Black History Month Exclusive: My “Why”
Today is officially the halfway point of Black History Month so I thought it would be fitting for me to discuss the reason or my “why” for starting Jenny Dawn Cellars. As most of you know, Jenny Dawn Cellars is a wine brand licensed through a Napa, California winery. We have 6 wines in the market and are working towards opening our Wichita, KS based winery, tasting room and event center this Spring. My “why” is extremely complex but on the other hand extremely simple.
As an African American Winemaker, Sommelier, Entrepreneur and CEO I see a lack of diversity and inclusion in the wine industry. I have been a Wine Spectator subscriber for 4 years and I rarely see a person of color featured in the magazine. I have been attending the Kansas Grape Growers Winemakers Association Conference for 3 years and I have been the only African American in attendance. I am the first African American commercial winemaker in the State of Kansas and will be the first to open an urban winery in downtown, Wichita. It is easy to see that there is a lack of representation and diversity in the local and national wine industry. My goal is to change the local wine industry and help to make it more inclusive and diverse.
When you take a look at agriculture and grape growing. Again, I was the only African American in my K-State Masters of Agribusiness cohort that started in 2014 and graduated in 2016. I was 1 of 6 women out of 19 but the only woman who was married and had children. I used the knowledge that I gained through my master’s degree and planted an urban orchard in an area of Wichita that has extreme blight. I also used the knowledge I obtained from my degree to conduct first-hand research on consumer wine preferences. That was the topic of my thesis which helped to inform the Jenny Dawn Cellars business plan. In May of 2016, I graduated 4th out of the 19 individuals in my class.
My “why” is truly what keeps me motivated on the challenging days of entrepreneurship. My goal is to inspire other young, black and talented individuals to choose a career in agriculture and winemaking. I find this field highly interesting, engaging and rewarding. Studying the history of wine is fascinating. Making award-wining wines that people thoroughly enjoy is exhilarating. In the past 3 years, I have made 6 award-winning wines at home and 2 commercially available award-wining wines in Napa. My 2017 Chardonnay was recently awarded, Best in Class at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. That is a huge honor and a big deal.
Some people think that I started this business just because I love wine. Yes, I love wine but I would not have invested my entire personal savings into this business if my “why” was that shallow. My “why” is about influencing future generations and elevating the presence of black businesses. For years, when local Kansas African Americans went to wine retailers, they couldn’t purchase a wine from anyone who looked like them. Now they can. That’s impactful and meaningful. A lot of times, when businesses try to sell products to African Americans, they position the product in a way that is “hood” or “disrespectful”. Jenny Dawn Cellars is a premium wine brand, that is elegant and high-end. I am marketing to African Americans but also women who are between the ages of 25- 55. My brand and wines are to be enjoyed by everyone.
The second half of the story on my “why” which is the easiest to talk about is the fact that I am bringing a unique experience to downtown, Wichita. Whenever I publicly talk about Jenny Dawn Cellars at Union Station, I always talk about the need for a winery downtown. It is hard and uncomfortable for people to talk about race. It just is. My true “why” is all about diversity and inclusion but it’s easier to talk about the experience that my winery will bring to anyone over the age of 21. There used to be a wine bar in Old Town Square but that bar closed their doors over a year ago. Jenny Dawn Cellars is truly filling a need. Plus, we make quality wine and we have hospitality nailed down through our public tastings and Wineucation wine tasting classes.
As I continue to raise capital to open my doors at Union Station, I am starting to realize that most people don’t get it. They don’t connect with me as an African American trying to leave a legacy and influence future generations. They don’t connect with me as a wine connoisseur and winemaker who is making high quality award-winning wines. I am thankful for the ones that do get it, they appreciate the quality of the wines and my hustle. I have 2 amazing investors, my husband, my family and team who do understand and they are willing to stand by me and support my vision.
My third “why” is around respect and having a seat at the table. Before I left my full-time job as a HR and Recruiting Manager, I had the opportunity to work for some of Wichita’s largest employers. I had a seat at the table regarding strategy and execution. I had autonomy to make decision. However, I always had a manager who had my back when people were disrespectful or questioned my authority. My third “why” is to expose more people to Black CEOs so individuals won’t be so surprised to learn that we have the authority to make decisions.
Since September, I have been in more disrespectful situations than I care to count. Individuals will look at me clearly questioning my experience, intelligent or ability to make a decision. Even though, I come to the table prepared, educated and with a solution to the problem. This must stop. Once I have fully realized my dream, the next chapter of my life will be dedicated to other CEOs of color to help them use their voice to calmly and respectfully assert influence and leadership. The way I have been treated over the last several months is disgraceful. However, it’s not uncommon. It happened to me again twice this week. Unfortunately, I hear other women and minority women talking about this too so I know it is not just me. This needs to change.
Today, I am a Winemaker, Sommelier, CEO and Entrepreneur but once I reach my goals, I intend to be a Mentor, Connector, Promotor and Coach. I just need to get to where I am going first so I have wisdom and experience to share with others. This blog post has been weighing very heavy on my heart but this is my story and my truth. Ask my husband, most of our conversations are about racism and sexism. He’s a white male but has the heart to hear and understand my reality.
At the end of the day, I know I will reach my goal of opening the first urban winery in downtown, Wichita at Union Station. I am just being extremely selective as to whom I partner with to reach my goals. The purpose of this blog was to share my true “whys.” I believe I was successful in doing so. This blog was not intended to offend anyone. I am just sharing my story. Happy Black History Month! Peace. Love and Cheers!