Unapologetic

Chrishon Lampley

My ultimate goal is to use the voice I’ve developed to drive much needed change in the wine industry.

Chicago, IL

Native Chicagoan, African American, Negociant, Entrepreneur, Vino Queen

Wine can be so intimidating. I wanted my wine to connect with wine novices as well as enthusiasts. This is not about the wine snob. When you’re looking at a Love Cork Screw wine bottle, it’s so much fun – the bright, vibrant colors and the double entendres. This is about the person who would chuckle, feel nostalgic or have fun with my wine names. Take my cabernet sauvignon, We’re Movin’ on Up – my generation knows right away, it’s The Jeffersons. The younger generation could think about moving up in the world. For my new chardonnay, I woke up one morning and thought, oh, The Morning After! To me, it’s about having fun with it and finding a way to make those connections with all different generations, races and backgrounds.

In my TEDx talk, I mentioned how the definition of success is different for everyone. Mine is my parents being alive to see me make it. It’s not necessarily about the money; I want to break every glass ceiling till there’s no more to be broken. I’ve said that for ten years. Now, of course, I want to be able to live a comfortable life. I’ll be 50 in September, and I want to be able to retire in the next five years and create something new or travel the world and mentor people. But success for me is showing someone that you can take my childhood of being awkward and different and turn it into something successful.

I grew up in Downers Grove, a northwest suburb of Chicago. I was the only Black student up until middle school, so my childhood was definitely a time of resilience. I had two parents who worked full time, so I was a latchkey kid. I grew up as an only child, although I have a half brother and sister, and lots of cousins that I considered my sisters and brothers.

I have a mixture of heritage from Pensacola, Florida, and Columbia, South Carolina.  My father was an only child who had to take care of himself. He graduated from IIT and ended up with a very successful career. My mom had six siblings, and as the oldest girl, she was almost the parent. My grandmother was a maid, my grandfather was a chef, so it was my mom raising her siblings. Her family actually was the first Black family in Wheaton, Illinois.

Both of my parents worked for ComEd for 40+ years. My dad was the President of Minority Purchasing, so he dealt with amazing small businesses and made them huge businesses through contracts with ComEd. My mom was in the accounting department making sure everybody got paid on time. They live in Las Vegas now that they’re retired. I’m very grateful to have them both still around.

I grew up in what I would consider a traditional African American family, meaning a great household.  A very traditional Christmas dinner, a very traditional Thanksgiving dinner, a very Baptist upbringing. But no major bad thing. I had both of my parents. I was highly educated. The most unique thing that shaped me was that my parents were much older than other parents with kids my age. Their outlook on things was a lot different and they were a lot wiser than other parents.

I didn’t experience what people would say an African American woman should experience growing up, like a single parent household, being homeless at one point…none of those hardships. I actually was spoiled. We went shopping every Saturday. I went to Neiman Marcus, Saks, all the good stuff. However, my parents made me work for everything.  Grades had to be the best, or I’m not getting it. My parents both came from nothing. Their humble beginnings shaped what I would receive, but also how I would receive it. They were able to give me the world; however, I better earn it.

Growing up, I was a singer and a classically trained pianist. I was a very fast runner, so I was also in track and field. A lot of that shaped who I am today with being able to perform, being in front of large audiences with no problem, and being able to sell myself.

But I was always an outsider, an oddball, a little weird. Because I was a Black girl first. Secondly, I’m a mixture of a jock and a musician. I never fit in with the popular kids and never quite fit in on the other end of the spectrum. I was just in this weird purgatory. I wasn’t accepted by anybody; I was just there.

I went to Western Illinois University (WIU) for college where I completed my freshman, sophomore and senior years. My junior year, I went to Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. I ended up with two degrees: a Bachelor of Science in Family and Consumer Science, and an Associate’s degree in Fashion Business from FIT.

Going from being the odd Black girl in high school that talked very proper, or “talked white,” to then going to college and finding this whole diverse group, I started coming into myself. I was getting a lot more attention than I got in high school. And I’m like, okay, wait a minute I’m feeling myself a little bit! And then my parents said if I got straight A’s, they’d give me a car. Got straight A’s, got me a car.

I came back from FIT for my senior year and next thing you know I’m a really, really, really big deal. I lived in New York for a year and a half, dressed in the highest fashion, returned to McComb, Illinois, and then pledged one of the largest sororities in the world, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

If I look back from an emotional standpoint, it was very much well-deserved because I was that oddball for so long and had myself in this emotional cocoon. I would cry a lot, not sure where I fit in. I was always nervous around people. But in college, I’m the star. To now be able to shine my light, to me it was well-deserved. I wish I had had one more year to enjoy that celebrity, because then I had to move to the real world.

When I graduated, I moved to Vegas to live with my parents for a couple of years to decide what I was going to do. I ended up working for Christian Dior in the Forum shops. Mind you, this was big money time in Las Vegas. Bill Clinton would walk through the Forum shops. Mike Tyson would shut down Versace. Las Vegas in the late 90s was very posh.

Living in big cities like New York and Vegas was a huge eye opener. Seeing things as not just black and white anymore really shaped who I was as a salesperson. I was definitely put in my place. I remember when I was studying in New York, I accidentally called a man a Black man, but he wasn’t. He was Dominican. I think about the naivete of kids when I was growing up. One even asked me, “Do you have a tail?” That’s the racism I dealt with back then. If I hadn’t had those experiences, I might still be very naive to think that the world is just black and white. So I learned how to connect with anyone, which is what made me successful in my sales career.

Eventually, I came back to Chicago and worked for Escada, a high-end German fashion house, for 15 years. They used to call me the “shoe girl” because when you would work in these stores you must come with a clientele book. I didn’t. I was 21 and I had only worked at Dior, but I was able to talk the managers into hiring me. I would do thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars of sales because the cheapest shoes there were $500. I was able to accelerate within five years to a multimillion dollar book. Next thing you know, I’m upstairs selling clothing and one of the top salespeople there. Then in 2008, the housing crash caused me to lose several clients. All of the multimillion dollar small business owners started falling off, the marketing firms, the real estate professionals. I told myself, I need to start making money for myself.

I had a meeting with one of my sorority sisters and she said, “Let’s start a business together.” The business ended up being Three Ps Art Lounge on Michigan Avenue. It stood for “Painting, Pottery and Photography.” She wanted more of a bakery. She was in the art world. She wanted dance classes. I wanted the other extreme, a nightclub, because in my mind it was about meeting people. It was meshing those together. We opened in 2009 and were open for three years.

Meanwhile, when I left high end retail, I decided to get into liquor sales and distribution. One of my clients from Escada was the owner of a distribution company here in Chicago and said I could make a lot of money. So I got into liquor sales. That was my transition. At this point, I’m still working full-time at Three Ps, but I also have two territories as a wine and spirits distributor in the same suburb I grew up in. I live in the city, my gallery’s in the city, but when I’m working Monday through Friday, I’m way out in the ‘burbs. I’m working full time, making great money and coming back to the city when we’re almost closing at night. There were a lot of things that were happening during that time on an emotional scale. But on the flip side, I was learning about wine and spirits, which started my birth as the wine lady.

Unfortunately, my business partner started building animosity since she’s working in our space full time, and we’re not making a lot of money. We were quite popular for a while but we closed due to a really bad flood. Non-biodegradable baby wipes, flushed down the toilet in our storefront, literally shut down the whole entire block. We were naive at the time in knowing how everything worked, but we knew one thing: that our insurance didn’t cover baby wipes. Hindsight’s 20/20. We were concerned because we were barely making rent during that time. We were the hottest thing, but we weren’t generating enough regular income. So we shut down.

It was very sad because it was the shut down of everything. My business partner and I had such a bad end, it was like a divorce. It got to the point where our friends had to choose between us. And a few months before the flood, I left the distribution position due to a conflict of interest. I hit up one of my old managers from my previous career and within two weeks I started working for Omega timepieces. When we shut down, I wasn’t sure what to do. I was at Omega, but I was still in that dark place. I knew, okay, I have a good career now. I can get back on my feet and not worry about that. I jumped back in but I wasn’t emotionally checked in. Once you have that itch as an entrepreneur, it’s hard to let it go.

My best friend, Isaac, and I hosted in-person relationship discussions called The Tequila Tales. Isaac taught classes on drug rehabilitation, so he’s a great orator, an amazing and funny guy. We got approached by someone to do an online radio show and Isaac said, “Let’s do it.” Okay, but I know nothing about radio. He said, “Chrishon, all I need you to do is be you. You’re funny. You have that voice. Let’s do it.”

The show was called Love Cork Screw Radio. The “Love” section was fun things that would happen at Three Ps, as two single women…I’ve got stories for days. The “Cork” section was my varietal picks, restaurant picks, nightclub picks. I was still the cool kid at this point and getting invited to go everywhere, so I would always know what’s new in Chicago. And then the “Screw” section was a wild card – talking about pop culture, anything that was in the news, celebrity gossip, all that type of stuff. We had one controversial show when we were talking about a flag football game that I played. That particular episode got so big – it had over 4,000 listeners – so we’re like, wait a minute, we’re onto something here.

I’m enjoying this radio show. It’s a way of venting and relieving my anxiety, but I want something to sell. I had a friend who I met playing flag football, suggest, “Chrishon, you need to come out with a wine. I’ll help you. Let’s drive to a vineyard in Fennville, Michigan.” That salesperson in me came out and I started pitching it. “I’m going to do my own custom crush. I can probably outsell you in your own product,” I told them. Then, I called Summerland vineyard in California, and they said to me, “Okay, whatever you have right here, we’re in. It’s your spirit, that smile. Whatever it is, we want a part of it. When you’re ready, just tell us what you need.” I took all my connections from distribution. I tasted a lot of the varietals. I knew the flavor profiles I wanted.

I started writing a blog called Love Cork Screw. It was the same thing as the radio show, but I would talk more about wine. This was my way of putting feelers out there to see if people would listen to what I had to say. People would chime in on Facebook with, “Oh my God, I just bought that bottle that you told me to buy and yes, you are right!” People were listening. They were actually purchasing wine or going to the restaurants that I would suggest. I literally woke up one morning and said, you know what? I don’t have a dime to do this, but I’m going to make it happen. My friend had some money from her divorce, I started developing the label, and we found a tiny, woman-owned distributor in Chicago who loved our concept. I took all my sales skills, my experience from working in distribution, and we launched in 2013.

What makes Love Cork Screw stick out is the name, the inclusivity and definitely the intentionality. I was one of the first to do nutritional values on the back of my label. I am a little bit of the old mixed with a little bit of the new. I’m listening to the younger generation who are more intentional about what they’re drinking, and a lot more frugal than us Generation X wine drinkers. If I had a wine company based on just the wine I would drink, well, of course it would be completely different. But I listen to the consumer.

We’re currently able to ship to 40+ states and I’m in 18 states with distribution in stores, but I’d like to be in every single state of distribution. I want to build velocity moving more bottles off the shelf, build shelf space, get into additional retail stores, and really get Love Cork Screw to the masses. Whether it be festivals or collabs with influencers and celebrities. The long term goal is to grow partnerships. I’m still going to remain a minority business enterprise as I’m certified that way; however, I do want to sell some shares. I want some more people to be involved with Love Cork Screw and help the product move in spaces that I don’t have connections in.

Love Cork Screw was born from the need for inclusivity in the wine industry. I was very honored to be appointed the Vice President of the African American Association of Vintners this year. That has opened up so many doors to be able to talk about inclusivity within the industry, and the need for us to become more than 1% of the industry. I’m also doing that in conjunction with the Clink Festival, which I created with a business partner of mine, to bring light to women and people of color in the wine and spirits industry. We had over 1,000 festival attendees last year at the Bridgeport Art Center. We’ve had amazing partners from Mariano’s to United Airlines to Diageo who have said, “Chrishon, we’ll do whatever you need.” That was huge for me because there’s plenty of opportunity and money for everyone. Even if I haven’t made it yet, if I’m able to help other minority brands in the wine industry be seen and heard I consider that a win. My ultimate goal is to sell Love Cork Screw – for a very large amount – at age 55, so I can use the voice I’ve developed to drive this much needed change in the wine industry.

I’ve been in a gazillion accelerator programs from Tuck School of Business, Northwestern Kellogg Education, 10,000 Businesses through Goldman Sachs, I’ve done them all. Even being in the room with a lot of entrepreneurs that don’t have an exit strategy really scares me because I’ve heard too many bad things happen where entrepreneurs should have gotten way more money when they sold but didn’t know. I’d rather sell at my peak and then have fun helping people afterwards. I want to be able to sell so I’m in a comfortable space to inspire and help more. It’s not that I want to sell and I’m rich now, bye, peace out! No, that’s where I think I’ll grow even more in my voice and be able to tell more people about my journey.

I have another company called The Lampley, which focuses on helping creators to be seen by showcasing their beautiful products under The Lampley line. From candles that are made with frankincense, patchouli and sandalwood, to amazing tailors here in the Pilsen area who are doing my pillow covers. I think it’ll be really fun when I sell Love Cork Screw to use The Lampley to give other purveyors the platform I wish I had when I was starting out.

If I had not become an entrepreneur, with my skill set, I’d easily be making a half million a year if not more. I would probably have one of the cushiest, easiest retail jobs you could possibly have. My sacrifice was a comfortable living for something that I believed in. I have no money. There have been times in these last ten years that I have not been quite sure if I’m going to make my mortgage or if I can pay myself out of my own payroll. I had to cut off people because I could not pay them and make sure I was lean on the number of subscriptions I had at one time. My sacrifice was my comfortable life, hands down.

And the lack of financial help has been a huge barrier. I want to make sure I say this: this is not me asking for charity in any way. I have seen, heard, and watched it go down with companies that have much less than I do – less ability, less experience, and definitely less shelf space – that got a huge injection of money with no problem. I’ve seen it in real time. Why do I have to prove myself ten times my counterpart and still don’t get the same opportunity?

I feel that the stigma for a minority business, specifically Black-owned, is we’re not ready. I had many companies back in the day say, “Do you have enough product? Are you licensed?” That irks me. I’m beyond ready. I could put wine into the entire United States airways. It’s completely frustrating.

The opportunities that I recently got – that still haven’t completely closed – I’ve worked over and over to prove myself. And then when I prove myself, it’s still not enough. I’ve seen people come with just an idea and get millions. But I’m actually in these stores, I’m actually living it. To me, that’s enough proof that I’ve done all the hard work for you. But I don’t get a chance to get a backer like some of these other companies do.

I have had successful women, one of which is the founder of I Fund Women who I have a really great relationship with, tell me, “Chrishon, as a white woman, I know I can get way more money quicker than you can. You’re right. I get funding just like that.” So now once you go through the men, take them out, then go through the white women, take them out…I’m at the end. It is beyond frustrating to be 11 years in and have self-funded myself and still struggling. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have had huge opportunities come to me. I’ve had partnerships with Peacock Network, Stella Artois. I’ve been in Forbes, Wine Enthusiast, you name it, got the accolades up the wazoo. I’ve got 89 points on my Sauvignon Blanc on Wine Enthusiast. But still, I can’t get that cash injection.

I can tell you right now I have no other barriers. I have the sales skills, I have the marketing skills and I worked my butt off to gain those particular skill sets. Any other barrier, in my opinion, is in your head. The only barrier you should have is cash. But you shouldn’t even have that as a barrier, especially when you have everything else in place.

I’ve had people come up to me and start crying because they’ve watched my journey and it’s feeding them to do better and be greater. The fans are the biggest support. I always tell entrepreneurs, your friends and family are not going to be your buyers; they’re going to want everything for free. But they are the first people I call when something goes well. They’re also the people I call when something goes bad. My rock that deals with everything I deal with is my husband. And my parents are my biggest cheerleaders, even though they don’t completely understand everything that’s going on. I also have two die hard best friends who will always show up.

No matter what you believe in, whether it’s religion or energy or just how life is, it’s crazy that as soon as I started going to church again, good things started happening. It was just me being in the building sometimes, but for some reason, good news has been happening since I’ve been going. It could be coincidental, but I will keep going. For those that are not religious, it is simply putting your mind in a positive place and releasing that negativity and stress that brings great things to you.

I’m proud of my resilience. I’m proud of the fact that Love Cork Screw has touched so many people. Going from feeling like an outsider to now owning a business where people feel like they belong and can see themselves in my journey – now that’s full circle.