It's not often that you get the opportunity to become business partners with a close friend, and even rarer that you come together to create a brand so visually unique and pointedly representative of this #girlboss revolution.
Dynamic duo AdrinAdrina and Elliott Coon have joined forces to create this art-infused mezcal brand that emits glamour and hipster chic vibes before you've even had the chance to sample the herbal damiana taste. As we've said before, being a female in the drinks business isn't easy, but the more women continue to invade the industry, the more rewards are reaped.
"We kind of came into spirits through the side door."
The pair grew up together in the mountains of Virginia, and having been friends for years they began thinking of business ideas. “We started brainstorming a commercial venture that would bring together all of our interests" says Coon. By 2012 the duo had settled on the conception of a speakeasy that would be focused heavily on mezcal.
The bar, named Gem&Bolt proved a huge success, and gave the pair an opportunity to explore with mixology and mezcal infusions. "At the speakeasy we were serving mezcal infused with herbs," says Coon. The team subsequently became fixated with the herb damiana, said to have mythological properties (mostly related to sexual prowess and libido). The ladies then discovered that elixirs made from damiana and used in conjunction with mezcal were the most fruitfully sold, not to mention the most tasty. What began as an art project, would soon become their next business venture as they decided to take mezcal up to Oaxaca and begin hand-infusing the liquor.
"That was the beginning," AdrinAdrina says, "when we were really experimenting." The organic growth from the bar spurred the project and before long they were bottling the infusion.
The reason for the name? “In Oaxaca, we serendipitously discovered the ancient Zapotec myth of mezcal where a lightning bolt strikes the gem (or heart) of the agave plant, roasting and fermenting its sugars, creating the mystical sap now known as mezcal," Elliott explains.
They realized there was an opportunity to expand on the concoctions created in the bar and looked to find a chemist to begin the process of distilling and making their own mezcal.
"[The business] very quickly got very serious"
Coon began working with chemists to define the spirit's composition with a focus on it being a pure, clean offering. Their resulting product is made without artificial yeast or additives and is 100% agave based, versus its tequila counterpart whose regulations are not as strict. But of course, it was the damiana that would come to characterize the brand and its different taste.
We asked AdrinAdrina if the company encountered any hurdles because its founders were women in a male dominated industry. She told SWAAY, "honestly we expected to have difficulties within the industry but we were welcomed with open arms into the mezcal community."
The mezcal world proved to be one deeply rooted in values of integrity and inclusiveness. "It is very protective of itself," says Drina. "In general it veers to engaging people who they feel have integrity and will bring integrity to the category." Thus, Gem&Bolt would find a welcoming home in the hills of Oaxaca because, she recalls, "for some reason, the people we were engaging - mostly men, thought that we would bring that to the table."
In 2015 they took on a partner in successful entrepreneur Jody Levy, founder of Watermelon Water. They would then look to someone with more experience in the alcohol industry and found in Lisa Derman, former COO of Stoli Vodka U.S, the perfect candidate for the job. Derman's near 25 year career in the industry proved her a worthy pick for CEO within the all-female team, and she reflects that as soon as introduction to the girls occurred, "I became mesmerized by the brand."
"Consumers in general are focusing on what they're putting into their bodies and we really want to emphasize more that mezcal is a clean spirit" -Lisa Derman
Derman's lucrative and long career in the industry made her a perfect fit for the brand. "Having been in the industry for 25 years I really had not seen anything like this, and I love the idea of mezcal as a new category," says Derman, underscoring that the brand Drina and Coon had created was something intrinsically unique. "The combination of the branding, the art, the herbs and the focus on botanicals - it's just such a great combination with a focus on health and wellness also because agave is plant-based."
Derman is very optimistic about mezcal's future, and notes that its growth rate has double and tripled in the last few years. "Mezcal is gaining notoriety because of the authenticity and artisanal production process," she says. "Much like whiskey, people are approaching it with connoisseurship." There's an opportunity with mezcal to talk about the production process, the harvesting, which adds an authentic story behind the product. The agave plant itself has to grow for eight to ten years before its harvested, and once ready, workers adopt a hands driven approach - crushing the plant with stone before distilling in small copper pots.
Having first launched in Austin, Texas in June of last year, Gem&Bolt is now available in L.A, New York City and upstate NY. The founders will look to Colorado next because of its pension for mezcal, and eventually further afield. "There's a big agave market there for tequila and metal and then we will look to Florida," says Derman. In keeping with the brands unconventional, style-forward position, AdrinAdrina and Coon were chosen to walk in the Gareth Pugh show at London Fashion Week as part of a positive, strong women protest. They say they would love for their spirit to be available in the UK, but building in the U.S. is the current priority. "Our focus right now is in the U.S but we already have some activation in Mykonos and Ibiza, London and Berlin," says Drina. "London is clamoring for Gem&Bolt. And how could it not - how often is it you see a brand with such artisanal flair and a pair of founders this fabulously passionate? It's rare and it's divine.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.