Sonja Hunt, Founder and CEO of ABV Jobs, started in hospitality, transitioned out, then returned with a passion for transforming the whiskey industry and using her expertise in Human Resources to facilitate diverse hiring and development of individuals. Our favorite quote from our conversation with her: “I’ve forged alliances with those that want to see me soar and vice versa. So much can be done with so little and we see and hear that daily so always be encouraged from within and ditch the distractions.”
Learn more about her journey, the diversity she seeks to drive in the whiskey, and her inspirational advice on making progress below. If you’re looking for a way into the industry, visit her industry job board at @abvjobs on instagram or her site: www.abvjobs.com.
BW: When and how did you discover you wanted to work in the bourbon/whiskey/spirits industry?
SH: I had a past in the spirits industry by way of Hotel and Restaurant Management which began behind at the Front Office and eventually led to being behind the bar many years ago. I transitioned out of the industry for years and never in a million years would have thought being a whiskey enthusiast at the time would lead to joining communities and connecting the dots between them and quickly growing interest I’d end up where I am today. I definitely ventured down the rabbit hole but am glad I did…It’s a marriage of passion and purpose! I aim to leave behind a legacy for my sons. One that is positively connected to the industry.
I’ve been blessed to collaborate with and learn from some of the industry’s veterans while adding to my life resume and cementing my future in this industry.
BW: What was your previous background – and how do you use your background in your role today? How did your background prepare you for your position in the industry today?
SH: I possess an extensive background in management that started in the Hotel and Restaurant industry. I quickly gained momentum and with that came promotions and the opportunity to learn various roles. In Human Resources… I am committed to a balanced workplace driven by a diverse and healthy work culture powered by people. I dedicated my life to Human Resources gaining a Master’s Certification, Black Belt, and DEI Certifications to support me whilst concurrently working towards my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.
On the spirits side, I read books, asked questions, experimented, established relationships, obtained my Executive Bourbon Steward Certification and other credentials during the pandemic, held private tastings, and assisted with blending, distilling, and crafting mash bills when I’m not volunteering. I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves and apply myself when I want to learn. I’m here to do the work. I aim to leave a legacy for my sons and family. Today, I’ve married those passions and created a job board: ABV Jobs. This is a dedicated and inclusive space for the alcohol beverage industry uniting talent and opportunities. Based on the experiences I heard of from others and my own journey, I saw a need and acted. I officially launched in 2022 after sitting in it for 2 years.
BW: What was something surprising you learned in your early days at your current company? (or at your early days at your first whiskey position)
SH: There is no such thing as a neck pour! lol
I’ve learned there are so many angles and nothing is flat. It depends on your individualized vision and that either further or diminishes your vantage point and that’s what this industry is all about. Growth and longevity are contingent upon finding new solutions…being creative, stepping outside of comfort, establishing meaningful relationships as well as boundaries, and putting your seal aka establishing your legacy. This industry consists of some of the fastest growing groups of entrepreneurs from the farms to the label, in between, and beyond! There is so much evolution taking place in the industry and it’s across all generations! Growth excites me and I’m for the duality of student and instructor.
BW: What does your day-to-day life in the distillery/organization look like?
SH: My day-to-day is complicated because I wear many hats as the Chief People and Diversity Officer, and two other team members and I are establishing the framework. It’s extremely challenging but this isn’t my first rodeo! I’ve received formal business training, led small business coaching, and worked in a consulting capacity. This phase is all about establishing relationships and providing our services. Distillery days are limited but, when I am on-site it’s still a part of my DNA and I want to jump right back in. As I establish ABV Jobs, it’s shorter-term projects and I’m revving up as a Judge for Fred Minnick’s ASCOT Spirits Awards for the second year. Life is good!
BW: What similarities and differences are there between your former career/position and this one?
SH: In every role, I’ve held I’ve always had a passion and skill set for recognizing and developing talent. I have former staff from 20 years ago through today contact me for career advice and professional guidance. It’s always been about creating and nurturing a safe environment and getting the buy-in from C-Suite towards promoting an efficient collective of healthy employees to retain and attract new talent.
BW: After working in the whiskey/spirits industry for all this time, what are some of the changes you’ve seen?
SH: I‘ve seen an increase in black, BIPOC, and woman-owned and led craft distilleries, spirits brands, and organizations arise or come forward. There is also an increase in transparency that connects the consumer to the craft and that ties into organizations reconsidering the lure of folklore per se and establishing a more sustainable footprint in the communities at large that speaks to everyone. The message is clear, “We’re better together!”
BW: What’s the future role or vision you’d like to see the industry move towards? What are the biggest roadblocks and how can we overcome them to get there?
SH: Paying a livable wage is a start. Truth is, a single man or woman cannot live off some of the wages I’ve seen. It’s dated data and is unfair and discouraging to underrepresented groups. I’m doing a live on this topic soon.
BW: What’s one thing you wish people understood better about the initiatives you’re working on?
SH: Getting employers to see what’s materializing before their eyes in terms of a fresh and seasoned pool of talent and prioritizing tapping into it with fairness. Coaching talent, that this isn’t about glamour and a few IG or social media post. The commitment to quality, establishing an equitable workforce and driving the consumer and thus revenue are prioritized more today than in the days leading up to the pandemic. Also prioritized is finding the right fit as a candidate and establishing a career path within the industry. There is an immediate need and untapped opportunity here for employee engagement and advancements.
For enthusiasts looking for entry into the industry, saying the “right things” but void of lasting action just to gain 5 minutes of fame will lead to burnout and present as disingenuous which is easy to spot. This is a vast industry with plenty for all! New career opportunities are birthed daily. Employers need to recognize that people are vying for their attention and word-of-mouth referrals are great but supports hiring bias. When I’m holding workshops, I’m speaking to talent, organizations, and brands. Both can stand to pivot.
BW: In thinking about your life and the things you have learned what has been a low or challenging point that transformed you intrinsically?
SH: Surviving cancer when those closest to me succumb to the disease. Hearing my brother, mother, and best friend all tell me the same thing before they passed knocked the wind out of me but the sense into me.
I pushed past feelings of defeat, feeling shut out, and believing at one point that those with decision-making abilities were the end all be all to my future successes in this industry. I took the safety off and skyrocketed! I have a phenomenal and intimate support team. I decided to diligently seek what I want and let no one and nothing keep or block me from my destiny, desires of my heart, and dreams! I’ve forged alliances with those that want to see me soar and vice versa. So much can be done with so little and we see and hear that daily so always be encouraged from within and ditch the distractions.
BW: What’s something in your role and/or company that inspires you or gets you going in the morning?
SH: I know there are people that need me, rely on me, and that I too need. I’m not done learning, growing, and contributing! It’s such a fascinating lifecycle. Knowing that I personally assisted someone with landing their career and/or with further development is fulfilling. It all goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We all have them but who will answer the call if not you, and how does or can that help you? It’s a win- win!
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to step into a similar role or carve a similar path?
SH: First define who you are. Not who you think others want you to be or believe you are. Know what you’re looking to get out of it – whether or not it’s intrinsic or extrinsic rewards. Get a trustworthy mentor or mentors. I have a couple and I am fully transparent and humbled! Have tough conversations and never fear asking a question. Also, challenge others including your mentors to do greater! Make mistakes and don’t be afraid of showing back up afterward. That’s how we all grow! Read and buy books surrounding your interest and seek out certifications and specialty degrees. Reach out to me…I connect people almost daily! I’m just doing what I can with the time I’m afforded.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in your the Washington DC area.
SH: When I’m not leading a tasting here in the DMV, my perfect whiskey weekend is here in Alexandria, VA at Virtue Feed and Grain in Old Town surrounded by phenomenal company, having great conversations and whiskey pours! I do have to go over the bridge to Jack Rose at least twice a month to indulge.
You can find Sonja at:
- IG: @so_dramgood and @abvjobs
- Twitter: @ABVJobs