From Tech to Whiskey: She's Taking On One Male-Dominated Industry At A Time


Megan Kvamme has made it a habit of breaking down traditionally male-dominated industries from finance to distilling whiskey to tech. As a female investment banker, in Silicon Valley, Kvamme was named the first female partner in 115 years. From there she became CEO and Chairwoman of Popcorn Sutton's Distilling (her twitter handle is @distillingdiva).

Then, after discovering a data analytics gap in the business intelligence world, she leapt from finance to tech, starting her own data tech company, FactGem. She did this, not in Silicon Valley, but in Ohio, where a growing startup scene provided new and invigorating challenges. The only question that remains is where will this fireball blaze her next trail? What follows is an equally inspiring and revealing look into what Kvamme has done and what she has learned.

What was it like being the first female partner at the oldest public finance firm in the United States?

It was 2002 when I started my career at Seasongood & Mayer after a short stint at an investment banking firm in Florida. I became the first non-trading investment banking partner in 2007. I grew up and learned a tremendous amount in those five years. I'm incredibly grateful for my experience there as it really taught me how to find my own voice, and to use it effectively. It taught me how to be tough, but more importantly, when to be tough. It taught me how to negotiate, how to be a great project manager and how to compete.

I had a phenomenal mentor there who pushed me hard to work stronger and go further to reach my potential while he also provided a voice of encouragement. My mentor was pretty progressive too. This was 2002, and the industry was like an old boy's club. I came into a fraternity and there was, of course, some hazing. The whole experience nurtured my grit and resilience. I was working 100-hour weeks, driving all over the place to meet with customers and prospects.

People think managing projects is easy...it's not; it's hard. Managing people is even harder. More important then getting customers and growing revenue, is maintaining it all. So, getting the experience to bring the hard work, focus, project management, people, and the revenue generation all together- I learned that it all happened here. It was the gift of a lifetime.

You traded finance investment banking in Silicon Valley for distilling whiskey in Tennessee. What motivated that courageous jump?

I am a Midwesterner, born and raised, who went to school at UNC Chapel Hill and then worked in New York City and Florida. When I started FactGem, I had my own investment banking firm based in Columbus, Ohio. It was there that this idea of FactGem was born. The company itself was stealth for the first few years, and at the same time I was managing the liquor portfolio on behalf of our family office. At the time, I was searching for a way to bring together disparate sources of data to provide the insights that would help me to inform my customers and drive business decisions effectively. It didn't take me long to realize that the liquor business had the same challenges and also needed better solutions.

Liquor companies and distributors are sitting on a tremendous amount of data. I have to sell to a distributor who sells to a retailer who sells to a customer. This is in post-prohibition America. I can't sell directly to a customer. The issue came when I wanted to ask what I thought were simple questions: How's our product doing? You have disconnected data sources... There's no easy way to get that answer... The numbers that you do get, lag in coming to you... I want to know depletion numbers (how fast is the product actually selling to the customer) so that I can control production. I don't want to make a product that no one is interested in, and I want to make sure that I make enough or more of what customers are buying. This was similar to my financial services experience. Getting information a quarter late is maddening!

Popcorn Sutton

This reinforced for me that many organizations are dealing with the same problem. I don't think that it's any coincidence that I started FactGem and see this problem in this other, seemingly dissimilar business. For me, FactGem is not a domain or industry play, it's a solution that applies everywhere.

When you assumed the role of CEO and Principal Owner of Popcorn Distilling, in June 2013, what was the single greatest challenge awaiting you?

The biggest challenge for most companies is distribution. When I started at Popcorn, there were really only two major distributors in the country. Now there's only one. That distributor is dealing with their top 10 customers.

We're not Bacardi, so how do we get the information we need? When you do find someone who can help you, they're digging through spreadsheets for numbers. The data is disconnected for them so it's very hard to get answers to the questions I want to ask that can help inform our business decisions.

Do you enjoy Popcorn Sutton's whiskey? I'm a scotch drinker, so how might you convert me to Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee elixir?

It is not only a double distilled liquor but it is also one of the best mixers out there. You can mix it with anything. The best thing about Popcorn is that he meets my favorite test-authenticity. He is one of the legends-no different than Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. Popcorn was one of America's finest moonshiners. You should try it just to have a better appreciation for what legendary tastes like.

Megan Kvamme

How much of the whiskey market do women make up?

Sitting at tables with investment bankers reminds me of sitting at tables in the liquor business-it's mostly men. The number of female executives in the whiskey business is disproportionate to the number of women consumers-gone are the days when only men drink whiskey. I'm absolutely afforded an opportunity. Women have a voice, and I guess that I'm giving them one here. Women are a big part of the consumer market though, more than I think most realize.

You're now the CEO of FactGem, the first hyper-dimensional data web. Would you explain, in layman's terms, what that means?

FactGem helps companies rapidly integrate data so you can get to insights when you want them. Businesses think in terms of “entities" or “relationships." I have customers, customers submit orders, orders contain products, products are stored in warehouses, and sold to distributors, who sell to customers, etc.

So, in the case that I described above, we have customers, orders, products, warehouses, distributors, and all these entities relate to each other in different ways. As a business person, I want to ask questions regarding those entities and relationships. But the data has been stored in disconnected ways across different applications, creating disparate islands of information. We commonly refer to these islands as “data silos." These data silos do one thing, and do it well. There's a system for managing customers, there's a system for managing products, there's a system for, etc.

But when I want to ask questions from data stored across those systems, it is very hard to do. The software that companies purchased mapped the entities and relationships into some storage mechanism specific for that application or technology and getting the systems to talk to one another can be complex, expensive and labor intensive. Doing these types of integrations usually becomes an exercise in programming for IT. FactGem solves this problem with an out-of-the-box application.We allow you to whiteboard the entities and relationships you care about in our visual model builder. You start with the business questions you want to ask of the data and this informs the model you create in FactGem. You only model for the entities and relationships that you care about. Then we allow you to map your silos to the model, and pull the data in, all through visual applications-- NO Code Required. We turn the whiteboard model into a physical, cohesive model that you can then query or connect to BI tools on top of to get your insights on the now connected data. We do all of this without disrupting the existing silos or requiring anyone to write any code to get started.

It's very exciting! We're now doing this for customers in retail, healthcare, and manufacturing. Everyone has a common problem, and we provide a common solution.

Knowing what you know now, if you could go back in time, what might you have done differently?

I wouldn't. The way that I operate in my life, I believe things happen as they should and I learn from them. Rather than thinking about what I can change in the past, I try to look at what I can do better in the future, based on what I've learned from my experience. FactGem wouldn't exist without my own frustrating experiences with data in banking. The idea and motivation wouldn't have been there. And now, look at where we are, what we have created, and the difference that we are making!

How did being a competitive (NCAA Division #1) collegiate track athlete help to prepare you for the everyday challenges in the corporate world?

Well, I love sports. There's an individual and a team component. You learn to think about what you can do better individually, as well as how you are adding to the team. The experience gives you a sense of self, within the context of the greater whole. We come together as a team with: here's who I am in this partnership, here's who you are, we don't fight, we support each other, we win together. We don't win alone.This absolutely prepared me for the corporate world. I look at my relationship with Clark Richey, my Co-founder and CTO, and it is very much as I described. In four years we've never had any big arguments. We're a team, we respect each other, and we know that we need each other to work together to win. So, personal accountability and balancing personal awareness and responsibility with being part of a team, this definitely translates to building companies. You learn to partner with people inside your organization and out, to solve problems and succeed.

What advice would you give to recent college (women) graduates with choosing a career path similar to yours?

I'm not a believer in comparison. I'm a believer in looking at your own self. What gives you a sense of gratification? For me, it's contributing something positive to the world and leaving a mark. But ultimately, find your happiness. Find that thing that brings you inner joy and this will lead to success. So, take a hard look at yourself. And remember, you have options. If something changes, and you want to make changes, you can

People get into a rut of, I'm an engineer, or I'm a teacher, and I can't be anything else, and that is not true at all! Remember your possibilities and try to take steps to embrace them. Don't focus on your limitations. There's a world of possibility out there waiting for you. If something interests you, go for it! And see what happens next!

What are you most passionate about?

Making a difference. It's so important to me. How did you make the world a better place? How did you inspire people to be their best? These are the questions I ask myself and I'm measuring myself by. It's not just about my success, but everyone else's too. We live in a culture of limitations, which I dislike.

So, how do you help people see their own possibilities? How do you help people to take the steps toward that possibility and not be thwarted by their own limitations? I believe in being loving, being kind, and being brace. How do we inspire someone to be their best self? Sometimes that takes courage.

4 min read

Tropism, Mindfulness, and Responding to Your Environment

One of the few things I remember from grade school biology is the concept of tropism. In plain language, tropism is the reaction of a living thing, like a plant, towards a stimulus like sunlight or heat. You've likely seen this before but just didn't recognize it for what it was. If you've ever seen the leaves of a potted plant bending towards a windowpane, that's tropism in action. The plant is bending towards the sunlight.

If you've ever seen the leaves of a potted plant bending towards a windowpane, that's tropism in action.

In our everyday lives, we are all inundated with stimuli throughout the day. The driver in front of us that stalls at the yellow light and zooms through the red light, leaving us behind to wait. Or the customer service rep that leaves us on hold for an ungodly amount of time, only for the call to prematurely drop. There are so many examples both common and unique to our individual lives. The trouble begins when we form the habit of responding to everything — particularly negative stimuli. By doing this, our mental peace is disrupted and diverted making us slaves to whatever happens to happen. Much like the plant bending towards sunlight, we oftentimes react and lean into whatever is happening around us. Now take that concept and multiply it by the number of things that can happen in a day, week, or month. What happens to you mentally with so many emotional pivots?

For me, the result is: Restlessness. Anxiety. Sleepness. Mindless Eating. Everything besides peace of mind.

Much like the plant bending towards sunlight, we oftentimes react and lean into whatever is happening around us.

Earlier this year, something pretty trivial happened to me. I'm sure this has happened to you at some point in your life also. I was walking through a door and, as I always do, glanced back and held the door longer and wider than normal for the person coming behind me. My gracious gesture was met with silence — no thank you, no smile, not even a nod. I remember being so annoyed at this travesty of justice. How dare they not acknowledge me and thank me for holding the door? After all, I didn't have to do it. I know I spent the next few hours thinking about it and probably even texted a few friends so that they could join in on my rant and tell me how right I was to be upset. In hindsight, I should not have allowed this pretty petty thing to occupy my mind and heart, but I did. I let it shake my peace.

I've since taken some classes on mindfulness and what I've learned (and I'm still learning) is the art of being aware — being aware of the present and my feelings. Recognizing when I'm triggered towards annoyance or anger gives me the opportunity to take a step back to understand why and assess whether it deserves my attention and energy. We're all human and having emotions is part of the deal but as mindful adults, it's critically important to choose what you're going to care about and let everything else pass along. There are several tools on the market to help with this but the Headspace app has really helped me in my mindfulness journey. The lessons are guided and coupled with some pretty cute animations.

Recognizing when I'm triggered towards annoyance or anger gives me the opportunity to take a step back to understand why and assess whether it deserves my attention and energy.

Over the course of the next week, I'd like to challenge you to pay more attention to your reactions. How aware are you of how you allow your environment to affect you? Are you highly reactive? Do you ruminate for hours or even days on events that are insignificant in your life? If so, practicing a bit of mindfulness may be the way to go.