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Ladies First: The Black Women Making Their Mark In The Spirit Industry

Because the future of the spirit industry is Black and female.

Workin' Girl

Gone are the days when men were the faces of the spirits industry. In the olden days, our ancestors would have beer parties for the men in the villages to foster a sense of community solidarity. Alcoholic beverages continue to serve as a sign of hospitality and friendship for the masses. But there's something special about a spirit that was created by a black woman — you know that the ingredients include magic, love, and resilience.

If you didn't know, black women are making waves in spirit, and it's time we celebrate them. Ahead, find four of the countless black women we are rooting for in the spirit industry, serving us black girl magic one shot at a time.

Nayana Ferguson of Anteel Tequila

Photo Courtesy of Nayana Ferguson

Nayana Ferguson is what happens when your passion aligns with your purpose. Tequila is personal for this businesswoman as a pancreatic cancer and breast cancer survivor. Her journey made her very intentional about what she put into her body. Nayana taught us that because tequila is a spirit that is made from the agave plant, it is naturally gluten-free and it is low in carbs, sugar and calories. Nayana has truly leaned into her purpose with her desire to educate people on the benefits of tequila and change the stereotypical thought of what tequila is.

Why she chose the spirit industry:

"I did not plan to get into the spirits industry at all. It all began as a conversation where I asked my husband while we were talking about investing and retirement, 'If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?' At the time, we both had a love for tequila and his reply was to own a tequila company, but he thought it would not be possible. I asked him, 'Why not?' I began researching distilleries in Mexico that we could work with and two days later, I found a distillery that could create our own brand.

"As we both had a passion for tequila and wanted to break the stereotypes surrounding tequila, (i.e. everyone has a bad tequila story), we wanted to start educating the consumer on what a premium spirit tequila truly is, so we decided to start our brand and do it our own way. By doing so, we have created the world's only Coconut Lime Blanco Tequila, a Reposado Tequila that is aged eight months in Tennessee whiskey barrels and a Blanco Tequila, whereas, all are now award-winning."

"You have to be fearless when entering the spirits industry, as there are so many brands that are on the market. You have to have confidence in your vision and what you create for the world."

What it means to be a black woman in the spirits industry:

"I love the fact that I am one of the very few black women in the spirits industry who owns a spirits company and that I am possibly the only black woman who owns a tequila company in the world. I look at it as we are trailblazers in an industry that is male-dominated and that we can create brands that speak to our ingenuity and vision. Being in the spirits industry is challenging, especially for someone like me who had no prior experience. However, I hope that my story is inspiring to black women to show that even if you do not have any experience within an industry that you are passionate about, you can learn and create something magnificent!"

Advice for women aspiring to jump into the spirits game:

"My advice to any woman who wants to jump into the spirits game is to do your research and jump in! You will not know everything, but do not let that stop you from moving forward, as you will learn along the way. If possible, find someone who you may be able to talk to about some of the ins and outs of the spirits industry. Otherwise, you have to be fearless when entering the spirits industry, as there are so many brands that are on the market. You have to have confidence in your vision and what you create for the world."

Samara Rivers of Black Bourbon Society

Photo Courtesy of Samara Rivers

Samara Rivers started the Black Bourbon Society when she noticed a lack of marketing geared towards POC in the spirits industry. The self-proclaimed 'Chief Bourbon Enthusiast' created the Black Bourbon Society (BBS) to galvanize upscale African-American professionals nationwide who had a taste for the finer things in life, but were virtually untapped by the emerging trend of indulging in premium spirits. "Through exclusive events, curated dinner pairings and private whiskey tastings in markets such as ATL, LA, and Chicago, BBS encourages its members to enjoy good bourbon, network with like-minded bourbon lovers and gain a deeper appreciation for America's Native Spirit," she explained in a 2019 interview with Will Drink for Travel.

BBS has over 10,000 members and they've partnered with and featured several brands including Wild Turkey, Maker's Mark and Four Roses. As a certified Executive Bourbon Steward and a co-host to a weekly podcast, Rivers dedication to visibility and diversity is definitely felt.

Why she chose the spirit industry:

"I'm not sure if I chose this industry, or [if] by luck the industry chose me. I knew that I wanted to make a difference in our world around the notion of diversity and inclusion, but never did I think it would take me on this particular journey. The spirits industry is one the most fun and genuine industries around. The moment I started BBS, I felt like I was a part of a family."

What it means to be a black woman in the spirit industry:

"Being a black woman in the spirits industry definitely can be challenging at times, but it also means that everyone notices your presence. I have gotten used to being 'the only' in the room knowing that I represent an entire demographic of tens of thousands."

Advice for women aspiring to jump in the spirit game:

"Like Nike says, 'Just do it!' If you don't have a seat at the table, be prepared to bring your own chair. But overall, you'll see that there are plenty of opportunities to be seized in this industry. You just have to be bold enough to want it!"

Joy Spence of Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum

Joy Spence

If you Google Joy Spence, you'll quickly see that she is the first woman to hold the position of Master Blender in the spirits industry globally. Her love for chemistry led her to become one of the most renown pioneers in the world. Over the course of her decades-spanning career, Spence has been at the helm of creating some of the finest rums the world has to offer, including but not limited to the Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year Old. "I think I am one of the fortunate few who are able to use science and technology to create spirit – both literally and figuratively - in the world," Spence shared during a 2018 awards ceremony. "At Appleton, we have been able to blend rich Jamaican rum, making heritage with cutting edge technology to create some of the finest brands in the world. I will continue to spread the joy of rum globally and, by extension, promote Brand Jamaica."

Why she chose the spirit industry:

"I was lecturing in chemistry and decided that I wanted to gain experience in manufacturing and joined Tia Maria as their Research Chemist. After two years, I became very bored and joined J. Wray andNephew (owner of Appleton Estate) as the Chief Chemist. This is the moment that I fell in love with rum. I discovered that it had the most complex and beautiful flavors with exceptional versatility. I was tutored by the previous Master Blender for 17 years as he recognized that I had excellent sensory skills and creativity and would one day become a great Blender. In 1997, I was appointed the Master Blender and became the first female in the spirit industry."

What it means to be a black woman in the spirit industry:

"It was a true honor as a black woman to become the first Female Master Blender in the Spirits Industry. I was able to open doors for other women in the industry. We were always working in the background and now we are finally receiving recognition. It is a true testament that with hard work and passion you can achieve the impossible."

Advice for women aspiring to jump in the spirit game:

"My advice to women aspiring to jump in the spirit game is to embrace the challenge, focus on you craft, exude passion, be creative, become a sponge for knowledge, and the sky is the limit."

Chanel Turner of FOU-DRÉ

Photo Courtesy of Chanel Turner

From Pentagon Web Developer to the first African-American woman to head a vodka company, Chanel Turner is no stranger to hard work. She was not happy with the underwhelming taste of vodka so, like black women do, she pulled up to make her own. Testing over 80 formulas, this CEO was determined to create a spirit that didn't need to be paired with something else. Chanel invested all of her savings to create Fou-Dre, which is in more than 30 liquor stores in the DC area, as well as in several other states and overseas in Singapore.

Why she chose the spirit industry:

"I choose the spirit industry because I saw an opportunity for Black female ownership in an industry that was void of people who looked like me. It's also recession-proof, so that helps. With my background in IT, I wanted to find a more innovative way to create spirits. I partnered with a distillery who utilizes a technology that removes harsh cogeners and free radicals during the distillation process, creating a healthier, cleaner way to drink spirit beverages."

"I choose the spirit industry because I saw an opportunity for Black female ownership in an industry that was void of people who looked like me. It's also recession-proof, so that helps. With my background in IT, I wanted to find a more innovative way to create spirits."

What it means to be a Black woman in the spirit industry:

"It means double the work as my white counterparts. African-Americans in this industry aren't afforded the same resources as white constituents, such as distribution outlets, financial assistance, and retail opportunities. It means diversity in a space that historically is limited to people of color. Overall, it means fighting for your voice to be heard and paving the way for others to come later down the line."

Advice for women trying to jump into the Spirit game:

"I would recommend that one finds a support network and make strategic alliances because you cannot do this in silo. When I first entered this industry, I found myself alone looking for support and mentorship. Unable to find such resources, I ended up mentoring myself. Because women are the minority in this industry, we have to find ways to come together."

Featured image courtesy of Samara Rivers of Black Bourbon Society

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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