Episode 5

Khalilah Olokunola

Season 2

How Personal Development Can Lead 
To Professional Success, from TRU Colors’ Khalilah Olokunola

In this episode Khalilah Olokunola, Chief People Officer for TRU Colors Brewing, takes us on a trip inside the brewery and shows Katelin how their social mission to decrease street violence and unite gang rivals is central to everything they do. Katelin and Khalilah talk about personal development, second chance hiring policies, and why she makes all new hires jump out of a plane.


"It was at that moment that I realized I had to be what I needed for me, doing my process for this team, and that began my journey of discovery, of digging deep into what traditional HR looked like, and realizing myself that there was some components that I would need to re-engineer in HR, so that we could be effective and efficient for the team that we were going to serve."

Katelin: Welcome back to season two of All Hands, brought to you by Lattice. I'm your host, Katelin Holloway. If you were with us last season, you know we focused on sitting down with C-level execs to chat about how people strategy is good business strategy, but this season we're doubling down. We're not only talking to CEOs and founders but a wide range of people leaders, from heads of people to chief diversity and inclusion officers, to really get into some of their core practices, principles, and beliefs when it comes to putting your people first.

Today I'm chatting with Khalilah Olokunola, also known as KO. She is the chief people officer at TRU Colors Brewing, a brewery in Wilmington, North Carolina, with a social mission to decrease street violence and unite gang rivals. KO is a strong advocate of second-chance hiring and creating a workplace culture that focuses on development. She oversees all people aspects of the business, including recruitment, training and development, sustainable systems and HR strategy. According to her colleagues, she is the defining force behind a company culture that drives both personal and professional growth. Khalilah, welcome to All Hands.

Khalilah: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Katelin: Oh, we're going to have so much fun today, KO. I cannot thank you enough for joining us. This is such a fun and a different story for us to tell here on All Hands. As all very good tales go, can you please start at the beginning for us? Will you tell us your story?

Khalilah: Yeah. Thank you, Katelin, for that introduction. I spent most of my teen years in Brooklyn and in Troy, New York, where I hung out sometimes, surrounded by gang, Bloods, Crips, and GDs. I found myself involved in tons of things. Part of that was in response to some of the challenging situations that I faced in my life beginning at 13 years old. I ended up facing consequences of some of those activities, and lost my name to a Department of Corrections gen number, and ended up serving a little bit more than four years in prison.

One thing I knew is that I remained adamant about the importance of education and making an impact in the lives of others who had passion and purpose on the inside of them, but had faced difficult situations. That impact wasn't a house, a picket fence or a tall, dark and handsome guy, even though I welcome it, right, but it was making an impact in the lives of others. It's important that, as we speak today and as people listen, that they understand this chief people officer. I had to be chief people officer for myself first, before I was able to be chief people officer in TRU Colors.

Katelin: Khalilah, the next question I've been asking our guests on the show is thank you for telling us your story and how you got to be in this role of chief people officer, but is there anything else about your identity that you'd like for our audience to learn about you?

Khalilah: Something that people may not know about me is that when I relocated to Wilmington, North Carolina from Brooklyn, New York, and I started an event and set design business for film and TV, I worked on Mary and Martha, HBO's Eastbound and Down. I am in three great films, right, and not because I was the best, but because I was resilient and had grit and knew what opportunity meant. I had this awakening that I remember when I was going through that transition that I spoke about earlier, about making impact in the lives of others.

I decided to close that business by sale. I sold contracts and my equipment, and decided to begin empowering women based on Dr. Seuss books. It was lessons of leadership from Dr. Seuss for powerful women who aspire to lead, and I believe a call. The first course was The Lorax. Who's going to speak for the trees? Who's going to speak for people who don't have a voice? It was through that journey that I was invited to speak in New York City at the Women's Venture Fund Conference, and George Taylor, the founder of TRU Colors, was also speaking at that same conference. It was there that we connected, even though we were both from Wilmington.

Had our first conversation, and I realized that even though decades had passed since I had gotten in trouble with the law and served this time, decades had passed since I had changed my life. I was hanging out with people in the country club. I didn't want anybody to know my story. I realized that this purpose was more important than my pride, so I shared my story for the first time in New York City at a little hole in the wall near 10th Avenue, and George Taylor invited me in to speak to the guys to share my story. That one day turned into a week and then a 40 day-contract, and I've never left.

Katelin: Yeah. You met George kind of serendipitously. You had this moment of, "Hey, this is something that is a part of me and is a part of my identity, and I'm interested in having this conversation and telling my story a little bit," that then turned into an engagement of some sort, which then turned into a contract, which turned into many, many, many contracts on the back of one. All of a sudden you wake up and you're like, "I work here now," at TRU Colors.

Khalilah: Oh, my God.

Katelin: Talk to me. Talk to me about that path, because you don't have an HR background, which I love. I myself did not, before getting into it. Talk to us about that journey and that discovery of the HR profession.

Khalilah: I didn't know what I was doing was called. I knew I was doing a whole lot of creating and training and cultivating and connecting people. He said, "I have this really important role in HR, slash education, that I think that you would be dynamic at." I just gave him a blank look, like that deer in headlights look. I said, "George, do you know who you're talking to?" I'm loud, right? I'm pretty fun. I love people. I love compliance too, but I'm edgy, right?

Katelin: Yep, yep.

Khalilah: I was like, "I don't know if I'm your person, you might want someone ... " and I really stereotyped what that person would look like. He was like, "No, I think you'll do a good job at it." I said, "I don't know anything about traditional HR." He was like, "I don't need you to be traditional. I need you to be KO." It was at that moment that I realized I had to be what I needed for me, doing my process for this team, and that began my journey of discovery, of digging deep into what traditional HR looked like, and realizing myself that there was some components that I would need to re-engineer in HR, so that we could be effective and efficient for the team that we were going to serve.

I would have never chosen HR for myself. I thought that it was boring and it was all about policy and procedure and not about people, and I am people-focused. I'm purpose-driven. I understand being profit-aligned. If I can't have those three components, then I want to stay away from it. I've been able to come to this company and utilize that experience, those difficult experiences, and help shape and create something that the team here actually gravitated to and needed.

Katelin: I think that the word authenticity is being used a lot now these days, and maybe even overused. I think in the true sense of the term, really the authenticity of being a real human, who has real, human, lived experiences that matter that are shared, that are connected, it deeply changes the way that we interact with one another and the dynamic in the workplace. That's not to say that more traditional HR leaders or HR industry folk from the past weren't humans, it's that they weren't being invited to show up and engage and think about the way their experiences could shape or impact the way in which we operate together to move the business forward and be business-focused, right?

Khalilah: Yes. Yes, the language. I love it, yes. That's exactly it. I agree.

Katelin: Before we talk a little bit more about the mission and vision of TRU Colors, which I think is absolutely fascinating, I would love to hear, just in your own words first, you mentioned that you are a people-first leader, that you are very, very people-focused, which I ... of course, yes to all of those things, but what does that really mean to you? When you say, "I'm a people-first leader," what does that mean?

Khalilah: Yeah. You know, it's so funny. I always tell people when they ask me that, I always use this word, KIND, right, and they're like, "What's KIND?" I've made KIND an acronym. For me, being a people-focused leader means being KIND, and being KIND is Knowledge Inspires New Direction. That's the acronym for KIND, and that means that you use what you know to design where you need to go for the team that you're serving. Data only works if it's being designed for the people that you're serving.

Being people-first is you're paying attention, you're listening. You understand that it has to be homegrown and human. It's only homegrown if you're paying attention to what the people are saying and what they're not saying. Being a people-first leader for me is being KIND. Knowledge inspires new direction for me. I listen. When I listen, I lean in and try to develop and design.

Katelin: I think that that is phenomenal, because not only when you first said being a people-first leader, it means being kind, just even in the non-acronym form I'm like, "Yeah, let's be kind to one another." That's a beautiful thing. That doesn't mean that we can't be focused or driven or want to hit those business goals, but then when you flipped it up and said it's an acronym, like, that's the juice, baby. Put that out. Let's amplify that.

Khalilah: Yeah. It's those three for me, that people-focused, purpose-driven, profit-aligned. We want to make sure that we're meeting numbers, we want to make sure that business is successful, but we also want to not just quantify the product, but how can we look at the return in investment from the people? Because we get something back from them when we lean in for them.

Katelin: I have long said oftentimes I think HR gets a bad rap for being business-first. You're not always going to put the business ahead of the people. What's right for the people is right for the business. I love that.

Khalilah: Yeah, it's true. When you teach and train your people, and you give them these amazing opportunities and they begin to believe in themselves, it makes them more committed employees. They dig in deeper to get to understand what they're doing. They want to get over learning curves. They don't want to stay still. All those things are important. When we want to focus on the bottom line, yes. When we focus on the people also, it's going to help the bottom line. We all know it's cheaper to cultivate employees that are already in place than look for new ones, right? Why not just pour completely into them? They'll not just appreciate the paycheck you give them, but they'll appreciate what you pour into them to make them successful and make them better.

I have conversations with executives, consultants, generalists all the time, and everybody has a different perspective on how they view people, but they are our most important asset that we have. A business can't function without the people. The same way we pour into the marketing dollars and the strategy and the tactics for the product, I'm really focused on doing the same thing for our people, because if we fail them, we fail the business. If we fail the business, we fail the customers we serve, the investors that support it, and the people that have an expectation on what we say we are going to do.

Katelin: Absolutely. When you invest in people, when you give them the resources, they are then going to go out into the community and get another job, and translate and share those values, that support. How they were treated is going to be a part of who they are in their responsiveness and in their dynamic and in their own communities, which is your community.

Khalilah: Absolutely. The majority of our team members, I want to say 85 to 90% of our team members, are active gang members. For us, personal development is at the core of professional success for us. We focused on helping them with things like money, housing, transportation and understanding what healthy relationships look like, because we understand that our social mission, it can't just be driven behind closed doors with brewery sales. It has to be driven in the community. If we give them what they need internally, externally, they can soar. Most employers, they want their team members to be successful inside the building, but we need them to be successful outside as well, because their role is dual. We want you to work inside of TRU Colors with the skills that you've being taught, but we also want you to help speak out against gun violence. We want you to take a stand. We want you to continue to say yes.

That Maslow's theory, that hierarchy of needs, those basic needs, is so important for us, because early on when TRU Colors started, because of a 16-year-old who was gunned down in Wilmington, North Carolina, down the block from another business that George had at the time, doing the research and spending time with gangs, what the company realized is that it wasn't that they were tied to violence or to illegal activities. They were looking for economic solutions to things like poverty, to things like lack of inclusion and lack of opportunity and jobs because of past felonies, or lack of resources and education. We knew that if we could change the product, we could provide education and attach those tools that they need, that maybe we can reduce violence, and that's what we've seen.

Katelin: Well, let's talk a little bit about your programs. I know that you have been very, very influential in creating a lot of these programs and building them with your teams together, but can we start with Disrupt-U? Can you tell us a little bit about what that one is?

Khalilah: Yeah. Disrupt-U is eight weeks. It's our eight-week onboarding. It teaches life skills, social skills, business skills, and of course, beer, right, because we are a brewery. It gives you your first taste of what the brewing industry would look like. That comes with a project-based lesson, so a beer battle. We split the team up into their own individual teams in that class. They're responsible for brewing their own beer, coming up with the name, a pitch presentation and a perfect food pairing. At the end of the class, we do a company call and we taste everybody's beer and have tasting. It's really a great experience because for so long, some of the guys have thought that brewing is just brewing the beer, but there's so many other roles in the brewing industry, like finance and HR and marketing.

That eight-week onboarding, it's in place to help rid limiting beliefs. We taught skill, and we've realized that some of the team members weren't utilizing the skills that we taught them. I had to go back and see why, and it was because they didn't have the confidence yet they needed to believe that they could be successful in these roles. We went back and added belief within Disrupt-U.

I have it designed in three phases. The first three weeks is the hard honeymoon phase, where you're getting to know yourself, right, and a little bit about the people that you're working with, because there's rivals in the room, right? People that may not have been able to sit next to each other at any other time. Then after the hard honeymoon phase, that second phase is the fight-through. We start learning about the core, those basic needs, responsibility and conflict mediation.

Then the final two weeks is second nature. You've picked up new habits. We spend so much time teaching people to break habits, we never have time to build new ones. Instead of telling people what they need to break, I just teach them something new. "Hey, you have to be here at 8:00 AM or you're fired." I mean, we're really strict in that onboarding, and so people show up on time.

Disrupt-U is the gateway into TRU Colors. Everybody goes through it. You usually pick a side, like pick a department that you want to work in before you get into TRU Colors at our open house. We recruit a little bit different than most companies. Towards the end of that class, we start giving you some individualized training in that onboarding. At the end, you have that one-on-one meet with your new prospective department manager. I take you to skydive out of an airplane, because that's our initiation in TRU Colors.

Katelin: Wait, hold on. A real airplane?

Khalilah: A real airplane. As part of the initiation in TRU Colors, because a gang has initiation, in the beginning we thought that we had to come up with something, so we came up with the skydive. Every new team member that joins TRU Colors has to jump out of an airplane. I've had to jump four times, because I've either been dared or, "You're taking us, you should jump too." I've jumped a couple of times. The first time, of course, I took a pack of Depends in the car with me, right, just in case

Katelin: I believe that.

Khalilah: It was a little scary. It was scary. Most of the guys that have gone up in airplanes have never flown on a plane before in their life, and so they're the only guys that can say that they went up, but they never landed. They jumped down, and it symbolized to them starting something new. Their yes amplified, magnified into this new career, this journey that they're on to stop gun violence, but to change their life. We're changing these individuals, who in turn will change their household, who in turn will change their community.

We had a guy that I remember. He always told people he was a smooth talker. He said, "My skill is being a smooth talker." I said, "So you could be a master communicator, right? You can be a mediator," and so we helped cultivate that skill. Teaching our team members how to use those skills to transition, and so where they are has been powerful for us. That is what Disrupt-U is. It's disrupting you, disrupting what you believe about you, and disrupting the path you're on to get on the path of passion and purpose in your life.

Katelin: I've got to say, this has to be the most robust onboarding training of any company that I've had the pleasure of talking with, not just on the podcast, but ever. It is so thoughtful. It's so well designed and really just thought through, not just in terms of the programmatic side of like, "Okay, great. What does this look like?" I mean, that's an eight-week program. How many times a year are you running that?

Khalilah: Yeah, so we do it typically every quarter. In between that, one example, we just finished a beer camp that we designed in house to help the people going into the brewery. The goal is to always have a Disrupt-U class happening, so people would be able to go through and get some of that education that we have to offer and utilize it and apply it to their lives.

Katelin: I'm not interested in jumping out of a plane, but I think that it's amazing to take the symbolism. As you said, for many of the folks that have never even been in a plane, what a powerful experience. What a real milestone, for them to have that hard reset. I'm really interested to learn a little bit more about your second-chance hiring and the incentive programs that you all have built.

Khalilah: Yeah. Most of the team members that we have here are felons, and so we work with them on legal. Again, we call it the Four Core, which is money, housing, transportation, relationships. It's at the core of success, and we help the guys through legal issues, help them in strategically getting their personal lives together. They are successes internally at the company. Our recognition and rewards program, it's really you go through that eight-week onboarding, Katelin, but there has to be a sustainability process in place to keep our team members on track, to keep that connection, that cohesion between experienced hires and gang.

We have things like TRU Community, which is a tribe system that I developed, where we split the affiliated team members up into tribes based on numbers. They elect an individual to be a head coach, and that head coach is responsible for leading that tribe through the season. They compete on a monthly basis based on work performance, and based on friendly competitions that help drive outcomes that we're looking for. They submit a place sheet every 15th of the month that shows what they've done. They do everything from giving back to the community ... because we change perceptions not just inside, but outside the building ... to stability. They submit that place sheet and they get community cash as opposed to points, because our guys respond to money.

If you made the most community cash per month, that means that you performed the most. You contributed the most in the community. You are our Baller of the Quarter. You get this big rope chain that says Community Baller of the Quarter on it, that you can walk around in that for the full quarter or hang it on your desk. The coach that wins the season has a trophy. What we've found is that it helps build unity. It helps teams communicate. It helps us keep the social mission up front, because everything we do is to drive outcomes and connecting those rivals, and making sure our guys pick up on skills like leadership, on resilience, on grit, on active listening.

This last competition last month was a Stop the Violence art competition. Each team had to create a canvas piece that showed the mission from their eyes. We did that, but those paintings are hanging up inside the building. They were able to express what they saw, the impact that they were making, for themselves. It was good to hear their voice, to hear where they are and to hear where they thought we could go. That gives them buy-in, because they realize their voice is a part of it.

We use TRU Community to drive those outcomes. You don't just get cool chains and trophies. You can take your community cash and convert the note to gift cards and experiences. At the end of the year, the top Ballers of the quarters, the top three, get to compete in a pitch competition to share why they should be the Baller of the Year, and we give that person a trip either to the Bahamas or to Jamaica.

Katelin: That's insane.

Khalilah: Yeah. Experiential teaching, by giving our guys experience in things, it changes them. Think about this. When you go someplace that you've never been, you're like, "Wow, I love it here." You bask in it. It's the same for our team members. They're going outside the hood. Dacious, who's our director of health and wellness, was our first Baller of the Quarter. He took the trip to the Bahamas. You would hear him say he never thought that he would ever leave the country. He never thought he would travel. He was chosen on that boat to have the captain's dinner.

Could you imagine how that changed him? Being able to experience this life that he never thought would go beyond the block he was in or behind the prison cell, because he served 10 years. Hearing these stories and providing these experiences and driving them towards these experiences, these learning outcomes, it helps teach them. It helps them engage with it. It helps broaden their perspective and widen their capacity that they thought that they had.

Katelin: I think it's an incredible model, and I am so excited for this episode to air and have more people adopt the things that you all are doing. I think that this is a beautiful thing about how the world of people and people leadership really can impact our society in a much more broad sense of the term. I think that this shift in perception that you're talking about is deeply, deeply powerful, if we are open to it and if we are equipped with the frameworks and the language to be able to share, which you are doing so, so well, KO. You all are doing so much. What's next for TRU Colors?

Khalilah: Right now we're at this pivotal place where beer is scheduled to go to market at the end of the month, so we'll be in stores in [inaudible 00:23:45] and Virginia. We have a minority stake partnership with Molson Coors that was just announced. We have a lot of people that aren't gang members that we just hired. We're on this big hiring spree for sales, when we have all these different cultures coming in the building.

I was talking to my CEO and some of my team. I was like, "We have to make sure that there's a connection." We did something called a reverse mentorship, which is we pair an individual with gang and we get them to have lunch, and then we measure it with something called perspective points. "Hey, did it change your perspective? Hey, would you go out to eat with them again? Hey, did you figure out that you guys had something in common?"

Something simplified like that is a way to change perspective, not just across gangs, but cultures and colors and everything. If people listen and they could adopt this in their workplace, if they would be willing to take a chance to have brave conversations and to make brave moves, we would see a change across the board in people ops, in companies and organizations across the country.

Katelin: I love it. We are unfortunately getting to the end of our time together.

Khalilah: Yes, we are.

Katelin: We're going to wrap up the show the same way I wrap up all the other ones, which is a quick rapid-fire. Are you ready?

Khalilah: I'm ready.

Katelin: Excellent. On a scale of 1 to IPA, how hoppy do you like your beer?

Khalilah: Hoppy hoppy.

Katelin: All the way. Awesome. Okay. I know that you're not actually sitting at your real desk right now, but is there one thing right in front of you right now that you can look up and it sparks joy? What is it?

Khalilah: Yes, it is the TRU Colors mug.

Katelin: Yes. Oh, that's a good size too. You could have a few beers in that big boy. Amazing. Okay. I know that this year has been incredibly busy. When I say this year, I'm still talking about 2020, even though we're halfway into 2021. I know that you also are a mother. What is your current favorite productivity hack?

Khalilah: Oh, my goodness. You know what? Give the kids a movie. I always think that there's a great lesson in a film. I find a film, find a lesson, stick them in front of it, and I'll go behind the scenes and get some work done.

Katelin: I feel that in my bones. Screen time took prime time during the pandemic. Okay, those were fun and silly and an easy way just to get you warmed up, but let's get into some slightly deeper ones. First question. Company culture, family or sports team?

Khalilah: Family.

Katelin: Next question. One tactical thing that leaders or HR teams can do today to create a more inclusive workplace.

Khalilah: Be KIND.

Katelin: Be KIND. Remember our acronym. Hit us with the acronym again.

Khalilah: Knowledge Inspires New Direction.

Katelin: Okay. Next question. When was the last time you were deeply proud of something you had accomplished?

Khalilah: I don't usually think about being proud of me. I think about being proud of the team I serve.

Katelin: This is why I ask.

Khalilah: Shame on y'all.

Katelin: This is called self-love, baby, self-love.

Khalilah: I guess this last, I mean seeing the team that just graduated from the bootcamp graduate from the bootcamp and go into their new roles, and watching them walk through the brewery proud.

Katelin: Yeah. I love that. I know, it's a tough question. It's hard to turn it back on yourself when you are in such a service-oriented role. It's important for you to think about that. Okay, Khalilah, one last and final question before we wrap it up here, and this one does not need to be rapid-fire, I promise. What advice would you give to founders and people leaders out there trying to make sense of this particular moment in history? How can they use this as an opportunity to build a better organization in this next chapter?

Khalilah: Man. I would tell them that three I mentioned earlier, to be people-focused, purpose-driven and profit-aligned. When you empathize with people by understanding their experience, that helps you define your why. If you can define the problem, you'll find your what, and then when you ideate solutions, you can understand your how. We need more than programs, based on where we are. We need a system. We need more than just to start. We need to sustain, right? If you lean in and loop in what's working, it'll help lead you. Build a blueprint. Don't just build something that's time-sensitive, that works for now. Build something that can work for the long haul.

Katelin: What an incredibly powerful message to end on. Khalilah, KO, I adore you. This has been so much fun.

Khalilah: Thank you.

Katelin: I am proud of you and your team and what you all are building. Like I said, I cannot wait to crack open a new beer with you and really celebrate everything that you are putting out into this world, because it's beautiful and important and necessary. Thank you so, so much for the work that you do and the voices that you lift. Please, please continue to keep leading authentically. We are so grateful for the work that you do. Thank you.

Khalilah: Thank you.


Thanks so much for joining me on this week’s episode of All Hands, brought to you by Lattice. I’m your host, Katelin Holloway.
All Hands is produced by Lattice in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to our production team: Christine Swor, Annette Cardwell, Rachael King, Samantha Gattsek, Madison Lusby(Luz-bee), & Erica Huang(hwong) Learn more about how Lattice can help your business stay people focused at Lattice DOT com or find us on Twitter @LatticeHQ.

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About the Guest

podcast guest

Khalilah Olokunola

Born and raised in New York, Khalilah “KO” Olokunola spent much of her teen years on the streets in Brooklyn & Troy’s most notorious street gangs She eventually faced the consequences of her activities & lost her name for four years to a Department of Corrections number. She remained adamant about the importance of education & making an impact in the lives of others. After a successful run as an entrepreneur, KO exited out of her last company by Sale.

Today Khalilah is the  Chief People Officer at a for profit company with a closely knit social mission to unite gang rivals & decrease violence across the country . There she is the force behind defining a company culture that drives connection, cohesion & growth.

She also oversees developing and executing a Re-Engineered People strategy for the 7 main areas of HR in support of the overall business plan and strategic direction of the organization.  KO is an advocate for workplace diversity, inclusion, and second-chance hiring.

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