While she was still an intern at Procter & Gamble in 2002, Selena Cuffe began building relationships and experiences that would serve her well one day as the President and CEO of Heritage Link Brands. At P&G she worked on, among other things, the launch of Tampax Pearl. She also met her future husband, Khary, there.
"It all really revolves around P&G and when my husband and I started dating, " she says.
After Selena graduated from business school she returned to Cincinnati to work with P&G, but the pair continued their long distance relationship - Khary was three years behind her and attending business school in Boston. But the thought of returning to Cincinnati was never too far from her mind, especially when the pair's thoughts turned to raising a family.
"Where is going to be the best place for us to do business and raise our little boy?" she recalls. "New York and Boston aren't the most family friendly places."
So the pair moved to Cincinnati where Khary, Heritage's CFO, works on Pampers brand - fitting since they now have two baby boys. While Heritage is based in Los Angeles, the pair runs their importing business out of their home office in West Chester.
"If I lived in New York or LA I wouldn't live in the house I live in, it's a great quality of living and my little boys have so much space," Selena says.
She credits two of her professors and a class on entrepreneurship at the Harvard Business School for providing her with the right insight to forge forward with her own company.
"If you're thinking about being an entrepreneur look around and look and think twice about the things that capture your eye," she recalls was one professor's advice.
What caught her eye was a trip to South Africa's first annual Soweto Wine Festival in 2005. She and Khary created Heritage Link Brands after discovering that people of color were dramatically underrepresented in Africa's burgeoning wine industry.
"As we were going on our wine tasting and looking around at the dynamic of the winery itself, the tasting room manager was white, the salesperson was white, and in the fields, all black," she says. "I can actually do something that will affect the course of history."
Heritage was born in 2005. But like all good business plans, this one had a potential wrinkle.
"I found out I was pregnant. It was one of the most difficult decisions we had to make," Cuffe says. "We're starting a business with alcohol which technically means you can't drink the product."
The couple decided to move forward, living on the Harvard business school campus which provided them with an unlimited number of academic and incubator resources. She credits lessons learned at P&G, included working on Tampax and Pringles brands, for inspiration in setting Heritage up.
"It's amazing general market training," she says. "You learn how to take a product to market. When I worked on Pringles it was launching new things and developing markets in Mexico City."
Trips to Mexico also taught Cuffe the importance of focus groups - Heritage now runs multiple groups in seven cities to determine which wines they will bring into the country. Heritage's Cincinnati connections have also expanded since the Cuffe's moved back. Currently, they work with Biggs and recently began moving their wines into Kroger. Cuffe says they have even conducted their first focus group in Cincinnati to ascertain what their Midwestern customers want. Heritage has benefited from local business support as well as members of the African American and the Cincinnati USA Regional Chambers.
"They've been helpful and resourceful and interested in pouring our wines. We've gotten some good traction here," she says.
Cuffe also credits Heritage's distributor in Ohio, Glazer's, for teaching and educating her about the wine industry. She says she still gets advice from her marketing colleagues at P&G, and has particularly benefited from former Bootsy's Sommelier, Kyle Kennedy, who now works as the Wine & Beverage Director at Jeff Ruby's in Louisville.
"He has been an amazing advocate, incredibly helpful and supportive," she says.
Last year, Heritage was recognized as a Black Enterprise Small Business Award winner and sales exceeded $1 million. Now the company has a full time staff of four, with 14 part-time wine ambassadors throughout the country. Cuffe, who travels to Los Angeles, Atlanta, and South Africa annually, says her employees have the ability to work remotely as well.
Cuffe recently hired a Vice President of Sales, Robbi Stiell, who has worked on Grey Goose and Kettle One brands and spent eight years with General Mills. Cuffe says Stiell, who is based in Orlando, is working to advance their brand, including Heritage underwriting a 14 city cultural food and wine tour called "Drink Well Do Good."
"It's a celebration of all things Africa. To have these amazing South African wines, cuisine by the best chefs in the country, it's really about celebrating all things fabulous on the continent," she says.
The tour is also a fundraiser to create a training and education center on a historically black owned winery in South Africa. The tour will visit 13 US cities before heading to Capetown, South Africa for the World Cup where Heritage will have a significant presence as well. As the largest US importer of indigenous South African wines, Heritage was able to secure a Small Business Administration loan to help draw the attention of World Cup fans to their portfolio of home-grown wines.
Back home, Heritage now imports and distributes African wine in 41 states, but its specialty is wine cultivated by vintners of African descent - they distribute the only two black owned family vineyards out of 4,000 in South Africa. Heritage owns an equity stake in one of the family wineries, Seven Sisters, an African roots brand whose wines are named after seven siblings of a South African family who, after falling on hard times and losing their home, started their own winery.
Cuffe says there is a parallel with the family owned wineries imported by Heritage and their home in Cincinnati.
"The importance placed on family. People appreciate this wine is coming from one family to their family table," she says. "People here can identify with the stories behind our wine."
Photography by Emily Maxwell
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