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Deborah Brenner: Pioneering Women in Wine and Spirits

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21/03/2024 A Journey of Leadership, Advocacy, and Empowerment

Deborah Brenner is a trailblazer in the world of wine and spirits, known for her visionary leadership and commitment to empowering women in the industry. As the Founder & CEO of Women of the Vine & Spirits and Diverse Powered Brands, as well as the President of the Women of the Vine & Spirits Foundation, she has dedicated her career to creating opportunities and driving positive change. Brenner's story is one of resilience, innovation, and a deep passion for her work, making her a driving force in the industry.

Deborah, your journey into the wine and spirits industry started after a trip to Napa inspired you to share the untold stories of women in the wine industry. Can you tell us more about the pivotal moment that led you to make this transition from a successful career in the tech industry to championing women in wine?

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-recognized – just like I had experienced in tech. 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. I was bitten by the wine bug — I was ready to immerse myself in the world of wine. 

Your book, Women of the Vine, sheds light on the stories of women behind the labels. How did the process of writing this book influence your decision to start Women of the Vine & Spirits, and what were some of the challenges you faced in bringing this vision to life?

Deborah Brenner. Source: Women of the Vine & Spirits.

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 realized 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.

A year after dissolving the wine brand, in March 2015, I organized the Inaugural Women of the Vine & Spirits Global Symposium, thinking it may just be a one-off event. The goal was to bring talented women together to share their stories, and their expertise and encourage our male allies to join us to talk about empowering and advancing women in the beverage alcohol industry. 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. 

At the end of the symposium, I realized there was a void in the alcohol beverage industry that needed to be filled year-round. 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. 

That’s when I created the global membership organization, 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.

You mentioned that education plays a crucial role in empowering women in the industry. How do Women of the Vine & Spirits support and provide opportunities for education and professional development for its members?

I believe strongly that education is not only pivotal to furthering your knowledge, skillset, and opportunities, but it also builds confidence. Women of the Vine & Spirits is committed to providing the women and our male allies with ongoing education and professional development opportunities to support career growth in the beverage alcohol industry. We do this in several ways — 

Live Chats: Women of the Vine & Spirits hosts 2 to 3 Live Chats every week. These Live Chats are similar to educational webinars, though we encourage attendees to join our speakers on camera and to come off mute to dive into the discussion. Our Live Chats are hosted by WOTVS Corporate Members on a variety of subjects: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Business Development & Innovation, Buyer Live Chats, Professional Development, Personal Development, and more! Our Live Chats are added to our events calendar regularly. Check them out here: https://www.womenofthevine.com/events 

Business Resource Groups: Our Women of the Vine & Spirits Business Resource Groups, or BRGs, provide our members with smaller support networks within our larger community. These groups are hubs of knowledge — our members utilize them to share articles, resources, and unique opportunities. 

Resource Library: Our Resource Library is available to WOTVS members and is stocked with toolkits, educational documents, training guides, an industry glossary of terms, and more! This is a go-to resource for beverage alcohol. 

Women of the Vine & Spirits Foundation: The Women of the Vine & Spirits Foundation is the charitable arm of our organization, committed to furthering education and professional development for women in beer, wine, and spirits. The Foundation provides annual scholarships in over eight different categories. Gallo ‘Women Behind the Wine’ scholarships are currently open! Learn more and apply today! 

WSET Qualifications: Women of the Vine & Spirits is honored to be an Approved Program Provider for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET).  We currently offer online courses and exams for WSET Levels 1-2 Awards in Wines and Levels 1-2 Awards in Spirits and hope to expand to include Beer.

Can you elaborate on the significance of the partnership between Women of the Vine & Spirits and WSET? How does this alliance benefit your members?

In addition to providing enrollment opportunities through WOTVS’ WSET Qualifications, the WOTVS Foundation provides scholarships specifically for WSET from Level 1-4. This is one of our most popular scholarship opportunities and every year, the Foundation receives scholarship applications from around the globe. While WSET scholarship recipients cannot take their certifications through our APP, we help our scholarship recipients throughout their educational journey by connecting them with our Women of the Vine & Spirits network. 

WSET is a Silver Corporate Member of Women of the Vine & Spirits, and WOTVS is a Bronze Corporate Patron of WSET. We are honored to partner with an organization that aligns with our shared mission of improving the visibility of progression paths and opportunities for women in the beverage alcohol industry.

Building a successful organization like Women of the Vine & Spirits must have had its share of highs and lows. Can you share some of the challenges you've faced along the way and how you've managed to overcome them?

Just like any organization, we’ve faced our challenges, but I do believe that we always come out stronger in the end. An obvious example was during COVID – our Sixth Annual Global Symposium was scheduled for March 8, 2020, in Napa, CA and we were one of the first industry events to have to cancel. This was an enormous loss for Women of the Vine & Spirits, though the way our team and membership pivoted was incredible. We immediately opened complimentary access to our membership as we understood people were scared and there was so much uncertainty in the world. We started hosting daily cocktail hours with an open forum to talk about what was happening and how we could support one another. Because we are a global organization, we had members in Italy who were weeks ahead of us in navigating the pandemic. We were better able to navigate the challenges because we had a community. Ever since, Women of the Vine & Spirits has continued our weekly Live Chats to bring our industry together virtually and unite on industry issues, gain education, inspire, and empower. 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) have become increasingly important in the beverage alcohol industry. How have Women of the Vine & Spirits contributed to advancing DE&I initiatives, and what do you see as the future of DE&I in the industry?

Image: Women Raising the Bar - On Stage.

I am very grateful that diversity, equity, and inclusion are now at the forefront of our attention in many ways as a society. For companies small and large, DE&I has become a business imperative. However, we need more initiatives to help with implementation and long-term success. We need more education and engagement. We need to talk about economic inclusion as part of DE&I and make sure money is getting into the hands of women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ communities, and other historically marginalized groups. Women of the Vine & Spirits push forward these conversations and initiatives year-round to help unite the beverage alcohol industry on addressing these issues most successfully.

To fasten the pace towards equity, Women of the Vine & Spirits collaborated with Deloitte LLP in 2022 and 2023 to create the very first beverage alcohol DE&I Study, Women Raising the Bar. The Women Raising the Bar study provides our industry with a benchmark on where we are in terms of progress, as well as actionable steps to move forward.

Some key findings of the 2023 study include: 

- Despite close to half of the survey respondents indicating their company was somewhat successful in creating a better workplace through their DEI efforts, fewer than one in five women give their company top marks, suggesting room for improvement. 

- Fewer than four in 10 women surveyed rate their company’s efforts on retaining a diverse workforce as either good or excellent, while less than half give their company high marks for being able to recruit a diverse workforce in the first place. 

- Some women could avoid the industry altogether because of the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which outpaces a lack of exposure to career opportunities and a lack of work/life balance as the top issues preventing people from considering a career in the sector. 

- Only 57% of survey respondents think their company’s culture is very accepting of their family/personal commitments. 

- A majority of survey respondents believe women and people with diverse backgrounds are underrepresented among their company’s leadership team, signaling a structural issue for the beverage alcohol sector to overcome. 

Read the Full Study

In addition to Women of the Vine & Spirits, in 2023 I launched a separate company to directly address the importance of sourcing from diverse suppliers which in turn supports economic empowerment and inclusion, building strong economics and communities

 — Diverse Powered Brands. Diverse Powered Brands (DPB) is the premier centralized B2B global digital catalog connecting diverse suppliers, buyers, supplier diversity managers, wholesalers, and investors across the entire beverage alcohol, and hospitality industry. As the industry’s trusted resource, DPB provides a seamless, easy, and informative way to discover diverse suppliers across all beverage alcohol and non-alcohol categories all on one platform. Going beyond a digital platform, DPB operates as a startup incubator functioning as a springboard for early-stage businesses and startups by providing valuable educational resources, virtual master classes led by industry experts, and virtual or in-person pitch days with buyers, wholesalers, and investors.

Image: Diverse Powered Brands Demos

Your journey from publishing a book to founding Women of the Vine & Spirits has been transformative. Looking back, what advice would you give to your younger self when you were just starting on this path?

Trusting the process — Something I learned as I got older. Trust your intuition. Listen to your gut. You often know when something just doesn’t feel right. I have learned how to slow down, listen to my gut feelings, and hit the pause button. That little pause gives me time to get clarity to make the best decisions. We all make mistakes which is part of the learning process. Quoting Nelson Mandela, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell and got back up again.”

You've recently launched Diverse Powered Brands™, a B2B global marketplace connecting diverse-owned brands to buyers in the beverage alcohol industry. What motivated you to create this platform, and what impact do you hope it will have on promoting diversity and inclusion in the industry?

Through conversations with my network, and after analyzing the data, I recognized that buyers who were looking for diverse brands that their conscious consumers were demanding, didn’t have a centralized place to discover them, and suppliers who were making amazing products were simply not being discovered. To level the playing field and empower suppliers to showcase their companies, boost sales for qualified brands within wholesalers, and enable buyers with a tool to discover diverse suppliers, I knew that a new digital catalog needed to be built.

The process began in 2021 and I took a collaborative approach across the three-tier system. I tapped into the expertise of suppliers, wholesalers, and retailers during the development phase to ensure this new tool goes beyond being a database, but a fully functional B2B digital catalog focused on differentiating factors that would position diverse suppliers for sales growth and give the buyers the information they had been seeking. Specifically, wholesaler input was critical to ensure that the Diverse Powered Brands platform was three-tier compliant for U.S. users and that all proprietary information, pricing, and ordering of products was done securely within the wholesalers’ e-commerce and ordering systems.    

In 2023 Diverse Powered Brands was officially launched, serving as a hybrid sales tool that adds tremendous value to the three-tier system by providing buyers, supplier diversity procurement, wholesalers, and investors a seamless, easy, and informative way to discover diverse suppliers across all categories of the alcohol beverage industry on one platform. I am so proud to say that we have had incredible success already in our first year. Within the first three months of launching, Wine Buyers at Target utilized the DPB catalog to vet, select, and invite 13 diverse wine brands for an in-person pitch day at their headquarters. Target ultimately selected 7 brands for placement in stores this spring. We are so excited about this win and are working with our other buyer partners to plan more pitch days for 2024. 

In January, Republic National Distributing Company became the first-to-market wholesaler to integrate with DPB. Subscribers in the Diverse Powered Brands platform are integrated into RNDC’s e-commerce platform, eRNDC, with their diversity attributes, badges, and “Powered by Diverse Powered Brands” logo.

As a leader in the industry, what do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities for women in wine and spirits today, and how can organizations like Women of the Vine & Spirits help address these challenges?

Throughout my career, I have often been the only woman in the room. This was true both in my tech days and in the beverage alcohol industry. In both industries, I experienced being overlooked, spoken over, and dismissed. I experienced and witnessed so many challenges, to name a few - unconscious bias, sexual harassment, gender pay inequality, lack of leadership training and succession planning for women, microaggressions, and unfair expectations for work/family balance. Unfortunately, the list goes on, and for women of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and other marginalized groups, barriers are even more significant.

These experiences were what initially motivated me to leave the tech industry and transition to wine, so I was incredibly disappointed when the realities of representation, inclusion, and diversity were not very different in beverage alcohol. While I was disillusioned by yet another male-dominated industry, this time I was determined to change it from the inside out. I was reinvigorated to take action, creating Women of the Vine & Spirits, the Women of the Vine & Spirits Foundation, and now, Diverse Powered Brands. Over the last 15+ years as a social entrepreneur, I have witnessed incredible progress, though we still have a long way to go. I am so proud to be part of the change. 

Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations for Women of the Vine & Spirits and Diverse Powered Brands, and how do you envision them shaping the future of the beverage alcohol industry?

Women of the Vine & Spirits is very proud to have just launched 86 Harassment, a groundbreaking initiative aimed at addressing sexual harassment and gender-based violence within the beverage alcohol, and hospitality industries. It serves as a collaborative effort to provide resources, support, and education to create safer work environments for all employees and customers. The initiative includes free Industry-specific Bystander Intervention Training on creating a safer beverage alcohol and hospitality industry, a Resource Hub with toolkits, training documents, downloadable graphics, and more, as well as an Industry-Specific 24/7 Crisis Intervention Hotline in English and Spanish managed by RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. The initiative has been in the works since 2020, with corporate catalyst funding from Pernod Ricard North America. Today, the industry-wide initiative is additionally funded and proudly supported by Industry Association Partners the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, and Corporate Sponsors Pernod Ricard North America and Republic National Distributing Company. Visit www.86harassment.com to learn more.

Image: Women of the Vine & Spirits is very proud to have just launched 86 Harassment

Women of the Vine & Spirits and Diverse Powered Brands have so much coming in 2024! Both organizations are committed to addressing the needs of the beverage alcohol industry as we unite to create a more inclusive and equitable industry for all. Join the effort today! 

Become a Member of Women of the Vine & Spirits www.womenofthevine.com

Sign up For Diverse Powered Brands at www.diversepoweredbrands.com 

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Conclusion:

Deborah Brenner's impact on the wine and spirits industry is profound and far-reaching. Through her leadership, advocacy, and unwavering dedication, she has shattered glass ceilings and paved the way for future generations of women in the industry. Her commitment to empowerment and equality serves as an inspiration to all, and her legacy continues to shape the industry in meaningful ways. As she continues to lead and innovate, Brenner remains a beacon of hope and possibility, showing us all what is possible with vision, passion, and determination.

In conversation with Malvika Patel, Editor, and VP, Beverage Trade Network

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