make "inroads" into corporate America without the advantages that social connections and an Ivy League education had brought him.

By 1973, the program had expanded to other cities, including St. Louis. Reginald Dickson, who had been teaching elementary school, organized the first group of 25 students here.

"These students who were really high potential — we call them a talent pool — we would expose them to what an engineer was, what a CPA was," said Dickson, who lives in Pasadena Hills.

Randy Sanderson, now 65, was a student at Beaumont High School at the time and on the fence about attending college. His father had a third-grade education; his mother, eighth grade.

The invitation from Inroads was the push he needed. Sanderson studied accounting at the University of Missouri-St. Louis while interning at Pet Inc. and later, at May Co., where he landed a full-time position, eventually becoming a vice president.

Sanderson, who lives in the Central West End, compares Inroads with the minor leagues in baseball.

"Inroads was like the Triple-A," he said. "They prepared me and others very well for corporate America. They gave us the opportunity while we were in school to practice what we were learning in college."

Steven Alphin, 21, of Swansea, is a senior at Alcorn State University, a historically Black college in Mississippi. In September, after interning at Travelers Insurance for three summers, he was offered a position as an accounting executive when he graduates this spring. Alphin is excited to get to work with numbers but not always be tied to a desk. He already knows his team and the climate of the company.

But there is a lot of pressure being in a predominantly white office, he said.

"If I do something wrong, if they've never experienced someone Black in that space — you feel like you have to set the tone for everyone who comes behind you," said Alphin.

The 'uncommunity' More than 154,000 students in 32 cities have completed an Inroads internship. In addition to on-the-job learning, students are paired with a mentor who helps with soft skills, questions about corporate culture and resume writing.

"Our basic fundamental secret sauce — and it's not a secret, by the way — is mentoring," said Inroads CEO Forest Harper, who is based in Atlanta.

Inroads also casts a wide recruiting net, finding applicants through alumni, high school guidance counselors, and community organizations like the Urban League.

"We're looking for the 'uncommunity' of students: unaware, unnoticed, unrepresented. Corporations go to the same places all the time to recruit," Harper said.

Establishing a support system early pays off. The average "conversion rate" of paid college internships to full-time job offers is 56%, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. At Inroads, it's 64%. Harper credits Inroads with helping to build the Black middle class. Its graduates have gone on to become entrepreneurs, run financial investment firms, sit on corporate boards and win Emmys. More than a quarter make it to the C-suite.

Notable alumni include Kimberly Bryant, founder of the technology education nonprofit Black Girls Code; musician Aloe Blacc; and Thasunda Duckett, the CEO of Chase Consumer Banking. Locally, the list includes "This Is Us" actor Sterling K. Brown; Vanessa Cooksey, the newly named CEO of the Regional Arts Commission; and Wade Rakes, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Centene Corp.

The issue is now in the spotlight. After the death of George Floyd this spring, and the protests that followed, many companies pledged their commitment to diversity.

At the same time, many — including Anheuser-Busch — don't publicly release workforce demographics. And some have found their practices under scrutiny. Goldman Sachs and Bank of America paid millions last year in separate settlements over alleged racial discrimination, which they denied. In September, Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf apologized for a memo citing a "limited pool of Black talent to recruit from."

Harper, after more than a decade running Inroads, still sees an imbalance of opportunities and access for Black professionals.

But the program's success stories keep him optimistic.

"What our nation is going through right now, there seems to be some acceleration and some commitment nationally," he said.

"It's going to take a long time," he continued. "But am I hopeful? Yes." ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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