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Powerful Women: Let's Talk - 100: Mara Smith

Mara Smith WGVU.jpg
Mara Smith
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Jennifer Moss Welcomes Inspiro Tequila founder Mara Smith to Powerful Women: Let’s Talk

Former attorney and corporate strategist, plus stay-at-home mom, develops a one-of-a-kind tequila: her goal-to bring another female voice to the spirits industry. As a female founder, Mara Smith's mission is to inspire and support other women on their entrepreneurial journeys through financial support and mentoring.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.


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>> Produced by women, about women. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world; transforming who we are and how we live.

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Jennifer Moss: Hello, everyone. Time for Powerful Women: Let’s Talk. Thanks so much for joining us today. I’m Jennifer Moss and it is a pleasure to bring you today's powerful woman, Mara Smith. Mara is a former attorney, a corporate strategist, a stay at home mom, and also the founder of Inspiro Tequila. Now, this all came about when she was looking for a clean, gluten free spirit that kind of fit into her active lifestyle. Her goal was not just to create a one of a kind tequila, but it was also to bring another female voice to the spirits industry, which is rare, and as a female founder, Mara’s mission is to inspire and support other women on their entrepreneurial journeys through financial support, and of course, mentoring. So please help me welcome Mara Smith to Powerful Women: Let’s Talk. Mara, thanks so much for joining us today.

Mara Smith: Hi! So nice to be here.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. We appreciate you taking time. So to start, let's just talk about what made you potentially think, “You know, there's a need for a special tequila and subsequently a woman involved in the heavily male-dominated spirits industry.” What made you get started with that?

Mara Smith: Yes, so it's- it’s quite a pivot in my career.

So as you mentioned, a reformed attorney working a large law firm in Chicago for many years and that I was in corporate strategy at a Fortune 500 company and then actually my corporate career came to a screeching halt when I was put on emergency bed rest when pregnant with my twins, who are my oldest and I made the decision. A major kind of pivot for me making the decision to stay home. So after being home for many years and having teenagers; I guess they drove me to drinking more and…no, really, I had always been thinking about ideas. You know, I knew I wanted to start my own company, constantly, you know, coming up with different ideas and concepts and I kept coming back to tequila because I had become a tequila drinker years ago. Just when I was looking for, you know, just a clean spirit option. But I, you know, more active lifestyle, turn to tequila. And I think I just saw and recognized a market opportunity. All these women were telling me that tequila was their drink of choice. So really, what kind of led me to take the lead, is all these woman told me that. And if I- okay, I don't really think any of the brands are very focused on this consumer. She is generally overlooked in the spirits industry. So it was a little bit two-fold; one, focusing on a consumer and creating something really customer-centric. From the battle design, taste profile, everything, and also making this additive-free tequila that I thought really fit into like, the lifestyle. And this, you know, consumer cares about what she eats and drinks and the brand she supports. So that was the first part is, I thought, “Here’s an opportunity. No one's really honed in on this, this consumer, or how they market tequila to what they present and offer to her.” And then, you know, a big part of me kind of deciding in and reentering the workforce after being out for many years was also that I did see an opportunity to make an impact. There are many industries where women are under-represented and spirits is one of them. And there are just so few women, especially women owners in the spirits industry that I thought, “here is an opportunity to really bring a female perspective” and who best to address this consumer than someone who is the consumer and understands her and understands that she wants to be spoken to. And so that was kind of impetus for that part of it. And also why it was important to me to have women involved in every aspect of our process. Everyone from our legendary master distiller in Mexico to operations sales marketing. We are all were and still owned and led by women.

Jennifer Moss: So clearly also supplying a lot of jobs and through this whole thing up, in addition to yourself being the entrepreneur. But now you're facilitating that and having that trickle-down effect for other women.

Mara Smith: Right. And every time it can bring someone in. Especially allowing someone to re-enter the workforce who has been out. Because that is very difficult once there’s a gap in the resume. It’s- it’s really hard to kind of say instead of trying to bang on someone’s door. Guess they just built my own door, but that's not feasible for everybody. So often when I have an opportunity to bring someone on like my operations, I have a part-time operations head, and she is a stay-at-home mom of three young children and actually wasn't planning on starting getting back in the workforce. But she had experience, and I said, “Well, you know, listen, I don't care when you get the work done. You can do it during your school hours, or you can even send e-mails in the middle of the night. Like, it doesn't matter to me. Just get it done.” I think looking at that and trying to provide some of those opportunities and bring, you know, women- women back in and showing them that they're still like opportunities and options for them. You know, to me it's important.

Jennifer Moss: And creating that opportunity with hours that work for people as well, because that's important and key to especially, you know, working moms. So of course we've already established not a female-dominated industry. Did you encounter or maybe perhaps still encounter some barriers along the way being a female entrepreneur in this area?

Mara Smith: You know, I’d say, actually, in the spirits industry, the most difficult part for me was not initially being a woman, but it was entering as an outsider. I don't think I realized when I got into this, how kind of like insular the entire spirits industry- people have been in for their entire lives and work their way out. So coming in and like gaining credibility as an outsider due to the industry, that really took a lot of like work on my- on my part. I felt that, you know, I needed to do as much research as possible. I studied the production of tequila. Actually took a course offered by the CRT, the governing body in Mexico for tequila, and got certified in the production and history of tequila making. I tried learning all the different types of processes and methods and understanding the different distilleries. I read books, I listened to podcasts, I reached out to industry veterans just to make sure I had very good, you know, understanding. And I'm still not going to be the expert; there been people been doing this for 30 years, but I did see that that was really important to come in with a lot of knowledge and research done because that is something I don't know that I recognize just coming into this that all these people been in it and doing this for a really long time.

Jennifer Moss: So maybe just the barrier in coming into that particular industry. But, so, as you continue on, how many years have you been doing this now?

Mara Smith: 2 and a half.

Jennifer Moss: 2 and a half, so-

Mara Smith: Since February 2020.

Jennifer Moss: So are you enjoying the journey? And I know you have something called Inspiro Purple Bicycle Project. Is that helping along on the journey? Tell us about that.

Mara Smith: Yes, so actually it kind of plays into the part that I love the most about the journey. So as we talked about, I had to do a ton of research, get up to speed, even everything from the spirits industry, tequila, how do you run a business? Because I worked in like large law firms, large corporations. This is all new, you know, the entrepreneurial piece of this. But, you know, no matter how much due diligence I did, I still think it was necessary to have, like, build a community- a supportive community around me. And that it looked kind of, you know, within the spirits realm. But, also outside of that, just to a lot of women's organizations and women’s networks that are very collaborative and supportive and finding those women, bouncing ideas off of them, being in communities of all these female founders, collaborating with all of them; the fact that I meet so many amazing female, you know, founders and leaders, that is the most exciting part of the journey. And I also really have even more opportunity do that through the Inspiro Purple Bicycle Project that I set up. It's just the name given to kind of the efforts that we make to provide grants and mentoring other female founders. So, for example, we provided a professional development grant earlier this year in March during International Women's Month, and that came along with mentoring. And so for me, I get the opportunity to meet with the founder that we gave the grant to on a regular basis. And I'm- I think I probably learn as much as you know, she does on our Zooms, but just making more of those connections, hearing more people's stories, I just find it really fascinating. And then we just provided- actually, it was just announced in September, we offered 3 more grants through iPhone- the iPhone women platform. So we provided 3 grants to women that work fundraising, doing, you know, it's not equity crowdfunding on iPhone women,and we provided 3 grants to those women, so.

Jennifer Moss: So, so tell me, though, I read a little bit about the Inspiro Purple Bicycle Project. And I was inspired through why you had the gift as a child of this bicycle. Tell us why you named it that.

Mara Smith: Yes, the name immediately came to me. What I was thinking about, like we say “determination” is a nicer word or like my stubbornness as a child. So there is this, you know, brand new shiny purple bicycle. And I just coveted this bicycle. I was 4 years old, a very small 4 year-old. And this was a very large bicycle. So really, I tell my parents, I'm going to go ride this bicycle, and it was a 2-wheeler. And I’d never ridden a 2-wheeler. So they said, “The bike is way too big for you. You need to wait, like at some point, you’ll ride it, but not now.” And as soon as someone said, no, I can't do it, I set off and I set off in the morning. I could not actually sit on the seat and reach the pedals at the same time. So I had to stand the entire time. I fell over. I remember falling into a fence or a neighbor's fence. I just fell over all day long. But by the end of the day, I was standing up and riding the purple bicycle. And that just seemed- that story just seems so analogous to the founder journey and trying to help and support other women like lots of bumps on the road, no matter what stage you’re in. And I mean, there's constant obstacles and hurdles. I'm problem solving all the time. So if there's something I could do to maybe work someone else through those bombs. And so some of it is providing some small grants and then the mentoring piece of it because I've done a lot of leg work and some areas of by, you know, by interviewed 20 social media agencies maybe it can save someone else some time and effort and provide some of those learnings and findings ontoto someone else. So that's kind of how I look at it is being- really they're determined or obstinate and making it happen.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, you get to work with a lot of people. What type of leadership style do you like or do you put forth as you are on this journey with those you mentor, those that you are participating with, and the program, and your own company?

Mara Smith: Yes, so I’d say a couple things. And I think these things will also probably start to change as we start to grow. Because right now, we’re small; a small team. So I'm very happily involved in everything and in all decision making. And I’d say my style is probably to be probably a little too involved. So that's something that some point I probably will need to take a little bit of a step back from. But I think what it is for me is that I’m involved into the point where like, you’ve earned my trust and what they see. Okay, you’re capable, you can handle it. You got it, you understand what my voice is, what my perspective, how- then I'm really good after that. Kind of like handing something off and saying now you can run with that.

Jennifer Moss: Or delegating perhaps or something along those lines.

Mara Smith: Exactly. But I think I start off initially really being very on top of things. And then I think, you know, we outsource our social media and social media agency, but they're- they're part of my team and I feel like that's a really good example, right? I start with them. I’m very involved, reviewing, rewriting captions, you know, kind of like micromanaging a little bit until I know like okay, you have it, you understand it, you got my brand voice, you got the messaging, the branding. And now I don’t need to kind of do that. I can review it like a more just a higher level. I think that. And I think something that some women maybe struggle with sometimes, but it's- it's kind of my style. And I think it's because how I came from a legal background, would be really efficient, I’m building my hour; my time, it's a boom boom boom.

Jennifer Moss: Right.

Mara Smith: And so I think my feedback is very direct. And I mean not, you know, I'm not-not nice about it, but I’m direct, like, “Okay, change this, move this, do that.”

Jennifer Moss: People understand where you're coming from, basically.

Mara Smith: I think people understand because they know like, okay. And I try to be really efficient with people’s time.

Jennifer Moss: Very good.

Mara Smith: So, that's kind of how I like to give feedback.

Jennifer Moss: Okay, so here's one of my favorite questions that we know we all go through life. We have the challenges or barriers and just things that you try to make your way along. What makes you laugh?

Mara Smith: There are a number of things. It's going to sound like, so ridiculous. I like some slapstick humor, correct? My grandfather was a big like Three Stooges fan. And so I still watch The Three Stooges, like that slapstick. Which is, it seems a little. I think that’d be like a fun fact where people I know would never associate me with kind of like liking that. So right now, every time I watch Home Alone, every like holiday season, I watch Home Alone with my kids. And they cannot believe that I laugh every single time. So to kind of like slapstick humor of them of, you know, falling down the icy stairs and things like that. But I think those are things that really make me.

Jennifer Moss: I'm a firm believer that laughter is good for the soul. So that's just one of my favorite questions, because we get so caught up in the day to day and so much busy working and our lives and our careers and such. So, another thing I want to know- as so much is happening in the world today, people are often looking for that just that little word of encouragement. Do you by chance have a favorite saying or perhaps a motto that encourages others along the way?

Mara Smith: Well, I think there are two that come to my mind right away. One is something I'm trying to implement, which is that it's a Sara Blakely. And I may botch the quote a little bit that someone could do something 80% as well as you can let them do it. And I think figuring out a way to let other people help and take over and you don't need to do everything yourself. And this isn't just kind of business. This is from household, to everything in your life, to like not take on everything because it's- it's a lot, and women take on a lot. So I think that and for me growing up, I don't know many 6 year-olds, but my dream was to be a Supreme Court justice. So, I guess I wanted a really stable career. One that would be for life. But Ruth Bader Ginsburg who I was looking up to study her or opinions in law school. And, you know, she says something about- like women belong in all places where men are.

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And I just really believe that women have to have a seat at the table. So, you may have to insert yourself, but make sure you have a seat at the table, because if you're not there and we're not in the room, our voices aren’t heard. So that would be my other, you know, kind of, inspirational quote is just however you need to get in there.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely.

Mara Smith: To make it happen.

Jennifer Moss: Do what you have to do there. Mara Smith, I really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much. And of course, I wish you all the best in all your endeavors and what you're doing. We appreciate your time.

Mara Smith: Thank you. I appreciate so much. Thanks, Jennifer.

Jennifer Moss: And we want to thank you for joining us for another edition of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk. I'm Jennifer Moss, do enjoy the day.

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>> Produced by women, about women, these powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are, and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women: Let’s Talk? Get additional interviews at wgvu.org or wherever you get your podcast. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.

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Jennifer is an award winning broadcast news journalist with more than two decades of professional television news experience including the nation's fifth largest news market. She's worked as both news reporter and news anchor for television and radio in markets from Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo all the way to San Francisco, California.
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