It's a tough world for a dreamer, and there's perhaps no bigger or more difficult dream than that of cracking the hard shell of the vastly competitive music industry.
Wanting to be a singer - and a famous one at that, is an inherently frustrating dream, but one that thousands - perhaps even millions pursue everyday.
Stefani Vara is one such dreamer.
Vara recalls, "I was raised to fight for what I believe in," and even after having a tough time in college, she would go on to pursue her dreams with an indomitable spirit.
She had never realized she was different until she was at her University of Colorado, and it dawned on her that she was the only Latina in the cheerleading squad. She was told she was "too big" to cheer with the other girls, but nonetheless managed to secure a position on the squad - one she didn't take lightly. When she got the phone call offering her the position, she said, "do not call me to be your token hispanic person." She remained steadfast in her goals, to never again be discriminated or looked down upon because of the color of her skin or intonation of her voice.
After graduating, with $1000 and a determination to rival the best in the music industry, she travelled from her native state of Texas to New York with hopes of fame and got herself a room in Queens. She began learning about recording music and the ways in which to do so at the time in the city. Devising a plan was her first order of business: "as we all know, when we have these great plans in mind, it doesn't always go the exact way we want it to go on paper." In order to survive in the expensive city, she would pick up odd jobs and temporary gigs. She admits that during the most struggling of times, "you learn how much you want things to happen."
She produced a demo of three songs and showcased them throughout the city, naively believing this would lead her to a label. "Of course, that didn't happen," she laments, and she chose to go another direction with her music. She sang in a girl group for a while before forming her own band and performed with them in venues throughout the city. This was still not enough to get by and Vara would soon be faced with her next financial dilemma.
"I was still trying to survive in a city where $100 might get you through 2 days plus rent." Her next job offer would make her squeamish, but for monetary reasons, she could not turn it down. An agency wanted her to be a foot model. "All I could think of was foot fetishes and thought that was not where I want to go." Her then-agent convinced her of its legitimacy, and Vara became a resident model for Steve Madden and a plethora of other shoe designers at the time, and was utterly shocked by how much it brought her. "I still say that I make more money on my feet than I do on my voice," she says, laughing.
When Vara finally landed a deal with an independent recording label, she believed she had hit the jackpot. Soon after the deal was signed, the label went into business with music giants Universal Records, and her aspirations grew. Caught up in the excitement and glamour of it all, Vara never paused to realize the exact terms of her contract. She says, "it slowly started dawning on me that a lot of artists that arrive in the city sign a first bad deal."
The terms of contract meant that Vara was locked into a three-record album deal, which in the first instance appeared incredible, but upon closer look and more time spent with her new colleagues, Vara knew their artistic directions were drastically different. Thus began some turbulence in the relationship, which was terminated shortly after.
She remains optimistic about the experience, and explains that while it wasn't the best introduction into the music sphere, it did open up some doors for her, including a membership into the Grammy's, which she still has today.
photo by @MarcoFromHouston
At this point in her career, she left New York for Texas, needing a break from the city that appeared to have put a dent in her recording spirit. She wasn't home long before she returned to the city with a new dream – a dream in which she would start her own production company and begin recording internally. While at home, she realized that an entrepreneurial foray might suit her better than working for others.
She recorded Middle of the Night in New York in 2010 with her new production company, "and it took off," she says. It reached charts in Turkey and received worldwide acclaim. It wouldn't be long before she was pursuing further entrepreneurial goals and three years later she would own her 'entrepreneurial songstress' title by concocting the idea for a web series with her mother that would focus on their fun Latin-American family and her mother's cooking capabilities.
Having owned a restaurant for 17 years, Vara's mother was well-equipped with the skills necessary for a cooking show, and a personality to boot. Webisodes were only just beginning, Vara recalls, and so she began fundraising to start the web series her and her mother were so excited about. They raised $10K through a Kickstarter campaign and produced a rough pilot of Comida Caliente with Tweleve18media entitled "Comida Caliente with Dene and her Daughters" for distribution to the bigger networks, hoping it would catch on.
"We were told there wasn't enough drama in our family," Vara laughs, continuing, "all families have some type of drama but that's just not what we were about. We were a Mexican-American family coming together in the kitchen." Networks told Vara her family wasn't traditional or dramatic enough for their own series. As preposterous as it may sound, the lack of screaming and shouting amongst themselves meant they would not receive any airtime.
They decided instead to do a Facebook miniseries about how they bottled a salsa made from the family restaurant called "Comida Caliente Salsa". And with that came an opportunity for her father - now divorced from her mother - to become an investor in the salsa. "We have a dysfunctional, functioning family," Vara says. Yet despite their differences, the family would profit from her ambitious and driven outlook. Comida Caliente is now into its second season, with Vara cherishing every minute she gets to spend recording the cooking shows with her mom and two sisters.
Vara is now also running a Follow My Feet campaign, which instructs and helps youth to follow their dreams and put into effect plans on how they can achieve their goals. Having battled with prejudice in college as a Latina and again in New York trying to navigate the music industry, she is now providing a platform for people to come and seek help when they begin to navigate similarly difficult paths in life. You can see her next perform at Women Empower Expo in Washington D.C, on May 27th.
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.