Uncle Nearest , whiskey, fawn weaver, barriers business

Breaking Barriers In Business: How A Black Woman Raised $230M And Built A Billion-Dollar Company By Defying 7 Common Myths

It shouldn’t be surprising that Uncle Nearest was considered a very high-stakes venture, and every venture capital, private equity company, celebrity, and well-known athlete I pitched initially passed on the opportunity.

Written by Fawn Weaver

At the inception of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey in 2017, before it became the world’s most-awarded Bourbon for 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023, and before Nearest Green Distillery grew to become the world’s 7th most visited and fastest-growing distillery, I faced the colossal task of raising capital to build what is now a more than $1 billion company. It shouldn’t be surprising that Uncle Nearest was considered a very high-stakes venture, and every venture capital, private equity company, celebrity, and well-known athlete I pitched initially passed on the opportunity.

The story of Uncle Nearest is intimately entwined with that of Jack Daniel’s, arguably the most ubiquitous American spirit brand in history. Despite this connection, Jack Daniel’s and its $30 billion parent company, have never held an ownership stake in Uncle Nearest. To potential investors, this lack of financial ties meant that we could be seen as competitors by this industry giant, even as a burgeoning startup, causing them to point their arsenal at stopping us.

Additionally, the landscape of the spirits industry, particularly regarding Black entrepreneurship, has always been challenging. Before Uncle Nearest, there had never been a successful Black-founded spirit brand. Uncle Nearest stands out as the first and only Black-owned brand in the spirits sector that was founded and is led solely by a Black individual holding a majority controlling interest. This distinction underscores the groundbreaking and unprecedented nature of our journey and the barriers we have worked to overcome in an industry where such success stories have been non-existent.

Raising capital is often the most daunting challenge for Black or woman-owned startups, and my journey with Uncle Nearest was no exception. In the early days, my expertise in fundraising was limited, and my professional network was small. I faced the additional hurdles of navigating trademark opposition and leading in an industry not typically accustomed to female leadership. Despite these challenges and without access to the influential ‘rooms’ often considered crucial for success, my conviction in my leadership and our brand’s potential never wavered. I remained steadfast, committed to overcoming every obstacle.

Raising the $230 million needed to grow Uncle Nearest into a company valued at over $1 billion, and to secure the more than $50 million required to build out the 423-acre Nearest Green Distillery, and the more than $30 million to buy and renovate the historic Domaine Saint Martin, along with the largest Grande Champagne Vineyard in Cognac, France—the namesake of the small region where all of the world’s Cognac must be produced—for the development of a second company, required dispelling seven pervasive myths. The common belief that obtaining capital for startups like mine is an insurmountable hurdle was a reality I had to confront head-on. My unwavering belief in my leadership, life partner, team, and vision behind our company was the driving force that propelled me through these challenges, transforming Uncle Nearest, Inc. into the success story it is today.

Thanks to the connections of my husband of 20 years, Keith Weaver, we successfully completed a Seed Series round of $3 million. His former boss’s belief in our vision was instrumental in this success. While the Seed Series was beneficial, those funds could only take us so far. We knew that we would need to raise more capital within our first year. The experience and lessons learned from that first round of fundraising were crucial in shaping all subsequent rounds.

Every person involved in that round was connected to Keith’s former boss. They believed in us because he was unwavering in his belief in us. I learned an important lesson that would repeatedly manifest throughout my fundraising journey: There are no lone investors. More than 95% of the investors in Uncle Nearest have been referred by another investor. Starting with just one investor in 2016, thanks to our CFO, our longtime business attorney, and the invaluable support of the lead investor in our Series A, we had over 170 by the end of 2022, each contributing to elevating this company to unparalleled heights. Early on, I named our investment group the Sixth Man, a name that persists to this day. Aware that our funds would be limited, I knew we could only hire a certain number of people to promote Uncle Nearest. However, by assembling an enthusiastic coalition of investors, they effectively became our sales team, our Sixth Man. This strategy is partly why Uncle Nearest is featured in an unprecedented number of national accounts, on some of the most prestigious golf courses, and in some of the most exclusive lounges and hard-to-reserve restaurants. Our Sixth Man made this possible.

In 2022, I observed a concerning trend in the venture capital industry: the amount of capital being deployed to Black founders by venture capitalist firms dropped to just 1%, down from 1.3% the previous year. By the third quarter of 2023, this figure had plummeted further to a mere 0.13% of the total capital, amounting to only about $39.7 million out of $29.9 billion, as reported by TechCrunch. So many Black entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas are sitting on the sidelines, as their assumption is that they can’t raise the capital to bring their vision to life.

I recognize that most founders don’t give away their “secret sauce.” But I’m not most founders and have been acutely aware from very early on in this venture that my success came at a price. That price is pulling as I climb and sharing what I learn in real-time so others can enter the doors I am opening today, not 20 years from now.

To raise the capital needed to grow this business, I had to debunk these seven myths:

Myth 1: Significant Investments Must Come from Venture Capital or Private Equity Firms

A widespread belief in business financing is that major investments predominantly come from venture capital (VC) or private equity (PE) firms. However, my journey with Uncle Nearest challenges this notion. In our founding year, which is a similar experience for most Black or woman-founded businesses, every VC and PE firm we pitched to passed on the opportunity. Since then, I have consistently refrained from pitching to or accepting investments from VC and PE firms.

However, one of the most substantial and supportive sources of investment for Uncle Nearest has been family offices. For example, a multibillionaire’s family office invested $15 million in Uncle Nearest. The investments from this family office are notable not only for their size but also for their strategic approach: they aim to own 2% of a company and support the founder’s vision without seeking a board seat. Several other family offices have invested more than $20 million and have been incredibly active in the secondary market, which we’ll discuss later in this article.

This experience, which is one of many in my company’s history, demonstrates that while VC and PE are common sources of business funding, they are not the only options for securing substantial investments. Family offices can provide equally significant support, often more aligned with the founder’s vision and values, making them a viable and sometimes preferable alternative.

Myth 2: You Must Have a Strong Network to Raise Capital

To connect with the ultra-wealthy, a strong network is indeed essential, but the investor landscape is much more diverse. In the United States, nearly 23 million millionaires actively seek investment opportunities, and they can be found everywhere.

During Uncle Nearest’s early years, I embraced a grassroots approach to building and financing our brand. I attended major spirits events, ran our booth, mingled at festivals, and introduced people to Uncle Nearest. Engaging in retail bottle signings and whiskey dinners, I made my presence widely felt. This hands-on approach involved inspiring and engaging potential investors, often leading to business card exchanges and investment offers.

Back at the office, I vetted each prospect. If they had a history of accredited investments, discussions were initiated through our CFO. Our investor group, the Sixth Man, is incredibly diverse, ranging from accredited investors earning just over $200,000 annually to multibillionaires. This diversity has been pivotal in Uncle Nearest’s growth.

Myth 3: Major Investments Come Only from Wealthy Investors

A common misconception in fundraising is that substantial investments come exclusively from wealthy investors like decamillionaires, centimillionaires, and billionaires. However, the landscape of investment opportunities is more diverse. To be classified as an accredited investor, one only needs an income greater than $200,000 for the past two years. While I set a minimum investment of $250,000 to join our cap table, it didn’t need to come from a single accredited investor. Groups of accredited investors could pool their resources into a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV).

My introduction to SPVs came when my business attorney connected me with an investment banker who organized the first SPV to invest in Uncle Nearest. The SEC permits SPVs incorporated in the U.S. and raising $10 million or less to include up to 250 accredited investors. In my company, well over 170 investors, most part of SPVs, family offices, or family trusts, contribute to growing Uncle Nearest. Regardless of their group affiliation, I treat each individual as a Sixth Man, acknowledging their daily efforts through their influence and networks to help grow Uncle Nearest.

This approach significantly broadens the potential investor base, challenging the myth that only individual, high-net-worth investors can provide substantial capital. Understanding and leveraging these diverse investment channels were crucial in financing Uncle Nearest’s growth.

Myth 4: All Investors Demand Board Seats

I successfully raised over $70 million for Uncle Nearest, Inc. before appointing the first person to our board. This individual has been an enormous value add, proving to be an invaluable supporter throughout our journey. The spirits industry, lacking successful precedents set by people of color, required a different approach. I needed investors who understood this unique challenge and were willing to provide capital and support without demanding board seats. This approach allowed me to innovate and carve out a new path in an industry with rules not originally designed for someone like me.

These investors believed in my ability to navigate uncharted territory and transform challenges into opportunities. At one point, I considered adding a board member following a series raise at a valuation of $225 million, but one of our largest investors advised against it. She emphasized that the company’s success stemmed from its flexibility and lack of board interference. She recommended waiting until the right member could truly add value. When we later raised funds at a $450 million valuation, I knew exactly who to add to the board, and their contribution has been invaluable.

This strategic approach to investor relations and board composition was crucial, allowing Uncle Nearest the freedom and flexibility to grow and succeed on its own unique terms.

Myth 5: Successful Fundraising is Impossible Without Being in ‘The Room’

One common misconception is that raising capital necessitates access to elite networking spaces, or ‘the rooms,’ where high-level business deals are made. In my journey with Uncle Nearest, I found this to be untrue. Initially, I wasn’t invited to these exclusive circles, often reserved for those who have already achieved significant success. However, while these spaces might offer networking advantages, they are not essential for successful fundraising. In fact, I’ve never actively networked for fundraising purposes in any of those rooms. The few investments that have come from there have had to chase me down, as I respect the purpose of those gatherings.

Your success will hinge more on determination, a strong vision, and the ability to seize opportunities wherever they may arise. Remember, the person next to you in the Starbucks line could be one of the nearly 23 million millionaires in this country, many of whom are actively seeking to grow their portfolios. Don’t wait for an invitation into ‘the room.’ You don’t need one.

Myth 6: The Only Way to Raise Money is to Give up Equity

There are two types of capital raises: debt and equity. While some entrepreneurs have been successful in securing debt in lieu of an equity raise, that was not my experience, so I will share only what I have personally experienced. Throughout the series of fundraising cycles, my goal was to give up as little equity in each round as possible. The reason is that if you are doing your job and growing your valuation exponentially, then the $5 million you raise in a Series A, for instance, will cost you a lot more in equity than it might in a later round. Our Series A round was sold for $1.50/share, so if I’d raised $5 million at that time, it would have required me to sell 25% of the equity in my company. However, my Series E was sold for $29.14/share, so that same $5 million raised only cost me 0.057% of equity. One of the greatest mistakes founders make is taking as much money as possible upfront. This approach dilutes shares too early and makes it much more challenging to maintain control. I understand the reason many do this is to avoid any financial challenges. But if you have a fast-growing business, you’re likely to encounter tight financial squeezes throughout the first decade, no matter what. I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur who didn’t experience this. The difference is those who took in too much money early and lost control of the company now have to contend not only with financial constraints but also with the daily frustration of sacrificing for a business they don’t feel as though they fully own. Based on the many people I’ve spoken with on this issue, if they could do it again, they’d wait a little longer to take in more money, and they would only take in “good money,” as not all money is beneficial. Good money, in my books, only comes from investors aligned with your core values and excited to support you as you build, even if it takes longer than originally planned. Since 2016, I’ve raised more than $230 million for Uncle Nearest, including $133 million in debt capital, supported entirely by appreciating real estate and inventory. We’ve already repaid nearly $50 million of the debt capital, underscoring our commitment to sound financial management. If debt is an option, and you can comfortably service the debt, I would recommend this path over an equity raise in most circumstances.

Myth 7: Women and People of Color are Minorities with Limited Impact

A common misconception is that women and people of color are minorities with limited influence in the United States. In reality, we collectively constitute more than 70% of the country’s population, a figure that is steadily increasing each year. Our collective buying power is formidable and can significantly contribute to the success of any business that recognizes and taps into this reality. Uncle Nearest’s growth has been catalyzed by acknowledging and leveraging this substantial influence and economic power, debunking the myth.

In 2024, my hope is to see a significant increase in the number of successful businesses led by Black entrepreneurs, women, and people of color overall. Increased access to capital is essential for this vision to become a reality. This article aims to spark meaningful conversations within those communities, although I believe every entrepreneur can benefit from this article.

For Black Americans, reflecting on our heritage is profoundly significant. We are descendants of the strongest among the strong—resilient mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It is estimated that only 388,000 survived the harrowing journey from Africa to America. As a descendant of these survivors, their strength and endurance continually inspire me.

This is why I am sharing my blueprint for raising capital in real time, rather than waiting to recount these lessons in a future biography. My aim is to provide immediate guidance and support to my community of women and people of color, helping to level the playing field in a patriarchal country still striving to perfect its union. Committed to pulling others up as I climb, I am driven by the legacy of resilience and strength inherited from our ancestors. By challenging these myths, we are paving the way for our own success and illuminating the path for future generations of entrepreneurs in our community, contributing to a more equitable and just business landscape.

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