Getting Into the Spirit of Things
Alexi Cashen drinks up supply chain challenges by staying centered, and listening and talking to customers with honesty, empathy, and complete transparency.
Companies that import wine, beer, or spirits into the United States face all the challenges COVID-19 has unleashed on the global supply chain—tight capacity, congested ports, and the rest. And if that weren’t bad enough, wine companies also face extra supply woes apart from the pandemic.
"There have been tremendous shortages, predominantly due to weather events, both in Europe and in the United States," says Alexi Cashen, co-founder and "chief executive optimist" (CEO) at Elenteny Imports, a New York-based provider of logistics solutions to the alcoholic beverage industry. Hot summers and wildfires have produced hard times for some recent vintages.
We sat with Cashen to discuss how Elenteny helps its customers in this difficult era, learn about her leadership approach, and hear about some of her other ventures.
IL: What led you to co-found Elenteny Imports?
As a new college graduate working in the restaurant industry, I loved learning about wine. When I moved to New York, I soon started working in sales for a wine supplier and then a wine wholesaler. Because New York is such a multicultural city, it provided a great opportunity to try wines from many regions and learn how the industry works.
My foray into entrepreneurship started when I met Tim Elenteny, who had an idea to provide freight forwarding, logistics, and distribution services to the beverage industry. I was drawn to the idea, and we became co-founders in 2010.
IL: What’s one important lesson you learned early in your career that has helped to shape you as a leader?
I recently read a quote from The Tao of Leadership: "The wise leader stays centered and grounded and uses the least force required to act effectively." Early in my career as a leader, I was sometimes afraid of something—losing a customer, or not training an employee fast enough. Because of that fear, I would keep doing things myself. I forced my energy, expectations, or the relationship’s outcome with a customer or vendor.
I have learned to become more centered, to ground myself, act more effectively, and force things less. As a leader, you have to be aware of your emotions, allow yourself to pause and say, "I don’t have an answer. I need to think about that." Then you can come back to conversations in an authentic way, leading with empathy and honesty.
IL: How is Elenteny helping customers with challenges such as supply shortages, congestion, and volatile demand?
The biggest thing is to do what we do best, provide service. As experts, we’re focused on this industry’s situation 24/7, constantly looking for new ways to strengthen our position during this challenging phase.
We also emphasize transparency. The delays are terrible, and we often have to bring our customers bad news. But we’re transparent about how things look, how long they’re taking, and what factors are involved. This kind of context allows our customers to manage.
IL: How do you spend a typical workday?
I’m on the West Coast, Elenteny is on the East Coast, and we have customers we talk to in Europe. I also have three kids. So there’s a lot of crucial early-morning activity. I commit chunks of my day to e-mail and other forms of communication.
I’m protective of screenless time when I need to think, be with a customer, or engage in a marketplace in some way, whether through conferences or other leadership activities. I draw so much from that face-to-face interaction. Making good decisions for my business starts with listening and talking to lots of people, particularly my customers and employees.
IL: What’s your leadership style?
I’m optimistic and positive by nature, and I’m very curious. I’m not the type of leader who jumps in and solves problems. I try to temper my voice in conversation with our managers—for example, by asking what would happen if I don’t make the call and let one of our managers problem solve on their own.
IL: What makes you excited to go to work in the morning?
I like to be of use, and so I love that Elenteny is a very useful company. We help customers make their businesses perform greater and scale faster. And we allow our employees to grow as individuals and professionals.
IL: What’s the hardest aspect of your job?
It’s living with the risks inherently involved in business ownership. It’s just you holding the bag, making the decisions, and navigating the risks and vulnerabilities.
IL: If you could trade places for a day with anyone, alive or from history, who would that be?
Georgia O’Keeffe. I’m no painter, but I love and admire the arts, and she was such an inspiring woman. I also deeply love her region, the Southwest, having grown up in Western Colorado.
IL: Why did you create "The Alexi Cashen Podcast"?
I first thought of podcasting as an opportunity to promote my business and engage with a community. But now that I’ve been doing it for two years, it has given me a deeper sense of the industry. I don’t know that I would have talked to those people, or had the same depth of conversations, if it had just been me as CEO of Elenteny trying to get a meeting with those people.
IL: How do you like to relax at the end of a workday?
Cooking helps me de-stress and unplug. Being in the beverage industry my entire career, I almost always know what wine to pair with dinner when I cook for my family every night.
St. Hildie and the Coach
You’d think running a logistics company would keep Alexi Cashen busy enough. But Cashen has somehow also found time to launch a new beverage brand, St. Hildie’s Spiked Tincture Tonics, with two partners, Christine Peck and Meghan Deroma.
Named for the 12th century mystic Saint Hildegard of Bingen, St. Hildie’s combines alcohol, fruit juice, and herbal extracts to make a bubbly, canned beverage that Cashen calls “a better-for-you booze option.”
The new drinks, which currently come in three flavors, have become Cashen’s own go-to refresher at the end of the day. “They are delicious and lower in alcohol,” she says. Consumers can buy them in stores in California and on the company’s e-commerce site.
Cashen also serves as a coach to fellow entrepreneurs, working in the Accelerator Program run by the San Francisco chapter of the Entrepreneur’s Organization. The goal is to help business owners reach $1 million in revenues, and Cashen especially enjoys working with women toward that end.
“More than 50% of U.S. businesses are owned by women, but fewer than 1% of those businesses surpass revenues of $1 million,” she says. “There’s a real disparity there.”
Cashen hopes to help close that gap