Meet the woman who is disrupting the spirits industry, changing the legal landscape in Chicago, and building a global luxury spirits brand—proving that mothers can be business powerhouses and home-school their kids.
Risk takers run in her family. “My great grandmother, she wanted to come to America very badly,” says Sonat Birnecker Hart, Ph.D., president of Koval Distillery, winner of the 2016 [Illinois] Governor’s Exporter of the Year award. This was at the turn of the century, and Birnecker Hart’s great, great grandparents weren’t keen on letting their teenage daughter just go to another country. “So, she starved herself for a week,” Birnecker Hart says. “She was 13 years old! Finally, her parents let her get on a boat with some stranger who posed as her uncle, because they wouldn’t let minors go alone. She ended up in New York City and didn’t speak a word of English.”
As Birnecker Hart tells it, her great grandmother at that very young age was then taken to the Triangle factory to work amongst row after row of women sewing in the dark. “She says, ‘I’m not going to work here,’ Birnecker Hart explains. “[Remember] She just got off the boat, and her brother-in-law says, ‘Well, then you’re on your own.’ And left her on a street corner crying. And after a while, she said, ‘Why am I crying? I’m just going to go and do something.’ And so, she did.
“When I think about starting my business, starting a company, or doing anything, I often think about her,” Birnecker Hart says. “I think that what I had to go through is an adventure, what she went through is a real risk and real tribulations in making something happen.
Don’t let her modesty fool you
Another way to look at it is that Birnecker Hart is following a family tradition of not accepting the status quo, and the status quo that Birnecker Hart left behind was filled with plenty of hard-earned success. With a masters from Oxford and a doctorate from the University of London, Birnecker Hart had spent nearly a decade teaching European Jewish History at the Baltimore Hebrew University and also had a tenured position actually teaching the subject in Europe. “I was the head of the department at Humboldt University in Berlin,” she says. “But there came a point when it became very important to have a family and I was determined to do that. I was also fine changing my life in a way that I can make it happen and at the same time be fulfilled.” Instead of crying about a life she couldn’t have, Birnecker Hart went and did something.
Encouraged by her sister, Oona Hart, Birnecker Hart and her husband Robert, started the distillery that would become Koval, using recipes and distilling techniques developed by her husband’s grandfather. Detailing the actual moment, when Oona Hart made the suggestion, Birnecker Hart says, “We brought some of my husband’s grandfather’s brandy back to Chicago, and we were in the living room at my parent’s house talking about how Robert and I would love to move back to Chicago and how we would love to work together.
“And my sister was drinking Robert’s grandfather’s brandy and saying, It’s amazing,” Birnecker Hart recalls. “Robert went into all the reasons why the brandy tasted so lovely and the differences between how Americans make spirits and Europeans make spirits. She started asking, ‘Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you make spirits in Chicago?’ And I remember saying, I think there’s a lot that goes into starting a liquor company. I mean to me it’s not unlike someone saying, ‘Why don’t you start the next pharmaceutical company?’”
Yet, Birnecker Hart and her husband made the leap. She explains, “We moved into my brother’s old bedroom with a baby, and that’s how it began! Keeping in mind, moving back to Chicago meant giving up healthcare, giving up tenure, giving up my husband’s job at the Austrian Embassy and giving up a level of security.”
When no doesn’t mean no
Leaving their secure, stable jobs in Europe wouldn’t prove to be the largest challenge Birnecker Hart and her husband faced in establishing their business. “When we first started, we weren’t allowed to have a tasting room,” she says. “We weren’t allowed to have any retail component whatsoever! We couldn’t even let people taste our products who came by. So I went down to Springfield. I worked with my senator, house rep and my first aldermen on a craft distillers’ bill.
“In getting the bill passed and changing the way the liquor laws, which hadn’t been changed since 1934, it really revolutionized alcohol in all of Illinois, not just for us,” Birnecker Hart adds. “These things weren’t possible until we managed to get these laws changed.
She continues, “I feel that one needs to go as far as one can and if you need the laws changed, then you try and change them and it’s not no until it’s really no. I mean just because it’s no now doesn’t mean it will be no tomorrow.”
Changing what normal is for women in the workplace
Birnecker Hart isn’t stopping at disrupting the spirits market; she is also changing the perceptions of and expectations from working mothers. “Women can do great things and they can really do whatever they want but there are definitely tradeoffs on some level unless you have your own business,” she shares candidly. “If you have your own business, you can make your own rules: You can be the mother in the workplace that you want to be. You don’t have to go nurse in some dank corridor down the hall in a closed room with pump. In having my own business, I was nursing on demand. I took my baby in a sling to sales meetings.
“Entrepreneurship and running my own business turned out to be an absolutely amazing opportunity, and certainly worth the risk because I wanted it all,” Birnecker Hart exclaims. And the more women like Birnecker Hart who are empowered to take it all, the more all women benefit from the changing perception of what’s accepted as normal in the workplace.