I firmly believe a rising tide lifts all ships, so I collaborate and share with others in my industry, making all of us a stronger unit. The other most impactful part of my military background is my ability to overcome a challenge or change in the face of uncertainty and come out better without hesitation. […]

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I firmly believe a rising tide lifts all ships, so I collaborate and share with others in my industry, making all of us a stronger unit. The other most impactful part of my military background is my ability to overcome a challenge or change in the face of uncertainty and come out better without hesitation. Fear and resistance to change cripple many people but for me, change has always been the only constant. If it’s not a challenge, it’s not as rewarding!

Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Renee Ventrice. Renee a Navy veteran and the Founder and Co-owner of Cork & Keg Tours in Loudon County, Virginia.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I’m a military brat, born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and have lived in Taiwan, Maryland and finally Nebraska where my father retired. My dad is a retired Air Force veteran and my mom is a Caribbean Indian from St. Kitts. I’m number 5 out of 6 siblings and I was raised in Bellevue Nebraska and my two brothers are Navy veterans as well. I was an all-state cheerleader and while in high school, regularly danced with a Prince impersonator for 25 dollars a show!

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I am the founder and co-owner of Cork & Keg Tours in Loudon County, Virginia where we provide private winery and brewery tours and tastings around the community. My husband and I started the business as a side project in 2017 after separating from the military and we were so successful, we turned Cork & Keg Tours into my full-time job in October of 2019.

As you can imagine, our business relies heavily on tourism so the shutdown due to COVID-19 has impacted our business for the last few months. During the time we had to shut our doors, we were able to serve our community in unique ways. We kept busy by providing weekly Facebook Live wine tastings and our signature “Cork & Karaoke Lives,” where we host fun singing and dancing fundraising events for hospitality workers and veteran charities.

Now that our business is starting to open back up, I’m starting to make reservations for future tours. Today, I filmed a video for our local county tourism board. They are telling the stories of a variety of local business owners and will be providing us much needed marketing support during this challenging time.

What makes my business unique is that I have no ego when it comes to putting myself out there to promote my company and my brand. I cannot sing, so it made perfect sense to pair my Facebook Live wine tastings with BAD Karaoke to entertain our audience while educating them — that’s what great content is, and we’ve found it brings people back week after week. I communicate with my audience and I follow a rule of thumb that I don’t talk AT them but allow for open dialogue as they are part of the Live session! It’s been exhilarating and quite honestly has kept the extrovert in me sane during the quarantine.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I have been in the military my entire life: born as a military dependent in 1970, I enlisted as a Cryptologic Technical Technician in May 1989 and served in Bad Aibling Germany, where I was the first junior enlisted Navy service member to be stationed there, and in Rota Spain. I married my husband who was also in the Navy in 1994 and became a military spouse and veteran upon my honorable discharge in February 1995. He left the military in 2001 and we settled in Virginia.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

Most of my memorable experiences took place in boot camp. I became the Recruit Company Commander (the highest-ranking recruit who acted as the liaison from the Company Commanders to the other recruits.) On my first day, I sat everyone down and told them what my brothers and father (all veterans) told me before I left for boot camp:

“They are going to put pressure on us to do simple things like our lives depend on it, so that if we DO get into a combat situation, we know how to stay cool, focused and keep our shipmates alive.” I was met with blank stares and then rolled eyes followed by a lack of respect because I acted like I “knew it all.” Then I started dropping people into pushup position for their disrespect. The Company Commanders chastised ME for trying to do their jobs and demoted me in about… 36 hours!

What I learned was that people don’t respond to being TOLD, they respond to being SHOWN. Leadership isn’t just knowing what’s best, it’s setting an example and letting people follow, it’s empowering others and not standing at the helm of a ship like Washington. I also learned that negative reinforcement breeds resentment, in fact, I don’t have a single friend from boot camp.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

During my experience in the military, most of us were simply serving our country but some stuck their neck out for others to save careers and built confidence. My brother is one of those people. He mentored and brought up so many young sailors who were struggling and led by example to change lives. I’ve met a few people he touched and have gotten the privilege to hear them talk about his influence. Funnily enough, he always denies that it had anything to do with him and everything to do with what kind of people they already were. He has emotionally and physically saved lives, yet he is the only one who would never tell you about it. That’s true heroism to me.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

A hero is someone who goes out on a limb and influences someone’s life positively for no other reason than to help them achieve, succeed or get to a better place. A hero is humble, never calls themselves a hero, and is simply acting upon the goodness within their hearts. Heroes make the world a better place by being who they are at their core.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

My military training and experience are a subconscious part of my daily life — from the way I raise my son to the way I conduct business at Cork & Keg Tours. The impact on my business is my compulsion to leave no one behind. I try to be a mentor to those who are in an earlier stage of their entrepreneurial journey by sharing tips and tools to help them succeed.

I firmly believe a rising tide lifts all ships, so I collaborate and share with others in my industry, making all of us a stronger unit. The other most impactful part of my military background is my ability to overcome a challenge or change in the face of uncertainty and come out better without hesitation. Fear and resistance to change cripple many people but for me, change has always been the only constant. If it’s not a challenge, it’s not as rewarding!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My most impactful mentor was Larr Andreini, the founder of a retail business called Ridemakerz. I worked for him doing data entry at a luxury travel company, and about 2 weeks into my part-time job there, I casually pointed out some holes in the operations that I thought made connecting with customers a challenge, and suggested ways to plug them. He turned around from his desk, stared at me and said, “why are YOU doing data entry?” I said, because that’s what you hired me to do.” He stared at me for a few more moments and then said “Well you’re fired from data entry. I want you to take charge of our client services department.” Because of this moment, I was able to grow into my career after the military. Any time I had a new idea he would just say, “Go for it, Renee, go be great.” And if I questioned my abilities, he would tell me to just do my best and if it doesn’t work then I’ll know how to do it better next time.

I failed UP until the idea succeeded and he only guided and encouraged me, he never doubted my abilities even when I made mistakes. He treated errors as lessons learned and rewarded initiative, not just success. He is sadly no longer with us but his teachings to believe in me and not to fear failure still stay with me. I wouldn’t be a successful and confident entrepreneur without him.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?

To me, a crisis is when you are blindsided with a challenge that you may not have been prepared for. Could be emotional, physical or financial, but it locks you up temporarily and make your feel helpless. It’s an inevitable part of life, so when it DOES happen, having tools to deal with it is crucial.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

If you are reacting to a crisis, you are already too late. You must be proactive in every way:

  • Emotionally — balancing work and family life so you aren’t drained or burnt out.
  • Physically — implementing self-care, which I cannot stress enough. I recommend leaving your phone at your desk and removing your mind from work at the end of each day. Physically breaking away helps you recharge and return with more energy and productivity.
  • Financially — pay your company first. Operate with no less than 3 months of operational capital in case of an emergency that brings business to a screeching halt. It’s tempting to spend that money on things like marketing, but there are so many free resources to market your business. That’s why I chose to utilize Facebook’s free business tools like Facebook Live to reach my customers during the pandemic. Because if this pandemic taught me anything, it’s that I am SO glad my husband does the books and kept that money where I couldn’t see it, allowing me to get creative!

There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?

I just wrote a training piece about accepting and adapting! First, you must accept that the business as you knew it may be GONE forever- and evaluate what you have to cut loose and what you can add or change to stay relevant.

Adapt by looking at your physical, technical and personal assets and innovating ways to use what you currently have available to integrate into the new situation. Recognize what people need from your business, not what you want them to have, and meet their needs. Then make a very intentional effort to connect with the community, be a good neighbor and bring others up. When our business was temporarily closed due to COVID-19, we understood that a lot of businesses in our local community were also hurting since they relied on the same tourism crowd like us. That’s why we promoted other businesses’ wine and beer in our weekly Facebook Live events, so we could market ourselves while helping our neighbors. We also saw that our audience wanted to help during this challenging time, so we made our popular “Cork & Karaoke” Facebook Live nights into fundraising opportunities to support organizations in need. Givers get, and it feel great to give back along the way!

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

Resilience, flexibility, creativity, discipline, and the ability to think long term. What you do today doesn’t result in money today, but it can result in a positive outcome one, two or even three months away.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

This is an easy one: my husband, Don. He is also a Navy veteran and has been through some pretty impactful life experiences. He left a comfortable, well-paying but unfulfilling job to join a promising startup that ended up falling far short of expectations. He was laid off the day after we dropped our son off at college and later found that it was harder to get a job than he thought. He didn’t panic even when our benefits and savings were about to run out; he actually was the one to suggest that we start our own business, which is how Cork and Keg Tours came to be. Even though it was so outside of his comfort zone, he was willing to make whatever changes he needed to in order to support our family. Once we got the process of business ownership going, of course, the perfect job opportunity came his way, and he’s been doing both that job and our business since 2016 without looking back, He adapted and overcame a stressful situation, and continues to improve our lives every day!

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

For over a decade, I was a very popular and active fitness instructor. I had full classes, was physically fit and even had a short-lived TV show in Florida teaching fitness classes. I also took 2nd place at a Florida Ms. Fitness USA competition! In 2006, I experienced odd foot pain during a class, and as I stepped out of the car when I got home, I could not even stand while excruciating pain shot up my leg. As it turns out, my active lifestyle wore out my bones over time resulting in three surgeries over the next three years. I was never able to teach again after that and eventually fell into a deep depression, gained weight and lost focus and purpose. Until that point, I thought my purpose in life was to teach fitness and dance. Finally, I channeled my energy into writing positive reviews for local businesses, learning social media marketing and made a commitment to community service. Now, I am a published freelance writer, entrepreneur and mentor for people starting their own small business.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.

1) PASSION. Pick something you love doing. You can’t just do it for the money, or you will always be looking for a way out when things get rough. We love wine, and truly enjoy creating memorable experiences for people, so it was a natural fit to start our business. As COVID-19 hit, there was no other option for us but to survive it and come out better on the other side.

2) BEST EFFORT, ALWAYS. Now that you have something you love, dive in and make it the very best. In military boot camp, you have high pressure placed on you to do simple tasks, like making a bed or folding a t-shirt. Getting it wrong in boot camp had immediate, punishing consequences. We run our business that way by ensuring that we pay close attention to detail and make it the best experience that our guests could ever have.That’s not to say we always we get it right the first time, but we evaluate errors, strategize for success, and always look for ways to improve.

3) LEADERS TEACH OTHERS. When I was the Starboard Watch Recruit Officer in boot camp, I made the mistake of doing the work for someone who wasn’t doing it up to standards, instead of teaching her to do it better. 100 pushups later, I learned that leadership meant teaching others to be a better member of the team, not taking the easy way out and doing it myself. I take that leadership into my mentoring program to train others on how to improve their social media marketing — I don’t do the work for them!

4) NEVER ASSUME. My company commander used to say when you assume you make an Arse out of U and ME. We cover even the most obvious bases in our terms and conditions to protect our business from misunderstandings that could lead to guest dissatisfaction. Being clear and concise has saved us from difficult conversations because we could point to the cause and take it from there. You also can’t assume people will be a repeat customer. They will go to the first place that comes to mind, so we made sure that would be our business by continuing to be engaged with them through our social media platforms.

5) NO SUCH THING AS DOWNTIME. In the military, when we lost power on the ops floor, we didn’t just sit around waiting for it to come back on! We buffed floors, purged files, did training, did impromptu PT and inspections. There was no such thing as a downtime while on the clock! When COVID-19 closed our business down since no wineries or breweries could operate, we focused on staying relevant instead of trying to sell a service that no one needed for the time being. We used that closure time to redo our website, adjust our tour offerings to fit the new social distance requirements, came up with new upgrades to further differentiate ourselves from the competition, and streamline operationsI delved deeper into my wine education, kept my audience informed and held fun wine tastings paired with bad karaoke on Facebook, and now have brand new guests who booked because of it!

Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The civil unrest right now in America is something that cannot go ignored and affects all of us, regardless of race. As a black woman married to a white (Italian) man with a half black/half Italian son, I have a responsibility to him and our community to unify. I am committed to promoting systemic changes that result inequality, remove race as a risk or negative factor, level the playing field, and tell the truth in the history of all Americans, all year. This is important for ALL people because we will be stronger as a nation when we remove labels and biases, and we embrace the diversity that makes up America. Limiting ourselves and not learning from each other keeps us all from experiencing the best part of bringing cultures together, and I’m committed to not only bringing comfort for all to the upper echelons of the wine industry but also ensuring that history is properly reflected to erase negative and false narratives that have been passed through generations.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

Gary Vee. He is a straight shooter; no-nonsense businessman and I would LOVE to pick his brain about wine and entrepreneurship!

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