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Inspirational Female Founder Spotlight: Fawn Weaver

Fawn Weaver is a serial entrepreneur and CEO of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, a company she founded in 2016. Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey has proven itself to be a female powerhouse with the brand being the fastest growing independent whiskey brand in U.S. history, the best-selling African American-founded spirit brand of all time, and the most award-winning American whiskey (including bourbon) of 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023.

Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?

I launched my first company at the age of 18, a PR and special events firm, where I specialized in crafting unique brand narratives that captivated the media. That journey began nearly 30 years ago. Since then, I’ve been a serial entrepreneur within the hospitality sector, involving myself in various ventures from bars and restaurants to boutique fitness studios. In all these endeavours, I’ve preferred to remain behind the scenes, acting more as the architect than the figurehead. However, with Uncle Nearest, there was a genuine curiosity about the individual conducting the research and shaping the brand, which necessitated my step into the limelight. Ideally, I would choose to stay behind the scenes, comfortably working from my home office in sweats every day.

How did the idea come to you for the company?

The journey to establish the company began with an initial spark of inspiration for a book and movie. While traveling in Singapore, I stumbled upon a compelling image of Jack Daniel and George Green, the son of Nearest Green, on the cover of the New York Times International Edition. This piqued my interest in Nearest Green, a previously unrecognized master whiskey distiller and a once-enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel the craft of making Tennessee whiskey. Intrigued by the intertwined stories of Nearest Green and Jack Daniel, I was driven to delve deeper into their history. This quest led me to Tennessee, whereby pure serendipity, I learned the 313-acre farm in Lynchburg, the very site where Nearest imparted his distilling knowledge to Jack, had been for sale for 15 months. I purchased it within days of being in town.

Initially, my objective was to uncover and document this story for a book and possibly a movie, focusing on bringing to light the significant, yet overlooked, contributions of Nearest Green. As I immersed myself in the research and storytelling, a larger vision began to take shape. I recognized that the legacies of iconic figures like Jack Daniel, Jim Beam, and Johnnie Walker have been immortalized through their continuous presence on bottles and in advertisements globally. This realization brought me to a pivotal decision: to truly honour Nearest Green’s legacy, I needed to do more than just tell his story. It became clear that establishing an extraordinary whiskey brand in his name was essential. This would not only celebrate his contributions to the whiskey industry but also ensure his legacy would be remembered and cherished for generations to come. Thus, what started as an idea for a book and movie organically evolved into the foundation of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey.

How did you achieve awareness?

You simply can’t build a brand without a great story. This is especially true about this current generation. A great product isn’t enough. It needs to centre on a mission. It needs a North Star. That’s your story. It’s the foundation of every brand.

We didn’t set out wanting an empire and then work backward from there to find a suitable story. No, I found the Uncle Nearest story through the piece Clay Risen wrote in the New York Times, and it spoke to my heart, I dove into its unexplored roots, brought a team of researchers along to leave no stone unturned, and we found a story so inspiring, beautiful, and important that it could only be dignified by something much, much greater than a book.

Since then, I have dedicated myself to sharing our brand’s story across every conceivable medium, tirelessly, every day. From movies and commercials to press interviews, we leverage every available channel to spread our narrative. We also have team members across every state and in the UK, actively telling our story wherever they go, thus amplifying word-of-mouth awareness. Our strategy for raising awareness has been methodical and layered; we’ve deliberately chosen not to reveal every aspect of our story at once. Instead, we reveal just enough to maintain our audience’s interest. With the upcoming release of my book, “Love & Whiskey,” this summer, readers will discover there are many more layers to our story that I have yet to share. This book adds yet another dimension to the ongoing narrative of our brand.

How have you been able to gain funding and grow?

We have been fortunate to partner with exceptional banking institutions that have supported the financing of our tangible assets, including the construction of our $50 million distillery and the management of over $60 million in whiskey inventory. However, before establishing these banking relationships, we cultivated a network of more than 170 investors. We affectionately refer to this group as our “Sixth Man” because their contributions extend far beyond financial investment. Each investor plays a crucial role in our extended sales force; wherever they go to dine or enjoy a drink, they advocate for Uncle Nearest. This proactive approach has significantly accelerated our growth, enabling us to expand our presence much more rapidly than one might typically anticipate for an independent company.

What are the key successes?

Uncle Nearest has emerged as the most-awarded Bourbon and American whiskey in 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023. Our rye whiskies, introduced in 2022, have quickly become the world’s most awarded rye whiskies of 2023. The Nearest Green Distillery, our breath-taking 423-acre estate, ranks as the 7th most visited distillery globally and holds the Guinness World Record for the longest bar in the world. We stand as the most successful African American-owned spirits company in history, and yet, we believe we have only experienced the tip of the iceberg.

What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?

One aspect you’ll notice about me is that I don’t dwell on challenges. In the process of building a business of this scale, challenges arise daily. Some, for most entrepreneurs, might seem insurmountable. However, my approach is to concentrate exclusively on areas I wish to develop; thus, challenges do not occupy a place in my mindset. I am constantly in search of the valuable lesson in every problem, aiming to identify and leverage it swiftly to drive my company forward.

What are your plans now/for the future?

The future of Uncle Nearest is quite simple. We are here to cement the legacy of Nearest Green for every future generation. We will do that by growing this business and brand so large that the next generation can’t screw it up. We remind ourselves daily of this mission, fully aware that we have only begun to tap into the potential. Thus, every significant endeavour from now until my last day will be focused on this same, enduring mission.

What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?

If you’re inclined to give up, don’t even begin. In the early stages of entrepreneurship, you’ll encounter more reasons to quit than to persevere. It might take a decade of steadfastly chipping away at your goal before you see any sign of a breakthrough. However, the key is to keep at it. Embrace failure; fail faster and with greater intensity. Playing it safe won’t lead you to achieve any significant dreams that can impact others. Remember, failure is not truly failure unless you give up before you succeed. Aim to become more extraordinary with each passing day. Success begins with recognizing your innate gifts and honing the talents associated with them. Look at most who are successful today, and you’ll likely trace their current endeavours back to the gifts they began to display when they were in their formative years. Success boils down to who among us decides to stay true to those early inclinations.

Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?

My advice for entrepreneurs is to have a clear vision. Ask yourself: What are you offering that solves a problem for others? What will sustain and motivate you, even when times are challenging? Once you’ve defined this, you’ll need a robust business plan, which should include a detailed SWOT analysis, along with an accompanying presentation deck. Initially, the most crucial task is to ensure you have a strong business plan and deck, as these will be essential for raising the necessary funds to succeed. Bootstrap your venture for as long as possible to minimize the equity you’ll have to relinquish. Then, consider approaching friends and family for seed funding. The failure rate for start-ups is nearly 100 percent; Uncle Nearest and similar companies are exceptions. We were fortunate to have friends and family who were willing to risk $3 million on us initially, and that was just the beginning of what we would ultimately require.

Always underestimate your likely sales and overestimate your potential expenses.

Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?

  1. My husband, Keith Weaver, is an immense source of inspiration for me. Without his support and sacrifices, Uncle Nearest would not exist. His dedication has been pivotal, especially after he stepped in as the CEO of Nearest Green Distillery, elevating our operations and homeplace to new heights. His contributions are truly extraordinary.
  2. My sisters—Tracey, Launi, Christy Joy, and Gabrielle—provide significant inspiration. However, to accommodate the format of this response, I’m combining them into one entry, allowing space for three other individuals. Each one, in her own way, has influenced me profoundly.
  3. Victoria Eady Butler, our master blender and the great-great-granddaughter of Nearest Green, inspires me daily. Her lineage and dedication to our brand continually motivate me to make her proud and honour our shared heritage.
  4. Katharine Jerkens, our Chief Business Officer, embodies resilience and strength, growing stronger with every challenge she faces. Witnessing her beautiful evolution has been truly inspiring.
  5. Nearest Green and Jack Daniel collectively inspire me. I always mention them together because their intertwined legacies of excellence, respect, honour, and love drive me to highlight and celebrate the noteworthy stories in our history.

What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?

“The end of the matter with God is always good. So, if it’s not good, it’s not yet the end of the matter.”

What are your Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn social handles and also website links so our readers can connect with you?