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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

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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