In an impeccably decorated and meticulously organized Manhattan Uptown apartment, Stephanie Nass without hesitation responds to the final question of our interview, “Free time? I don't know what that means," she says offering another homemade cookie decorated with a Chefanie Sheet. “This is my oxygen. This is my fun."
Nass, known to most only as Chefanie, is the founder and CEO of Victory Club. Launched in 2014, Nass' private club features her culinary art, both in presentation and taste, inspired by the visual arts of the space. She soon followed this venture with the premiere of Chefanie Sheets in 2016, a line of artistic edible premade cake sheets. To succeed in two self-funded business ventures is impressive, but what separates Nass is a determination to achieve so much so young.
"The accomplishments of this young entrepreneur are not only a demonstration of Nass' expertise, but a testimony to the power of conviction" - Photo Courtesy of Chefanie
Having only turned 27 in April, Nass is every bit the entrepreneurial success story. The cultivation of what she describes as “a lifestyle brand that is culinary focused," is a showcase of both her talents as a chef and an artist. However, the accomplishments of this young entrepreneur are not only a demonstration of Nass' expertise, but a testimony to the power of conviction.
When you ask most children what they want to be when they grow up, you'll usually get a carefree and uncertain response. Perhaps one day an astronaut, another day a mermaid, or maybe even a cowboy—but if you had asked a young Nass you would have gotten a definitive answer: a chef.
“I've gone by Chefanie, my nickname, since I was a little girl because I've always loved cooking, passionately since I was very, very young," Nass remarks sitting amongst her practice cakes, always close by in case inspiration strikes. “From the time I was 16 I said, ok I want to do this my whole life, this is going to be my career. So, every decision I've made from that point has been to that end."
Nass' commitment to becoming a chef led her to Brittany, France when she was only 16. Although Nass was too young at the time to attend culinary school, her desire to be fully immersed in French culinary culture inspired her to take every opportunity to learn from various residents of the small town. She spent her free time training informally in local restaurants and snatched every opportunity to eat in Paris.Upon her return, she attended Columbia University, where she earned her BA in Art History, and she also attended night classes at the International Culinary Center in New York City where she received her Grand Diplôme. But determined to understand business from the ground up, Nass moved to Silicon Valley following graduation to join a fast-growth tech company, “I worked out there for a year [and] learned so much. [I] learned how to do financial models, how to project headcount and all these things I never would have known."
After moving back to New York City Nass began to host dinners in her shoebox apartment for her friends, “these dinners that I was hosting, which I really organized because I wanted to cook for people, I also did because I wanted to way to meet new people," says Nass. “I would tell all my friends please bring one person that everyone can meet, and make new friends. Art was really the springboard for conversation. As you'll see my apartment is full of my artwork, artwork of artist friends, of mine and art pieces I've collected."From this ritual, Victory Club materialized. Nass began hosting events through the club and has hosted elaborate dinners in New York, the Hamptons, Miami, Nashville, London, Rome and Vienna in just three years. With most of the club members located in New York members pay $100 monthly for invitations to private dinners and discounts to public events. Each event differs in style and format, created and cultivated by Nass who fuses “the culinary [and] visual arts" together. On top of conceptualising the food, she hand paints the menu cards and designs the place settings, to align with the artist's vision.
Following the success of Victory Club, Nass launched Chefanie Sheets. The chef, who jokingly acknowledges her perceived persona as “the cake girl", decided to market the sheets after her dessert accessory began to be popular with her social media following. Since the collection was released, Chefanie Sheets have been featured on the Today Show and Nass has appeared in various digital channels with the product, including Refinery29, Instyle and Business Insider.
Despite Nass' tremendous success, she shows no sign of stopping. In the next five to ten years the young entrepreneur hopes to open her very own store which she describes as “not your typical bakery." But don't expect to only see the baking mogul's signature cakes, as she plans to venture into prepared catering, premade food featuring her family's and her own recipes.
“For me my way to spend a day is taking on a challenging project and completing it," says Nass, whose success stems not only from her talents and artistic ideas, but most of all her dedication to hard work. She is a model of social media success story, networking both in person and electronically to develop a self-identified brand. This may seem like a difficult undertaking, but for Nass this has been her technique from the beginning.
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.