BABE #257: SAMARA RIVERS - Founder/CEO, Black Bourbon Society
Samara is the Founder + CEO of Black Bourbon Society, an organization making the bourbon world a more diverse, inclusive place. Through educational events, meetups and creative content, she works to bridge the gap between African American bourbon enthusiasts and the spirits industry. She does all of this while gracefully navigating the roles of mom and partner, traveling back and forth between her homes in Atlanta and Los Angeles, and co-hosting the Bonded in Bourbon podcast. She’s taking the spirits industry by storm, using her platform for social change, and doing it all with poise and passion.
Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Current city: Los Angeles, California
Alma mater: Florida A&M University; Florida State University
Degree: B.A., Art History & Criticism; M.A., Arts Administration
Very first job: Working as an usher at AMC Movie Theatre (15 years old)
Hustle: CEO/Founder, Black Bourbon Society; Co-host, Bonded In Bourbon Podcast
Babe you admire and why?
Oprah. There are very few people who have hustled like Oprah. Her determination, her grounded spirit and her energy is so massive; it’s a force. And despite being a billionaire, she still gets up every day and goes to work. I love how she is so invested in herself and her brand. No detail is spared, from her magazine, to her books and commercials. She’s totally mastered her hustle and I look to her career decisions and business practices as successful models to use in my career.
How do you spend your free time?
Hiding at the nail shop or deep in meditation.
Go-to coffee order and/or adult beverage?
What’s something most don’t know about you?
I collect crystals.
What tools, books, or ideas help you in your day-to-day work?
I follow a simple mantra: thoughts create experience. Whatever I think, I can create for others (and myself) to experience.
Tell us about your hustle.
I am the CEO/chief bourbon enthusiast for Black Bourbon Society. I started the company in 2016 when I noticed there was very little direct consumer marketing targeted towards an upscale African-American demographic in the spirits industry. Black Bourbon Society has cultivated over 4,000 bourbon enthusiasts from across the country. We work with the brands to create unique events and experiences for the audience we’ve created. From happy hours and paired dinners to private distillery tours, we build a bridge between the brands and the consumer to create genuine connections, provide whiskey education and promote brand loyalty. I also consult and advocate for the need for diversity and inclusion within the spirits industry, host a podcast called, “Bonded in Bourbon” and write a monthly op-ed column for The Bourbon Zeppelin.
What does your typical workday look like?
I wear every hat there is to wear for my business, except PR and bookkeeping, which I recently started outsourcing. On any given day, I am updating the website, creating proposals for future brand partnerships, communicating with our 4,000 members via Facebook, trying to figure out my Instagram password, tasting and reviewing whiskey, recording “Bonded In Bourbon” podcast [episodes], writing my article for Bourbon Zeppelin (which I never turn in on time), planning events and trying to keep my inbox down to under 20 unread emails a day. Oh, and I have kids—so after 3 p.m., I start a whole new workday being super-mommy. (But that’s for another article.)
Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit?
I have always been a hustler. In fact, I am a fourth-generation hustler. My father owned a construction company and a car wash, my grandfather was a carpenter and a casket maker and my great-grandfather was a farmer. With that in mind, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Before starting Black Bourbon Society, I worked in a museum as a curator and had an event and wedding planning business on the side. I was also a nonprofit fundraising consultant and grant writer.
Why are there cultural gaps in the world of bourbon and other spirits?
There is a lack of inclusion from within the brands and also in how the brands market to their black American consumers. I created this company because I saw a huge disconnect between the two. It wasn't that the brands were specifically excluding the demographic, it's because they were not aware of us and didn't know how to approach us. I believe it boiled down to a lack of awareness and not having a diverse staff to bring it to their attention. Black Bourbon Society fills this gap by being the bridge. We work directly with the brands to create consumer marketing events and experiences specifically for our niche demographic of upscale African-Americans who are conscious consumers, collectors and eager to learn more about the spirit. We also advocate for brands to diversify their internal staffing. There are a small handful of African-Americans who works with these brands, and none at the leadership level. There is much work to be done. Not only in the bourbon business, but in the spirits industry as a whole.
How do you navigate living in both Los Angeles and Atlanta?
It’s tough. I’m always on a plane back and forth. Although I tend to live out of a suitcase, I do truly consider both cities to be my home. My children live in Los Angeles, so I spend the majority of my time here with them. When I’m in Los Angeles, I’m a super hands-on mom. When I’m in Atlanta, I am heads down working and taking meetings. My partner, with whom I live in Atlanta, is super-supportive and gives me the space to focus on what’s important. Eventually I will officially move the kids to Atlanta where we can all be together, but I still will travel out to Los Angeles at least once a month to maintain my presence on the West Coast and to check in on my parents.
How have your past professional and academic experiences prepared you for the work you do today?
I have a bachelor’s degree in art history and an MA in arts administration. I worked in various roles within a museum setting while also running my own event planning business on the side. Through both roles, I gained leadership skills and a flair for event concept and design. After I had my first child, I switched roles to produce large-scale nonprofit fundraising events. Through that experience, I gained a deeper appreciation for logistics, fundraising and securing sponsorships. All of my past jobs have prepared me to be the CEO I am today. One thing they did not prepare me for was managing all of the accounting and financial aspects of the company. However, I recognize that as a weakness and have someone who can manage the financial records of the company so I can stay in creating mode.
What’s been your biggest career milestone?
I feel like my career is just taking off! Every opportunity I get to experience the fruits of my hard work is a big moment. From leading a panel at Bourbon & Beyond to producing a sold-out exclusive excursion to Louisville, to being featured in Tasting Panel Magazine with Tracie Franklin and Frank Mills—they are all huge milestones in what is still just the beginning of my career.
How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
Being a woman in this industry hasn’t necessarily affected my professional experience. Being African-American (and often being the only African-American in the room) has definitely been challenging. And while the industry has always been eager to accept and work with me, sometimes it does feel a little isolating being the only person of color amongst my colleagues. It’s a constant reminder that more work needs to be done in this industry to not only be inclusive, but to intentionally be more diverse so they can better connect with their consumers.
Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
Lynn House, Beam Suntory; Tracie Franklin, Glenfiddich; Jennifer Wren, Glenfiddich; Robin Nance, Beam Suntory; Rachel Ford, Makers Mark; Kyle Rivera, Brown-Forman, Elizabeth McCall, Woodford Reserve; Fawn Weaver, Uncle Nearest Whiskey
How do you continue your industry education and stay on top of evolving trends?
I am constantly learning and observing. I pay attention to what my membership is posting and commenting. I read every single post, find the patterns and trends and continue to create based on their discussions and feedback.
What’s your approach to work-life balance? How do you unplug and unwind?
There’s never a balance. Sometimes I work all night, then the next day I may call it quits and lounge around the house. It just depends on the day, what needs to be done and when I have the most energy to be productive. No matter what the day throws at me, I meditate daily. It’s the fastest way to “turn off” and get recentered.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Always, always trust your gut.
Do more listening than talking.
You have the power to create your own destiny. Use it wisely. Use it for the greater good.
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