People 18 May 2017
Huda Alvi's story is one that doesn't get told often enough. It's one of pain and perseverance, of a journey through hardship, and one whereby a marginalized woman turned an adversarial life around to become a successful entrepreneur and blogger, who's now encouraging others to share their difficult stories.
Having found herself in an unhappy and verbally abusive marriage at the tender age of 18, Alvi was looking down the barrel of a sad and grueling life married to an angry ex-drug dealer. Before long, she had given birth to two children and realized she could no longer accept the bleak circumstances of her and her children's lives.
Leaving the life she knew behind, she moved away from then-husband and began anew. A single mom of two for five years before she met her new husband, she grew as a person and as a businesswoman, now the proud owner of a business, blog and an exceedingly happier life. In light of her success and her decision to share the more difficult aspects of her story with the world on her blog, she began a campaign in November of last year to engage with other people's stories in cyber space. Her #iammore campaign focuses on promoting people's stories globally in an initiative that hopes to get people talking about themselves publicly and send their stories throughout the internet. Below she talks to SWAAY about her experiences with business and the campaign.
1) What inspired you to come up with the “#iammore" campaign?
I Am More is a movement inspired by the idea that our lives are our legacies. The messages that our life stories convey are lessons to be left behind for others to learn. It's a collective of honest, real-life experiences - a step out of the box that defines us through limitations, and step into our own limelight. It's about encouraging people to see themselves as creators – as powerful storytellers.
2) What was the most moving story you've heard someone share as part of the campaign?
Aghhh this is hard because all of them are so touching in so many ways but for me it would be Asha & Michele's stories which you will see soon. Asha talks about self-love and how long it took her to find that love and all the phases she went through to find it which I feel related to me and can relate to any woman who has ever looked in the mirror at herself with pity, fear or felt like she couldn't do it. It's a great one. Michele's story left me sobbing. Her story was about the loss of her daughter and how she struggled to be a mother after she lost her. It was heartbreaking but also filled with strength and courage. Truly remarkable.
3) What are you hoping to achieve with this campaign?
I Am More serves as a platform that encourages social media users to complete their online stories with their offline realities so we could get to know more people “behind the screen".
4) Do you think there should be a change with how people use social media?
People are hesitant to open up about such things because we are conditioned to only show our “good side", especially on social media. If we were more honest about the good, bad and ugly sides, wouldn't our lives be more relatable? Our life stories include messages that could support, inspire and empower others. The more honest we are, the more genuine online connections can be.
5) Do you think social media can be harmful in any way? If so, how?
From a woman's perspective, social media can be harmful if too much focus is set on one's appearance and outer qualities. I believe there needs to be a balance so that we are not just objectified by how we look. Social media has the ability to reach masses and us influencers should think twice about the messages we are portraying.
6) How do you personally balance the work / family combination?
It's all about staying organized and being mindful of my priorities. I schedule everything well in advance and reserve particular dates for tasks that need attention on a weekly basis. Before I commit to anything, I take the time to think about whether it needs my presence or if a conference call will do. I am also save time by only choosing to attend events that I will benefit from professionally. Most importantly, I keep my weekends open for family time.
7) You started your first business at the age of 18. What was that like - are you different in your approach to business now, perhaps more wary?
I was stepping into the business world and adulthood at the same time so it was definitely overwhelming. I may have been inexperienced, but to this day I never feel intimidated to ask questions or ashamed to ask for help. I highly recommend doing this because it is one of the best ways to connect and learn from others. Although most aspects of business are very technical, following my gut and intuition have never failed me. When your goals are clear, it becomes a matter of trusting what you know and feel is the right move for your business.
8) What is your personal business philosophy?
Taking the first step is always the hardest, but everything after that becomes easy. With so many tools and resources readily available, there's really nothing stopping you from finding the answers to your own questions and educating yourself. I believe in growth and movement, and if you ever feel stagnant in your personal or professional life, there is a book or seminar out there that could help expand your mind.
9) What advice do you have for female entrepreneurs trying to make their way in this industry?
Once you see how outnumbered we are you may start to question yourself, but my advice is to ignore it. I can guarantee you that there is a huge support system behind us that has been built by other women. I have found that the way we are made to nurture has translated well into the business world. I have not come across a woman who isn't ready and willing to provide support and mentorship. We may not have strength in numbers just yet, but the wave of female entrepreneurship is definitely on the rise.
10) What makes your business model different and stand out from the rest?
It is common to associate the business industry with competitiveness and being cutthroat but I have been able to uphold my belief in honesty and sharing. I'm not afraid to admit when I am wrong or when I need help, and this sets a precedence for others to do the same. The core of business is about trading, whether it is about assets, ideas, information or material goods - it would not be possible if we refuse share. I feel that accepting this is what has made me successful and stand out so far. These little things go along way in earning one's trust and making a mark for yourself.
11) What does social media mean to you now versus when you started using it?
In 2016, I joined Instagram as a fashion blogger and it wasn't long before I felt that I was meant to share more than my outfits – I was meant to share my thoughts, stories, my life. My role as an online influencer helped me find my voice and its my purpose to help others do the same. With social media's ability to reach masses, it's important to be mindful of how our messages impact others. It is a useful tool that could be better used to invest in to education and wellbeing.
12) What does 'influencing' mean to you?
To be able to foster change, in any shape or form for greater good. For me, if I'm able to inspire or change ONE individual's life by my experience, my story or my words I would think I've made a difference.
13) What would you say to aspiring Instagram/Facebook influencers - is there a smart move you wish you had made in the beginning?
The social media scene is very saturated and you could easily get pressured into following the crowds. Although that's the way I started things, I quickly realized that I wanted to influence ways of thinking/living, not just fashion. It is so important to know yourself – your morals, values and message – and to stay true to them no matter what the world looks like on the outside. When you can sync your existence and accept who you are on the inside it will exude from the outside and that's when you will truly be able to influence in any online or offline space.
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.