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
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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Queen Latifah On Her Journey To Self-Acceptance: 'I've Been Trying To Maintain My Freedom To Be Me'
Actress and rapper Dana "Queen Latifah" Owens is defying societal standards by refusing to be confined in a box regarding her personal and professional life.
Owens, who has been a part of the entertainment industry for over three decades, is widely recognized for her empowering songs and the variety of acting roles she has obtained throughout her career, among other things. The list includes Living Single, Set It Off, Chicago --with which she earned an Oscar nomination-- Just Wright, Girls Trip, and most recently, The Equalizer series on CBS.
Owens is also very tight-lipped about her personal life. However, in 2021, The Last Holiday actress showed appreciation to Eboni Nichols, who is reportedly her partner, and their son Rebel after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award.Since then, Owens has revealed why she doesn't want to be defined as anything but herself and how she maintains her sense of freedom. In a resurfaced video from theGrio Awards, Owens opened up about those topics when she accepted the Television Icon Award for her past contributions
In a clip uploaded on theGrio's Instagram account last week, Owens explained that she often had to fight to be herself because "the world" kept trying to put her in a box based on what society thought a woman should be.
"My whole life, I feel like I've been trying to maintain my freedom to be me. And the world is trying to put these things on me to stop me from being who I am," she said.
Further into the speech, Owens explained that although many would have their own opinion about her from what the media spews out, she would continue to be herself by wearing "beautiful gowns and dresses," playing in the dirt, participating in basketball games with men and loving who she loves because that's what makes her happy.
The Beauty Shop star also added that despite her celebrity status, she would continue to show respect for others because that's who she is as a person and how she was raised.
"So I wear these beautiful gowns and dresses because I want to because that's part of me. I play in the dirt. I play basketball with the boys because that's me,” she stated. "I love who I love because that's me. I love all of you who have supported me. I give you your respect. I don't have to be above you because that's me. I know me."
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