New Majority

What It’s Really Like to Be a Woman Entrepreneur in a Male-Dominated Industry

March 27, 2018
4 min read

She successfully launched one of the few women-run distilleries in the U.S. — How she did it and her advice for all women founders

Jill Kuehler is the founder of Freeland Spirits, one of only a few woman-run distilleries. She is based in Portland, Oregon and has a Master’s Degree in Education from Portland State University and a BS in Community Health from Texas A&M University.

What led you to launch your company, Freeland Spirits?

Before Freeland Spirits, I had spent 12 years working in the nonprofit world, with a focus on agriculture and education. During that time, I also happened to be a lover of spirits, and being so ingrained in the agricultural world, I became really aware that there wasn’t much of a story being told about the ingredients in the sprits that I loved so much.

So, when my friend who is a rancher in Eastern Oregon, came to visit me, I told her that I wanted to start making whisky, and she said, “If you do, I’ll grow the grain for you!” That got me really excited and made me realize I could actually do this.

Soon after, I met Molly, who is our Master Distiller. She has a background in chemistry and was running a small distillery in Bend, Oregon. I slowly lured her to Portland and now, together we’re a great team.

Molly Troupe, Master Distiller, Freeland Spirits

As an entrepreneur, is there something you that you wish you had known, back then, when you started, that would have really helped you?

Definitely not. I feel like, had I known how hard it was going to be, it may have deterred me. I think not knowing is better. I mean, in this business, there are so many regulatory issues, and it’s so capital intensive, with equipment and leasing space. It’s almost better to not know what you’re getting into, and just take one problem at a time, learn as you go.

What is something you think most people do not know about you?

That’s a tough question, because I am a pretty open book. I was in the Peace Corps in Guatemala for two years and that was where I really gained my passion for agriculture.

Who is someone who is inspiring you right now, and why?

There’s a clothing company called Wild Fang. It was created by women who believe there was no clothing brand that reflected their tomboy, ass-kicking style. What I really admire about them is they aren’t afraid to be political and just truly brave, and every act they take demonstrates the mission of the company.

My daughter is also huge inspiration to me too. When she sees the decisions I make, I want her to see someone who is striving for a dream, and I look forward to someday being able to help her fulfill her dream.

[Editor’s Note: for more inspiring companies and women entrepreneurs — click here]

I think one of the beauties of women-owned businesses is that we often approach it with a greater sense of a community mindset.

Obviously, there are a lot of great things about having your own business, but what is one of the things you find less enjoyable, but that you think is necessary for you to do to run your business?

I think it’s the paperwork. There’s just so much red tape with distilleries. I have to file with the government, the state and locally. And I miss sleep.

Jill Kuehler, Founder of Freeland Spirits

The more business grows, the more you’re going to be on-boarding new employees to help you. Is there a task you would never delegate to anyone, that you would want to hold onto, for whatever reason?

I don’t think so. I think one of the beauties of women-owned businesses is that we often approach it with a greater sense of a community mindset. So, I love having more people involved in decision making. For so long, for three years, this idea lived in my head, and even just having Molly on board is such a game changer. Having somebody in this with me, that we’re creating something together, is great.

Being part of this industry that is mostly male-dominated, what would you recommend for any other woman who wants to enter the industry?

I would say, come learn with us. We can’t wait to train more women distillers, and we want to have a training program of our own. All industries benefit from diversification and we can’t wait to see more women, people of color, and LGBTQ entering the craft distilling industry.

[Editor’s Note: For more on the topic, check out our diversity & inclusion collection]

Being a woman in this industry, have you ever experienced “mansplaining”? What is the most common reaction you get from men who have been in this industry a long time?

Yes, but Molly definitely has some interesting stories. For instance, she’s given distillery tours and some of the men would ask her if they could meet the distiller, and she has to say, “Well, that’s me.” And the worst part is they don’t believe her….until she starts using words like “azeotrope.”