Dan and Angie Bastian, founders of Boomchickapop, spoke at a Greater Mankato Growth session Wednesday that focused on hiring and retaining authorized noncitizens, including people with refugee and asylee status.

MANKATO — Dan Bastian, who with his wife Angie launched Angie’s Boomchickapop, said hiring a very diverse workforce is intimidating for many employers.

“There’s a fear of hiring people who look different, talk different, pray different. But what are you going to do when you need employees? It’s very rewarding to do.”

The Bastians, whose popcorn business started in their garage and grew into a national business that they sold to Conagra in 2017, spoke at a Greater Mankato Growth session Wednesday focused on hiring and retaining authorized noncitizens, including people with refugee and asylee status. They were joined by Colette Drager, their former vice president of human resources.

During their first eight years they had no human resources person, hiring Drager in 2008. But from the start, Angie said, they had a clear vision of the business culture they wanted as they grew.

“We wanted to create a safe place, a place where people who came to work felt safe and comfortable and who could thrive.”

Dan said he believes it is important for employers to create a system that fits their workforce, while still ensuring quality assurance and accountability.

“As employers we struggle, where everyone has to fit into our system rather than the opposite, where we create a system that fits employees,” he said.

Dan said they worked closely with local leaders, particularly in the Somali community, to educate themselves. “They gave us insight about things we weren’t aware of, like clothing, prayer.”

Angie said language barriers are a challenge but can be overcome. She said they paired workers with limited English with someone who could speak English. They color coded things, brought in interpreters and used illustrations on posters rather than written instructions.

She said they also provided a small space and provided time for their Muslim employees to pray. “You can do it so it doesn’t hurt the flow of production and is fair to other employees.”

Drager said employers who want a more diverse workforce need to put a lot of time and thought into the deliberate processes they’ll use to reach their goal and to spend plenty of time when employees come on board to ensure they feel comfortable and understand the culture of the business.

“Be as transparent as possible from the start,” she said.

Drager said that while the company worked hard to be responsive to all employees’ needs, businesses must also ensure quality control of their product, pursue growth and hold employees accountable.

“It’s a complex combination and it was spread across many locations and hundreds of employees.”

The Bastians also hired many employees who had gone through the local drug court. While the challenges those employees faced may have been different than immigrant employees, the company tried to support them all.

“We celebrated someone’s sobriety the same way we celebrated someone’s citizenship,” Angie said.

The event, held at South Central College, was moderated by Patrick Baker, vice president and director of government and institutional affairs at GMG.

“Given the workforce shortages we’re experiencing across the region, it’s essential that employers are equipped to employ the entire talent pool available to them,” he said.