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Wine Expert Cynthia K. Talks Navigating a Male-Dominated Industry and Knowing Your Worth

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

I have looked up to my older sister, Cynthia, for as long as I can remember. She has always filled my house with love and fun while inspiring me to work hard and dream big. Since graduating from Auburn University in 2013 with a degree in Hospitality & Management, she has become a Certified Specialist of Wine, Certified Specialist of Spirits, First Level Sommelier, and has a Wine and Spirits Education Trust Level II certification. When she became one of the youngest district managers in her entire company (Alabama’s second-largest wine and beer distributor), I knew I had to write about her success. So here is an interview with a true girl boss, one that I am also lucky enough to have as a confidante, friend, and wonderful big sister. 

Q: Do you consider your industry to be male-dominated? If so, what has been the best way for you to navigate that? 

A: Absolutely. There are multiple females at the rep level, but I am one of three females in management at my company. Off-premise [grocery stores and convenience stores] are what bring in the big money to a distributor, so most of the upper management comes from that division which is 99% male-dominated. As more women become reps, especially in the on-premise sector (where the product can be consumed on-site, such as in restaurants, bars, country clubs, etc.), there is potential for them to grow in the company. I have found that working hard, making yourself valuable, and hitting company priorities allow for long-term successes regardless of if it is a male or female-dominated field.

Q: Have you ever had to work under unfair conditions or around questionable business practices? If so, how did you handle it? Do you encourage young working women to stand up against problematic procedures or to try and push their way through them quietly? 

A: Unfortunately, at my previous company, there were a lot of ethically questionable practices. It is something everyone knew about, but never really discussed for fear of being shortlisted for a write-up. The one time I tried to bring it up, it was not received well and I knew I needed to begin looking for other opportunities outside of that organization. I found it was best for me to remove myself from the situation because it was never going to change based on past practices. Being a single-income household, I needed to protect myself from the chance of getting terminated. 

Q: What advice do you have for young women who aren’t sure if their major is what they want to do as a career anymore or who work in a career that they aren’t passionate about?

A: Find a major/job you love. Someone close to me told me once that they were miserable in their job and it has stayed with me all these years. I can’t imagine waking up and having to do something I didn’t enjoy. Luckily for me, people drink when they are happy and when they are sad, so I always have a market. Plus, wine is constantly changing and there is so much education that goes along with it, so it never feels stagnant. Personally, I needed a career that kept me engaged but also allowed me to be around people all the time, building relationships. 
There is a big difference between a job and a career, so if you aren’t sure what you want to do long term, start with a job and see if you can see yourself staying long term and making it a career. If not, try something else. It is a worker’s market — take advantage of it while you can. Don’t box yourself by staying and doing something you aren’t passionate about. 

Q: How did you deal with feelings of imposter syndrome or feeling inadequate or incompetent, even when you actually are educated and prepared? Do you have any advice for young women who feel that way in their jobs right now?

A: Luckily, I have never really experienced that. I know how hard I work and how much effort I put into being successful, so I don’t let that get to me. It was really important to me to pass the CSW, CSS, WSET II, and First Level Sommelier, because even if I didn’t feel fully confident, I knew someone initially seeing those letters behind my name helped hold weight and gave me a little more street credit before we even sat down. 
Determination and hard work are everything to me. When I was hiring reps to work under me, I immediately went to people who I knew worked hard. Showing how hard you can work proves your wealth first and foremost. If you are feeling under-appreciated, it might be time to find another company where they can thrive. 

Q: Do you have advice or ideas for young women who struggle with work-life balance? What are some good ways to practice self-care while also staying on top of your work requirements? 

A: This is something I struggle with all the time. Being in the on-premise sector, I am constantly being reached out to during my “non-business hours”. However, restaurants, bars, and country clubs don’t follow the same hours I do. It’s important to “always be the first call” meaning you want the buyer to know you will take care of them regardless of the day or time so they don’t have to call anyone else, while also making sure you are taking time to rest and recharge. I have found that being available, at least initially, can pay dividends in the long run. But what is helpful in sales can also be debilitating in another industry. I also sell wine and beer for a living; I’m not a heart surgeon. I try to remind myself that the demands of my job can often wait so I don’t get burned out. It all comes down to a balance though. If I want to meet a friend for lunch, that probably means when I get home I am doing admin until 7 p.m. or I start after dinner and work for a couple of hours. I’m still working for the same amount of hours, it’s just in different parts of the day.

Q: What general advice do you have for young women who are either on the cusp of their careers or are currently in their career? Do you have any tips or tricks that helped you land a dream job or any advice for women who are struggling to move up in their company? 

A: Be nice to everyone you meet and try to make a connection. Getting a job is more about the hands you shake than what is on your resume. Everyone is connected via the Internet/social media these days so it is really easy to stay in contact with people you’ve met along the road in your own education/career. I got my job because of a connection I made in college. I reached out to him when I graduated, and I was able to get a very coveted position right away. Again, it goes back to working hard and proving your worth to a company. You want to see a return on investments in your own life, right? Your employer wants the same thing. Show them you are worth the risk. 

My sister’s success is so inspiring to me, especially because she also lives a full and meaningful life outside of work. For young women, attaining a leadership position after college can seem very daunting; many companies still operate as “boys’ clubs” or are directly/indirectly sexist and discriminatory.

However, following advice like Cynthia provided, especially about knowing your worth, working hard, and doing what you love, can certainly help us girls to break glass ceilings and acquire success and joy in both our lives and our careers.

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Caroline is a sophomore at Boston University majoring in Political Science and minoring in English. She is originally from Huntsville, Alabama. She loves reading books written by women, watching A24 movies, and drawing! You can find her on insta @caroline.mccord !
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