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Q&A: Shervene Shahbazkhani, Bacardi Brown Forman, on the benefits of a gender-balanced trade

Published:  08 March, 2019

People all around the world are marking International Women’s Day today with celebrations and protests, looking back at the changes that have been made, but also pushing for further gender parity at home and in the workplace.

Harpers caught up with Shervene Shahbazkhani, head of advocacy at Bacardi Brown Forman Brands (BBFB), to find out what a more gender-balanced world looks like and the benefits for the trade.

Tell us about your role at BBFB and how it came to be

I initially joined Bacardi as the first brand ambassador working closely with David Paskins who really inspired me in the role. My first project was Bacardi Legacy, pioneering the competition in the UK before taking it global. I later became the northern European ambassador for Bacardi, during which time I was nominated as best international brand ambassador at the Spirited Awards 2015 and 2014, which was a proud moment for me in my career.

I then became head of trade advocacy at Bacardi and since then I have led the strategic planning and execution of bartender engagement activity for key brands within Bacardi’s portfolio, working with some of the most passionate and knowledgeable people within the bar community, which has been a real joy for me.

What are the challenges that women face in BWS and what can companies can do to ensure a level playing field?

I think challenges that all genders face in the industry are the conditions that, as a bartender, you are faced with. Working long hours coupled with low wage and no benefits is difficult to sustain and for myself and many female colleagues, it had a shelf life. Many bars are making concerted efforts to change this and there are many places that offer good wages, proper time off and benefits but there is still work to do.

If the industry as a whole aims to create a stable, supportive environment that promotes growth and work life balance, then this will help level the playing field and will attract the best talent regardless of gender.

This year’s theme is #BalanceForBetter. How important is it to challenge gender inequality? 

I think this year’s message for IWD is extremely inspiring. It is important to have a balanced team as it brings diversity. I believe the key to creating gender equality is not just about actively hiring more women or men to make it equal, but to provide a working environment that both men and women aspire to work in.

By creating a place that looks after employee’s wellbeing, provides stability, structure and growth we will contribute to a fairer more gender equal environment which will lead to both sexes actively seeking roles with BBFB.

Tell us more about the balance within your own team of brand ambassadors

Our team consist of 16 ambassadors across the country, and eight of them are female. Our ambassadors were hired for their passion for the industry, knowledge and can-do attitude. Each of them has different strengths, experience and time in the industry, but all act as a support network for each other.

Who has been your greatest mentor during your career?

My greatest mentor without a doubt is Lisa Jazwinski-Okonweze. She was the director of Bacardi when I was an ambassador seven years ago. Back then ambassador duties included a lot of training, events and guest shifts - all very event led, with little autonomy or responsibility.

But she included me on all elements of brand strategy, planning and creative. She gave me a lot of guidance and encouragement but most of all believed in me to make bold, brave decisions. Under her mentorship, I developed some of my best work. I still go to her today to sound board ideas off.

How else is BBFB spearheading balance and equality?

In general, the company as a whole supports a balanced workforce. In the UK we have many women in leadership roles. We recently worked with the S.H.E Summit for IWD a one-day event in London that aims to bring together men and women, from across society, culture and business. The summit's theme focused on ‘You Don’t Need to be in Charge to Lead’, exploring the belief that the first step in being a change-maker is to acknowledge that you already are one.

We’ve also been running our educational platform Jigger Beaker Glass 2.0 across the UK, teaming up with some of the world’s best male and female drinks experts to host panel talks with the on-trade, discussing topics such as the science of flavour, sustainability and the future of mixed drinks and.

Speakers have included top talent such as Super Lyan’s Ryan Chetiyawardana, esteemed drinks journalist Jane Ryan, Coupette’s Chris Moore and our very own Rebecca Sides. This month we’ll be finishing up this instalment of JBG in Leeds where we hope to see the best and brightest male and female talent in attendance.

What has Bacardi Brown Forman (BBFB) been doing to mark International Women’s Day?

This week we’ve been working with the 2019 International Women’s Day theme of #BalanceForBetter that calls for a more gender-balanced world, by commissioning a series of six balanced serves that suit all tastes and palates – from short, savoury cocktails to long and fizzy.

Six of our talented ambassador team including Ambre Morin (Grey Goose UK ambassador), Andrea Montague (Dewar’s Whisky ambassador), Karine Tillard (Patrón Tequila + Oxley Gin ambassador), Maja Jaworska (Grey Goose Coffee ambassador), Metinee Kongsrivilai (BACARDÍ Rum ambassador) and Rebecca Sides (Bacardi Brown-Forman trade ambassador London & South UK) partnered with London’s best female bartending talent to create a collection of cocktails that celebrate the diverse tastes of women – and men.

Whether you’re a woman and like strong, whisky based drinks or a man who prefers a lighter, low ABV serve the International Women’s Day cocktail collection is all about championing the skill, creativity and drive that our industry has to offer and the public can get involved at any of the bars from now until Monday 11 March to raise a glass to equality themselves.