Carin Luna-Ostaseski is one of the first Hispanic founders of a scotch whisky. Her journey as a first-generation Cuban American challenged conventions every step of the way, and has inspired others to achieve the unexpected, a mantra that SIA Scotch Whisky now lives by.
In her mid-20s, Carin would not have considered herself a scotch whisky lover. But a friend encouraged her to try something new, and hosted a tasting for her, which changed her life. She then began a grand tour of her local spirits purveyor, sampling over 300 bottles of whiskies and scotches, and falling in love with the category, all while becoming a dedicated student of the spirit.
Carin started hosting tasting events to share her favorite blends with her friends and loved ones, and through this process, she realized what the world was missing: an ultra-premium yet affordable and approachable scotch whisky, perfect for the connoisseurs as well as the curious. She wanted to change the way people thought about the category and challenge those old, stodgy conventions. What began as a casual pastime quickly became a life-altering passion.
Now, to pay it forward to the next wave of entrepreneurs of color, SIA Scotch Whisky and Carin have partnered with Hello Alice to launch The Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund. Open to entrepreneurs of color, the program offers twenty-five $10,000 grants and mentorship to selected recipients who who are twenty-five years or older (as of September 14, 2021) and operate and/or conduct business in at least one of the following states: California, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New York and/or Texas. Applications are open now through August 10, 2021, at 6 p.m. ET. For grant eligibility, application qualifications and other details, see the Terms & Conditions.
To introduce her to our community, Hello Alice talked with Carin about persevering through rejection, how she financed her business, and why you should never, ever be afraid to ask a question.
When did your interest in scotch whisky shift from a hobby to an actual business?
I started tinkering with the idea in 2009 or 2010. At first, it was a passion project, right? I started doing tasting events and visiting Scotland quite a bit to dip my toes into the water. Then I finally realized that I couldn’t not turn my idea into an actual brand. I think these days people call it a side hustle. [laughs]
That’s when I started reaching out to anyone and everyone who could possibly help me, and I also kept getting rejected time and time again. I remember I got 80 rejections because it was the eighty-first person that finally said, ‘Yes, we can help you through this process, we’ve got resources and connections to help you.’ The lesson there is to just keep pushing.
Your background is in marketing and design. How did you get your foot in the door in an unfamiliar, male-dominated industry?
I was going into this “old boys club” — or so I thought. In reality, throughout my journey all of the big doors have been opened to me by women. The first major donor was actually two women, Lauren Mayer and Gabby Shayne. They work in the spirits industry, and it’s been a family business for three generations. They loved my concept of bringing a modern, unexpected blend to the world for younger consumers and my vision of breaking those stereotypes of scotch as your grandfather’s drink. They said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got some connections for blenders and some manufacturing connections and distributors when you’re ready.’ Through the years of us working together, they eventually invested in the brand and became partners.
How did you get introduced to Lauren and Gabby?
I met them with a cold email if you can believe it.
Wow, is there a special formula for making those requests?
It’s pretty simple, I think. ‘Hey, this is me, I’ve got this passion, I’m really interested in this, this is my concept. I don’t know many people in the industry. Would you be open to having a short conversation with me? Would you like to partner on this?’ It’s about making the bold request.
I also really believe that there’s magic in the act of paying it forward. Any time I get any entrepreneur request — on email, phone call, or text — I answer it. I’ve mentored quite a few companies along the way myself. I know a thing or two, and I’m happy to help give that back through mentorship programs and accelerators. And now, through this amazing Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund that we just launched with Hello Alice.
You’ve actually been on Hello Alice as an owner for years. What resources have been helpful along your entrepreneurial journey?
Being in the beverage industry, I keep up with all of the resources from the Hello Alice WomanMade community. That’s something I’ve tapped into many times over the years.
Also, when I first joined Hello Alice, it was in the middle of my fundraising stage, and it was great seeing all the different options out there and all the grant programs available to entrepreneurs. Being a Hispanic woman, it feels like there’s not a lot for me, especially in Silicon Valley, where everyone here is like, ‘Is it a SaaS business? Is there artificial intelligence enabling it?’ I’m like, ‘No, this is a scotch whisky!’ So seeing a Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) focus on Hello Alice was really important for me — just seeing what was out there and using some of the templates offered. It’s really a wealth of information.
Hello Alice owners typically tell us that funding is their biggest challenge. How did you get the capital to launch SIA Scotch Whisky?
At first, I had my full-time job, and Lauren and Gabby were helping me along as consultants. I needed to pay for them, so I took on freelance design work on nights and weekends. Besides bootstrapping, I also took out a home equity line of credit. I made sure that I had credit cards too so that in a pinch, I had access to those as a safety net. Then I launched on Kickstarter.
When that happened, it was 2012, and people didn’t really know what crowdfunding was, so it took courage to go out and ask my friends and family to put money onto a platform that they’ve never heard of. And also, it was a challenge putting myself out there to the world and saying, ‘This is what I’m working on.’ That was really scary and intimidating for me.
Later, I brought on angel investors. Lauren and Gabby’s father became an investor and so did another gentleman, a friend of his who had had an exit from a spirit brand before. They became my smart money business partners. One thing I like to tell a lot of entrepreneurs — if you have a CPG brand especially — is to get these smart money investors early on. They took a pretty sizable chunk of the business, but it paid in this huge way down the line. They said, ‘Where brands like yours will fail is that your margins aren’t high enough.’ So they worked with me even before they put in a single penny to help get my margins to be a sustainable business. And then they said, ‘We’re going to be your bank. We are taking a sizable chunk of equity, but you’ll never have to go out and raise money for inventory. We’ll pay for your bottles, your liquid, your caps, corks, boxes, factory production, freight from the U.K. to the U.S., and storage. Then as purchase orders come in, we’ll keep our portion to get our money back, and then you can use the rest for sales and marketing.’ Over the years, that was several million dollars that I didn’t have to go out and raise or give up equity just to create the product.
Long story short, I didn’t come from a big distilling family or background, so I had to find creative ways to fund the business!
There has to be a lot of red tape, lingo, and technical details in an industry like yours. How did you fill those knowledge gaps?
You’d be really surprised to find that people are very friendly. Especially in my industry, it doesn’t feel like a competition. It really feels like people are genuinely trying to help you. Don’t be afraid to ask and speak up when you don’t know something. For example, my distributors were talking a lot about something called ‘OND.’ I looked it up on Google, and I couldn’t find anything. Finally, I asked somebody else, and they said, ‘Oh, it’s October, November, December. It’s the busiest season for alcohol sales.’ So yeah, I’d say not being afraid to ask questions, especially early on.
What other advice would you give to women following in your footsteps?
Again, I think finding a community is important. If you can’t find one, create one. Dr. Nicola Nice approached me about joining this group she started, a women’s cocktail collective, where we could all help each other and find alliances for things such as events, cocktail recipes, menu placements, and more. That’s been really refreshing for me, to be part of a group like this.
Scotch whisky is traditionally an older man’s business, especially in distribution. There were times where I’d go into a business meeting or a sales pitch and there might be 13 white men sitting around the table, and I was the only woman, the only person of color. That was tough. Now we are hopefully at the beginning of a tide that’s going to turn, and it takes people just doing it and also putting money back into the community and supporting brands that are smaller and scrappier.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund is part of that solution, right?
Yes! This is a dream come true. Every year since I started SIA Scotch Whisky, at the end of each year, I check out what my sales were and we take a percentage and donate it to different organizations that help disadvantaged entrepreneurs start and run their own businesses. This year, I’m really really excited to have launched The Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund, which is donating $250,000 in grants to multicultural entrepreneurs and small business owners of color that tend to be underrepresented when it comes to funding. This program is the biggest initiative that I’ve ever been a part of, and I’m over the moon for what the potential can be to help put money back into our communities.
Are you an entrepreneur of color who would benefit from a $10K grant? Applications for The Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund by SIA Scotch are open now until August 10, 2021, at 6 p.m. ET. For grant eligibility, application qualifications and other details, see the Terms & Conditions.
Sponsored by SIA Scotch Whisky. PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY. SIA Blended Scotch Whisky. 43% Alc/Vol. Imported by Diageo, New York, NY. Do not share with anyone under the age of 21.