Las Vegas is known as a “boys’ town” where men still predominantly fill most of the senior executive positions in the gaming and hospitality industries. The same applies to the spirits industry, where minority owners make up a small percentage of owners and senior executives. We strongly believe that there was a need for a female perspective and presence in this industry. We have been faced with some challenges along the way, but it has only made us more determined to succeed. We are also proud to work with some incredible female forces in the hospitality industry and credit much of our success to women supporting women.
Asa part of our series about strong women leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Higgins and Megan Wilkes.
Jennifer Higgins co-created Vegas Baby Spirits in 2019 with her business partner, Megan Wilkes. Passionate about creating a high-quality product with a local focus, Higgins developed the idea for Vegas Baby Vodka while sipping on her favorite cocktail, a classic cosmopolitan.
Higgins identified a demand for local and independent businesses in Las Vegas after visiting Austin, Tex., where the airport and tourist destinations were jam-packed with local pride and ownership. She sought the same sense of community to bring together Las Vegas and has worked with distributors, bars, restaurants and casinos to bring Vegas Baby Vodka to the Las Vegas Strip and beyond.
As the company’s owner and founder, Higgins is responsible for helping Vegas Baby Vodka grow as both a company and as a local name. She oversees business development, accounting and overall operations. With the goals of seeing her vodka available across the city of Las Vegas and beyond, Vegas Baby Vodka has successfully sold over 1,000 cases in under a year. Her proudest accomplishment is being part of a female-founded and operated company and being awarded a National Women’s Business Enterprise certification, one of the largest certifiers of women-owned businesses in the U.S. and a leading advocate for female business owners and entrepreneurs.
Higgins graduated from Southern Methodist University with a B.A. in 1987. Prior to Vegas Baby Spirits, she worked with charities, churches and schools including WestCare, The Shade Tree, the Central Florida YMCA and the Orlando homeless shelter. With previous work experience in real estate, Higgins has always demonstrated tenacity, passion and motivation to succeed. In her spare time, you can find her reading, spending time with her three children, riding horses and enjoying all that Las Vegas has to offer.
A vibrant member of the Las Vegas community, Megan Wilkes takes great pride in the city and has long been a supporter of local philanthropy. She brings that spirit to the creation of Vegas Baby Vodka with her long-time friend and co-founder, Jennifer Higgins.
Wilkes, who for many years has worked on fundraising initiatives for several non-profit organizations, group sales initiatives and large-scale event planning, brings her business acumen and unwavering commitment to Vegas Baby Vodka. In addition to establishing and cultivating new accounts and introducing the brand to the public, she is responsible for supporting day-to-day operations.
In an industry where the executive ranks have long been dominated by men, Wilkes and Higgins pave the way for female spirits ownership with their women-owned brand.
Vegas Baby Vodka is made with fresh Rocky Mountain water and non-GMO, gluten-free corn by Dry Hills Distillery in Montana. The vodka, which is 40 percent alcohol by volume, is distilled using a column still and filtered through a charcoal filter for an ultra-smooth finish. Wilkes’ favorite cocktail is the Vegas Baby Vodka gimlet, made with fresh muddled mint and pomegranate seeds, as she likes the way the ingredients complement the smooth vodka.
This is not Wilkes first entrepreneurial venture. She also founded MW Events, which provided support for other event companies, including budget oversight and managing vendors. She has been a champion for several Las Vegas non-profit organizations, including Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation of Nevada, Children’s Heart Foundation, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Patrick Kelley Youth Foundation, Nathan Adelson Hospice and WestCare Nevada for Women & Children.
A Las Vegas resident for decades, Wilkes graduated from Bishop Gorman High School in 1986 as well as attended University of Reno, Nevada and University of Las Vegas, Nevada. She started practicing calligraphy a few years ago and also enjoys hiking, going to the beach and visiting her children in New York City and Los Angeles.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
J: I was visiting my daughter at college in Austin and was amazed by the amount of support and pride the locals have in their locally owned brands. It occurred to me that although we have a tremendous amount of pride as Las Vegas residents, there are not many locally owned companies. I started thinking about how cool it would be to capture the spirit of Las Vegas in a bottle through a locally owned vodka. I went to my friend Megan with the idea; we both love a great cosmopolitan and know the right vodka makes all the difference. We developed the name, Vegas Baby Vodka, and the next step was developing a vodka worthy of our great city. It was only two years from the moment I had the idea until our first case was delivered.
M: Jennifer brought the idea to me and initially I thought the idea was a bit far-fetched. But the more she talked about it, the more I began to see the real potential behind it. We are both entrepreneurs and I knew I could trust both of us to work diligently to make Vegas Baby Vodka a success. Plus, we had always talked about going into business together and Vegas Baby Vodka presented an opportunity to make it happen. I am very proud of what we have created with Vegas Baby Vodka, an exceptional spirit that boldly represents the city that we love and call home.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
J: Las Vegas is known as a “boys’ town” where men still predominantly fill most of the senior executive positions in the gaming and hospitality industries. The same applies to the spirits industry, where minority owners make up a small percentage of owners and senior executives. We strongly believe that there was a need for a female perspective and presence in this industry. We have been faced with some challenges along the way, but it has only made us more determined to succeed. We are also proud to work with some incredible female forces in the hospitality industry and credit much of our success to women supporting women.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
M: Our friendship is based on a lot of humor, which makes working together a fun and enjoyable process. During quarantine, we were hosting virtual happy hours on Instagram Live from our Vegas Baby Vodka page and were each filming from our kitchens as we made cocktails for our viewers. During one of our live segments, Jennifer kicked off the happy hour by setting the bar high and creating an excellent cocktail. I proceeded to make the second signature cocktail, and as I started to mix the drink together, the top of the shaker fell off and exploded all over the kitchen. I was mortified, but in hindsight that has been one of the best moments in our digital happy hours.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
J: I was fortunate enough to meet a couple of large spirit brand owners along the way who were comfortable in sharing their mistakes and successes. We are grateful to be able to apply our mentor’s experiences to Vegas Baby Vodka. One specific piece of advice that we continue to follow while balancing our business and personal life, is to “not grow too fast or spread yourself too thin.”
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
J: It’s hard to view ‘being disruptive’ as a negative, because it’s the disruptors who make the world a better place. For us and the creation of Vegas Baby Vodka, we’re expanding the field of women owners. Time and again, the expansion of female leaders has made businesses better; we’ve made politics better. In this context, it’s hard to imagine how disrupting could be perceived as a negative.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
M: We’ve been given a lot of advice along the way, and something that has continued to stick with us is, “always remember that you deserve a seat at the table.” While many people can relate to this advice in some way, as women it resonates strongly with us. It encourages females to believe that they have a right to be there just as much as any man. We know that it can be daunting to change the narrative, but it is more important now than ever.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
J: We are just getting started. We just debuted our 375 ml bottles in hotel mini bars in hotels on the Strip and they have been immensely popular. In addition to expanding our footprint in Nevada, we are looking to bring Vegas Baby Vodka to new markets throughout the United States. Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits is our distributor and they have a great national presence. We are excited to soon be able to offer Vegas Baby Vodka in every state!
M: Vegas Baby Vodka is sold in more than 100 locations in Las Vegas, including MGM Resorts International and Station Casinos properties; The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas; local bars and restaurants; and liquor and grocery stores throughout the Las Vegas Valley. We are very driven and constantly thinking about the next best thing for our business. Later down the line, we would love to have our own distillery on the Las Vegas Strip.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
J: We feel that it has been more difficult as a women-owned brand to build relationships in our industry; primarily with men in production, operations, distribution and so on. However, at the end of the day it’s also one of the things that we love most about our business — getting the chance to shake up the norm.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
M: We enjoy reading and researching tons of relevant books about women in business today. There is no dumb question when educating yourself about something new. I look to my mother, as a self-made woman who raised three children on her own while juggling an impressive professional career. She was an established philanthropist in her community and worked her way up to be an executive vice president of Citigroup when the industry was extremely male-dominated. She has always been an inspiration in my life and has become one to both of us.
J: We are constantly learning how to set a good example while building our brand by watching, listening and asking questions. I am lucky to have many people in my life who have helped shape me and encourage me to go after what I believe in. After all, it’s not an everyday norm that you find two moms and best friends starting a vodka business. I personally find insight and inspiration in my favorite podcast, “How I Built This” by Guy Raz. It features inspiring entrepreneurs and their back stories.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
M: one of my favorite quotes is by Albert Einstein, “When it comes to leadership, example is not the main thing, it’s the only thing.”
J: My favorite quote is “I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t.” — Lucille Ball
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. :-)
M: As women and mothers, we are extremely passionate about helping marginalized and underprivileged children in the Las Vegas community. We both have philanthropic backgrounds and plan to continue to give back to the community through Vegas Baby Vodka. We have watched the community rally together through the highs and lows over the past few years and we are proud to be a part of it all.
How can our readers follow you online?