Several years ago, Chris Montana of Du Nord Social Spirits (formerly Du Nord Craft Spirits) walked in the doors of a trade show and realized he was the only person of color in the room. When he became President of the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA), Montana voiced his concerns over the lack of diversity – due to lack of touch points for the minority population to gain access into the distilling industry – to the rest of the board at ACSA. The team at ACSA was unanimously in agreement that something had to change; they needed to stop talking and start doing.
At the beginning of 2020, ACSA worked to revise their strategic plan for the year to include a Diversity and Inclusion initiative. They were juggling with how to implement a meaningful initiative that would help increase access for underrepresented professionals and increase diversity across the distilling industry. Then, George Floyd was brutally killed, and suddenly no one could run from or deny the systemic racial inequality staring the country in the face. ACSA decided to expedite their plan for an initiative, and by August 2020, they had applied for a 501(c)(3) and laid the foundations for the Spirits Training Entrepreneurship Program for Underrepresented Professionals, aka, the STEPUP Foundation.
The conversation around racial inequalities inherent to our society or the barriers to entry minorities face in most industries is not new or groundbreaking. The conversation has been taking place for years and has been brought even further to the forefront in light of recent events, but ACSA realized very few in the distilling community were doing anything about it. With STEPUP, ACSA hopes to foster an understanding of how differences bring strength from different vantage points and pave the way for minorities to gain access to the distilling industry, ultimately providing gainful employment to those who complete the program. “We are an industry that prides itself on innovation. How can innovation occur if we don’t have access to all the different colors and flavors life has to offer?” asked Margie A.S. Lehrman, CEO of ACSA, when we spoke to her earlier this year about the program. It’s the differences that propel us forward and allow us to continue to grow as an industry, and as a community.
In its pilot year, ACSA hopes to select two candidates to send through spirit operations training at 3-4 distilleries for 8-12 weeks at a time. The interns will be trained in both BOH and FOH operations and will also spend time working with a distributor. STEPUP will offer a generous stipend from donor funds, industry partners and interested friends, to allow interns to fully immerse themselves in the experience without worrying about financial stability. Upon program completion, ACSA hopes to help place each intern in a full-time role within the alcohol beverage industry.
Interns will spend time learning all facets of a distillery business, similar to residents completing rotations at hospitals; candidates need no prior experience to apply. ACSA plans to eventually recruit applicants through existing networks and communities by partnering and advertising with the NAACP, HBCUs, and other BIPOC-representative groups in addition to those representing gender differences.
The Ideal Candidate
STEPUP Foundation is looking for professionals who display grit, determination, and a passion for learning and new experiences. As the position rotates through geographically agnostic partner facilities, there is no regional requirement; the ideal candidate is simply one who is eager to learn about the industry but might not otherwise gain such an opportunity.
The STEPUP Foundation has seven board members from both craft spirits and bigger brands, including alumni of Bacardi and Heineken. A selection committee was built last year that will vet candidates and ultimately send their recommendations to the board, as to who will be admitted into the program. They have just begun accepting applications from established distilleries across the US who wish to participate and train selected candidates. Similarly, anyone within the alcohol beverage industry can apply to be a mentor, a significant design feature of the program. The intern will have unparalleled support throughout the internship process.
ACSA is hoping to grow the STEPUP Foundation to be able to help 20 candidates per year within five years or less and remain fully funded by donations. By building a network of alumni of the program, STEPUP hopes to create a supportive community to facilitate organic outreach as well as to mentor current interns throughout their experience. They envision a more equitable future for underrepresented populations in the distilling industry.
The team at FIVE x 5 is proud to support the STEPUP Foundation and play a part in removing barriers to entry for minority populations in the distilling industry.
Where to stay updated:
Learn more and apply to be an intern, host distillery, or mentor here.
You can reach out to Margie A.S. Lehrman with questions [email protected].