People 16 May 2017
Throw a quick glance at your television during the Miss USA competition and you’ll probably notice the voluminous hair, dripping evening gowns, and a constant supply of super fit, beautiful women. You may even engage in the age-old stereotype of “brains or beauty,” flip the channel, and assume that’s all these women have to offer.
Look closely, though, and the diversity, charisma, and intelligence exuded by the 51 contestants is undeniable. They boast seriously impressive backgrounds and career goals, and many have a lot to say about women in business and in leadership roles, and about female empowerment, in general. SWAAY was backstage all weekend long to talk with the women, including the crowned winner, Miss USA’s Kára McCullough, a scientist with the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
On Female Empowerment and Entrepreneurship
Miss Kentucky’s Madelynne Myers, who just graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in molecular and cellular biology, argues that contrary to popular belief, pageants help propel women and their communities further.
“Organizations like Miss USA are a great stepping stone in women’s rights, equality and empowerment because it provides an opportunity for us to impact the entire world through our platforms,” she told SWAAY. “Even the contestants who aren’t crowned Miss USA or Miss Universe understand we have a responsibility to go back and change our homes and create more opportunities.”
Chhavi Verg, Miss New Jersey USA 2017. Patrick Prather for Miss USA
Miss Alaska’s Alyssa London, a top 10 finalist, agrees. She’s a Stanford graduate and entrepreneur who advocates specifically for women in the business sphere. She’s also fiercely proud of her multicultural background as half native American Tlingit and half European, and has managed to seamlessly combine the pride she has for her heritage with her entrepreneurial tendencies.
Kára McCullough, Miss District Of Columbia USA 2017. Photo courtesy of Patrick Prather for Miss USA
“I gained my entrepreneurial mindset while attending Stanford, and then after graduating I worked at Microsoft where I did partner marketing for small businesses,” London told SWAAY. “I was working with women in technology businesses specifically, and helping them market their businesses and promote their stories so that we would get more women who own businesses in the Microsoft partner channel.”
The skillset London developed at Microsoft allowed her to launch her own personal business as a motivational speaker, conference host, and television host.
“In my motivational speaking, I talk about how awesome it is to design your career and your lifestyle through entrepreneurship,” she said. “I help women think about what they’re actually passionate about and turn that into a business for themselves. I believe that if you feel like you can be independent and self-sufficient with your finances, then that trickles down to having strong families and strong communities.”
Her second business is called Our Culture Story, a platform that celebrates multiculturalism and being strong in your identity. London launched that business by selling a product in Alaskan galleries and gift shops that tells people about her Alaskan native heritage.
On Brains Versus Beauty
There were so many molds broken at the 2017 Miss USA competition. For starters, seven of the top 10 finalists were women of color, including the runner up, Miss New Jersey’s Chhavi Verg, and the crowned winner, Kára McCullough. And the previous Miss USA, Deshauna Barber had everyone in prideful tears when she graced the stage flaunting an afro in her late mother’s memory.
Over the years – and especially this year – the contestants have also been diverse in their career backgrounds. Verg is studying marketing and Spanish at Rutgers University, McCullough is a black scientist with the United States Nuclear Regulatory,
Miss New Hampshire’s Sarah Mousseau is a speech pathologist, Miss Kentucky’s Madelynne Myers just graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in molecular and cellular biology, and Miss Tennessee’s Allee-Sutton Hethcoat is working on her law degree while also modeling.
If the above isn’t proof that brains and beauty aren’t mutually exclusive, what is?
“Saying that you can only have beauty or brains is a stereotype I’ve been hearing since I was a little girl. I always just assumed I wasn’t pretty because I would go to school, and I really liked school,” Myers told SWAAY. “I’ve learned that as a modern woman, you don’t have to be just one thing. Women can go into whatever field that want – science, law, education, military. If the world isn’t utilizing half of its resources, that’s a problem.”
The reigning Miss USA agrees, and had a bit of advice to offer to women who live that stereotype every day.
"To people who say you can’t have both brains or beauty, I would say, ‘Why are you so small minded? Life is very intricate and it’s never one sided, so expand your horizons,’” said McCullough, adding, “A person’s character is truly defined by how they use their traits for the betterment of the people around them. You can’t let people who are close minded affect you. Just be so sure in the gifts that you’re given, and so sure about the way in which you share those with the world.”
Kára McCullough, Miss District Of Columbia USA 2017, Patrick Prather for Miss USA
We also asked the current reigning Miss Universe, Iris Mittenaere, about her take on the “beauty versus brains” stereotype.
“It’s really important to say to the young girls that you don’t have to choose between being beautiful and smart,” she said. “You can be a princess and be a doctor. You can do exactly what you want to do. It was my dream to be a dentist, and it was my dream to be a princess, and I didn’t choose. I did both.”
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.