At a time when consumers are pressing brands to support social causes more than ever, Tru Colors is showing that mission-driven brands can do more than donate: The North Carolina-based brewery, which was founded in 2017 and bottled its first beer in 2021, is combating street violence and preconceptions about gangs with its community-oriented business approach. 

After the murder of a teenager in a drive-by shooting in Wilmington, North Carolina, Tru Colors founder George Taylor was inspired to promote change in his neighborhood. His theory: to reduce violence, businesses need to supply opportunity.

Unlike other brands which focus on donating proceeds to social causes, Tru Colors takes a holistic approach to community engagement by training and hiring rival gang members to work in all aspects of the company, from brewing to finance. 

“What people don’t realize is that when you decrease violence by providing people with livable wages, an opportunity to change their life, and the belief that they can change their lives, people won’t just change their household. They will change their community,” says Tru Colors chief people officer Khalilah “KO” Olokunola. “When violence decreases, you don’t just save lives, but you impact the entire community.” 

Read on for our Q&A with Olokunola, where she discusses how to train an inclusive, invested workforce and highlights how retailers and brands can support social change in their own communities. 

BevAlc Insights: What do you think people misunderstand about gangs and the work Tru Colors is doing? 

Khalilah “KO” Olokunola (KO): There’s so much tied to violence that some people never, ever talk about. We are saving lives. We’re also saving communities. And we’re helping reshape what people believe about the inner city, because gangs never started to be violent. Gangs were actually started to help care for their communities, and somewhere down the line, something changed. They have bylaws, believe it or not. And so today our goal is to change that perception and to help our guys get back to the roots of who they are. As we do that, we’re supporting the entire local ecosystem. 

How would you describe your experience employing active, rival gang members, and the truth about developing a workforce that includes the gang community?

KO: Listen, we have rival gangs that work inside of this building, and they can work together. What I think is key is that most of them never had a conversation before working here. Our guys realized that they actually had things in common with the person from the neighborhood that they had beef with. That’s the remarkable thing – if gangs come together in unity, so can the rest of the country.

What is the No. 1 piece of advice you’d give others who want to make change in their communities? 

KO: I understand that hiring gang members or people with felonies often is not your first choice. But, especially with the great resignation happening, there are so many people that have charred backgrounds or who’ve been [negatively] labeled that will be productive employees. These people will be loyal and dedicated to the brand. So I ask others to look again at the people they’re hiring, and maybe make a decision to give someone a chance … These people have skills that translate, but they’ll do more than just work—they’ll change what people believe.

What inspired the creation of Tru Colors’ Disrupt U eight-week onboarding training?

KO: We knew we had to find a way to unite gang rivals and decrease violence quickly. And the only way we can do that is with education and opportunity. We also know gang members are some of the most resilient people because of the trauma that they face in the community. So we built Disrupt-U as eight weeks of life skills, social skills, [and] business skills. Because we also have to teach our teams how to translate their skills from the block to the boardroom, right? So there’s some code switching in their language, and we teach them how to readjust what they know and to apply it in the situation, which we call being authentically adaptive. And we layer life skills and social skills around the core pillars of what matters, which is money, housing, transportation, and relationships.

What did you learn in the process of developing the training that changed how Tru Colors hires and develops its teams? 

KO: When we started Disrupt-U, we failed and we failed fast. Early on, I was just teaching skills because I thought that you give people skills on how to do the job and that’s it. But that didn’t work. What I found out later is that people wouldn’t use skills because they didn’t have the confidence to believe in themselves. And so I went back and reshaped our onboarding so that our first week is “belief week.” We teach you how to believe in yourself [and] in opportunity, and to believe that better is possible. And once someone is convinced that better is possible, then I lay on the skills and we put everyone collectively in teams so that they can actually use those skills together. 

What have you learned from the challenges and successes of Disrupt-U that everyone should know? 

KO: It taught me that our guys were able to be professionally developed if we also helped to cultivate the skills that were needed for their personal lives outside of work. So, Disrupt-U is not just professional development, it’s personal development. It’s not just preparing you for the workforce, but preparing you for real life. We don’t just look at their briefcase, we look at their heart-case. 

What would you tell others interested in doing inclusive onboarding training in their stores or with their brands? 

KO: Come back to your goals. You want people to come in and feel a sense of belonging, and to be engaged early on, right? You want to make sure that they’re going to stay. And so I recommend that others shape onboarding by showing employees that part of the puzzle for your company’s success is them. We focus on cultivating the soft skills which we know businesses need. When you create an onboarding [program] that’s centered around not just what someone can do, but who they are … you will create star performers.

How can retailers do a better job of supporting brands that are making a positive impact in their communities? 

KO: Do your research. Retailers should be intentional about looking for brands that are making a social impact that your customers would appreciate also. The reality is that when you align with a brand that’s mission-focused, it helps generate sales because people are interested in investing their dollars in organizations that are attached to a mission.

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