Dreamers: “They told me It was impossible and I did it anyway” with Deborah Brenner of Women of the Vine & Spirits
Practice Gratitude: I count my blessings every morning and state what I am grateful for. I am a very spiritual person and I truly believe that failures are just a way for preparing us for what we are meant to be doing — it is like a practice run so we get it right when we […]
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By Fotis Georgiadis, Passionate about bringing emerging technology to the market.
In my work as a consultant, I speak with business leaders across multiple industries about their most significant challenges. One common theme continues to emerge — rapid change and disruption are the new norm in business, and the only constant is the demand for resilience. At the heart of resilience is the ability to adapt and recover quickly from adversity. I am certain that more than intelligence and talent, resilience is the single most important trait required to succeed in today’s highly complex market. My “Rising through Resilience” interview series explores the topic of resilience in interviews with leaders across all walks of business.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Brenner of Women of the Vine & Spirits. Deborah came to be Founder and CEO of the Women of the Vine & Spirits via a circuitous path that includes passions for science, art, stories and people.
After over 20 years in the male-dominated field of high-end technology and owning a marketing and public relations firm, a fortuitous trip to Napa and Sonoma showed Ms. Brenner that women in the wine industry — like her own — were extremely under-recognized.
“It was from that point on that I felt compelled to tell their stories,” she says, the result of which would be her bestselling collection of profiles on women in the wine industry, Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women who Make, Taste and Enjoy Wine. Wine Spectator would name the book one of its Critical Reads for 2007.
Through the process of writing the book and championing its subjects, Ms. Brenner became inspired to take a further leap in developing the two-day Women of the Vine Global Symposium in April, 2015. Overwhelmed by a sold-out attendance of 500 women from five countries — and their demand for more education, tools, and camaraderie — Ms. Brenner launched the first-of-its-kind Women of the Vine trade alliance in September, 2015, and opened membership to all women professionals across the alcohol beverage industry, including wine, spirits and beer.
Ms. Brenner has received a Rising Star Award from Women for WineSense (2008), a New York Small Business Administration Women in Business Champion Of The Year (2009), a New York City National Association of Women Business Owners Signature Award (2010), the Lillian Vernon Award for Outstanding Community Service by the Women’s Enterprise Development Center (2011), a NY Women in Communications Rising Star Award (2013), and the Rockland Business Women’s Network Woman of the Year Award (2014). She is also a member of Senator Gillibrand’s NY Agriculture Working Group.
Thank you so much for joining me Deborah! Our readers would love to get to know you. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?
Thank you for having me! Right after graduating college, I spent almost 20 years working in the high-end technology sector. The tech industry continues to be a traditionally male-dominated one where women have to fight adversity and conquer gender stereotypes without much guidance or support. Back in the late 80’s and 90’s no one was talking about mentors, sponsors, or coaches. I found myself navigating unchartered waters without any female role models.
Year after year, I was becoming more disenchanted by Corporate America even though I was deemed very successful by society standards; I had a company car, I was the first female executive in the company, I made a good six figure salary, but (the big BUT) I was so unhappy, I dreaded going to work on Monday on Sunday. I never felt I could bring my full authentic self to work. It was as if I had to check a huge part of me at the door. I knew deep down that I could never really thrive if only a part of me was out front and center.
A sudden divorce was the aha moment for me in 2003. Within three weeks of my husband moving out of the house, I walked into my boss’s office in downtown Manhattan and gave him my resignation. I just quit. I had no plan. I look back at that now and think, “oh my God, what was I thinking?” but it was the best decision I ever made in my life.
I needed breathing room. I had been working since I was 14 years old and never took time off between school, college and career. I just knew that if I kept commuting an hour each way, working long hours, managing a team and traveling, there was no way I could figure out what was next in my journey. It was the first time I was really alone since I married my high school sweetheart. It was the first time I took a well needed time out.
I freelanced for a short while to pay the bills and during that time, I took a trip to Napa and that trip changed my life and career trajectory. While I was there, I discovered that so many iconic wine brands had incredible women behind them as winemakers, proprietors, viticulturists, and running operations. I also discovered how male dominated the wine industry was and after meeting many women, I learned that many of them were the only females on the team, they often had to fight extra hard to earn their seat at the table, or in the cellar, as it were. This was in 2004 and there wasn’t much talk about the women behind the wine at that time.
They were mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, partners, volunteers, mentors and mavens whose responsibilities at work, at home and in the community far outsized their pay bracket or job description. This pattern was so familiar, I couldn’t ignore it. Upon my return to NY, I started my research. My thirst for knowledge was my driving force. I identified with these women: Their struggles with work/life balance, their fears, their disappointments and their triumphs. From that point on, I felt compelled to tell their stories and after several months of interviews and writing, I wrote the book, Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women Who Make, Taste and Enjoy Wine and got published in November 2006! In 2007, Wine Spectator selected it as a Critical Read in their Top 100 December issue.
Through the process of writing the book and championing its subjects, I became inspired to enter the wine business myself, I started the first-of-its-kind collective of seven artisan women winemakers from Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles. For the following seven years, I learned the business inside and out. I couldn’t have predicted the recession and I was way too early to market since so many of the distributors and buyers just didn’t understand the concept and why anyone would care if the wine was made by a woman.
Ultimately, however, despite all the money, blood, sweat and (a lot of) tears I could not sustain the business, which led me to shut down the Women of the Vine wine brand and return to the drawing board. Now, it was 2013 and I found myself at another crossroads. I was single and I had used my savings and my home equity loan to fund my wine business. I was broke, my house in foreclosure, and in debt at 47 years old.
Even though it was the toughest six years of my life, it was also some of the best years in my life. During that time my soul was alive, and I felt like I was doing what I was meant to do in my life. I felt like I had a purpose. I may have been broke but I truly felt that I was living a richer life than ever before. I dreaded the thought of going back to Corporate America and losing this feeling.
For the next twelve months, while admitting defeat and searching for full time employment, I took odd jobs, freelance gigs and consulting work…and started looking for an apartment.
Luckily, I didn’t take any job offers and in 2014, I decided to take the business concept from a consumer product to the trade. It was then that I decided to organize the first of its kind and Inaugural Women of the Vine & Spirits Global Symposium, held in March of 2015, which quickly sold out to 500 women from five countries. I took a huge leap of faith, signed the contracts with the venue, hired an event planner and paid for it using the bit of consulting money I was making. Everything I had went into this event. After the Symposium I went to work, alongside prominent and dedicated men and women in the alcohol beverage industry developing a consortium that supports professionals in the alcohol beverage industry year-round. Thus, emerged Women of the Vine & Spirits, a membership-based organization, anchored by the annual Global Symposium, whose mission is to empower and equip women worldwide to advance their careers in the alcohol beverage industry, fostering gender diversity and talent development across the industry at large.
What are the top three factors you would attribute to your success as a leader at Women of the Vine & Spirits?
- Optimism & Faith — for me they go hand in hand as one
- Meditation — quieting the inner critic
- Collaboration — you don’t have to go it alone
In your opinion, what do you think makes your company stand out from the crowd?
All of our members are connected through our shared mission. We are committed companies and individuals that don’t want to just continue to talk about the lack of diversity and inclusion but rather to accelerate the pathway to equality and to create a culture for all to thrive in an industry we love. We are about taking action and we do this together, women and men, entry-level, middle management to senior leaders. We are also unique because we bring together members from all industry sectors and everyone takes off their competitive hats for the greater good of the cause.
How has your company continued to thrive in the face of rapid change and disruption in your industry?
The industry is a fast moving one and is extremely competitive. It is a globally traded industry and margins are small and due to laws, we work within a three-tier system which makes it even harder for many companies. For Women of the Vine & Spirits, I believe that we are thriving because we are always innovating. We spend a lot of time talking to our members to understand their issues, their needs and their challenges. We need to keep adapting to the needs of our members and provide key initiatives to augment their internal women’s initiatives or to be their initiative if they don’t have one.
I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. All of my successful clients seem to have one quality in common, and that is resilience. What does resilience mean to you?
We have a membership pledge, which says it all to me. It is where your power meets your poise and your grace meets your grit. Where skill is nothing without soul, and hard work is nothing without heart. At the end of the day, you have to believe in yourself or no one else will.
When you think of tenacity and endurance, what person comes to mind?
My attorney when I had the wine business, Steven Paul Mark. I was referred to him by an acquaintance and I worked with Steve for my book was published in 2006 until his death in July 2015 just months after the inaugural symposium. Steve was an excellent attorney and helped me with my book deal and my wine business. I worked with him remotely for over a year until we met in person and to my surprise, he was a quadriplegic. He was 6”1, handsome, smart and on a football scholarship for college. Three weeks into freshman year, he broke his neck in a football game. Flash forward, he never had a bitter word to say, he never complained, he never felt sorry for himself. He was tenacious and he endured so much pain and suffering through the years and yet he overcame every obstacle and pursued his dream of being a lawyer. He continues to be one of my role models.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? (Can you share the story with us?)
Definitely, before the book got published, I was working freelance with a PR firm in NYC. When I told the owner of the firm that I needed to stop working to focus on writing my book, he told me, “You’ll be back. Who do you think you are and think you will get published? You’ll be back.”
It is a true story and when Wiley & Sons published my book and the back-cover quotes were from Margrit Mondavi, NYTimes Contributing Wine Writer and Wine Enthusiast Magazine Editor, I sent him an autographed copy of my book in the mail. I never heard from him again.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever?
The failure of my wine business was the greatest failure, but I learned so much through the process. It truly was the school of hard knocks and I believe it was meant to be that way so that I wouldn’t make those mistakes now.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency?
I played sports from the time I was in grade school. I was a tomboy and I loved to play sports with the boys as well as on girls teams. Playing sports taught me so many life lessons and resilience is one of them — you have to get back up and keep going. You have to work through physical pain and you have to work as a team. You have a lot of people counting on you in your position — I didn’t want to let them down.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. What strategies do you use to strengthen your resilience? (Please share a story or an example for each)
Mindfulness: I am an advocate of meditating every day. It helps me remain optimistic, gain clarity and creativity on projects. It keeps me focused and most importantly, keeps my emotions in check.
Practice Gratitude: I count my blessings every morning and state what I am grateful for. I am a very spiritual person and I truly believe that failures are just a way for preparing us for what we are meant to be doing — it is like a practice run so we get it right when we are called to fulfill our purpose.
Practice the Power of Now: It is a great book and I keep it next to my desk and it is a great way to strengthen resilience. The past is over and the future hasn’t happened yet so all you have is now. My Dad had a great saying when I would dwell in my past and my mistakes, he said, “you can’t drive a car looking in a rearview mirror.” I say it to myself all the time.
Purpose: We have a saying in our company along the lines of “stay in our own lane” and always question “why” we are doing something. Is what we are doing going to help us achieve our mission?
What are your thoughts on how leaders can create a more resilient workforce?
Lead by example. It is the only way to create a resilient workforce and to cultivate the next generation of leaders. Be a role model and share with them your tips and techniques. When your team sees how you as a leader can handle difficult situations, confrontation, unexpected challenges and taking calculated risks, they will see that emotions can be controlled in all sort of situations. Challenge your teams, give them autonomy and coach them along the way. Leaders need to not only build good businesses but they build great people.
Extensive research suggests that people who have a clear purpose in their lives are more likely to persevere during difficult times. What is your purpose?
I couldn’t agree more. My personal purpose is to make the world a better place and I hope I can achieve this through my business. Women of the Vine & Spirits purpose is to be the springboard for action, and the connection to the brave collective. Complacency isn’t in our nature — we are boldly pushing the alcohol beverage industry into a new era that empowers all to succeed.
What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?
“Don’t judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again” — Nelson Mandela
Can our readers follow you on social media?
Absolutely! They can follow me through Women of the Vine & Spirits pages and learn more about us at womenofthevine.com
This interview was inspiring. Thank you very much.
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