Mara Smith’s search to find a gluten-free, cleanly produced spirit inspired her to start Inspiro Tequila, and she recently sat down with Entrepreneur to discuss her journey, along with advice for women looking to re-enter the workforce.
Tell us a little bit about your background before starting Inspiro.
I have no experience in the spirits industry. I started my career at one of the largest law firms in Chicago. It was an amazing experience. You get thrown into the fire right away, and I learned so much really quickly. It was very exciting and exhausting. After years at the law firm, I decided to make a career pivot, and I joined the Corporate Strategy and Business Development Group at McDonald’s Corporation. That experience really sparked my entrepreneurial spirit. While I was there, I became pregnant with twins, and my corporate career came to a screeching halt when I was put on an emergency bed rest. My twins were born prematurely, so I decided to stay home and became CEO of my home. All this time though, I always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to start my own company.
What inspired you to start a tequila company?
If I was going to start a company, I wanted it to be around a product that I personally enjoy. I became a tequila drinker years ago, when I was looking for a cleaner spirit option that fit into my more active lifestyle. I’ve been gluten-free for over 10 years. Drinks that add a lot of sugar to them, like wine, I just wouldn’t feel good the next day when I woke up. So I turned to tequila, and I started converting many girlfriends to becoming tequila drinkers. I discovered that a lot of women were actually choosing tequila as their drink of choice. But I just didn’t think any of the brands really focused on them as a primary consumer — from marketing materials featuring scantily clad women, or dark bar scenes that did not personally resonate with me, to even the bottle designs just being dar and stout, and stocky. I thought there was an opportunity to innovate, and bring a different perspective, and focus on an overlooked consumer. I also discovered that many of the tequila brands that we know and love actually contain additives, flavoring, glycerin and coloring. I thought, “Okay, I was choosing tequila because it’s a cleaner drink option, but I don’t want additives in my tequila.” There are so few women in the spirits industry in general, I thought if I was going to do something, I wanted to do something where I could make an impact. Here was an opportunity to bring a female perspective and have women involved in every part of the process, from creating our taste profiles to getting it on the shelves. So Inspiro Tequila is actually women-owned, led and created.
How did you prepare to enter a totally new industry?
It is not easy to enter a new industry as an outsider, but it’s also not impossible. It just required digging in and doing a lot of due diligence. Everything from reading books on the tequila industry and all the women in tequila, to taste testing brands (which was the fun part), to listening to podcasts and reviews about tequila, reading industry news reports and reaching out to people in the industry. I even took a course that was offered by the CRT, which is the governing body in Mexico for tequila, to become certified in the history and production of tequila making.
What are some of the main things you’ve learned along the way?
There have been so many learnings on the journey. The most exciting part is this deep learning curve. A few key takeaways for me have been, first, you need to remain intellectually curious if you want to try and innovate in an industry. As an outsider, one benefit I have is that I look at everything with a fresh set of eyes and how we could do things differently. But I think it’s important to always keep that perspective.
I like to live by the motto: Be a learn-it-all and not a know-it-all. You have to continuously want to learn and think of new approaches. Another key learning for me is that you just can’t do everything on your own. I recently discovered the Sarah Blakely quote that, basically, “If somebody can do something 80% as good as you can, you should let them do it.” Initially, I was trying to do everything myself, from filing for barcodes to drafting contracts. But now, I’m trying to let other people handle some of the other aspects of the business.
What do you want to say to other women who want to re-enter the workforce?
It’s not too late. You can innovate in an industry, even if you’re an outsider, if you’re willing to put in the hard work and do the research. The more prepared you are, the better. I think the second thing is that you just can’t do it all alone. Reach out to people that you think can help you. Creating a network of amazing female founders and leaders has been critical to me launching Inspiro. Again though, I’d say do your research first. When you reach out to someone, make sure you’re very specific in your request and that you’ve researched them and know about their background and history, and you can say something that sounds really personal. They’re more likely to respond.
Lastly, don’t devalue the skills that you had before you left the workforce, as well as the skills that you’ve honed while at home and parenting. A lot of those skills are very applicable to starting a company. I had preemie twins, and I can multitask like the best of them. I also think I learned a lot of flexibility because, as you know, with children no day ever goes as planned. It’s the same for a startup: You’re always having to think of Plan B and Plan C. I just think that recognizing that there are a lot of skills that you use while you’re home that are directly applicable to the business world.
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Finally, what else are you looking forward to in the months ahead?
Right now, Inspiro is only available on our website and on some other marketplaces. I’m really excited to enter into retailers so people can find us locally in, initially starting in my hometown of the Chicagoland area, and then branching out from there to other strategic geographic locations. I’m just really excited for our consumers to learn about our tequila, have an opportunity to taste it and fall in love with it.