Karen Blackburn, 2.1.19
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I have been in the wine business for 15 years. I knew I wanted to be in this industry while in college and started in a part time position working for the lovely Seth Pollard at Central Market North Lamar. From my time at CM, I realized retail was not a natural fit for me and wanted to explore options in distribution. Fast forward 15 years and I have been on the distribution side for 14 years with a focus on Brand Management for the past 10 years, most recently with Serendipity Wines.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
I spent my senior year of high school as a foreign exchange student in Copenhagen, and I lived with a family that had a nice wine cellar. I was not use to having wine with dinner as a matter of daily life and the whole world of food and wine pairings was opened for me. I was also 17 and the access to alcohol was an exciting benefit of Denmark’s liberal attitude towards teen drinking.
What I loved about my experience as an exchange student was being invited into people’s homes and seeing how they lived/ate/drank and I knew that whatever I did in my life, I would be chasing those experiences. I literally sat in my college house a few months before graduation and thought “what do I love to do?” My answer was, I like to travel, I like to drink wine (I can’t afford) and I like to eat (especially at restaurants I can’t afford). So naturally, the wine industry was a perfect fit.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Working with family producers, knowing I am a small, but important cog in communicating their story. I also find supporting our sales staff in their daily communications with our customers to be really rewarding.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
How much time do you have….. I have been sexually harassed on the job. I have been discriminated on the basis of sex in promotions. I was once told in a performance review that I didn’t need a salary raise because my husband made a good salary. These things happened and it it important to acknowledge them.
The entire #metoo movement made me go back and evaluate some of the unfortunate experiences I have had “working while female”. In a way, I have made peace with them. At this point in my life, I refuse to work in a company culture that diminishes the contributions by female employees. I have also had many wonderful experiences as a female in this industry and just came back from a year maternity leave to a bigger role in my company.
How can we as women become aware of our prejudice and change our behavior?
Understanding that we, as women, have had to work at least twice as hard to get where we are and to give each other support. We also have to stop perpetuating the idea that it is bitchy to expect people to perform their jobs. When men do that they are called “good managers”.
What communal benefits do you think we’ll see by bringing more women into leadership positions?
We need more women in leadership positions to change the behavior and acceptable practices in the industry as a whole. We need transparency in salary information.
What change do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
A change I would like to see in the next five years is when I look at a Company Org Chart, I would like to see at least ⅓ of the senior positions to be filed by women.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
The wine industry is a fun and rewarding industry with lots of opportunities for women, but, and this is the most important thing, you DO NOT have to put up with bullshit, sexism and harassment to have a successful career. It is also possible to have a rewarding career and a family. I have two, small children and I can honestly say I am better at my job after having kids than I was before. Working for the right company also helps.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
Women in 50% of upper management. Not just filling the ranks of assistant winemakers, sales reps, support staff etc. Seeing women in the decision making roles.
What ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
I am always striving to get more women into management roles. Pushing my superiors to make sure they are interviewing as many women as they are men for positions. Going out of my way to support my fellow women in their positions and encouraging them to make leaps for opportunities they may not feel qualified, but are most certainly qualified.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
A defining characteristic of a wonder woman of wine is the ability to mentor. I have been mentored by both men and women and it has made a huge impact on my career. Another characteristic is not being afraid to make your opinions and ideas heard and not apologizing for having them in the first place.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
I admire Maggie Henriquez, CEO of Krug. She has managed to rise up to an enviable position in our industry while also managing a family and taking absolutely no bull shit in a really gracefully way.