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March 29, 2017

Badass Ladies You Should Know: The Queens Bookshop

Kate Hart
Vina Castillo, Natalie Noboa, and Holly Nikodem
We're taking a little cross-country trip -- from last year's profile of the Koch sisters, owners of LA's The Ripped Bodice bookstore, all the way to New York, to meet the badass ladies behind The Queens Bookshop Initiative. As all the Barnes and Noble stores closed in their area, Vina Castillo, Natalie Noboa, and Holly Nikodem decided their side of the borough needed an independent bookstore of its own to fill the gap.

One $70,000 Kickstarter and a ton of hard work later, they're set to open their new store this year. Find out more about the challenges they've faced and what they're looking forward to!


Vina Castillo, Natalie Noboa, and Holly Nikodem
Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Holly: Take ten plus years in retail and combine that with a love of books, and you get the crazy notion that starting an independent bookstore is a good idea. The Queens Bookshop Initiative, though, really started as a labor of love that sprung from recognizing a genuine need in a community.

As of 2016 all of the big box bookstores in Queens (Barnes and Noble, specifically) were gone. Vina was the one to realize that Queens was left with one general purpose bookstore to service the entire borough (The Astoria Bookshop). She suggested we start our own, after having worked together for several years. Natalie and I agreed. If we were sorry to see the bookstores leave, then we would have to be the ones to bring them back. The people of Queens deserved a place to comfortably interact with books that wasn’t the internet - a place that could foster a sense of community or belonging. Together we formed The Queens Bookshop Initiative, rallied the neighborhoods behind us, and set to work bringing a new independent bookstore to the borough.

Since then we’ve met some of the most amazing people (a little nine year old boy in a park that told us owning books was better for the economy than borrowing them, small business owners eager to let us use their cafes for meet ups and markets, and fellow booksellers that are driving the industry). We’ve also heard some of the harshest criticism (e-readers are taking over the world, Amazon will eat us alive, people don’t actually read anymore...) What really drives me now is a desire to give our supporters what they’ve dreamed of and to prove our critics wrong. Also, books are great? Technologies and markets come and go, but books never need to change.

Kate: Do you have any (other) creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)? (If you have photos/links/examples to share, that would be great.)

Vina: Besides reading and film photography, another hobby that has proven to be very useful in this venture is knowing my way around Photoshop. Designing and creating flyers for any of our events, or for announcements we’ve had throughout has been unexpectedly fun and an area I wouldn’t have thought twice about beforehand.

Natalie: I dabble in a lot of random things. I enjoy watercoloring, writing poetry, and Holly never has to try to convince me to craft with her. I think any work you do creatively fuels your soul and gives you a fresh and dynamic look at the work you are also doing professionally.

Holly: Outside of reading? Photography (cameras as technology are fascinating) paper crafting (card making, origami, quilling). I’m not sure if they influence the running of a bookstore, but they certainly make me excited for all the beautiful table and window displays we can set up.

Natalie at the LIC Flea
Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Vina: Personally, my shyness can be at times crippling, but when it comes to our bookstore I have found that whenever we are approached with someone who thinks “physical books are dead/ebooks are taking over,” all my shyness is cast aside and I have a huge need to prove those people wrong. Books offer an experience that cannot be replicated, no matter how many apps or devices try to emulate them. The sense of accomplishment of turning the last page of a book? The atmosphere, their aroma, and the presence they have on a bookshelf? I could go on and on!

Natalie: Actually trying to live out your dream can be terrifying and challenging. When you've thought about doing something for so many years it can become a fantasy in your head to the point where you don't think it's really happening even when it really is. It’s given me a nearly constant fear that the floor will fall out from under me, that someone will sweep in and tell us “Just kidding. You aren't actually doing this.” But the community's faith and interest in our project has definitely kept me afloat. As well as the trust I have in my partners’ abilities and knowledge.

Holly: Trusting that I’m smart enough to succeed. I second guess myself, a lot. That and fighting the narrative that books are an archaic, dying medium.

Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Natalie: In my personal life, I've definitely had instances where I've been thrown to the ground and had to drag myself back up again. But with the bookstore, I don't feel like we’ve ever truly stopped moving forward. When we found locations that didn't work, we moved on to the next. When someone told us no, we asked someone else. When our feet dragged, we carried each other. We haven't bounced back because we haven't stopped moving forward.

Holly and Vina at BookExpo America
Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten? Or Tell us something that makes you proud.

Vina: I feel the most proud when fellow businesswoman say “I love what you are doing.” I can’t express how thankful I am and how much that means to me, their support has been consistent from the start. As women, most of the time we have to rely on one another, safe to say they haven’t turned their backs on us and they always have advice and offer a helping hand.

Natalie: I think we can all agree that it warms our hearts and gives us such encouragement when people tell us they can't wait to come to our store, and when people tell us that we are doing an important thing for our community. A friend of mine told me just the other day that this project will genuinely positively impact our community and that we were doing something that really mattered. It was so heartening to hear that from someone outside of this.

Holly: We got to meet the author Louise Penny and when she found out what we were doing she took my hands in hers and said “You are my heroes.”

Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work? 

Vina: I distinctly remember right before we launched our Kickstarter, we met up at a cafe to brainstorm our campaign and right next to us were about 4-5 men seated and they happened to overhear us. They then proceed to tell us “how we should do this” or ways they think we haven’t thought through our approach… It hit me not only how basic their advice was but how they were wary of our success as such “young women.” Months later I hope they saw that we did achieve what we worked so hard for and that our gender didn’t hinder our success. I can only continue to hope that even under our current political climate, women everywhere have that same chance to prove what they can accomplish.

Holly: There was never that “ah-ha” moment of understanding feminism for me. As an only child to a single mother, the expectation of respect and equality, regardless of gender, was the norm for me. It wasn’t until I was older, probably college, when questions started to begin with “How does it feel to be a woman in ___” that an understanding of feminism started to creep in. That understanding is still creeping and evolving in my mind. I don’t think it’ll ever galvanize; it will always be a changing, growing thing. That being said, if the idea of being a woman opening a business and promoting literacy in a community is seen as feminist inspiration to some, I’ll gladly wear that badge.

Natalie: I feel like feminism was something that has always been a part of who I am whether I had a name for it or not. Every woman has experienced those little (and sometimes very big) moments when someone says that you can't do something, that you shouldn’t do something because you're a woman or because you're from here or you believe in this. And it’s how you react to those moments that define you, not the moments themselves and certainly not whatever label someone puts on you. Sometimes people have come to us and said that we are not capable of the work we are trying to do, that we have no idea what we're talking about because we're just a bunch of girls. At that point, it's just a matter of saying "Yes, we’re girls, we’re women and we are still going to kick this project in the ass no matter what you say."

Kate: Who are some other badass ladies we need to know & why?

TQB: Audrey Dimola is currently the Director of Public Programs at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City. From the moment we started our endeavor, Audrey introduced herself and just brought this intense light and energy with her. She’s a poet and artist and has a love for her neighborhood like no other. We’ve partnered up with her several times and in doing so we’ve had the pleasure to witness her find a calling with Socrates and find an outlet for her creativity and drive that really benefits her community. She’s definitely been an inspiration to us. Plus she gives really genuine hugs.

Lightning round: Tell us what you’re…    

reading: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Thanks Obama! I picked it up after he chose it as one of his favorite reads)
watching: Veep!
listening to: The xx’s new album I See You
eating: currently obsessed with grapefruits.
doing: working
wearing: all black
wishing for: our bookstore to open soon!
wanting: again, to open our doors.
loving: that I will soon be reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, I’ve heard nothing but great things
other: I feel really happy that we are part of this series!

reading: Red Rising by Pierce Brown and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
watching: Arrow
listening to: Hollow by Tori Kelly on repeat
eating: pizza
doing: waiting through jury duty
wearing: still winter wear, unfortunately
wishing for: spring time and our bookstore
wanting: a good long nap
loving: my dog, Kaylee, always
other: I've never eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my life

reading: The Melancholy of Mechagirl by Catherynne M. Valente
watching: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju (anime, go figure)
listening to: Hamilton (on loop)
eating: a lot of oranges lately
doing: filling out interview questions
wearing: my trusty green cardigan
wishing for: the final piece of financing to go through for the shop
wanting: to see our doors finally open
loving: the graphic novel The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg... it’s so good.
other: My favorite word is “doodle”. Really it's the oodle sound.

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Vina: I think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it best: “I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be.” A mantra we should all live by.

Natalie: Just keep on being your badass self and don't stop doing whatever makes you happy and helps your community.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Vina: Applaud their successes. If you have a platform, spread the word as a way to help.

Holly: Trust them. Ask them questions to learn from them. Expect great things from them.

Natalie: First of all, shop local lady-owned businesses. Second, never ever doubt the capabilities of a person because of their gender. Third, don't stand for the crap you see other people do to women, whether it's someone you know or a stranger. We have to lift each other up because we are all living in the same world.


Bios for the ladies behind The Queens Bookshop:

Vina Castillo: 4 years of bookselling/managerial experience (Barnes & Noble). BA in Literature and Publishing. You will find on her bookshelf: literary fiction, classics, children's/YA, and four different editions of the Harry Potter series.  Proud Queens resident! Serial music festival go-er, and bitten by the travel bug.

Natalie Noboa: 5 years of bookselling/managerial experience (Books-A-Million, Borders, Barnes & Noble). Lifetime Queens resident. Graduated from Queens College in Secondary English Education with two years at Baruch College for business. You will find on her bookshelf: science fiction, fantasy, an exorbitant amount of YA, memoir, humor, and an accidentally large collection from The Norton Anthology. Loves giraffes and puppies.

Holly Nikodem: 2 years as bookstore manager, 10 years in retail management with experience in event planning and niche markets. BA in Print Communication. You will find on her bookshelf: House of Leaves, Bone Clocks, and Brave New World. But also ALL the graphic novels, ALL the manga.

For more about The Queens Bookshop, visit their website or follow on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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March 22, 2017

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Alice Driver

Kate Hart
Alice Driver making a film in Juarez - photo credit Julián Cardona
In January, I got to interview sommelier Rachel Speckan, an old friend from high school. Her family must have some killer genes, because this month I have the honor of profiling her cousin, Dr. Alice Driver, a photojournalist whose work I've admired for a long time. Alice uses her prodigious talents to benefit marginalized populations, fight for intersectional feminism, and shine a light on injustice at a time when doing so is becoming more dangerous by the day.


The cover of More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico (University of Arizona 2015) by Alice Driver
Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Alice: I have two fellowships to support my current writing and photography projects on Central American migrants traveling through Mexico, a Restorative Narrative Fellowship from Images of Voices and Hope and a Foreign Policy Interrupted Fellowship. At a time when the United States has embraced particularly hateful, vitriolic rhetoric against immigrants with a focus on Mexico, I feel that it is essential for me to use my photography and bilingual writing skills to tell narratives that highlight the strength, resilience and humanity of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. My project will take me to migrant shelters in Juarez, Oaxaca, and Tapachula, Mexico where I will focus on telling the stories of women and transgender migrants.

Kate: Do you have any (other) creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)? 

Alice: At any given time, I am juggling several creative projects. If anything, the difficulty for me is that I want to turn everything in my life into a project. I am working on a co-authored book about the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi with Civil Rights leader Mary King, and I recently translated a book by Mexican journalist Julián Cardona into English. I would like to make another short documentary if I can raise the funds.

black and white portrait of Alice Driver by Sung Park
Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Alice: The biggest challenge is balancing my creative life and making money.

Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Alice: I fail all the time – freelance writing is 99% rejection. For every fellowship I’ve gotten, I’ve been rejected from 30. Learning not to take rejection personally has been a difficult but important lesson. And keep doing the work, because the work is what matters.

Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten? 

Alice: Poet Nikky Finney, who was my professor in college in 2001, wrote me in 2015, "So much of the world needs the muscle found in true words. Please keep sending what your head and belly make as one loaf."

"Muerte el macho" street art in Mexico City - photo by Alice Driver
Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work?

Alice: I was raised a feminist. My mom has always been outspoken about social justice issues, and she is funny and a real force to reckon with. The injustice of daily life moves me to continue my feminist work, because I see how women I know, including myself, are marginalized and discredited, as well as paid less than their male colleagues.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Alice: I believe that rising tide lift all boats, and I try to support other women by celebrating their work and their lives. In practical terms, I interview women, recommend them as experts, share their work, and try to increase the participation and visibility of women in my field.

KateLightning round -- tell us what you’re…    

reading: I’m reading The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan and The Heart of the Artichoke by Elena Poniatowska (who, coincidentally, I met in Mexico City recently)
watching: Samantha Bee
listening to: Julie Byrne
eating:  Gorditas, tacos, mamey milkshakes
wearing: Superman converse (Wonder Woman was sold out)
wishing for: equality
wanting: to collaborate on more projects with photographers and videographers who I admire
loving: Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer

Alice Driver fly fishing on assignment - Mulberry River, Oark, Arkansas
Kate: Who are some other badass ladies we need to know & why? 

Alice: Roxane Gay is one of my favorite writers, both for how genuine she is and how open and funny.

Elizabeth Plank is a media goddess – brilliant, funny and she does a lot of good work supporting disability rights.

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Alice: Do the work and be persistent. Don’t overthink.


Badass Ladies You Should Know logo
Dr. Alice Driver is a bilingual photojournalist based in Mexico City. Driver received a 2017 Images and Voices of Hope Restorative Narrative Fellowship to support her work on a project about women and transgender migrants in Mexico, and she is also a 2017 Foreign Policy Interrupted Fellow.

She is the author of More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico (University of Arizona 2015), a book which she completed as part of her postdoctoral fellowship at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City.

Driver's writing and documentary photography have been featured in The New York Times, Oxford American, National Geographic, The World Policy Journal, The Guardian, The Texas Observer, Al Jazeera English, Pacific Standard, and Ms. Magazine. She has interviewed and/or worked with foreign policy analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter, actress Lena Dunham, chef Andrew Zimmern, novelist NoViolet Bulawayo, and Emmy-winning writer Moira Walley-Beckett. She has a forthcoming book chapter on Mexico with Oxford University Press.

twitter  //  facebook  //  instagram

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February 8, 2017

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Jen Baquial

Kate Hart
My fiancée (KT Ballantine, current Sirens Vice President) and I during the moment of silence before NYC Pride March 2016, Orlando was at the front of all of our minds during that time."
Remember that article that went viral a few months ago, about the motorcycle gang that delivers breast milk in NYC? Everyone from the New York Post to the New York Times covered the Sirens Women's Motorcycle Club of New York City -- and it just so happens that their president, Jen Baquial, is an Arkansas native and a friend of another Badass Lady, actress Ashley Atkinson.

One Facebook connection later and I get the honor of sharing this in-depth look at how Jen went from life in Little Rock to leading such a badass group.

Group club shot out at Floyd Bennett Field where we practice before riding season officially kicks off, Mojo present that day

Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Jen:  The job that pays the bills is industrial automation and electrical engineering.  My mother would describe me as the kid who always took things apart to see how they work, and that curiosity definitely led me to my engineering career today.

My greatest passion in life right now, though, and what I am most proud of is being president of the Sirens Women’s Motorcycle Club of New York City, an organization that has a 30 year herstory in New York City leading the NYC Pride March.  It has been my goal to grow the club’s membership and focus on community service.  I really believe that even though we are a small group, every little bit of service we can do is totally worth it.  I always try to stress that we should help in the areas that we care about the most, and so any member or pledge that notices a need somewhere can bring it to the club and we do whatever we can to help.  Whether it’s delivering donor breast milk from the New York Milk Bank to a NICU or collecting clothing for local people in need or mentoring a woman who wants to learn to ride a motorcycle, the Sirens will try to find ways to support and strengthen women in our community.  Riding our motorcycles together gives us immense joy, but doing service in the community together gives us greater purpose.

"My friend and current Sirens Treasurer, Kim Wetzel, and I at NYC Pride March"
Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Jen:  Professionally, my biggest challenge has always been “sitting at the table” with men and having to skillfully be assertive without being perceived as pushy or bossy.  I’ve had many encounters with men in the field and in the office where my knowledge or skillset has been questioned or challenged for no other reason, at least that I feel, other than the fact that I am a woman.  I’m not afraid of admitting that my own insecurity can play a part in this, but I often think how I would be perceived if I were a man or a more feminine presenting woman.  Being an assertive woman doesn’t play out in the same way that being an assertive man does, and I work hard to navigate professional confrontations so as not to jeopardize project success.

I think this is why I cherish my work with the Sirens so much.  I never have to feel that sort of pressure in the club.  We are a family, and we empower each other in a way that isn’t full of gendered expectations or insecurities.  We do interact with male motorcyclists in the community and also have moments where we are challenged in the community at large, but as a group we strengthen and empower each other.  That fuels our confidence in the way we ride, the way we carry ourselves, and ultimately the way we are respected by other motorcyclists in general.

Sirens colors
Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Jen:  Life in my early twenties was particularly difficult for me. That internal struggle I was talking about gripped me so hard that I dropped out of college and fell into a drug addiction.  There were so many times I would think, this would all be easier if I just floated away.  One morning after a long night of not sleeping, I looked in the mirror at myself and said, “Okay, not today.  I won’t let myself go like this.”  I left town and got clean on my own cold turkey.  Five years after being sober, I had enough strength to finally come out to my parents.  It was the hardest moment of my life, but it felt like I had suddenly gotten rid of 10 tons of bricks I had been carrying on my back since I was a kid.  In that moment, I knew I had to be prepared for however my parents would react.  I’m not going to say it was beautiful and amazing, but I am lucky it wasn’t as bad as I know it has been for others.  I love my parents, and I know they love me.  I respect them enough to give them the time they need to figure out their feelings.  Will they attend my wedding?  I’m not 100% sure they are ready for that, and I’m okay with it.  It’s hard to say what they have a harder time with, me being a lesbian or me riding a motorcycle, haha!

"My funny attempt at a pinup shot on my motorcycle.  See how I coquettishly hide my face behind my helmet?  Hahah!"
Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten? Or Tell us something that makes you proud.

Jen:  I think I’m pretty normal, like most people, and find compliments hard to take and respond to.  Honestly, my favorite compliments come from little girls.  When a child sees me and says things like, “Wow, you ride that motorcycle?” and look at me like they are logging in their mind that they can do it too someday, that makes me so happy.  I have a niece that said to me one time, “Aunt Jen, I like you because you wear whatever you like and you don’t care if it’s supposed to be boys’ clothes.”  I explained to her that the idea of boys and girls clothes don’t make a whole lot of sense to me and that people should wear whatever makes them feel good.  The smile on her face as I handed her a child size leather motorcycle vest for her birthday was totally priceless.

Group club shot from Babes Ride Out East Coast, an all women motorcycle camping event
Kate: What's your best experience on a motorcycle?

Jen: In June of 2010 I got laid off of my job at Anheuser-Busch.  I figured I needed a little life reset, so I took 3 months on the road with my dog Mojo (he has a special seat he rides in) and traveled back and forth across the country on my Harley.  It was the ultimate freedom.  I stopped all over the country and visited friends from every time in my life.  Being alone, well aside from Mojo, on the open road gave me time to reflect on what’s important in life and breathe knowing that everything I experienced up to that point just made me who I am and I love that woman.  I ended up making Brooklyn my landing point at the end of my journey, and I knew at that I had found home.  I have so many stories from that trip.  If I was a writer, I’d have a book.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Jen:  Mentor, employ, and engage.

Kate: Who are some other badass ladies we need to know & why? 

Jen:  All of my Siren sisters are badass ladies!


US only

Jen's bio:
I grew up in Little Rock, AR, the daughter of Filipino immigrants.  My parents taught me that hard work and respect would get me far.  I was raised in the Roman Catholic faith and internally struggled with my identity throughout my entire childhood.  It’s not an easy thing to be indirectly told by all of your adult influences that who you are inside is wrong.  It fueled a lot of low self-esteem issues for me as a child, so it made sense that all I could do was bury myself in academics and sports to find other ways to gain approval and hide who I knew I was inside.  If the child I was then knew that I could be a part of a group like the Sirens Women’s Motorcycle Club of New York City, my days and nights would have been a whole lot easier.  I am proud of all of my academic and professional accomplishments, but I am most proud of having finally found a way to be comfortable in my own skin and love who I am inside and out.  That was a 35 year project, haha!  Anyway, I’ve been in the engineering industry for 10 years and have been motorcycling, at least legally, for about that long.

Sirens website  //  Sirens Facebook

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January 24, 2017

The Big Day and a Big Chance

Kate Hart

Today's the day! After seven years of work, After the Fall finally hits shelves. I'm sure there are lots of wise and pithy things I could say about the process, the book itself, and my hopes for the future, but to be honest, my brain is mostly taken up with a high pitched whirring noise and the occasional realization that I forgot to buy plates for my launch party.

If by chance you are in the vicinity of Fayetteville, Arkansas, I'd love to see you said launch party: 6pm at Nightbird Books on Dickson Street. If you have a chance to mention the book on social media today, it'd be much appreciated. But most importantly: Some dear friends have joined forces to turn my release day into a chance to do good. They'll be matching donations to RAINN up to $4000, giving us a chance to raise at least $8000 for sexual assault survivors!

Just go to and make your contribution, and at the end of the day, the ladies listed on that page will double the total (up to the $4K limit). If you can't contribute but still want to help, signal boost the fundraiser using the hashtag #afterthefall and share some of your favorite feminist reads. Every bit helps.

 As for the book itself, you can find it all the usual places:
amazon  //  barnes & noble  //  booksamillion  //  indiebound  //  nightbird books (signed copies available)

Thank you so much for your support, today and over the past half a decade or so, and for helping to fight against rape culture and sexual assault.

January 19, 2017

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Rachel Speckan

Kate Hart
One of the best things about the Badass Ladies series is learning about fields I know nothing of. Today, I'm happy to feature Rachel Speckan, a Chicago sommelier and a friend of mine since our high school literary magazine days. Rachel is one of a growing group of women wine experts in a field traditionally dominated by men,  a challenging career that she balances with the care of two small children and a fierce Ultimate Frisbee game.


rachel speckan holding a bottle of wine
Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Rachel: Madness. But, I thrive in the energy of the frenzy and the busy.

Professionally, I am six months into a new position, which brings projections, reviews, and evaluation. Stepping into the role of National Beverage Director with City Winery has launched my career responsibilities to cover all current locations and be present in the planning and implementation of openings. I have been traveling often and keeping a finger on the vibrant pulse of each location, coordinating with local teams and national contacts and partners, alike.

Personally, I am literally expecting a new (second) baby any moment and we just relocated to a new home in a new town. [editor's note: new baby is here; she and Rachel are both doing well!]

Balancing work, home, fun and health is a constant battle. But, I am passionate about all of the endeavors.

I thoroughly believe that the nature of my childhood in the landscape of rural Arkansas and a deep connection to education has been a driving force throughout my life path. I relish in creating and savoring experiences that integrate culture, food, wine and people.

rachel hiking with son in back carrier
Kate: Do you have any (other) creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)? 

Rachel: Playing competitive sports is my creative outlet. Although my participation in organized athletics and contact sports is fairly limited currently, I really love the connection to the team, game strategy and physical endurance.

Outdoor adventures, when I am able to partake, are also a refreshing and exciting outlet for myself and the family!

Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Rachel: I struggle, hard, against taking a moment to breathe. Relaxing is honestly a real problem for me. This affects both work and home. I am always pushing harder, further, faster. Literally, I have to force myself to slow down and enjoy doing nothing, not making a plan, putting down the list and being unorganized. I am constantly filling the calendar with commitments in hopes of creating more opportunities, better experiences, and deeper connections. However, I am truly working on slowing down, focusing, and being comfortable relaxing. Relying upon the village of friends and family to nurture and support me!

Rachel's advanced sommelier certificateKate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Rachel: An important component of my career in wine has been my involvement in both educating and learning about wine. I have been immersed in the pursuit of the ‘pin,’ or, rather, higher education in sales and service through the Court of Master Sommeliers for the past several years. This program is an intensive evaluation in all aspects of the beverage and service industry. The standards are ever evolving and the margin for error is slim. Preparation is required and constant studying in theory, tasting and practical service dictate success. Style, grace, and personal composure are also key components.

I have dedicated years to learning, educating, mentoring, and challenging myself through the system. Each step is exponentially more difficult and demanding than the preceding. Each attempt at each level is an incredible experience bound up in confidence and anxiety, preparation and pleasure and pain, successes and subsequent failures.

Following a failed attempt at sitting the Advanced Exam in Portland in 2015, I threw myself full force into deeper study, more intense education, more tasting, Skype sessions, larger scope of mentoring and an expanded network of mentors. With the perspective of gaining experience and becoming a stronger beverage professional, learning from failure and really looking squarely at my particular areas of weakness and honing in on pursuing and probing the soft spots, I sat the exam again in Portland in early 2016. The process was exhausting and exhilarating and ultimately successful. I was trembling and terrified the entire way through, but projected confidence, cool, and savvy for the winepin win at the end of the process.

Through a brief bout of tears and angst sprung strength and fierceness. I became a better sommelier, wine educator and beverage director through the process and experience. This failure was part of the success.

Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten?

Rachel: Unfortunately, I do not take compliments well. I often deflect or simply do not know how to truly accept a compliment. However, what has filled up my cup with happiness recently is sincere feedback that I have played a pivotal role in the direct professional success of other individuals...and that I am a valued mentor and friend.

rachel in a sunny vineyard Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work? 

Rachel: I am not certain that I made a conscious decision to be a feminist. The entire concept seems like a given to me, and, I have lived my life as such. I believe this is directly related to my upbringing and strong women leaders in my personal and professional life.

I realize, now, though, the consistent and steady dedication to feminism that is required in my everyday endeavors. Professionally, I have faced issues with being labeled as aggressive or coming on too strongly, experienced being talked over or interrupted, watched as promotions were rewarded or compensation unevenly distributed. This has certainly galvanized my understanding and commitment toward a balanced and fair approach toward others and strength in my behavior and altered (many times) the direction of my chosen path.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Rachel: I have thus created a supportive network for mentoring women specifically and fostering an environment that is uplifting, composed of men and women that are mutually respectful, lift each other up, challenge each other in healthy ways, and push forward together. I suppose that I have cultivated a reputation for hiring, developing and fostering women wine professionals and serious women’s ultimate athletes. My approach is to create a challenging environment that encourages women to develop skills, maximize assets while minimizing (and addressing) weaknesses, and reach for higher, further, more ambitious end goals.

Kate: Who are some badass ladies we need to know? 


Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Rachel: Celebrate the experience! Embrace madness. Let others help you, but, share your strength. Never stop learning. Never stop teaching. And, simply ROCK it.


badass ladies you should know logo
Rachel Speckan is the National Wine Director at City Winery. After many years immersed in the industry of all things boozy, Rachel is thoroughly dedicated to being the ultimate wine geek, with a good dose of sales savvy and super polished service and etiquette. She has traveled extensively, collecting vineyard rocks, eating local specialties, and drinking wine around the world in all the places.

With a special place in her heart for edgy California winemakers, dusty Italian reds, lush and stony Savennieres, and funky American microbrews, Rachel brings a dynamic, delicious, and well balanced professional approach. Rachel is incessantly drinking wine, talking about drinking, encouraging others to drink, teaching about drinking, writing about drinking and eating adventures, drinking, tasting, researching, and talking about drinking. Although she dabbles in a wide spectrum of captivating and experimental beverage, Rachel's true love is traditional, and, yet innovative wines with character. She is thrilled to work in a functional winery setting, rock out with musicians, but also teach courses and host wildly exciting wine events at City Winery!

She is deeply entrenched in research and training in the Court of Master Sommeliers, as well as holding an Advanced Certificate from the WSET, and is also involved with the Cicerone Certification Program.

To throw it way back, Rachel grew up on a farm in Arkansas, with serious roots to the land and sense of place. She continues to search out and align with winemakers, athletes, and all the folks that share a similar vision. Rachel holds a Master's degree from the University of Chicago, and, as a cultural anthropologist by educational training and curious by disposition, she is on a mission to research and taste all things fermented and, in turn, share the love and knowledge with fellow wine lovers, explore and approach challenges with relish and fervor!


other interviews with Rachel:
sommtalks  //  chicagoist  //  timeout  //  fooditor  //  chicago tribune

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