This advertising content was produced in collaboration with our partner, Allied Beverage Group.
Maggie Maxwell, vice president of wine sales at Allied Beverage Group, remembers when Sara Harmelin first joined the company. Harmelin, who started off in sales in 2016 and is now vice president of digital innovation, walked into Maxwell’s office and proclaimed how happy she was to see another woman there. For Harmelin, who previously worked in fashion and television, the lack of a female presence was jarring, but Maxwell, at the time, “was used to being surrounded by men,” she recalls. “It’s the way the industry has always been. But it was beginning to change.”
While the industry has paid more attention to women working as sommeliers, retail owners, distillers, winemakers, and brand executives in recent years, the sales and operations arms of the beverage alcohol business remain strongholds of the old boys’ club. A little over a year ago, with the pandemic magnifying the particular challenges of women in the workplace, Harmelin and Maxwell, along with a group of like-minded women at their company, took their informal chats on gender disparities to new heights by forging RISE (which stands for “Respect, Improve, Support, Empower”), an Allied Beverage Group employee resource group dedicated to providing women in the company, and the wine and spirits business overall, access and opportunity.
“Allied is pretty good in that we have women in leadership, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily feel heard or that the sentiment of equity feels widespread or inspirational enough,” says Harmelin. Those who currently hold leadership roles, therefore, have the opportunity, privilege, and responsibility to help those who are entering the industry now, she believes.
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“There are so few of us, and I finally have the privilege to pull other women up,” adds Harmelin. “How can we help them?”
Following Allied Beverage Group’s success of one-off events, such as the recent Women in Wine and Whiskey celebration, Maxwell notes that the next fitting step was creating something “more formal and action-oriented,” as she puts it.
It’s a new platform, yet RISE has already implemented measures small and large that are resonating with Allied Beverage Group staff. Networking is one priority, reinforced in sponsorships of the progressive, inclusivity-championing organizations Dream Big Darling and Women of the Vine & Spirits, as well as involvement with WSWA’s Women in Leadership programs.
Allied Beverage Group is also in the process of conducting a survey among both male and female colleagues to obtain firsthand, anonymous feedback on the company’s approaches to diversity, “where they think we stand right now and what they want and need,” explains Maxwell. “RISE members have talked a lot about mentorship, allyship, and education, but we want to hear it directly from our employees so we are taking the right leads.”
Those results are pending, but it hasn’t stopped RISE from diving in. Executive coach and trainer Barbara Brown, principal of Turnbull, Connecticut-based Sperling Brown Associates, shared insights on gendered language while working with Allied Beverage Group team members on presentation skills. “I don’t think any of us were as perceptive prior to Barbara’s arrival,” notes senior vice president and general manager Corey Bronstein.
Brown brought gendered language to the forefront, and the importance of eliminating words like “guys” from one’s vocabulary. She also noted how women often preface statements with “I feel” or “I think,” subconsciously demeaning their thoughts along the way. “How you hold yourself, how you take up space, all these little things add up, but they are ways of beginning to make realistic change. Saying that society needs to change as a whole can sometimes feel impossible,” says Harmelin.
Bronstein observes that people have normalized language and behavior over the years and it is this “institutionalized thinking,” as he describes it, that needs to significantly shift. “Simply breaking the ice, getting out terms that promote equity and inclusion in the open for people to recognize is a start.”
A Deeper Look
Another prominent focus of RISE is on Allied’s hiring practices. RISE member Jeanette Espinosa, vice president of human resources, is proactively seeking applicants of diverse backgrounds to fill open positions and emboldening managers to look harder and further than the typical resumes that cross their desks. “There was a pretty long-established standard of cronyism in the industry,” admits Maxwell. “People tended to hire who they knew, and if you were a white male, it’s likely you knew other white males, and that’s how we kept perpetuating the cycle.”
Harmelin, who recently attended a conference for rising leaders in the industry, featuring a session on diversity & inclusion, adds that one of the speakers weighed in on unconscious bias in hiring and how it gets in the way of finding the right candidates: “People are more comfortable hiring people who look like them, but it doesn’t mean they are the only or best-qualified choice. It’s proven that more diverse companies do better.”
Mentorship, one of the topics addressed in the company-wide survey, is also part of the RISE agenda. Once RISE determines who wants to be mentored and who wants to mentor, the goal is to ultimately pair cross-departmental Allied Beverage Group colleagues, so that someone in sales and someone in purchasing, say, can come together to exchange different perspectives. For those who desire to be mentored outside the company, RISE connects them with Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, one of its collaborators.
Bolstering RISE is the Learning Lounge, an everyday resource at Allied Beverage Group that underlines the company’s corporate culture. “We expect our employees to watch videos, often TED Talks, on anything from sales to diversity to how to talk to somebody else, and so many of them are eye-openers,” says Bronstein. “This online tool contributes foundational education for our employees to grow and become better corporate citizens.”
Building the Future
So far, RISE’s initial programming has been well-received by Allied Beverage Group colleagues. “When we announced RISE, we got emails back saying thank you,” points out Harmelin. For a conference call discussing women in the workplace, Maxwell was encouraged by how many male colleagues signed up and “asked lots of good questions. Once you start the conversation, both men and women become engaged and embrace these ideas of change and self-awareness.”
Right now, RISE is centered on gender parity, joining forces with other like-minded companies, including Breakthru Beverage Group and Martignetti, because “if everybody is doing this in a bubble it doesn’t have the same impact,” Maxwell says. Yet Harmelin acknowledges that it’s ultimately “an entrée into larger diversity and inclusion efforts.”
“We recognize there is a lot of work that still needs to happen and we are willing to put in the time and effort to get to a better place,” adds Bronstein.
One of the reasons RISE has been able to make impressive strides in little time is because of ownership support, eliciting a top-down effect that permeates the company. “The talk of inclusion has led me to recognize that some of the most important assets at Allied Beverage Group have yet to have the chance to be heard and to fully express themselves,” says executive vice president Robert Harmelin. “I believe we need to ensure all employees have an equitable opportunity to move up and around the organization, and RISE is leading the charge.”
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