Meet Karen Hoskin, The queen of rum in the USA, whose distillery meets the highest environmental standards in the world, a leader in breaking the glass ceiling in Alcohol Beverage industry, a speaker, philanthropist and sustainability advocate.
Who is Karen Hoskin? define yourself
I have been a leader and an entrepreneur for all my adult life. My first management job was at age 19 so the unifying characteristic of all my roles has been leadership. I have worked in the service industry, the non-profit sector, Fortune 500 business and self-employed business over the last thirty years.
Tell us more about your family, How was Karen as a kid?
My mom would probably say I came out of her as a fully-fledged adult. I got my first paid job in 7th grade, but even before that, I picked up odd jobs in my Dad’s law firm. I went off to school in the UK as a high school freshman and moved into my first apartment after my sophomore year in high school. I spent my junior year of college living and going to school in India. During college, I managed seasonal bars and restaurants in coastal beach towns in Maine to put myself through school. As a result, I had a lot more work and life experience when I graduated from college than many of my fellow grads.
I have always valued work and success, probably because my dad was self-employed from the time I was in 4th grade and worked so hard. I think that was the example set for me during my young life.
You have a Bachelor´s degree in Arts, a Master in Public Health, and you studied Hindi, the official language of India. You worked as a graphic designer, an executive director of an association, artistic director in a design firm and a board president of a nonprofit center, How did you jump from those sectors to the beverage industry?
My bachelor’s degree is from Williams College, which is routinely ranked by US News and World Report as the #1 liberal arts college in America (including 2019). To get into a school like that in 1986, you had to be a well-rounded student rather than specialized. I embraced the liberal arts education deeply and studied comparative religion, philosophy, biology, political science, anthropology, and astronomy with incredible professors. I wanted to have a deep immersion experience for my junior year abroad. The longest, most challenging course I could find while also getting college credit was a full year program in Varanasi, India through the University of Wisconsin. There I learned to speak Hindi and Urdu and studied Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. It was life-changing, as was my time at Williams, but like many liberal arts graduates, my focus was learning to think critically rather than cultivating a specific career path.
My first jobs out of college were working on women’s reproductive health in California and Arizona, leading to the Master’s Degree in Public Health from the University of Colorado. I worked in that field for ten wonderful years and ran a health center with doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, and paraprofessional staff. But when I had two kids, I wanted more flexibility to travel and be with my kids. This moment coincided with the beginning of the internet and the web. I saw a wave of change coming, so I taught myself to design websites, which I did for my own company for 12 years while I was raising our two children. I could work from anywhere that had internet at any time of day. I often pulled all-nighters to meet deadlines and then napped with my kids when they were little.
During part of this time, my Colorado mountain community had no preschool for my kids, so I raised money, built one and served as the Board President for 7 years. After 12 years of graphic and web design for my own company, I decided it was time to leverage all these accumulated skills to build my own brand. I predicted then that the craft brewery wave was going to expand to craft spirits, which turned out to be right. I was a dedicated rum fan, so I decided to make rum. Eleven years later, here I am using every single skill I have every day. And now you can begin to see the theme…predicting what new was coming down the pike and crafting my own solution.
Karen, you have been a rum fanatic for 30 years, where or how did you get the taste for the rum? is it the reason you decide to found Montanya Distillers?
I had my first taste of aged rum on a beach in India in January of 1989. It began a love affair that has spanned three decades. I have Celiac disease, so I can’t drink much alcohol. When I do, I have really high-quality standards. I was a cocktail fan starting in 1986 when I got my first bartending job. I was known for making unique rum cocktails for dinner parties because I couldn’t drink the beer that was so ubiquitous.
Later, when I decided it was time to create my own brand, it seemed it made total sense to start a craft distillery, catch that wave, and focus on my favorite spirit. It is much easier to make something you love. Whiskey would have made me sick because of the wheat.
What makes your brand and your rum, unique? (Awards, process, certifications etc.)
The rum has won almost every major award in the spirits world, including gold medals, Best in Class designations, Craft Distillery of the Year, etc. So the rum itself is really delicious, made from American grown sugar cane in Alembic copper pot stills at high elevation using the best mountain spring water. We were at the forefront of the movement toward aged rums that were made in a very transparent way, without sugar added. This was almost unheard of ten years ago but it is becoming a movement today. We are also one of the most environmentally responsible distilleries in the world, which continues to be rare, especially in rum. I also have shipped Montanya Rum to Spain, France, Italy, United Kingdom, Singapore, New Zealand, and Canada.
Can you share with us, a cocktail recipe with rum (your favorite) and/or the best way to drink rum?
The Hemingway Daiquiri is a perennial favorite for me. I love anything with aged white rum, grapefruit, and lime. My other favorite is the Basil Paradisi. Links to both below.
You are the founder of a social entrepreneurship company called Zoetica, which develops systems and kits for customers who want to reduce and eliminate single-use plastics and convenience trash in their daily lives. You are known for training and mentoring women nationally, you even formed The Women’s Distillery Guild an organization to help women gain the skills, resources, and access they need to become successful, what does it drive you to do that?
I travel a ton for work, and my distillery is a certified B-Corp, which means we meet the highest environmental standards in the world. So when I travel, if I am accepting 20 pieces of throwaway trash a day (cups, water bottles, to-go containers, plastic bags, throw away cutlery, etc.) I am at odds with my own green philosophy. As I created a system for myself to eliminate trash, so many other people asked me if they could get one. This lead to Zoetica, which is a really simple online platform to share the systems I use to travel without leaving my own trail of trash.
What is the reality of your day-to-day?
I am more of a conductor these days than a member of the orchestra. I am surrounded by incredibly talented people who execute every day so that I can stay focused on the big picture of growing the company.
"I am setting the long term strategy and creating the company’s identity . I try really hard to stay focused on the big picture because it is easy to notice dirty corners or employees who need a haircut. But that distracts me from the bigger plans".
I used to get really quagmire in doing everything myself or modeling to my staff that I could do all the various jobs. That was exhausting. For many years it made sense, to keep the company afloat through lean times and so I could know the ins and outs of every position. Today, I am not very hands on. I have employees who ferment, distill and bottle the rum, but the rum is designed by me. I don’t bartend anymore, or even pour tastes as often at events. I do a lot of education and training about American rum and about our company. I make sure that every bottle we make is sold. I am setting the long term strategy and creating the company’s identity in what is now a sea of craft distillers in the US. I try really hard to stay focused on the big picture because it is easy to notice dirty corners or employees who need a haircut. But that distracts me from the bigger plans.
Do you have any particular philosophy that guides your career decisions?
My philosophy of stewardship is what guides every decision I make in business. Am I taking care of the people involved? Am I taking care of the environment and the greater community around my company? Am I leaving a mess for someone else to clean up later? Do I feel pride in what I am creating and how it is created?
What do you love most about your job as the CEO of Montanya Distillers and Zoetica ?
I love working with young people. They keep me young. I hear so many disparaging remarks about Millennials and Generation Z, but my 27 young employees are so incredibly hard-working, smart, well educated, committed to quality and supportive of each other. They care about the company and our goals. I have no idea why they get a bad rap. I couldn’t do it without them.
You have achieved a lot, what is the recipe for your success?
I tend to see hurdles and figure out how to kick them down. The world is in such a rapid state of change. If you get in a rut of doing things one way or doing things the way you learned in school or have always done them, you will crash and burn. I try to avoid getting in my own way.
What are your plans for this 2019?
Premium Rum is ascendant in the spirits world, which means it is an exciting time for us. I have been waiting for this to happen for a decade. It has come about because of the efforts of many people who just keep telling the story about how exceptional premium rum can be. In the lifespan of craft distilling companies, there always comes a time when you have to go big or fold in your wings to maintain. I have committed to going big, which means bigger partnerships, more investment and selling off part of my company to generate the cash I’ll need for the next phase. That used to scare me, but now I understand better what it takes. In 2019, I will generate capital and drive big growth while staying true to our craft distilling roots, environmental ethos, and social commitments. It is more challenging to grow while maintaining this triple bottom line, but it is not optional while I am at the helm. It is now in the DNA of the company.
" I don’t give up, even on the hardest days when I encounter the most devastating sexism. I keep going back into the ring, even when I want to throw in the towel. After a while, people realize you aren’t going away and start taking you seriously".
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business
Relentlessness. I don’t give up, even on the hardest days when I encounter the most devastating sexism and navigate an environment that has never treated women founders with the respect they deserve. I keep going back into the ring, even when I want to throw in the towel. After a while, people realize you aren’t going away and start taking you seriously.
You have a husband and 2 children, you run 2 companies and also give speeches about sustainability, entrepreneurship, American rum etc, how do you balance your personal life with the professional one?
I am good at saying no and enlisting help. I focus my time on the things mainly I can do well, and get help with everything else. I used to be at every single bottling and finally, I realized that others can bottle rum really well, but they can’t negotiate with a distributor as well as I can. So I let great people play their important roles. I am also newly an empty nester. It is amazing how much time there is in the day when there are no kids at home after 20 years! I often work in the evening because of our bar and restaurant, so I try not to start my day before 10 or 10:30 am so there is time for yoga or an exercise class. Sundays are always my day off and there are no exceptions (you’d be amazed how many exceptions are requested.) I spend lots of time outside.
"My husband has believed in me on my darkest days. When others have been naysayers, he is always sure I will rebound, that kind of support is priceless".
How are you as a mom and as a wife?
I have the most incredible husband and kids. I have never felt like it was my job to focus on them. I focus on being my absolute best self, and when we all do the same, we come together in an incredibly supportive place. I try not to put the responsibility on them for my happiness or sense of self-worth. That is my job on my own behalf. Because we have such a good time in each other’s company, it is easy to leave work to be with them. My husband has believed in me on my darkest days. When others have been naysayers, he is always sure I will rebound. That kind of support is priceless. Plus he is really good at so many things I am terrible at. We are a very solid team. Next year, we will have been together for thirty years. That feels like something to celebrate.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Hike, trail run, mountain bike, road bike, ski, travel, camp, drink beautiful cocktails, be outside, connect meaningfully with my friends and family.
There is still the glass roof for women in the world: Fewer opportunities, jobs underpaid just for that fact of being a woman etc. Have you experimented the glass ceiling in the beverage industry? If yes, what are the biggest challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?
Female-founded companies get 2% of venture capital in America, so we have a harder time growing our companies. We have no generational mentorship, meaning our fathers and the generation before us rarely groomed us to be business owners.
We experience micro-aggressions in work every day, primarily being mistaken for someone with no clout, having to prove we know something before being taken seriously, having to justify our decisions even when they are right, generally being dismissed. I get emails all the time leading with “Dear Sir”. Still! My strategy is to talk about it, out loud, without accusation and without apology. Most people don’t know what we endure, nor can they grasp what we overcome as minority business owners. Imagine being a woman of color, a lesbian, transgendered on top of it all. My sisters face incredible challenges I don’t even know about.
I mentor other women over hurdles I have already cleared, so they don’t feel as alone as I did. It was a lonely world to be a woman in the craft distilling business even five years ago. I started The Women’s Distillery Guild to help women avoid feeling so isolated. It has been an incredibly satisfying side project.
"I have learned over time to appreciate the discomfort as a sign that I am pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, which is usually good for business ".
You are definitely a role model: Chairwoman, mom, wife, philanthropist, speaker... What tips can you give to young girls who want to be like you? Particularly those who want to work in the beverage industry?
You will have a lot of moments of doubt. Sometimes you may even feel crushed by it. I have learned that these are the moments when I am about to have big breakthroughs or learn critically important lessons. If I turn away, which is the comfortable option, I would never make a bit of progress. I have learned over time to appreciate the discomfort as a sign that I am pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, which is usually good for business. I love this quote: “We must free ourselves from the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds.” Aristotle Onassis
I think in your position, many people may have the wrong idea of who you really are (personally), and what do you (professionally), with this idea in mind, what is being Karen and what's not?
I always bristle when people apply their own preferences onto me. For example, they decide I am too busy because they don’t like being busy. They decide I travel too much because they don’t like to travel. I work too hard because they would rather not have to work at all. These standards are rarely applied to professional men. I would rather people to assume that I work as much as I choose, I travel purposefully, I am exactly as busy as I want to be. If I get out of balance, I will know it and fix it.
Who is the woman you admire the most and why?
As a businesswoman, I admire Kim Jordan of New Belgium Brewing Company. She started that company in the basement of her house while raising kids and now it is worth $250bn. She was practicing an environmental and social responsibility ethos when it wasn’t even a topic du jour. She created an employee-owned beer company when women just weren’t doing any of it anywhere. She got turned down by banks. She nursed her newborn while pouring at The Great American Beer Festival. She did more than survive, she changed paradigms and shook off criticism on the way. If I can achieve 1/4th of what she has, I will be incredibly proud and accomplished.
Name: Karen Hoskin
Sector: Craft Distilling and Alcohol Beverage
Companies: Montanya Distillers, Inc. and Zoetica, Inc.
Country: The USA
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LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/company/montanya-distillers/