The issues of diversity, equality and inclusion have never been more front of mind in the drinks and hospitality industry. This week’s online wine2wine event dedicated a number of sessions to allow a wide range of debates and conversations to take place. The key now is how does the fragmented world of drinks and hospitality come together to keep the momentum behind these issues going. This is very much where the Women of the Vine & Spirits organisation comes in as it has been offering a platform for women all over the world to come together and share and use its now wide range of resources and support tools for women. Here founder Deborah Brenner explains why she set the organisation up and how she is so pleased these issues are now getting the profile and publicity they need.
The drinks industry has a ready made body to take on the challenges of diversity, equality and inclusion in the Women of Vine & Spirits, as founder Deborah Brenner explains.
Can you tell us the background to Women of Vine & Spirits?
Most of my career had been spent working in the traditionally male-dominated industry of high-end technology where women had to fight adversity and conquer gender stereotypes with very few role models and male sponsors. After 20 years in the tech industry, I took a trip to Napa and Sonoma and discovered that many women in the wine industry were under-recognised – just like I had experienced in tech.
I felt compelled to tell the stories of these women and tapping into my love of research and journalism, I authored a bestselling collection of profiles, Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women Who Make, Taste and Enjoy Wine, which Wine Spectator named a Critical Read of 2007.
Through the process of writing the book and championing these incredible women I was inspired to enter the wine business myself, releasing wine from a 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. Ultimately, however, the wine brand was not profitable and I realised it was not fostering women in the wine industry the way I had envisioned, which led me to dissolve the brand and return to the drawing board.
I realised there was a void in the alcohol beverage industry that needed to be filled. To facilitate change we needed a collective voice to advocate for diversity, equality and inclusion along with encouraging others to start women’s initiatives across all industry sectors and engage with senior leadership; both men and women.
How have you gone about doing that?
A year after dissolving the wine brand, in March 2015, I organised the Inaugural Women of the Vine & Spirits Global Symposium, with the goal of bringing talented women together to share their stories and expertise. It was a sold-out success. The attendees eagerly supported the opportunity to connect through a global network and seek ways to accelerate their business and professional development. This forum allowed for collaboration and inspired attendees to do business with like-minded women and men. It was clear to me that to make a positive impact on the alcohol beverage industry, women needed a voice year-round.
That’s when I created the membership organisation, Women of the Vine & Spirits, in September 2015, with a commitment to one clear mission: The empowerment and advancement of women, worldwide and to advocate for greater diversity, equality and inclusion in the alcohol beverage industry.
What were the main objectives and hopes when you set up the organisation and have they changed as you have grown?
The main objectives when originally creating Women of the Vine & Spirits were to provide a forum for women in alcohol beverage to connect, celebrate accomplishments, learn from one another, do business with one another, and thrive while also fostering gender diversity and talent development across the industry at large.
These main objectives of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DE&I) and Business Development are still very much the focus of our organisation today. We have been dedicated to DE&I since the start and well before many other organisations began focusing on the importance of it. We are thrilled to see the industry pay attention to DE&I collectively and see that it is not only good for the bottom line, but the right thing to do.
Our benefits are what have changed as we have grown, we are tapping into new initiatives and collaborations that are assisting our members in growing their business and doing business with other WOTVS members. Our resource library has grown to include topics on Taking Action, Workplace Harassment, and Calendar of Events includes topics that are relevant and timely based on the changing consumer and the hurdles we have been facing this year.
When I first launched the organisation, I never would have imagined having over 150 companies sign on as Corporate Members and over 6,000 members in the directory – all dedicated to our mission and passionate about supporting their themselves and their employees.
What key achievements and steps have you taken so far that you are most proud of?
Membership representing all three tiers of the alcohol beverage industry and companies who suppliers who service our industry, from legal, marketing, cooperages. Also:
- Our C-Suite Database, which is the only collection of female leaders in alcohol beverage in the world that we are aware of.
- Our Certified Women Owned Database of our Corporate Members that are WBENC or WEConnect certified as women-owned, to support Buyers with diversity spend initiatives.
- Pledges for both our members in support of the community we have built and more recently a Pledge of Commitment to End Workplace Harassment. The Women of the Vine & Spirits (WOTVS) Pledge of Commitment to End Workplace Harassment demonstrates to the alcohol beverage industry, worldwide, our shared commitment to creating a respectful, harassment free workplace where all women and men can feel safe and be their authentic selves. Our voices as a collective are so much stronger than alone.
- Pilot D&I Allies Program with McKinsey engaging our male allies in alcohol beverage to work with us on empowering and elevating women in our industry.
What services and networking opportunities do you provide?
Through our website, we offer a calendar of webinars, live chats and master classes focused on a range of topics such as business development, personal development, DE&I, and education. These are all lead by leaders at corporate member companies or experts we invite as special guests. We record these events to create an extensive library of on-demand videos from over the last few years.
When Covid-19 shut everything down, we quickly galvanised our members and started hosting live chats on Zoom with Q&A. So no more webinars, we needed to meet one another, unmute our mics and get deep into the subject matter. We all needed to focus on relevant and timely topics to help our community do business while keeping members motivated, positive, hopeful and productive.
Business development was crucial and since we have so many members with expertise in different industry sectors and all across the globe, we tapped into our members knowledge to share and help one another conduct business through these challenging times. It has been truly remarkable to witness all our members, taking off competitive hats and support each other.
We have been hosting chats about DTC, on-premise, off-premise, shipping, legal changes during Covid-19, state of the industry, wellness and coaching programs. These events have helped us keep a sense of community in a time when most people are working from home.
Additionally, members can engage with one another and network via direct messages through our Membership Directory. We also have a number of groups our members can join including our People of Colour Alliance, Pride Alliance, Wholesalers, Working Mothers, and more that are private groups for our members to connect on a topic important to them and their careers.
What do you see as being the big outstanding issues when it comes to supporting and promoting women in the drinks industry?
Lack of visibility in leadership roles. WOTVS introduced the First-of-its-Kind List of Female Leaders in the Alcohol Beverage Industry, Worldwide in 2019; Our C-Suite honours and recognises leaders that are change-makers, and co-creators in the alcohol beverage industry. Visibility of women in traditionally male-dominated roles and industries cannot be underestimated. The women on this list have earned their place at the top as forward thinkers, disruptors, innovators and icons using their voice and position to inspire others to follow in their footsteps.
How happy are you in how far the wider wine and spirits industry is tackling diversity and inclusion?
I am happy to see so many businesses addressing DE&I within their companies, as well as the number of organisations similar to WOTVS that have started in the last few years, but there is so much more work to be done.
While there are initiatives and programs in place to promote DE&I in companies, we won’t see real change until those in leadership positions reflect this. I’d like to see 50/50 representation of women and men in any alcohol beverage company board room, add to that a diversified room of people of colour, LBGTQA+ and cultural backgrounds.
We know that DE&I is the only way to achieve equality and that diversity drives innovation. When we see this change to the face of the alcohol beverage industry, there will be no limit to the success companies will see.
Do you think drinks businesses should produce, publish or follow codes of conduct when it comes to D&I in their companies?
Many companies have internal codes of conduct in place. We have recently produced a Pledge of Commitment to End Workplace Harassment, which may very well be a great jumping off point to have the conversation with our members and the other industry organisations we have relationships with to take steps toward an industry-wide code of conduct.
Are there ways you can help companies set up a D&I code of conduct in their company?
We collaborate with many experts that are notable in this field and they are happy to partner with us and provide our corporate members with resources and education. For example, McKinsey & Co. has participated in several of our global symposiums and has hosted live chats with our members on what leading companies with DE&I programs are doing in their companies and steps members can be taking now to implement their own.
Additionally, we have corporate members that themselves have successful internal programs and we have them host live chats for our members, sharing the basics of how they began their programs as well as their hurdles and successes with implementing them.
We are committed to creating and fostering a work environment in the alcohol beverage industry where all women and men can thrive no matter their gender, race, or sexual orientation. We understand that harassment comes in many forms; sexual and physical, bullying, job shaming, verbal threats, derogatory comments, and micro aggressions, among others. We are the conduit to the continued conversation, but the subject matter itself we leave to the experts with either formal training or the experience to lead these critical conversations.
Have you found any challenges along the way and what have you done to overcome those?
Being an entrepreneur brings with it its own host of challenges. Weighing of the risk versus possible reward. Going forward when being told you should not do so. Finding your voice in an area when voices are often silenced. Building a team you can trust and lean on, to both support you and pull you back in if necessary. Surrounding myself with like-minded advisors, that completely understand the vision and creating a team that not only believes in the vision but is willing to do the work to get there are two of the greatest ways I have overcome the challenges of being an entrepreneur.
What sort of membership do you now have?
WOTVS offers membership to both individuals and companies.
We have individual membership for people looking to network with a community that shares in their passions for women’s empowerment and those looking to hone their personal and professional development skills, search our Job Board, and access education and resources focused on supporting them on their personal journeys. Individual Membership is only $150/year or $15/month and we have discounts available for university students and WSET students/alumni.
Corporate membership is for companies that are looking to grow their DE&I initiatives by learning best practices from experts and other corporate member companies, collaborate with other members on initiatives and programs, promote their services and products to our membership, and increase their visibility as advocates for empowering women in alcohol beverage. This membership options extends access to all employees of the corporate member company to also help foster skills tied to business development and creative and innovation within the industry.
There are various levels and prices available to accommodate companies of all sizes. We offer six corporate membership plans starting at $2,500/year.
Is it only open to women in the US or do you have an international reach as well?
WOTVS is for women and men all over the world, and our current membership is representative of that. Women in alcohol beverage share the same frustrations, inequalities and passion for the industry, regardless of what country they are in. And we want our male allies engaged as well, it is together that we can create change.
Our organisation allows for members across the globe to share stories of their triumphs, lessons learned and paths they have walked. We appreciate our members and media spreading the word about our organisation in countries outside of the US. As we are 100% digital right now there is no problem for women and men around the world to login, watch a live chat, and engage with our diverse membership.
Are you looking for funding and support – if so what and how can people support you?
What a wonderful question. There are two ways to support us. First, we welcome all companies from around the globe to join us in our mission by becoming corporate members of WOTVS which aids us in providing more services and benefits to our members. If this is of interest you can reach out directly to our director of corporate membership and engagement: firstname.lastname@example.org
Additionally, the Women of the Vine & Spirits Foundation, is the charitable arm of WOTVS. The Foundation provides scholarships and awards for the purpose of helping women advance their careers in the food, wine, spirits, beer, or hospitality industries through education, leadership, and professional development, as well as fosters gender diversity and talent development across the industry at large. To donate to the Foundation for 2021 scholarships click here.
Do you have outstanding ambitions and initiatives to introduce?
Yes, we are very excited about some new initiatives we will be announcing for 2021. One soon to be announced is that WOTVS has been approved as a WSET Approved Program Provider. We will be offering WSET qualifications of Level 1 Award in Wines, Level 2 Award in Wines, Level 1 Award in Spirits and Level 2 Award in Spirits Online and scheduling exams in the US.
Providing WSET courses and qualification fits in perfectly with the mission and goals of our organisation as WOTVS is focused on providing educational tools and resources for women to advance their careers. We know that continued education and accreditation enhances the resumes and experience of women seeking to move up the ladder in their profession and are thrilled with the prospect of being directly involved in this process. WOTVS is also focused on filling the talent pipeline by encouraging more women to enter the industry – many of which will be eager to do so when receiving their Level 1 and Level 2 qualification in Wines and/or Spirits.
We also have two other initiatives which we will launch soon that we aim to fulfil a great need to help those in the industry during these challenging times due to Covid.
We like to think we are in constant motion, addressing the changing landscape of our industry and therefore our members. We like to be innovative ourselves. Looking for better ways to encourage positive change inside our membership companies and therefore the alcohol beverage industry. As an entrepreneur I always have ideas brewing, and sometimes great opportunities are a result of someone or an organisation reaching out to us. It is always exciting to building from our current position to a place to better serve those in our community.
Anything else you would like to say?
Nothing makes me happier than sharing the successes of our WOTVS team and the incredible collaboration and support we received from both our members and the industry. What started as a one-off event in 2015 has blossomed into an incredible, energised movement demanding change in our industry.
- You can pledge your support to the work that Women of the Vine & Spirits does and in particular ending workplace harassment by signing this pledge here. It is hoping to get over 1,000 signatures by December 1.