What does it take to get to the top -- without losing your center? Our “Making It Work” series profiles successful, dynamic women who are standouts in their fields, peeling back the "hows" of their work and their life, taking away lessons we can all apply to our own.
If Victoria MacRae-Samuels describes her trip to Kentucky as life-changing, she's not exaggerating. She had always lived on the West Coast -- first in Seattle, then in San Francisco -- when she visited the Bluegrass State and ended up having dinner at the home of Booker Noe, master distiller of Jim Beam. Although she told him she didn't know anything about bourbon, he wanted more chemists and offered her a job. "I packed up my little Honda Civic -- this was in the late '80s -- and my cat and drove over to Kentucky," she says.
More than two decades later, she's still there. She worked as a research chemist, a processing manager and a quality-control manager at Jim Beam before moving over to Maker's Mark to be the director of operations and now the vice-president of operations. She raised her two daughters in Kentucky and met her husband there, and says it's been challenging to balance her family and career. But she doesn't plan to retire anytime soon. "When I say I love what I do, I appreciate the challenges that come along as well because they’re opportunities for me to think about something differently than I’ve thought about it before."
Why do you do the work you do?
Because I love what I do. I’ve never not taken a job because it didn’t fit what I thought I should do. I am convinced that you have to find what you’re passionate about and if you do, you’re gonna be successful.
It sounds like you ended up in your job by accident rather than design.
Did I set out to be vice president of operations at a bourbon distillery? No. What I did instead was I really got involved in the process and the product of bourbon. What can I learn from the making of bourbon that would serve me well in the future wherever I end up? And deeper I got involved in the process, the more I had opportunities open to me -- the opportunity to be the quality control manager, the opportunity to be the processing manager. I’m halfway through getting my master’s degree [in business administration at Bellarmine University].
Do women have a responsibility to help other women at work?
I think that everyone has a responsibility to empower and be leaders of whatever team they work on. That said, I personally feel I need to do what I can for women in the workplace. I may feel that more because I’m a mother. My daughters are very forthright with me. “Mom, you were the one mom that worked.” “We didn’t get to have cookies in the kitchen with you after school.” “I had to wait in the school atrium until you were able to get off work and pick me up.” But I also get to hear from them now that they’re older, “I’m so proud of you, Mom.” My older daughter said, “I was in London, and I went to this bar with some friends, and when I told them what you did, they were so amazed that a woman did that.” My younger daughter, still in college, she’s still like, “Oh, can’t you take off tomorrow and help me move into the dorm?” But on the flip side, she says, “I always want to work. Because you might not have been there for the cookies, but in the long run, you’ve done something more important. You’ve made me aware of what it’s like to be a professional woman.”
A bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon is dipped in red wax.
Do you remember a time when the big meeting was on the same day as the school play, or something like that?
Absolutely! I probably remember them more than my daughters remember them. They help guide who I am today because the one thing we have to remember is that we work for our families. Part of my goal is that each and every one of my team members feels that they don’t have to struggle with the decision: “Will I be able to keep my job if I go to the school play?” That school play is a blessing, and they only come around once.
How much sleep do you get?
I’m still striving for eight hours of sleep a night. One of the things that I have found is sleep and exercise make me better at what I do, as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter and as vice president of operations at Maker's Mark. Your health is so key but it’s always the thing that we put last. But I’ve become aware of the fact – sort of recently, over the last few years -- that nobody’s going to take care of you if you don’t take care of yourself.
Bourbon production at Maker's Mark distillery.
How do you relax?
I like to read, but I find I get distracted with all the things that are in my head. I’ve found that running clears my head. The lofty goal is every day. My target is five days a week. I can just let things play out in my mind as I’m running, and then by the time I’m done, I actually have a clearer perspective on things. There’s no telephones, there’s no texting, there’s no people calling on you. It's really a good quiet time.
Do women manage differently than men?
I really don’t like to talk about average behavior because that takes away all the wonderful individuality of people, but some people say that women have a different life experience than men do. Women have experienced different things based on their age and the era that they’ve risen up through the ranks. When I went to graduate school in chemistry, they made a point of saying, “Oh, there’s only a few of you. Most men do chemistry.” I was the first woman distillery supervisor [in the bourbon industry]. So just by the nature of being recognized as that, it kind of set me apart. My focus was, “I’m going to do it as good or better as all the men who have come before me.” When the majority of managers were men and I would be the only woman in a room, my goal was to become more like them so I’d be less noticeable. If you talk to women of my generation, who grew up in the ‘70s and their careers span the ‘80s and the ‘90s, that’s fairly common. Now I think that people are saying there’s merit to all different styles, whether you’re a man or a woman.
Do you have a work persona and a non-work persona?
I feel like they’re the same. But my younger daughter will sometimes come here for lunch. She’ll hear me on a phone call and comment, “Oh, that was your work voice.” But I’m not a different person. My values and my sensibilities and how I do what I do is the same -- I think it’s just the tone and style.
Are you close friends with anyone you work with or have worked with in the past?
I haven’t kept up with a lot of people that I’ve worked with over the years, and I sometimes wonder why. I think it’s because throughout the growth of my career, I also had the growth of my children. I didn’t have a lot of extra time. I totally get those mothers out there that say, “I’m working swing shift, I’m tired all the time and I’m raising my children.” I was there. And you don’t have a lot of time to say, “Oh, it’s Friday night. I think I’ll go out with friends.” I think that’s why my circle of friends is very tight and fairly small, but boy, do I appreciate them.
What advice would you give to your 25-year-old self?
Look up more. I’ve always been very focused and driven, looking down into the weeds. I recently traveled to Italy and [my older daughter] said, “They decorate the buildings, and they’re tall buildings so always look up.” I came back from that trip with an appreciation for stopping and looking. I’ve lived my life at a run, or at least at a walk -- always moving forward, looking at the next target, looking down at what I had to do next. Now that’s good because you accomplish a lot, right? But there’s an element missing. If people can learn to just kind of take a breath and look up for a few moments at the surroundings, at the people around them, at the bigger perspective of what it is that they’re really doing, I think it will add value. I think it would have added some value to my life that I didn't really know was missing.