"People are still shocked when they see a female sommelier"

Interview by Lindsey Tramuta

Victoria James, the bestselling author of Wine Girl and the youngest American to become a sommelier in the US at age 21, is on a mission to make the wine industry more inclusive. Key to that path? Education, mentorship and access to both.

You’ve effectively grown up in restaurants. How has the industry changed since your teenage years waiting tables, and in the decade since you’ve been a sommelier?

Seventeen years ago, there weren’t a lot of women represented overall. Today, women are there but there aren’t enough of them in positions of power, such as running restaurants, overseeing wine buying, or occupying roles in wine importing and distribution. As an example, only 14 per cent of the wine buyers in New York City are women. That must change.

In your book, Wine Girl, you speak about the industry biases against women and the enduring boys’-club environment. How were you able to overcome these hurdles in your career?

I think it’s about perception. Part of doing something meaningful and important is that it is going to be scary. I think that makes any opportunity worth it. I did get discouraged, don’t get me wrong; it’s a really tough industry. But I think I knew what I could bring to the table and I knew when I was smelling wines that I was just as good as the person next to me. If they couldn’t see it, I was intent on showing them. Since I was a kid, I’ve believed in my own intuition and grew up trusting in myself. So I don’t think I overcame the biases – people are still shocked when they see a female sommelier – but they simply don’t matter as much any more.

Were there women who have been instrumental in your path, perhaps as mentors?

Rita Jammet, the prominent wine consultant and La Caravelle Champagne founder, has always been a mentor to me. She’s truly a fairy godmother of the restaurant industry. And Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, founder of communications agency MFL & Co, is incredible; she has supported me in my career from the beginning. We met when she was still working for Sud de France Développement, a Manhattan agency working for the Languedoc-Roussillon region, and I was a competitor in the sommelier competitions she organised. The competitions were quite intimidating, and a woman had never won before. It was just me in a room with a bunch of men in suits… And Marianne! I was 21 years old, and ended up winning.

You talk a lot about needing to create a system that is uplifting and inclusive to all women. How do you work to be that ally?

First, through the organisation I co-founded, Wine Empowered. It was born from my experience as well as the experience of my co-founders, Cynthia Cheng and Amy Zhou, who certainly didn’t see people who looked like them working in wine. We each struggled to find our foothold in the industry and unfortunately found ourselves faced with abuse and discrimination. If you don’t fit into a little box the industry has set up as the standard, you are marginalised and have a hard time establishing a career. Wine Empowered is our way of creating a safe space where women and people of colour can learn and build their careers within hospitality and wine education. Classes are usually very expensive, which is why we offer them for free. Our goal is to diversify the upper ranks of leadership.

Outside of Wine Empowered, I run the beverage programme for both Cote restaurants, in Miami and New York, and always try to mentor someone. That’s the lesson to everyone here: you can always mentor someone, be there for someone, whether you’re a server or a director. For me, it’s important that our restaurants offer a strong possibility for growth.

There are several reasons women are reluctant to get into wine, including an aura of elitism. How do you work to help women free themselves of these obstacles?

Education is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Where things get lost is in the details and I try to remind both men and women of this. Essentially, wine producers are farmers. They grow a product. All the pomp and circumstance around wine is created by man but it can be ignored. At its heart, wine, the agricultural product, is about bringing people together. It’s something we should be in awe of, but it doesn’t have to evoke elitism and snobbery. That does a disservice to something that should be enjoyed by everyone.

What reminders do you offer for those looking to break into the industry?

First, that you can learn a lot about a person by the way they treat those that serve them. Common decency and respect should be foundational. Second, giving a voice to those who haven’t had a voice before is very powerful. I’ve tried to do this with my book – and I hope those stories will serve as a wake-up call.

wine-empowered.com

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In early 2020, friends and former coworkers Marie Kouadio Amouzame and Alice Lin Glover gave up their respective jobs in strategy and brand marketing – for Airbnb and as as a freelance consultant – to begin their own entrepreneurial journey. With stints at Google under both their professional belts, what they created together was Eadem – a beauty brand “designed by women of colour for women of colour” that has been selected for Sephora’s mentorship programme and received a Glossier Grant Initiative for Black-Owned Businesses. While navigating a pandemic and new motherhood – Lin Glover had her first baby six moths ago; Kouadio Amouzame’s second is now a year old – they’ve built a brand and engineered their first product around what they call “Smart Melanin Beauty”: an effective yet clean combination of botanical and science-backed ingredients to treat hyperpigmentation.

How did the two of you become friends?

MKA: Alice and I started working together seven years ago; we were colleagues at Google, working on the brand marketing team. Right off the bat, we got along really well – initially working remotely, then both in New York. We bonded over countless dinners and Boba runs! But also over the fact that we’re both children of immigrants growing in western countries – Alice’s family is from Taiwan; mine’s from the Ivory Coast. We realised that although we don’t look the same, we had a lot in common – the way we were raised, the constant battling between two cultures. That's something we spoke about a lot. We also share an obsession with skincare.

What was the spark for starting Eadem?

ALG: For me, it was my own struggle with eczema and acne, and trying to treat my hyperpigmentation – the dark scars from acne. Hydroquinone is the number-one active ingredient in treating hyperpigmentation, but when used long term, especially on darker skin tones, it can actually lighten your skin permanently. I had used it for decades! Marie and I wanted to create an effective alternative for skin of colour, but also to create a brand that doesn’t follow European beauty standards. In Latin, Eadem means “the same”, and the brand came from that concept. We all look different, but there’s a lot of universality between our backgrounds and our perspective. We want women of colour to be able to find similarities the way we did through our friendship. We want them to feel good in their skin.

What do you both bring to the brand?

MKA: Our main quality, I would say, is that we love to learn. I nicknamed myself Wikipedia because I can go very, very deep on a topic. We knew nothing about beauty when we started, but we read all the scientific reviews, then we found the right professionals to validate the idea – an amazing chemist, manufacturer and dermatologist, so that the product is backed by science, and it really works.

What have you taken on board from the world of tech?

MKA: Tenacity, drive and thinking big. There was a motto at Google along the lines of, “When you're uncomfortably excited about something that means that you’re touching on something important.” I feel like that's what's driving us. It feels risky – and that means we’re onto something. It was when we both independently working with different startups that we realised we could do this.

How do you collaborate together?

MKA: We’re work soulmates, so it’s almost like we don’t need we go, “OK, you do all this and I’ll do all that”, we just divide the work as we go at it. Of course, we have specialties – Alice is a designer and I handle a lot of the operations – but we don’t need to be super-divisive or organising, the way other startups can be, because it’s a fusion of two brains.

ALG: We are the whole company – and this is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that we can make decisions quickly. The curse, the challenge, is that we're both moms and we’re tired all the time.

What qualities do you admire and appreciate in one another?

ALG: I am always in awe at the way Marie tackles problems or difficulties head-on. She is incredibly motivated and thoughtful with all she does – sometimes it feels like she is a prodigy at everything – but she still manages to have a sense of humour. In the hustle of starting a business there are a lot of hard days and difficult people; Marie always manages to find the bright spots to keep us going. 

MKA: The thing I admire the most in Alice is that she pays it forward – both in professional settings and with her friends. Countless times in recent months, I’ve seen her assisting others that are less experienced to negotiate contracts or secure the job of their dreams. She’s super busy yet still finds time for that.

eadem.co; Milk Marvel Dark Spot Serum, $68

Image by Eadem founders, Alice Lin Glover and Marie Kouadio Amouzame

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