RMB Solutionist Thinking is a podcast series hosted by Bruce Whitfield which focusses on great South African minds thinking differently and going against the norm. In this episode in the second series, Whitfield interviews Carmen Stevens, winemaker and Chief Executive Officer of the Carmen Stevens Foundation.
Becoming an award-winning winemaker in a male-dominated industry wasn't a seamless transition for Carmen Stevens. Her progression is stained with painful, oppressive memories from a time she says, she never wants to relive.
Hailing from a suburb in the poverty-stricken Cape Flats – an area designated on the outskirts of Cape Town for so-called coloured people – Carmen wasn't your average child.
As a little girl, Carmen struggled with a learning disability that meant she unable to read and write English. Determined to see her daughter succeed, Carmen's mother sat with her as she read Mills & Boon novels, night after night. Set against the romantic backdrop of the Vineyards of Calanetti – the novels not only resulted in a love for reading but, set fire to her dream of being a winemaker.
I said to my mom one day, I'm going to be a winemaker.— Carmen Stevens, winemaker at Carmen Stevens Foundation
To fulfil her lifelong dream, Carmen was about to unknowingly undertake a battle that would set the tone for her entire life as an activist against prejudice, in her case, just to be given the opportunity to learn how to make wine.
After matriculating and, despite the fact that there was no funds for her to attend – Carmen applied to Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute in the Western Cape to study the art of winemaking in 1990 and, was refused based on colour. She reapplied in 1991 and 1992 as the Apartheid regime was being demolished but, was refused because she did not have an agricultural background and later, because she did not complete military service unlike the 95% of Elsenburg's student base.
By this time, Carmen had had enough and threatened to expose the college in the media. In the January of 1993 – the first year that Elsenburg accepted girls into the college – amid 100 students, Carmen was the only coloured girl among the five girls that were accepted to attend.
The environment was hostile, but there was no alternative.
To fund her studies, Carmen spent months working in a factory in Elsies River, sold shoes and chocolate eclairs as a hawker at Cape Town station.
It was in her second year at the college, that things became especially unbearable. Carmen was enduring racism, sexism and paternalism from both male students and lecturers. By the half way point in the year, she felt like she was at breaking point.
In my second year, it became unbearable, really unbearable, to a point where my mom said to me, you pack your bags or I'll come and pack it for you... It was a time that I never in my life want back, it was horrible, it was racism at its best.— Carmen Stevens, winemaker at Carmen Stevens Foundation
As a last resort, Carmen confronted the Head of Agriculture in the Western Cape and, shared her story with him. He made drastic changes, things improved and in 1995, Carmen graduated as the first person of colour to qualify as a winemaker in post-Apartheid South Africa.
Her breakthrough may have been unexpected but since then, Carmen has gone on to become one of South Africa's best-selling winemakers and has received international recognition for her wine.
She received the funding she needed from Naked Wine – a company that invests in independent winemakers around the world, using a venture capital approach to bring high-end wines to consumers at cheaper prices. Its angel investors raised a total of 1.2 million in 10 hours for Carmen to launch her own wines, Carmen Stevens Wines – which has consistently remained one of Naked Wines’ best sellers.
Today, Carmen has her own cellar in Bosman’s Crossing in central Stellenbosch. But, while it forms part of Amani Vineyards – South Africa's first 100% black-owned winery – she aspires to have a facility that she can call her own.
To give back to her community, the award-winning winemaker registered a non-profit organisation called Carmen Stevens Foundation and appealed to the angel investors at Naked Wines and managed to raise over R1.2 million to feed hungry school children affected by poverty in the Western Cape.