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How This CEO Is Changing The Narrative Of Black Women In Spirits

Black women taking up space is the new wave.

BOSS UP

We have seen Black women take on business and entrepreneurship in numbers and be incredibly successful in the last decade. What we have specifically seen is Black women stepping into industries where little representation of not only women but Black women are present. The wine and spirits industry is no different.

In recent years, celebrity brands such as Ciroc and Dusse have risen in popularity in our culture, becoming the drink of the party. Black-owned vineyards like Brown Estates in Napa Valley are now changing the narrative around Black people and wine. Historically, we have had our influence in this industry for years but with less acknowledgment. Our taste profile coupled with family recipes have influenced brands such as Jack Daniels, a liquor that can be reportedly traced back to a Black man, Nathan "Nearest" Green.

Amber Ferrell Steele, CEO, and creator of Timeless Vodka is changing the narrative of Black women taking up space in this industry by creating a vodka line that is expertly crafted with everyone in mind. She is a wife and mother who has stepped out into uncharted waters and created a lane for Black women in the spirits industry. It was the creativity of Amber and her husband, Bruce King Steele, that led her to try her hand at creating her own liquor brand. This idea grew legs, and Timeless Vodka was born.

Courtesy of Timeless Vodka

Since then, the Timeless Vodka team has come together organically, with Amber's retailers, distributors, distillery family, and her own family rallying around her. Trust has been a major lesson for Amber because she has only met approximately 35 percent of her team face-to-face. She has had to learn to discern who has her best interest at heart in a very small amount of time, and so far she has been right.

To create her unique product and process, Amber used influences from her family and friends to develop a brand that can compete on the premium beverage stage and is inclusive of everyone. Even down to the smallest detail of the bottle shape, inspired by a syndrome that her daughter English was born with, points to inclusion for adults who still are affected. Without much experience in the industry and little information available, she was able to leverage her skills in sales, as well as her relationships to build her brand and grow it to multiple states during the pandemic.

If you are wondering about the taste, Amber uses a special process that ultra-purifies her vodka as it goes through a distillation process five times to prevent hangovers. It is a clean and elegant process that creates a drink that even when mixed, you don't have to work too hard to make a beautiful tasty cocktail. Amber's key to success? Well, that lies in the fact that she purposely created no plan B because plan A had to work. Amber calls this grit, and it is one of the things she says you need to have in business to be successful where you are not only the sole woman but the only Black woman.

Check out Amber's journey as she details how she built her Timeless Vodka brand and the obstacles she faced.

xoNecole: You have a full-time job and a family. What made you take on entrepreneurship?

Amber Ferrell Steele: Entrepreneurship wasn't something that I actually sought to do, honestly, this was a hobby. And it kind of grew into the business, and I would say entrepreneurship found me, I didn't necessarily find it. I'd be lying if I said it was easy. January 2020 was our official launch. And before we could even really get our feet wet in the industry, we only had a good month and a half before things started shutting down or the fear of things shutting down actually took place

"Honestly, this was a hobby. And it kind of grew into the business, and I would say entrepreneurship found me, I didn't necessarily find it."

I'd be lying if I said it was easy.I can say it's been a very fascinating year to juggle. I have a full-time job. I'm a full-time wife. I'm a full-time mom, and then I have to become a homeschool teacher too. I really had to find time and balance, and time management wasn't something that I was necessarily ever good at. I had to quickly learn how to be good at all of it.

Courtesy of Timeless Vodka

How did you decide to take on the wine and spirits industry?

To a degree, my husband is not a big drinker. I like to drink. I'm willing to try different things, but him, not so much. So whenever I'd make something at home, he would drink it. But we would go to a friend's house or a restaurant, he was drinking just to drink. It wasn't something that he enjoyed the taste of. I asked him what it is, and he said, "I just don't really like the way it tastes," or "I feel like it's heavy."

So the vodka line started off as a joke. I was like OK, we'll just create our own. One day, I was at a sales meeting for my company and I started looking at research on how to create your own brand. It's surprising, there's not a lot of information out there at all. It took me about two years, from start to finish to start to find the flavor profile, and create it.

How did you come up with the name Timeless Vodka?

We already decided what type of flavor we were going to have and the last little piece to the puzzle was the name. I traveled and I had a thirteen-week travel leg, I was only really home on the weekends. Bruce gave me a card and it was handwritten on a regular Walmart card. But he had written a piece in it about what you share with the people that you care about most. Once memory fades, you will still be able to have that feeling that you can always remember. Make the moment count. So that's when we decided, let's call it "Timeless". We decided our catchphrase would be, "Moments matter, make them timeless."

Courtesy of Timeless Vodka

In creating your flavor profile, coming up with your logo, the bottling, etc., can you walk us through that process from concept to the finished product?

I definitely wanted it to be black and white. I thought that it was very timeless, classy, and elegant. It was really important for the bottom to be gray and it signifies that black and white can offer gray. The shape of the bottle is something that was important to me. My daughter was born with amniotic down syndrome. When she was little, she had a small limb deficiency with her fingers and toes and she always liked water bottles.

I kind of thought ahead, there are other adults that are just like English out there, so I thought that having a squatty or wider bottle is easier to grip. You wouldn't believe the amount of people who wanted me to change my bottle shape, label, or design. I really [believe in] standing firmly on what you believe in and what you want. There's not a lot of women in this space. Being able to say this is what I want to do, and this is why it was something I had to learn.

"I really [believe in] standing firmly on what you believe in and what you want. There's not a lot of women in this space. Being able to say this is what I want to do, and this is why it was something I had to learn."

What were some of the business challenges that you encountered while you were building your business?

Not knowing what I was doing. I mean I hate to say you don't know what you don't know until you're in that situation where you really don't know what you don't know. That was my biggest thing. Having to quickly learn different liquor laws for the state that you're in has to be the hardest part of the selling. Learning what I needed to do, legally, [I] can't say I've mastered it.

What are some of the tools that you acquired or that you use now that help you navigate the challenges of becoming an entrepreneur?

I'm pretty close to our distributor, it was nice that I was able to come in and be very honest with them. I do not know everything, but I'm willing to learn. I feel like a lot of people, in general, don't want to take the time to sit back and listen and learn.

Courtesy of Timeless Vodka

Did you ever feel like you had imposter syndrome? And what did you do to kind of get over that?

I don't think I have. There are very few women who own vodka or liquor lines in general. I'm not a celebrity, I'm not wealthy. I'm just a regular person who wants to create a great tasting product for my family and friends. Up until recently, I would go in, make calls and people would have no idea that I was the owner of the brand. I'm just now starting to tap out and say, "My name is Amber, and I'm the owner of Timeless Vodka."

What advice would you give women who are looking to go into entrepreneurship?

If anything, keep your ideas close. Don't tell anyone what you are going to do until it is time for you to do it. Sometimes people will put their fears on your success and on you. As far as going into your own liquor business, just have grit.

If you are interested in purchasing, you can find Timeless Vodka in five states, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, and New Hampshire. It is also available online and ships to 44 states.

Featured image courtesy of Timeless Vodka

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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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