Industry Leaders Discuss Tactics for Advancing Women in the Drinks Business

Women of the Vine & Spirits panelists share advice on goal-setting—for individuals and corporations—to achieve equal representation

Women of the Vine & Spirits
Left to Right: Rebecca Messina, Stephanie Gallo, Karen Betts, Jan Jones Blackhurst, Rhonda Kallman and Robin McBride. Photo by Tina Caputo.

The Women of the Vine & Spirits Global Symposium, held March 11–13 at the Meritage Resort & Spa in Napa, California, concluded with a fast-paced panel discussion—Women Leading the Way—in which heavy hitters in the drinks industry shared their views on workplace equality and strategies for success.

Moderated by Rebecca Messina, the global chief marketing officer for Uber in San Francisco, the panel comprised Stephanie Gallo, the chief marketing officer at E. & J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, California; Karen Betts, the chief executive at the Scotch Whisky Association in Edinburgh; Jan Jones Blackhurst, the executive vice president of public policy and corporate responsibility at Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas; Rhonda Kallman, the founder and CEO of Boston Harbor Distillery in Dorchester, Massachusetts; and Robin McBride, the president of McBride Sisters Wines in San Luis Obispo, California.

Drawing on decades of experience in the wine, beer, spirits, and entertainment industries, the panelists offered advice to attendees looking to advance their careers and take on leadership positions.

“First, know where you want to go,” said Blackhurst, who was the first woman mayor of Las Vegas before she joined Caesars Entertainment. “Second, measure your progress. Ask yourself, Am I moving forward? Am I getting the right feedback?”

Once you’ve identified what success looks like to you, she continued, let your superiors know what you’re after. “If you’re just waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder,” she said, “you can be waiting a long, long time. Ask what the next move is for you, and when you can expect it to happen.”

Gallo advised taking on challenging jobs and assignments—even if you don’t think you’re qualified. “Ask for an outstanding opportunity,” she said, “and [then] surprise yourself.”

It also helps to start cultivating the skills you’ll need for the position you want, the panelists noted, and to conduct yourself in a way that allows others to picture you in your desired role. Additionally, “you’ve got to look at how you’re communicating,” Blackhurst said, and learn the language of the job you want.

Leadership Lessons

Once you’ve achieved a leadership position, the panelists said, the hard work of living up to the role begins. That starts with surrounding yourself with people whose strengths complement your own—and listening to what they have to say.

“There is a moment for being strong and decisive, but being vulnerable is very useful, too,” Betts said, “having those moments where you’re happy to say, ‘I don’t know the answer—maybe you could lead on that,’ and turn [the problem] over to somebody else.”

McBride emphasized that leadership is really about listening even more than it is about talking to your team. “Understand your team members,” she said, “and what they need individually to be successful.”

Addressing the Imbalance

Championing other women within your organization is another essential element of good leadership, Gallo said, then added, “I’m constantly recommending women for jobs that they themselves may not think they’re capable of doing.”  

This applies not only at the middle managerial level, Blackhurst pointed out, but at the very top. “All of you who work for big companies,” she said, “go pull the picture of your C-suite and I guarantee you I know what it looks like. If you want to change the way it looks, you have to change the culture. It’s not evolution—if it was, we’d already be there. It’s a managed revolution.”

Blackhurst’s company, Caesars Entertainment, is setting an example with an initiative it calls 50-50 by 2025, a public commitment to having equal representation of women in its leadership ranks by 2025. “We are now measuring every single thing we’re doing, and we’re testing different tools,” Blackhurst said, including the effects of mentorship, recruiting practices, and blind résumés. “It’s hard to move those numbers, but it absolutely can happen.”

After 35 years in the drinks industry, Boston Harbor Distillery’s Kallman—who also cofounded the Boston Beer Company—said she sees the present moment as a turning point for women in the industry. “There’s been no better time for us to start to make a difference,” she said. “Every single person, regardless of your position, you really need to be bold, be visionary, and stand up for what you believe in.”

In addition, there’s an economic incentive for drinks companies to embrace diversity. “Only 33 percent of Americans drink wine,” said Gallo, “and in order for us to grow this category, we’re going to have to think differently about how we sell and market products, because our consumers and demographics are changing. It’s very important for me that our company begins to reflect what America looks like today and what it’s going to look like in the future.”


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Tina Caputo is a writer based in Northern California who covers wine, beer, food, and travel. She was formerly the editor in chief of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, and her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, Visit California, Sonoma magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications. She also produces the podcast Winemakers Drinking Beer.

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