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Jessica Mozeico on Authentic Leadership and Following Your Passion

Jessica Mozeico founded Et Fille Wines with her father, Howard Mozeico in 2003. Jessica fell in love with wine while visiting Burgundy to celebrate her twenty-first birthday with her parents, because “Who wouldn’t lose their heart to Burgundy?”  That trip instigated her love of Pinot Noir, though it was a passion she cultivated from the sidelines for years. Meanwhile, she pursued an undergraduate degree from Hamilton College, an MBA from Wharton, and a career in biotechnology marketing, while living in New York and San Francisco.  Finally, Jessica and Howard decided to co-found and operate Et Fille Wines (which means “and daughter”) together. Today, Jessica operates the business, making elegantly complex wines inspired by her late father’s legacy and her daughter’s future.

I had the pleasure of traveling to Champagne, France with Jessica several years ago, where we spent time mingling with vintners and tasting champagne. Pinot Noir might be her true passion, but she apparently has a separate love affair with champagne.

Jessica Interview

Everyone has tipping points in their career and decisions that have changed their direction.  You made quite a leap from biotechnology to winemaking. What inspired this tipping point?

“My Dad and I started our winery, Et Fille, in 2003.  I started it a bit on the side, and I didn’t have the courage to quit my biotechnology job and go all in on the winery for a few more years.  I was working launching drugs in biotech working about 60 hours a week and traveling four times a month. And then I did the winery work on the side – on nights and weekends. During this time I used to write reviews of the wines, and they would become very personal to me.  By the time I got ready to launch and release them, they would take on personalities…sometimes a brand, sometimes celebrities.

At some point in 2003, I had written about one of our wines and had said: “This wine reminds me of Cameron Diaz – slightly more attractive than the girl next door, but accessible and fun and someone you can relate to.”  I got an order from Cameron Diaz’s mother shortly thereafter, and around the same time, we were featured in a profile Wine Spectator article. I just had this moment of ‘wait a second. I have the opportunity to work with my Dad, work in wine, and run my own business.  What am I waiting for?’

I realized that there was momentum with our winery that we would lose if we weren’t really focusing on it and committing to being all in.  And I also realized that in my previous career path, I had already achieved excellent results for biotech patients and that this was the moment to make a decision.  So I decided to resign and sat on it for only about 12 hours. I went in the next day, resigned to my boss and decided to move back to Oregon.

I think this was a tipping point for me because I stopped waiting for more data, more reassurance, more money and I realized I already had all the knowledge I needed to trust my intuition and change course.”  

Moving from corporate to small business ownership is a pretty gutsy move.  You mentioned you already had all the skills that were necessary. What are the skills that have most contributed to your success and how did you know you were ready?

“I am an over-preparer.  I over-prepare for any big decision or a crucial conversation.  Anytime I have a major, high stakes conversation, I typically write out “What is the situation? What is the decision I’ve made?  And what is the rationale?” And then I look for the obstacles and prepare a bit of an objection handler, answering “What are all the things this person could object to and how am I going to respond to it?”  That level of over-preparation helps me stay centered during high stakes decisions and conversations.”

Over-preparing is a tangible skill.  I often find people hear people talk about the intangibles – the character traits or beliefs – that shape them.  Are there certain beliefs in your professional and personal life that have enabled you to continue to grow?

“First, let me address my career path.  It was a circuitous one. I never set out to be a winemaker. I set out to work in biotech.  My background and training were all in biotech. The reason I started at the winery was that my Dad wanted to do it, and as a family member, I opened my big mouth and said: “OK, I’ll help you.”  So I got into it by doing it. Not by the traditional training and background. So one trait that has mattered in my professional life has been being open to changes and having enough confidence to say “Do I know enough about this to be able to learn it, even if it isn’t my training and background.’  The second is obvious – being open to taking on positions that aren’t necessarily in a straight line.”

“In my personal life, I think it’s really important to always be terrible at something.  If you are good at everything, you aren’t trying enough new things. It’s important to put yourself in situations where you are humbled, and you have to work twice as hard to work out the answer or get better.  I think it’s an important life skill to learn that you can learn and to know you can become better if you put the work in. Right now I’m taking a hip-hop class, and I’m pretty terrible.”  

“Last, I believe having compassion and empathy for people and situations you may not have experienced is important.  I read a ton of fiction. There was an NYTimes article a few years ago called “Why Fiction Matters” that I think is so important.  Fiction teaches us compassion and about being able to relate to characters that may have experiences that are completely different from our own.  So, I do not spend my time reading non-fiction or business books for inspiration, but reading fiction, because literature inspires me and I think it develops empathy and compassion.”

Family is obviously at the cornerstone of your business.  You have been quoted as saying “I have the honor and responsibility to carry Et Fille forward in a manner that is consistent with my dad’s vision, values, and palate.  I will continue building the legacy for my daughter.” How do you balance your family values and commitments with running the winery?

“I’m a business owner running my own business, but I’m also a single mom to an amazing daughter, who was born two months prematurely when I was 42. So there was a lot of unexpectedness.  I’ve learned that the secret to sanity while running a small business and being a single mom is to prioritize ruthlessly. I joke that I lead with ‘no.’ When people request my time, I’ll often say no and then think about the ask later. I try to be fully present when I’m in either role.  When I’m at work, I am totally immersed. When I’m with my daughter, I try to have my phone off, office door shut, and be fully engaged in whatever we are doing. And I try to forgive myself, as I am never going to be in either situation as much as I should be. And, of course, I’m grateful for the community I have around me to support me and try to make that work.”

Over the past few years, you have faced a fair amount of adversity.  How did you cope and what have you learned through the process?

“First, to outline the situation, the most obvious example of encountering adversity is that my Dad and I started the winery together in 2003 and we had been working together as the only full-time, year-round employees for 15 years. We had transition plans in place for when he was going to retire, but we assumed we had a few more years before that. In April of 2017, he very unexpectedly had a tragic accident on a tractor while going out to work in the vineyard.  And all of a sudden, I was dealing with the unexpected death of my father, of my business partner, of my best friend. You know our winery is named “And daughter” because of how we approached the business – we were a two-person, family team. We made the wine together. We had two palates that influenced how we created the wine. In everything we did, our relationship was front and center. So, in the face of all this grief, I also had to deal with the questions of how am I going to recreate our brand and make sure that it is still meaningful and how do I communicate with others.  During this time, two things became very important to me.

Number one is gratitude.  Yes, I lost my Dad suddenly, but I also got to make wine with him and build a company with him, and that’s pretty spectacular.

The second is authenticity.  I had heard the criticism in corporate life that I can appear too buttoned up and that I did not expose my vulnerability as much as I could.  So I went from what is more comfortable for me – presenting a very professional and buttoned up face – to experiencing VERY public grief. And I needed to find my own path to authenticity.  I needed to articulate my grief to all of our customers and our wine community in a way that was honest and real but was also focused.

A clear example of that is that I had to rewrite all of our brandings in a timeframe that was way too soon for what I would have been comfortable with from a grieving perspective.  But I had to wear the hat of ‘how am I grieving as a daughter’ to ‘what do I need to do to run our business.’ So I rewrote all of our copy. I gave it to a woman that I trust to copy edit it for me, and she said “It’s beautiful in that it is vulnerable and raw, but it’s kind of a downer.  You might want to think about your tone.”

That was such great advice because I really had to think about how I could be honest while also being optimistic about the future.  I had to think about ‘What I was excited for?’ ‘What inspired me?’ That thinking changed my tone because it made me more positive about the future – that my legacy, that my Dad’s legacy inspires what I want to create with the wine.  And that the term “And Daughter” was still very relevant to us because our history and our legacy were started by a father and daughter founder. It made me articulate that I’m inspired by my Dad’s legacy and also my daughters future.  Being very thoughtful about “Why am I still doing this?” “What inspires me?” forced me to answer the question. And to me it was family.”

Obviously, your Dad was a significant role model for you.  Who else has influenced shaping your professional life?

“I think people give you tools all the time – they may give you a piece of advice, they may ask you a question that sticks with you when you apply it to different situations later on.  Certainly, my Dad was a mentor, and if I could sum up his quintessential question it would be “Why is this important? What really matters?” Whenever I would be obsessing over some decision or some dilemma, he would calmly ask me “What matters?”  And it would get me out of venting quickly into what matters and thinking pragmatically about what I can control.

Since my Dad’s death, one of my Dad’s best friends, who is also a founder and CEO of a winery in Oregon, has stepped up as a mentor to me.  One of the things he has said several times is “It all costs the same.” In other words, when you are making a decision, realize that you are going to trade one set of problems for a different set of problems.  It puts the decision into perspective so you can’t get too attached or be paralyzed into not making decisions.

The last figure is my old boss from biotechnology once told me something that in this period since my Dad has died I’ve thought of quite a bit.  And that is “Let them see you vulnerable.” Yes, you can lead without a personal connection. You can lead by showing the vision. But what inspires others is letting them see your vulnerability and being honest about that.”

You have talked a lot about being vulnerable, and apparently, that is one trait you are working on.  Leaders are generally always looking to grow. What else are you working on?

“I’m working on letting things go.  I’m an extrovert, so I sometimes process things out loud. I will identify the problem and ask questions while I am processing. But that can take the form of beating a dead horse. There are times when I will be talking to employees, and I’ll realize “OK, I’ve stated the problem three times.”  That’s over-emphasis. So I’m really trying to work on letting that go.”

Looking back on your career, what advice you would give to your 30-year-old self?

“When I was 30 years old, I thought that if you had a plan, and you worked hard, you would meet your objective and it would happen in a pretty straight line.  What was important to me at that time was being focused and directed and working hard towards my goals. A series of events evolved that made me realize that what really rattles you are not the challenges that you objection handle.  They are the unexpected twists and turns. It’s not the things that you plan for, but it’s the things that totally blindside you. They make you realize that yes, you need to have a plan, but you also need to be willing to let go of that, change the course of your life and make decisions based on the unexpected.

The second piece of advice I would give is to be good to your friends.  When I was 30, I was so focused on my career that I neglected my personal life.  And it is your friends that are there for you when the unexpected happens. Honoring that is important.

The last piece of advice would be to figure out how you want to make a difference in the community and just go out and do it.  Whether you want to be involved in Board activities or be there for a friend struggling, figure out how you are going to make a difference in the community and start doing it.”