As an outsider to the industry, Mara Smith, Founder & CEO of Inspiro Tequila, worked rigorously to educate herself on beverage alcohol and the production and history of tequila. This hard work helped her build a clean, additive-free tequila brand that is distilled, owned, and led by women and distributed in six markets – Illinois, Michigan, Georgia, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Florida.

In our latest spotlight on women founders, we spoke with Mara about her growth within the industry and how the connections she has made have paid dividends throughout her journey.

Our Interview with Mara Smith

Where did you get your start in the industry? And why? 

I’m a newcomer to the spirits industry. I practiced law at a large law firm in Chicago many years ago, and then I worked in corporate strategy at a Fortune 500 company. Most recently,  I was a stay-at-home mom for many years.

I decided to start a tequila company because I’ve been a tequila drinker for many years since I perceived tequila as a “better-for-you” adult beverage option.  I discovered though that everything I was drinking contained undisclosed additives like sweeteners, glycerin, and coloring.  I really wanted a brand that was additive-free, but still approachable and easy to drink.  I also did not think that brands were positioned toward thoughtful female consumers like me.  I saw an opportunity to focus on an overlooked female consumer and to craft impeccable, additive-free tequilas.  Additionally, I wanted to make an impact by providing more female perspectives to the spirits industry by having women involved in every aspect of our company.

Coming into the industry as someone new, I just started studying everything I could. I  subscribed to newsletters, watched webinars, listened to podcasts, and reached out to industry veterans. I became very involved in many industry groups like Women of the Vine & Spirits, DISCUS, and WSWA.  Recognizing that so many people in the spirits industry had grown up in the industry, I felt that I needed to do really thorough due diligence to get up to speed and earn some credibility.  I dove in and did my homework.

What are some of the resources that you used that you would recommend for early-stage brand owners? 

Park Street University was a great resource. I subscribe to the newsletter and I listen to the webinars.

I  also listen to a lot of podcasts. I listen to some industry ones like Vinepair and the Park Street Insider Podcast, but I also listen to a lot outside of spirits as well, because I try to understand the bigger consumer space. 

Someone also told me to subscribe to a couple of industry newsletters at first and now I’m probably subscribed to about a dozen.  It’s just a great way to get engrossed in what’s going on very quickly.

Then I found groups like Women of the Vine & Spirits. I wanted to find some groups that I could use to connect with other founders and resources. I also just started reaching out to people. I read an article about why you should not start a tequila brand and at the end of the article, it said something like, “But if you’re going to, you should reach out to Greg Cohen because he helped market Patrón.”  I literally sent him a cold LinkedIn message and he answered and he has helped me ever since.

In addition to learning about the spirits industry in general, I took a lot of time learning about the tequila category.  I read market reports and I even took the course offered by the CRT to become certified in the history and production of tequila.  I read a lot of books on tequila including one that is called “From Babes to Boss Ladies,” by Mike Morales.  It highlights all the women in the tequila industry and it was actually how I found my master distiller, Ana Maria Romero Mena.

My advice would also be to reach out to people you can learn from including fellow founders.  I find that every introduction leads to another introduction. The key here is to follow up on each introduction you receive. 

I have found attending certain conferences really helpful as well.  I have made fantastic industry connections and the educational content provided is great. 

What was the first lesson you learned starting your own brand? 

One of the lessons I learned the hard way: quality is everything. You can have a great story and great packaging, but you have to deliver on the quality of the product. 

I founded the company in February 2020, before the entire world shut down, and I could not get to Mexico for production for a very long time.  I was working virtually with my distillery and my master distiller as they ran the first production run.   I was anxiously waiting to receive samples, and they finally arrived. I tried them and was totally deflated. I did not like them. 

It ended up that the distillery had missed one small specification about how much the agave needed to cool before milling. It impacted the taste profile tremendously. Some people recommended taking that batch and blending it with the next one and, to me, that was like taking something bad and something good and getting something mediocre. I thought, “If I am not the person who loves this and wants to drink it,  there is no way I’m going to convince anybody else to drink it.”

I scrapped the entire run and it set us back about six months.  I do not regret it at all.   The lesson there was that I have to be able to stand behind every single part of the brand and it all starts with having great juice.  Attention to detail is really important to me and I’ll give up efficiency for quality.

Did you have a mentor within the industry?

I have many mentors within the industry and outside of the industry.  I want to constantly grow and learn so I seek out mentors to provide guidance and feedback all the time. I apply to mentorship programs and accelerators to find mentors – some are official and some unofficial. 

I don’t only look to people with more experience for mentorship.  I also connect to fellow founders who are going through the same journey.  I learn so much from my peers.  When I’m in cohorts or part of accelerators, some of the most valuable information I learn is from the other founders.  We share resources and learnings. I would recommend looking to industry experts as mentors but also engaging in peer-to-peer mentorship.

Were there any challenges you had to overcome as a woman in the beverage alcohol industry?  

There are so many women that I am grateful for that came before me who have opened the doors for women like me. When you go to trade shows you see more of a female presence, which is great.  Less than 5% of alcohol brands are still owned by women, but there are more women in the room.  

There is still a lot of work to do around changing the paradigm.  The standard of proof for women founders and leaders is still higher than our male counterparts.  It’s harder to be accepted and much more difficult for women-owned brands to get funded.  

Frankly, I get asked very different questions from my male counterparts. 

I field questions like, “How did you end up in the tequila industry? How did you learn about tequila?  Do you have a connection to Mexico? Do you go to Mexico to see the production?”  I am always happy to share my story, but typically male founders are just asked “Tell me about your product.”   

The inquiry into whether I have been to Mexico or have Mexican heritage is not posed to the plethora of male celebrities who have tequila brands and are American-born and raised.  I respect the traditions of tequila making and we have an extraordinary female master distiller in Jalisco, Mexico, but I do not put myself out there as anything other than an American female founder.  Additionally, my knowledge is tested when asked about whether I visit our distillery and know about production.  Even though I’m not an expert, I did study everything I could about the production and history of tequila from classes to books and most importantly to real-world education by the legendary Ana Maria Romero Mena.  There is no production run that I don’t personally taste test.  I am incredibly involved in guiding the taste profiles we want to craft.  I question whether all of the owners of the over 1,000 male-owned tequila brands are integrally involved with their production.

The standards for women are just set higher.  I would actually like the same standards set for everyone starting a brand. Why not raise the bar?  Like so many other women in the spirits industry, I do extensive homework and I go into any meeting overprepared.  Women still need to go above and beyond to prove themselves.  The women I know who are founders in the industry are incredibly knowledgeable, savvy, and determined.  These are the founders that should be welcomed into the industry and that investors should want to invest in.    

What do you feel has been your greatest advantage as a woman-led business in the beverage alcohol industry?

The biggest advantage is having the camaraderie of other women who understand the complexity of the spirits industry and who I can go to if I need anything. Since there are not a lot of women in spirits, I’m fortunate to be connected to most of the women-owned brands. There is a small group of us who are very collaborative and supportive. We cheer each other on and want to see all of us succeed.   In general, I have found other women in the industry to be a great resource for me since most truly want to help.   I try to pay it forward and guide other women just getting started.   I’m a firm believer in collaboration over competition.   Let’s raise the bar together!

How do you feel the beverage alcohol industry has improved regarding the inclusion of women over the last several years?

I’m so new to the beverage alcohol industry that I don’t have enough history to really understand what other women have gone through.  I would not want to minimize their experience.  Whatever inclusiveness I encounter today, is due to the groundwork laid by all of the women ahead of me.  We are seeing more representation in all the tiers and that is the result of the hard work that so may have done to bring more women to the table.  There is no way a mom of three like me would even have the opportunity to start a spirits brand if it weren’t for the female founders and leaders that were the pioneers in the industry.  To them, I say thank you.

Do you have a go-to book on business or leadership you recommend?

I read a lot of books on both business and leadership.  I always find listening to other female founders’ stories inspiring.  A few that I particularly like are Kara Goldin’s “Undaunted: Overcoming Doubts and Doubters,” Rebecca Minkoff’s “Fearless: The New Rules for Unlocking Creativity, Courage, and Success,” and Jamie Schmidt’s “Supermaker: Crafting Business on Your Own Terms.” 

“The Art of the Pitch” by Peter Coughter is great and really helps hone your pitching skills and “Venture Deals”  by Brad Feld provides an in-depth overview of fundraising.  

“Drop the Ball” by Tiffany Dufu really helped me figure out more of a work/life blend.  I’m constantly trying to learn more to become a better leader and founder so I read a lot and I listen to a lot of podcasts.  The steep learning curve of entrepreneurship is the best part.

More Interviews From Park Street University

Our Interview with Jill Kuehler of Freeland Spirits

Check Out Our Other Spotlight Series Here

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