As part of Constellation Brands’ commitment to supporting the professional development and advancement of women within the company, the industry and the local communities we serve, we pledged to invest $100 million in female-founded or female-led businesses by 2028. This program, the Focus on Female Founders initiative, continues to shape the beverage alcohol space, delivering on the unique needs of female consumers and bolstering female leaders in the industry.
Austin Cocktails was our first investment in 2018 as part of this initiative, so we sat down with co-founders, Jill Burns and Kelly Gasink, to talk about the impact of the partnership, the evolution of their brand, what it means to be female founders and their advice to other entrepreneurs.
Where did the idea for Austin Cocktails come from?
Jill & Kelly: After a long day of working in the fields during harvest season, our grandfather, Fred, had an inviolable tradition of stopping everything at 5 p.m. to get everyone around and have a cocktail. Kids would get Shirley Temples, and the adults would get something stiffer. It was affectionately called “Cocktail Time,” and was a tradition built on the conviction in the need to create time for joy and connection. In this space with friends and loved ones, we learned the importance of being authentically who we are and not who the world tells us to be. This is the core sentiment of Austin Cocktails.
How did you take this idea and turn it into what it is today?
Kelly: Honestly, an improbable number of stars aligned for us to start Austin Cocktails. We were industry outsiders who believed the time was right for disruption in the ready-to-drink category. It was the only category in alcohol that had not experienced some amount of premiumization. We also believed the modern consumer was attracted to affordable luxury products that were convenience driven and better for you. At the same time, cocktails had become ascendant in an unprecedented way. Co-packers, distributors and retailers rarely had the same conviction as us, but with our entrepreneurial backgrounds, we knew big companies weren’t investing in this relatively small category, and we had the passion and work ethic to stay the course.
Jill: Timing and our family tradition were foundational. We also have complementary skill sets and experience. During my career, I had the good fortune of working with a small team on a non-alcoholic beverage which provided experience in sourcing and evaluating ingredients, understanding the commercialization process and marketing a product for launch. Kelly has an extraordinary finance, sales and strategy background and was responsible for planning and building the business plan, overseeing operations and working with investors. Our different perspectives proved extremely valuable in building Austin Cocktails.
As a brand built on the tenacity of your upbringing, what does it mean for Austin Cocktails to have grown as it has?
Jill: It was through our grandfather that we developed our belief that anybody can defy the odds, and we think he’d be proud of the company we built and its focus on joy and connection. It’s easy to sometimes forget that our company is history in the making. We take pride in being part of the change we want to see in the industry. Partnering with Constellation Brands instills even more confidence that the best is still ahead.
Why do you think Austin Cocktails is so compelling to your consumers?
Jill: When we started the company, ready-to-drink cocktails were a small category – it was kind of a big company’s nightmare and an entrepreneur’s dream. As consumers ourselves, we also knew there was a trend toward convenience and a growing interest in products that prioritize natural ingredients. We think the combination of our timing, craftsmanship, ingredients, humble beginning and family tradition bring consumers to trust our product and spread the word about it.
How has your partnership with Constellation helped Austin Cocktails to grow?
Kelly: There’s an old adage that big companies want what small companies have, and small companies want what big companies have. While somewhat of an oversimplification, I think there is a lot of wisdom in this idea. Constellation has been an ideal partner that has provided a dedicated team to help us navigate the category landscape, innovate our portfolio, and bring our values and vision to life. We could never achieve our highest aspirations for this brand without their partnership. Moreover, they have made an unprecedented and historic commitment to investing in female-owned companies. In an economy where women-owned companies receive only 2% of venture capital and account for only 4% of revenue and 6% of employment, this is a commitment that will make an enormous change and impact on women across the industry and beyond.
What challenges do female entrepreneurs continue to face?
Jill: Numerous studies have shown that female-led companies outperform male-led companies on metrics ranging from stock price momentum and returns, to profitability increases and employee satisfaction. Yet, female-led companies only received $6.4 billion out of the $330 billion (2%) of capital raised in 2021. Although this amount is a record, there is still more work to be done. The pay parity between men and women is 18 cents on the dollar. Only 2% of female-owned companies have over $1 million in revenue. Outside of these figures, the trends are promising with female-led companies having been found to sell or go public faster and at higher valuations than male-led companies.
What advice do you have for female founders trying to get started?
Kelly: Genius is tenacity in disguise. Hang on if you believe in your thesis and value proposition. Building a company and raising capital is hard for everybody, not just women. It comes with the territory and is the real-time education and tuition you pay to make the best product you can. Heavier pushback along the way often yields more robust business plans, more resilient and adaptable leaders, and more savvy businesswomen. Learning to take constructive and unconstructive criticism, filtering it for what it should be and moving forward is often the cycle of the entrepreneurial world.
Jill: From a business perspective, raise more money than you think you should, pay for people that enable you to be out selling your product, and understand the financial metrics that run your business. This knowledge helps distinguish your brand for investors and enables leadership to guide and grow the brand strategically. Oh, and don’t schedule production runs the day after a big sporting event like, for example, the big game.