Dr Debbian Spence-Minott happy to bring a difference to the ‘mix’
As adults, it’s easy to relate to the notion that when life gives you lemons, you make a lemon cocktail. Having explored the field of marketing at one of the biggest spirits companies in Jamaica, she was instrumental in the creation of the J. Wray & Nephew (JWN) Academy and the Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience (JSAERE). But Dr Debbian Spence-Minott Spence decided to take the biggest risk of her life by stepping into the world of entrepreneurship. She is the chief executive officer of The Academy of Bartending, Spirits & Wines.
“It is my mission to lift the bartending standard of Jamaica,” she told Flair. As an adult educator, she doesn’t believe that one size fits all. She is of the view that each student has his or her unique style of learning. And she has accepted the challenge the moment they walk through the door, transferring the learning by teaching according to those individual styles.
With a little Debbie magic, as she likes to call it, and brand education, she can pioneer in her field and achieve new milestones.
Committed to building brands, her unique marketing strategies have led to the brand recognition of international spirits such as Hennessey and Campari, to name a few. Tasked with the mission of engaging the trader, she discovered that training was an ideal platform to get others excited about the products on the market; others included persons using the products, like bartenders and mixologists and, by extension, consumers as well.
“Once we trained the trade, the sales grew,” she shared, adding that with new confidence, those who completed the training were able to educate others about the product and entice their taste buds accordingly. She has always loved teaching, and training only sparked that passion even more.
Sent to be trained at the Campari Academy in Milan by her then-boss, Ugo Fiorenzo, she returned with a newfound love for spirits. “I realised that the European bartenders were far advanced. Our ‘likkle’ bartenders couldn’t come close to the magic and flair that they were doing!” she gushed.
She could not wait to share her mixing knowledge with others and elevate the country’s bartenders in the process. So, inspired by the trip, she decided to bring education into the ‘mix’. And in 2015, she opened the JWN Academy.
With more training opportunities, she was able to team up with the school of hospitality at the University of Technology and use the programme to propel the bar operations.
Having left the legal side of insurance, Spence-Minott used her marketing degree to take a bite out of the fast-food industry. She started her new career at Mother’s. “That was exciting! Because at Mother’s, you had to learn to do everything and you did everything,” she explained.
While there, she saw an opportunity in the press to work at J. Wray & Nephew as a brand assistant, “I went in, got through, and stayed at Wray & Nephew for 12 years.”
From brand assistant to brand associate, she became brand manager. Climbing that corporate ladder, she went on to be the brand senior manager. “I think the only role I didn’t get was brand director. And I’m still holding out hope,” she said with a wink and a smile.
After launching the Appleton Rum Tour in 2018 and going over a decade in marketing, she thought to herself, what’s next? Because she did it all. Conversations swirled around dreams of opening her own academy and in September of that same year, The Academy of Bartending, Spirits & Wines was born.
“Leaving corporate and branching out on my own was a huge risk. And entrepreneurship is not easy. It is not for the weak. With your own business, you have to drive that revenue and be creative to pull people in,” she revealed. The first year was spent building awareness and the importance of the school. And before she knew it, her ship was hitting the iceberg of COVID-19.
Although the pandemic had damaging effects on the economy, Spence-Minott was able to pivot quickly. As a lecturer at the University of Technology, she worked with the university as it shifted the teaching approach from physical to online. So, she applied the same rubric to her academy. And it paid off. “We did our courses online and had small face-to-face practicals,” she said. With more time on their hands, bartenders and aspiring mixologists had the opportunity to seek knowledge and improve on their craft. “I got some of my strongest numbers during the pandemic.”
She is happy to report that she has seen a shift in the enrolment: more women are coming out and training to become bartenders and mixologists than in previous years. But she finds that there is still a lack of harmony, camaraderie, and support when it comes to women in leadership.
“The men have their boys’ clubs, formed from high school and universities. And they really rally around and support each other. I don’t find women gelling together. We are more competitive. And we need to move beyond that. We need to understand that there is a space for everybody. In this world of entrepreneurship, everyone can have a space, the market is big enough. The world is our oyster. But we need to support each other as women,” she highlighted.
As far as encouragement goes, she continued to be grateful for the love and support she received from her family, especially during the time she travelled for work. In the work world, she continues to stay true to her radiant self, ensuring that all of her interactions, whether with staff, students or clients incorporate the ingredients of fairness, honesty, genuineness and a big splash of empathy.
Spearheading bartender week, which officially gets under way this week, she already has her hands full with a series of activities. “That’s a big thing for me because never before has this been done. That’s the thing with me; I want every area that I am working in, that I leave a mark there,” she declared.