B.E. Next of the Year: Heritage Link Brands
The B.E. Next Award is presented to the fearless young entrepreneur age 21-35 tapped to be a future business leader.
Heritage Link Brands LLC’s mission is “to showcase the very best wines from Africa and the African Diaspora in terms of the finished product, the sustainability of the value chain, and how the environment and employees are treated throughout the harvesting process,” says Selena Cuffe, co-founder and CEO. And this isn’t a cursory nod to going green, but a deeply held commitment to helping indigenous African vintners market quality wines abroad. The company’s direct and indirect efforts have certainly paid off.
With the U.S. economy in a slump, the Los Angeles, California-based Heritage Link Brands LLC still raked in revenues of $1.2 million in 2008, up from just $42,000 the year before. With $1.6 million in sales projected for this year, the African wine importer with just eight employees is poised to turn a profit well ahead of the six-year wine industry standard. Cuffe, 33—who runs the business alongside her husband Khary, 30—credits its African connection, respect for nature and humanity, and the audacity of hope with fueling its success. “Don’t think small,” she advises, “because if you don’t think small you’ll wake up one day and you’ll be big.”
And let’s not forget taste. Cuffe says environmentally friendly farming methods allow the wines she imports to retain more of the distinctive qualities of the soil where the grapes were grown. With the Cuffes’ help, black-owned, family-owned wine producers that struggle to gain wide distribution in post-apartheid South Africa can export its wine. In the U.S., retailers such as Whole Foods, Albertsons and Jewel Osco, and restaurants at Disneyland carry some of these brands.
Surprisingly, Cuffe doesn’t refer to Heritage Link Brands as a social enterprise. “That’s a label that others place on what we do,” she explains. “It’s not a thought that comes across our minds. My training is really about how to run a successful business and how to get the most profit you can out of something. People label the tenets upon which I live my life ‘socially conscious’ but it’s just the core of who I am. I want to do things that are taking things to the next level in a way that touches me.”
Why is Heritage Links the best company in its field?
We don’t look at the company as a wine importer and distributor. It’s about more than the wine; [it’s about] the brands, the families, and the people.
In these trying times, what do you think sets Heritage Links apart from competitors?
Our business is a family business so whatever decisions we make have to be made with the best interest of my family and those we work with. What we’re able to do and how we’re able to make an impact with this business only matters in as much as the people here and on the continent are able to be successful and thrive. It’s about the people and telling their stories to the masses.
Do you have any words of advice for people who are also thinking about starting businesses?
If you’re not happy and it’s not driving you, you owe it yourself to find out what that is that does drive you so that you can be happy.
What can Black Enterprise readers learn from you?
Any good wine has to be pruned–planted in rocky soil, the vine struggles to survive and create a beautiful grape that makes great wine. So, when there is an obstacle placed in front of you, know that if you look at these challenges as you being pruned you’ll become a stronger, better company.
Heritage Link Brands LLC
Type of business: Wine importer and distributor
Co-founder/CEO: Selena Cuffe
Co-founder/CFO: Khary Cuffe
Location: Los Angeles