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Deborah Brenner, Founder & CEO of Women of the Vine & Spirits

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion means giving voice to those who have historically been disempowered or silenced. It’s acknowledging privilege and structures of power and intervening and speaking out against injustice.

Deborah, Can you tell us about yourself?

I am a Social Entrepreneur and lover of wine from the ground to the glass, research, journalism, making connections and collaborating with people and companies large and small, and I am passionate about making a long-lasting, positive impact in the hospitality and alcohol beverage industries. I live in Rockland County, New York with my husband, Jack and have lived and breathed diversity, equity and inclusion for at least the last 15 years when I first wrote my book, Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women Who Make, Taste and Enjoy Wine, highlighting the under-represented women in the wine industry. From there, my career in DE&I within the wine, beer and spirits industry really took off and became my full-time job.

Deborah’s Website

What brought you to where you are?

After spending 20 years in the male-dominated television and film technology industry I decided to transition to pursue my passion, which was working in the wine industry. During a fortuitous trip to the Napa and Sonoma wine regions, I discovered that similar to the tech industry, women were significantly under-represented.

I was compelled to tell their stories and tapping into my love of research and journalism, I authored a bestselling collection of profiles of women in the wine industry, Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women Who Make, Taste and Enjoy Wine, which Wine Spectator named a Critical Read. We are celebrating the book’s 15th anniversary this year!

Through the process of writing the book and championing these incredible women, I became inspired to enter the wine business, releasing wine from a first-of-its-kind collective of seven artisan women winemakers from Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles, CA. For the following seven years, I learned the business inside and out. Ultimately, I could not foster women in the wine industry the way I had hoped, which led me to dissolve the wine brand and return to the drawing board.

During this time, I quickly realized there was a void in the alcohol beverage industry that needed to be filled: to facilitate change we needed a collective voice to advocate for diversity and women’s initiatives across all industry sectors and engage with senior leadership; both men and women, willing to support our movement.

A year later, in March 2015, I organized the Inaugural Women of the Vine & Spirits Global Symposium, bringing women and male allies together to focus on actions the alcohol beverage industry could make to change the status quo. 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. This forum allowed for collaboration across all industry sectors and inspired attendees to do business with like-minded women and men. It was clear to me that to make a positive impact on the alcohol beverage industry, women needed a voice year-round and Women of the Vine & Spirits was launched.

 Membership to the organization opened September 2015. What started off as a one-off event and grass roots movement quickly expanded into a global organization with corporate and individual members connected across the globe. Women of the Vine & Spirits has become a catalyst for creating a positive impact in the alcohol beverage industry by giving women worldwide a platform and a voice to thrive. 

To further foster education and career pathing, the Women of the Vine & Spirits Foundation 501(c)3 was launched in 2017 and to-date has awarded 99 women with more than $260,000 in scholarships.

In 2021, I launched another community called Badass Bartender™ to fill a void for female bartenders, giving them a safe space to unite, be empowered, support one another, explore career opportunities and network. 

I am eager to help foster a better industry for all to thrive and succeed with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion and business development and innovation. We have already witnessed so many improvements and changes industry-wide, but we have a long way to go.

What does DEI mean to you?  

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion means giving voice to those who have historically been disempowered or silenced. It’s acknowledging privilege and structures of power and intervening and speaking out against injustice. It’s creating a workplace and industry free of harm, where all feel comfortable to share their unique perspectives and thrive and succeed. 

DE&I also means success for business. I strongly believe that not only is DE&I the right thing for companies and our world, but it makes good business sense. DE&I leads to Business Development & Innovation (BD&I) because the more diversity we have in leadership and among decision makers, the more we look like our consumers and understand what our consumers want. This is something we emphasize at Women of the Vine & Spirits and work to instill and inspire in our members. It’s the right thing and its good for the bottom line.

What is your proudest moment as a DEI professional?

I am proud to have created a community that solidifies the legacies of women who have championed change in our industry. As part of our year-round membership, the women and men in our network have access to a myriad of resources, educational content, Live Chats, and mentorship opportunities. Seeing people take off their competitive hats and work across all three tiers of the industry has been incredibly inspiring to me. 

With the support of our members, I have been able to expand Women of the Vine & Spirits into a 510(c)3 Foundation, which is the charitable arm of our organization. Launched in 2017, we have already awarded 99 women with more than $260,000 in scholarships to further their education and professional development. In response to COVID-19, we launched our Foundation Assistance Program. Recognizing that those in the restaurant and hospitality industry were disproportionately impacted by the closure of businesses, this assistance program is completely free, and provides 24/hour confidential legal, mental health, and resource support to anyone who applies. I am most proud to be able to “pay it forward” and provide tangible, financial support to the individuals who make our industry so great. 

Why is DEI important to you as an individual?

 I want to create an industry that is safer and more inclusive for future generations. More women, which includes LGBTQ+ communities, women of color, and disabled women, means more opportunity for diverse talent to thrive in the alcohol beverage industry. Our consumers are incredibly diverse, but our industry is unfortunately not always reflective of that demographic. Diverse companies increase employee engagement and make more innovative decisions, which can provide a real competitive advantage. It’s simply the right thing to do. 

If you could change one thing in terms of Diversity and Inclusion, what would that be? 

 The pace! I am very grateful that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is 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. We need more initiatives to help with implementation and long-term success. We need more education and engagement. 

We know that true equality cannot be achieved overnight, for example, data shows that in corporate America at current rates, it will take over 100 years to reach gender equality in the C-Suites. But we don’t have that kind of time. We are seeing surges in racial hate crimes, violence and harassment. During the COVID-19 pandemic, more women exited the workforce than we’ve seen in decades. These are major setbacks, and we need to work together to change the face of the industry and provide a safe, empowering and inclusive work environment where all can succeed. 

 At Women of the Vine & Spirits, we work as a catalyst for change to help prioritize and support DE&I initiatives across all three tiers in the alcohol beverage industry. 

What is stopping your community, organization or company from achieving a more equal and equitable world? 

 Unconscious bias. It’s pervasive, and often goes unnoticed or unrecognized. But it has grave consequences and must be confronted. I believe that having conversations about unconscious bias is the first step in achieving long-term change. Our institutions are embedded in histories of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and bias. Through education, training and hard authentic conversations, we can begin to confront as individuals how we have internalized many of these structures of power and where we have experienced privilege. In my opinion, awareness is the first step to changing behavior. It starts at the individual level, but if we can have these conversations company-wide, we have the possibility of implementing long-term change and creating more equitable institutions from the inside-out. 

That is the fundamental goal of our organization. Through educational content, networking and securing the legacies of those who are under-represented in our industry, we can work towards collective change. Seeing more and more companies joining our organization as Corporate Members signals to the industry at large that together, we have made a commitment to furthering equity in the alcohol beverage industry specifically. 

If you could say one thing to the leader in your community, organization or your company about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, what would you say?

Use your voice to champion change! If you are in a leadership position, capitalize on your position of power to speak out in support of underrepresented communities. Listen and learn from the experiences of others and be willing to challenge the status quo. 

Anything you want to share with your readers?

Women of the Vine & Spirits is the leading membership organization, worldwide, dedicated to boldly pushing the wine, beer and spirits industry toward a more diverse, equitable and inclusive era that empowers all to succeed. There has never been a forum like ours, for industry leaders to come together to support, mentor, educate and network with one another through a yearlong calendar of events, training, and live chats.

The interview is part of our D&I Thought Leader Interview Series

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