Khary and Selena Cuffe are the co-founders of Heritage Link Brands, LLC, a million dollar Los Angeles wine importation company whose South African wines increasingly are the brands of choice among wine connoisseurs everywhere. The Cuffes have struck lucrative deals with United Airlines as well as American Airlines to serve their South African wines on flights in addition to selling wines across the U.S. and online.
Selena Cuffe is the President and CEO of Heritage Link Brands, LLC. She presides over the company’s strategic and operational direction. Khary Cuffe serves as Chief Financial Officer. He directs fiscal control functions and oversees business development activity and regulatory affairs.
Today, the company not only imports and distributes African wine in 41 states, but showcases wine harvested by vintners of African descent throughout the world. Their labels include M’hudi and Seven Sisters Wines, the only two black family-owned vineyards in all of South Africa. I got the opportunity to interview Selena Cuffe to find out the inspiration behind Heritage Link Brands. You can access our interview by clicking on the subtitle above or scrolling below.
What inspired you to start Heritage Link Brands?
Selena: I had a longstanding desire to merge my passion for entrepreneurship and social justice. Just six years ago, I was a Harvard Business School grad with a high-powered job who happened to be in South Africa on a business trip, which wasn’t at all related to wine. While there, I visited a wine festival in the Soweto township and sampled many delicious wines produced by indigenous African vintners. They shared their stories with me of Apartheid-era struggles and spoke of their difficulties securing distribution of their wines in South Africa, let alone in the United States.
Then, when I learned that South Africa’s $3 billion wine industry had less than 2% black ownership (despite blacks representing 80% of the country’s population), it was like a light went off in my head. Their struggles and goals ignited by own passion for helping others, and I became focused on bringing these fantastic wines and the inspiring stories behind them to the U.S.
What is it like to work as a husband and wife team?
Selena: It’s amazing! Yet as you can imagine, being both life and business partners means that we (husband Khary and I) have to work especially hard to not let business matters extinguish our love life. Add to that that we are the parents of two small children, and that can be quite the challenge!
What were some of the main challenges you faced in the beginning stages of your business and how did you manage to overcome those challenges?
Selena: The wine industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the U.S. Initially, it was a beast to get through the red tape of establishing ourselves in different states, each with their own unique laws. We confronted these challenges by taking the time to do our research, and not reinventing the wheel. And when like-minded, successful people in the wine industry offered to mentor me, I took them up on the offer!
What’s the coolest part about Heritage Link Brands?
Selena: The coolest part of Heritage Link Brands is positively changing people’s perception of the African continent, helping black people all over the Diaspora better their and their families’ lives in sustainable ways, and helping to re-instill a sense of family and connectivity into the lives of the people our company touches. Not to mention, mitochondrial DNA has confirmed that all modern human ancestry originates from Southern Africa. So, in essence, our wine helps people come back to their roots!
It was also pretty cool when Black Enterprise magazine profiled the business, and my husband Khary and I landed on the cover of the August 2009 issue!
What is your best selling wine?
Selena: One best seller is our delicious Seven Sisters Twena Rosé, an easy-drinking semi-sweet wine with fruity color and flavor. The story behind this brand is dear to our consumers’ hearts! The seven sisters of Paternoster, South Africa, lived in a small fishing village until their father was fired from his job. Because losing your job as a black South African under apartheid essentially meant losing any entitlement to land, the family was forced to leave their home.
Twenty years later, the sisters of the family reunited to create fine wines under the Seven Sisters brand. Each of the wines is carefully selected to match the styles and personalities of each sister, and celebrate their bond and devotion to sisterhood.
What makes your company different and unique from your competitors?
Selena: Our wines allow consumers to “drink well while doing good!” Our entire portfolio is produced under careful product and quality management, using smart environmental practices, fair business practices, and sustainable agricultural techniques.
Heritage Link Brands is the largest importer and marketer of black-produced wine from Africa. We partner with indigenous producers previously disenfranchised by South Africa’s system of apartheid to develop, promote and manage a portfolio of internationally renowned, award-winning wine brands. For example, there are only two black owned family vineyards in South Africa out of 3,000 in the country – we represent both of them exclusively in the U.S!
As entrepreneurs, how do you use fear to work for you rather than against you?
Selena: We don’t. Not that I don’t have fears, but I can’t remember a great business decision that I made that was rooted in fear. But I am thankful for countless that were rooted in prayer, faith, trusting my instincts, and reflecting on how this company has successfully overcome huge hurdles in the past.
Is there a certain movie or book that inspires your work?
Selena: “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. This book includes great lessons about how to trust the strength we have within, and how life is too short to obsess about other’s opinions of us.
What advice would you give an entrepreneur starting out today?
Selena: I encourage neophyte entrepreneurs to make sure their contacts are aligned with their personal and business missions. It is dangerous to work with investors with a ton of money but shady practices, or anyone at odds with your goals. This does not mean to avoid interacting with people who see things differently than you (quite the opposite – doing so can lead to valuable insights), but rather to be wary of people with drastically different values and motivations than your own.
What can we expect from Heritage Link Brands this year?
Selena: We have an exciting new product launch from a world-renowned, iconic family on tap for 2011. We can’t give more details at the moment, but needless to say, this addition will definitely help us reach our goal of inviting U.S. consumers to “taste the best of Africa!”
How does Heritage Link Brands Spread Luv?
Selena: From staff, to consumers, to advisors, to media contacts – Heritage Link Brands is a family! That said, we Spread Luv by truly thinking of our connections as long-term relationships. We don’t sit on information that is useful to others, but rather pass it along as quickly as possible. We put relevant people in touch with each other. Our company is known for helping others, and in turn, the help we have received from others has been overwhelming. Thanks for the luv, and keep sharing it with us on Twitter and Facebook!
Please feel free to access our website right here for more information about our company: www.heritagelinkbrands.com Also please be sure to check out the You Tube link below which contains some awesome videos of Heritage Link Brands in the news!