Jeri Hardin: Free Spirit
How one wrong turn led to a wake up call, and a calling to become an entrepreneur.
Houston-based entrepreneur Jeri Hardin has launched a unique product: Blaque Rain Vodka. The gluten-free, 80 proof spirit is the latest venture of Hardin, an out and proud lesbian who has also had careers in oil and gas and in real estate. In spite of being incarcerated briefly for what she describes as a white-collar error of judgment, Hardin bounced back, determined to give back and to be her best business self. Curve chatted with Hardin about what it takes to find pride in oneself in all aspects of life, and how to be a successful lesbian in business.
You are very honest about your recent and brief incarceration. Moving forward, how might you sum that situation up now?
Just that, a situation. I would say it was an enlightening chapter in my life. I made a poor decision to do something out of being stupid, and then I accepted responsibility to change my life. It is a chapter in a book that is still being written.
What did you learn from being incarcerated and how did the experience change you?
I really learned a lot. For one, I learned how to pray in prison. That probably sounds silly since I was raised in the Church, but so very true. I learned to value the simplicity of life and things in general. Some people really need a second chance and I met some really wonderful people during that time.
For me the experience slowed me down. I was on a fast track going nowhere. I am now able to truly cherish the people who held me down and kept me grounded, even now as I transition back to real life. I am much more grateful for the little things now.
There are certainly not enough lesbians in business. What is your basic mindset to becoming a successful entrepreneur, especially if one has humble beginnings or limited resources?
At first, to me, success seemed to be elusive, like there was some secret to achieving it. But as I think more about it, success is built day by day like any other goal, until the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
I've read Rockefeller, The Hiltons, Madam C.J. Walker and Steve Jobs twice. I was always impressed by their beginnings. My brother told me the other day, “You could have been a millionaire twice over. In the ‘90s I started a computer business called System Graphic Computers. I built tower PCs in my garage. The Indianapolis Recorder wrote an article about it and my brother told me that he still has the paper.
The easy part is the steps to starting a business and I speak about those steps in my ebook Quick Start that is now out on iTunes and Amazon. The hard part was becoming comfortable with who I really was and connecting that to owning my own company. I decided to stay true to my lifestyle, and create a product that people wanted and could relate to. I worked at displaying complete professionalism and when most people respect you they will look past that you could be a lesbian and do business with you. My mindset has always been to kill them with knowledge, confidence, and class to the point that my lifestyle does not matter. The focus is on the product. I give firm handshakes and I look people directly in the eye especially when negotiating. I think that it is important to really understand what it is you are marketing. Know your business.
I always have a mindset that what I am doing is the best. My businesses are the best. Blaque Rain Vodka is the World’s Greatest Vodka. When you believe it…it just is!
Blaque Rain vodka! Tell us exactly the light bulb moment that led you to create this liquor.
In 2010 I wanted to open a liquor store, I could not get any backers. But as I researched the industry I decided to focus on a brand. I called around 15 distilleries all over the country and was shot down almost immediately. But one day I got a hold of one distillery and they were so open to allowing me to negotiate a deal with them. We developed a relationship and now they are with me 100 percent in producing an award-winning vodka. They have really taken me under their wings.
In a market that is crowded with boutique vodka brands, how is yours different?
I was going crazy hearing about all of the people creating spirits and at one point even stopped reading magazines because everybody was jumping on the Private Label bandwagon. At one point I was very discouraged because when I started, it wasn’t as popular to produce your own label by celebrities other than Jay Z with d’usse’ or P Diddy with Ciroc. My daughter, who is the VP of the company, told me, “Don’t worry about what they are doing, keep your focus on our product. It speaks for itself.”
Blaque Rain Vodka – the unisex liquor. 80 proof, corn based, so it is gluten free, and distilled 5 times.The brand logo is a circle with a family crest. No #07 is my birthday. I got the concept from my one of my favorite colognes, bond #9. The bottle is simple and sexy.The production process has been extremely fun, to be quite honest. Since we just dove right into this business, we literally are learning new things about this industry every single day.
What is the appeal of the product for women and lesbians?
Women typically select a spirit by how it looks and men typically go for the taste. So I decided to do much like what cologne or fragrance does with its unisex products. The sweetness from the corn hits your palate first then within seconds you feel the bite of the 80 proof. This vodka is so smooth, so good, so sexy.We plan to focus on non-traditional markets that cater to alternative lifestyle. We will be looking for a transgender female to model in one of our ads. I would like to sponsor a fundraiser event that will give donations to individuals released to halfway houses in need of mobile phones, toiletries, and other basic needs.Those are just a few examples that help us stand out above other spirits on the market.
Where can Curve readers find Blaque Rain Vodka?
Well if they are in Houston—and I know there are lots of Curve readers in Houston—come to a tasting. We are hoping to have BRv on shelves in liquor stores and bars by the summer of 2017.
What other projects are you involved in?
I was recently asked and am in talks with the WMLBA to be the premier vodka for their league.
WMLBA, also known as Women's Minor League Basketball Association, is a Texas based, for-profit LLC minor professional basketball league that affords professional players, coaches, and executives opportunities not often available at the minor league level. The WMLBA was founded in 2015 as an off-season international professional tour league.
WMLBA’s Mission Statement is: “to develop women of excellence by taking their craft to the highest level of performance.” The inaugural season for the league will be October 2016
What does Pride mean to you?
I have Houston Pride. I have been here for almost 20 years by way of Indianapolis. I am a fan of Screw music. I love my city. My Black Pride is who I am to the bone. Lesbian Pride is my lifestyle. It’s important to be true to who I am, true to myself. Some people don’t like labels. I don’t care. Pick one of them as long as you identify or associate any one of the above labels to me with positivity, I am good with it.
I don’t know about Prison Pride (laughs). ls that some Orange Is the New Black tagline? I know I am proud to be home.
BRv will have a table at VLive Houston every Wednesday during June.
BRv will be featured at the Tipsy Dessert Festival on July 17.
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