Irene Firmat is hailed as an inspiration to women who work in the craft beer industry. Firmat is Co-Founder of Full Sail Brewing Company in Hood River, Oregon. Firmat began Full Sail Brewing Company in 1987. In 1989, the company brewed the first amber ale in the area Full Sail Amber. The company became an independent, employee-owned company in 1999 and employs nearly 50 employees today. Firmat is one of only a handful of female CEOs leading a craft beer company. She is also the first woman appointed to the board of the Brewers Association of America.
Good Afternoon – as a mother of two older children I have been through my share of graduations and I appreciate what a deep personal importance they have. I am honored that I have been asked to join you today.
Graduations are like hitting pause button and we don’t have many of those in life. We spend most of our time focused on the day to day, while days turn to weeks, and months into years. It moves so seamlessly that time seems to just happen to us. This event is one of those rare moments when we actually have a sense of our past and future – clearly defined. A sense of where you have been and the events that have shaped you into the person you are today, and the future, not clearly defined, but full of potential and promise of the person you can become. It is incredible to look back at the person you were four years ago as you started your high school years. All those experiences, emotions, challenges are now neatly categorized as your past and have inexorably helped to define who you are today. Your future with all its possibilities, challenges and success, is just a start button away. You have the rest of your life to create your past.
My first pause button happened on a ship coming into New York harbor. My parents woke my sister and me up very early, and through a foggy dawn we had our first look at the Statue of Liberty. As a young child I was not aware of the history that had brought me to this point but I could sense my parents’ hope and anxiety as we entered into our new future. The past was Cuba in late 1961, the future was the United States. The past was all our material goods, but one change of clothes, the future was a different language, culture and expectations.
A key part of the immigrant experience is adaptability, the need to embrace differences and successfully adjust, without losing the core of who you are. Language was a major part of this adaptability. I entered kindergarten barely speaking any English. No one in my class spoke any Spanish. Yet, at the end of the school year I was fluent in a new tongue. Thanks to the kindness of my teacher, and her work to ensure the kindness of the other kids, the anxiety of my experience was minimized. This pause is also a great time for each of you to remember a teacher who eased your way encouraged you and helped to open up your world. It would be so satisfying for them to know that their efforts mattered and made a difference, reach out and let them know. They definitely don’t hear that enough. For the adults in my family, it was much more challenging. The way you speak reflects in so many ways who you are as a person: your education, your experiences, your background. Stripped of language they had to start anew, and their dignity was at risk. My uncle however viewed it differently. One evening, after a lot of frustrating conversations about the difficulty of the language, he explained his strategy. Take the Spanish word and just drop the ending vowels. You might know this strategy in reverse from Spanish class creating words like pencil-o or desk-o. In other words – wing it. My family, filled with accountants and lawyers, did not have a “winging it” bone in their body, and just looked at him appalled. My uncle was undeterred and pursued his fearless strategy. Eventually, everyone learned the language, there really was no option, but it was only my uncle who earned the high status of “speaking like an American”. He knew he would make mistakes, even look foolish, but he trusted his resiliency to overcome failure and build on what he learned each time. It was his resiliency that made the differene.
I would rely on this lesson years later in 1984. I decided to leave a more traditional career and open up a brewery. And while that now seems to be an almost everyday event in Oregon – back then it was unheard of and easily ridiculed. I learned through a constant barrage of commentary, mostly negative, how to hold on to a core idea, but also listen to points of view that could make that idea better. It took three years to get the brewery going and in that time I learned how hard it can be to navigate against the current, but how that effort can also strengthen and hone your purpose. I have no doubt that part of the brewery’s future success was forged in the challenges of its beginning.
After finally getting the brewery up and running, we faced a new challenge. Our brewmaster gave notice, less than six-months in. I reached another pause moment. Did I make a terrible mistake leaving my old career behind for such a high risk, idealistic venture? I could see a very gloomy future ahead. After almost a year of work and risk I now had to reset. In these moments, everything can make a difference. Sometimes it’s hard work, sometimes the help of a friend, and sometimes it’s luck. I got lucky. A resume came to me with the objective “to master the art and science of brewing beer.” He had an Organic Chemistry Degree and Masters in Brewing. He had spent his senior year in college in Germany. Focused and passionate, this was a dream candidate.
Back in 1988, classically trained brewers worked for big breweries, but he wanted the risk and opportunity of a brewery that aspired to change American beer culture. I convinced him to come on board. He was living in Indiana at the time and I thought for sure the lure of Oregon would keep him here. It did. Jamie has been the Full Sail brewmaster for 27 years, and yes the PNW life style did enthrall, but something else also kept him on. Me. We fell in love and have been married for over 25 years. Sometimes the most romantic thing that can happen is working hard and passionately together for a common goal. Losing a key person so early on could have destroyed our company, and our spirit, but instead it created an opportunity that both personally and professionally was so much better that I could ever have imagined.
After ten years, we began to face an altogether too common problem with start-up companies. The focus, that drove the original business partners, began to change and paths diverged. We had a split where some of the original partners wanted to put the brewery up for sale to our competitors. Since it had been so hard to get funding early on, the brewery really was built on “sweat equity” and much of that belonged to our employees. Jamie and I could not see leaving our friends that had worked so hard with nothing, which would happen if the brewery were sold to another brewery. We wanted to change American beer culture, and that also meant changing expectations on how breweries treated people. We had been focused on deeply valuing our employees, our community, and our customers and this was not a good outcome.
We put together an offer to buy out the partners who wanted to leave, and made a proposal to set up an employee owned company. It wasn’t easy to get to an agreement, but eventually we did. As there always seems to be, there was one more challenge. To make it work Jamie and I had to put everything on the line. We were required to sign all the personal guarantees for the bank loans needed. It would put us at complete financial risk. And then I had a pause - I saw the past up to this point clearly, with two unknown alternative future paths. I was, ironically enough, the same age as my parents when they left Cuba and my children were the same age my sister and I had been. That knowledge - that my parents had faced being left with just one change of clothing in the entire world and still made it, gave me confidence. Though they lost all their security, they were able to use their character, will, and education to recreate a good life for our family. I had lived it first hand and knew how difficult it was, yet they had done it. Their resilience gave me courage and I pressed play and took the risk.
Failure is hard. And taking risks can lead to failure. That is why there are so many motivational quotations and posters about it - probably quite a few in this building There are many ways we can mitigate risk – hard work and persistence – make a major difference. The ability to adapt as the conditions change around you is critical because they almost always will. For me, the most powerful inspiration has been in those pause moments, when I get to see how the past has shaped who I am today. I can say without a doubt that the person I like the best is when I was resilient. When it wasn’t easy but I took risks and adapted to changing circumstances. Those are the times that have brought the greatest happiness, the deepest satisfaction. Those are the moments that I wish for all of you. As you take on your future and start creating all your past moments believe in yourselves – in your ability to adapt, to grow and to get up again.
Congratulations and let’s press play.
Commencement address by Irene Firmat to Blanchet Catholic School's Graduating Class of 2015