Issue No. 23
New York City, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Rog Walker
It doesn’t take much searching of Judia Black’s home to discover where her true passions lie.
There’s a wall lined with row after row of wine, bottles of reds and whites just waiting to be uncorked and served in any one of the many large wine glasses sitting patiently on a nearby shelf. And then there’s the bookshelves in her well-appointed kitchen stacked with cookbooks and sommelier guides that are definitely not just there for decoration.
Black’s love of food and wine goes way back. “I was the one in the dorm who would cook and share food with friends,” the 49-year-old explains. “That was part of the culture I grew up with in the South in Atlanta. My family in Kansas City were caterers. So it's definitely in my genes—it's in my roots—to be a foodie.”
It’s her business, too—Black founded enJoie, a food and wine lifestyle media company, in 2008. In five years, Black has made a name for herself hosting corporate events for companies like Goldman Sachs, curating big spenders’ wine cellars, and promoting smaller vintners such as House of Mandela, the wine line recently launched by former South African president Nelson Mandela’s family.
But prior to being chief executive officer of her own company, Black was a different kind of CEO: “the CEO of my home,” she says. After working in business for years—“I actually worked in almost every area of corporate America that you could be in,” she says with a laugh—her view of the world changed completely in 1998 when she became a mother for the first time. (Black is now the mother of two daughters—Danielle, 14, and Nicole, 10—who could easily be New York’s answer to Malia and Sasha Obama.)
“Once I had my first child, I thought I would have been the mom that went back to work,” Black says now, “but there was something that just happened with me. I had never felt that kind of love in my life, and it was because this little person—this being—was so dependent on me for every single need.”
It was hard for her to imagine leaving her baby daughter alone with a stranger to go to the doctor for an appointment, much less for a full work day, Black recalls.
At the time “I was in between jobs, so I did not have a maternity leave situation to go back to,” she explains. “I did not feel the [financial] pressure to go right back to work, even though I was trying to do a little bit of consulting to keep my foot in the door; I didn't want to lose all the momentum and time I had spent trying to get my career started. Time went by and I [stayed] home longer than I initially expected. I never went back to the corporate world after I had my first child.”
There were other, more graver, reasons for Black’s absence from the work force: she suffered two traumatic miscarriages before the birth of her second daughter, Nicole. One occurred when she was eight-months pregnant. Having what her doctor called an “incompetent cervix,” she went into preterm labor and lost her son after 10 agony-filled days in the hospital.
“I had [taken] my first birth for granted because it was so easy, and then the second one was so darn complicated,” she says. “I came home [and] had breasts full of milk and no baby. [But] I just feel like you can’t second guess things like that because it was part of the plan for my life. I still have two healthy daughters now, and they’re smart and beautiful. I feel very blessed.”
Black threw herself into managing the day-to-day operations of her home and her daughters’ school lives, before she found herself wanting to get back to work.
“Over time I did get lonely,” she admits now. “I did want more interaction outside of the home and to talk about things other than the PTA or what's going on with your children.
“[Also], I have to say, it was really hurtful sometimes when I would go to social events with my [former] husband or even by myself,” she continues with a laugh. “You sit at a table with people and the first thing they ask you is ‘What do you do?’ They're [sometimes] going to be really patronizing and say, ‘Oh yeah, being a mom is one of the most important jobs in the world.’ I did feel like sometimes people would shut down and sort of write me off as not being that interesting.”
A longtime fan of vineyard tours and wine tastings, Black decided to pursue her foodie interests; in 2001 Black took classes at the American Sommelier Association and became a certified sommelier.
“I had friends who were coming to me, asking me for advice on what wines they should get,” she recalls. “If they're having a party, what they should pair with this or that, if they were buying a gift for somebody, what should they get? I thought, ‘This is a business opportunity.’”
She founded enJoie that fall and hasn’t looked back since. Thanks to word of mouth and friends in high places enlisting her services, Black has three corporate clients and scores of private clients who rely on her knowledge of wine and marketing.
“It’s been a long path,” she says, “[but] I can literally see [the] business getting traction. I think it was really the right path for me.”
True to the name of her company, Black is truly enjoying her life.
What do you think of the idea that a woman can’t have “it all”: a successful career, family life, and children?
I think no one can have everything, but I do think it’s all about timing: There’s a time and place for all of it. My mother had her family earlier, and she has more time for pursuing other things now; I had my family later, and I had more time to be somewhat selfish earlier. I think if you decide to have children, you’re not going to have it all at the same time.
If you are really committed to having all of those things, you can have them, as long as [you’re] committed to fighting for it. And you have to be willing to think about when it’s possible, and when it’s not. Or just accept that timing may make certain things appropriate at a certain time.
How would you describe your parenting philosophy?
[It] has always kind of been like the proverb “Give them a fish, they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish, and they’ll eat for a lifetime.” From the time my children were really young, I’ve never been the overprotective, coddling parent; I’ve always wanted to empower my daughters to really know their abilities and their strengths. I want to raise them to be resilient [and] strong. [I want them to] know that I’m there for them, but that they can do it without me.
I also wanted to teach them to be compassionate people. I think compassion’s really important—we all need people and no person’s an island.
Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?
I always assumed I would be a mother. I was raised in a pretty traditional home; it was a logical step somewhere along the way. I think I even wrote in a high school some kind of plan in a scrapbook: I wanted to pursue my career—at the time I wanted to be an engineer—and then I wanted to start having children when I was 25 or 26. Well, I didn't have my first child until I was 35 and I was still not sure if it was the right time. (Laughs)
It really just happened. I got married at 30 and basically it was going to the doctor [at 35] and hearing all the statistics about the odds of miscarriages and birth defects. It was really a harsh reality. [I thought], "If I really want to do this, this is probably the time to start thinking about it."
How would you describe your daughters’ personalities?
My older daughter is gregarious, confident, charming, and responsible. And creative. My younger daughter is loyal, sensitive... She’s actually very humourous, she has a great sense of humor.
What do Danielle and Nicole like to do?
[Danielle] is very athletic, but then she also likes art. She’s a great visual artist—the art that she brings home has been really spectacular.
She’s social, she likes people, and she’s a leader. [Her teachers] always told me that from the beginning, even when she was in Gymboree class. They said she would get people to follow her, not because she was bossy, [but] because she was confident. She knows how to engage other people in a way where they feel good about themselves.
My younger daughter is a little more private. She has a smaller group of friends and she’s very loyal to [them]. She’s very creative. She’s an amazing performer from a theatrical and dramatic standpoint, [and] she’s also, I think, a great writer.
She’s very imaginative. She lives in her own world a lot more, she’s a little more of a loner than my other daughter. I can even remember when she was a toddler, how she could play alone. She would be in her room with her dolls. Nicole only liked to play with certain kids; she didn’t like to have a range of playdates like my other daughter. She just has a really vivid imagination. It comes out in her writing too.
You have your B.A. in math, an MBA, and you’ve had your fair share of corporate careers. How did these experiences inform your decision to go into more of a lifestyle-focused career?
I think it was really not the education that influenced me to go in that direction, it was more the passion. I started off doing more numbers-oriented work because of my math degree, [then] I did some work on Wall Street and in finance, [but] I’m passionate about people and food and socializing. I just wanted to do something more meaningful.
It was not so much that the math and business influenced my [new] career, but the fact that I felt like I wanted to apply those skills in a more meaningful way, and do something that was a little more me.
I did a lot of soul-searching, because I was not happy in every job that I ever had, and the ones that I was happiest in were more people-related and more creative. So advertising, marketing, [and events] really became more of [my] focus and [my] passion.
I think having gone through different careers and different traumatic events in my life... you realize all the material things and the status of impressing people is not so important. That we really have to get to the heart of who we are, try to embrace that and try to be happy in life. And the heart of who I am is a person who wants to entertain and teach.
How did enJoie begin?
Because of how old I was, I was at a later stage in my career; I was [a] mature, seasoned employee, but I didn’t stay in one place for a long time. I didn’t have a track record of “She’s got 10 years of experience in x, she can come in and hit the ground running.” Some people look at that as a negative. It was hard [to find a job].
In 2008, I started taking my second class through the American Sommelier Association. I had said no to an offer from the last corporate job I interviewed for, primarily because my younger daughter was only 3 years old at the time and the job would have required a significant amount of travel. But by the time my younger daughter was 5 years old, I said to myself, "It's really time now, I have to do something. She's getting ready to go to kindergarten, and I just can not volunteer for another school auction." (Laughs) I was just done with the volunteering thing. The economy was starting to change too -- both of my daughters were getting ready to be full-time in the New York private schools system, which ain’t cheap!
It became apparent to me that it was really time to start my own opportunity and figure out how to make some financial contributions to the family. I [thought], this is worth a shot. The worst case scenario, it doesn’t work and we’re in the same place, but I think I can make it work.
I got my first client through [a] school auction, where I was fundraising co-chair the year before. I [offered] a wine tasting event in the auction, and the person who bid on it was the founder of Ciao Bella Gelato, [an all-natural, award-winning gelato company based in New York]. I did [the event] for him and his wife, and they were happy about it. I gained the confidence to keep doing it more and more. I used the school and the place where I had been working before as platforms to get out there in a more entrepreneurial way.
Is there a particular memory or family member that you credit for your love of food and entertaining?
It was just a big part of my Southern background. My mother’s mother did it in one way, that was much more traditional. We would go down to her house almost every Sunday for meals after church. She was the old school; she would make the meal early in the morning, so that it would be ready when everyone came home from church. She grew up basically on a sharecropping farm, picked cotton and all that kind of stuff, and it’s basically that slavery model, where Sunday was kind of like the day that everybody had off and they were free to socialize with one another.
Then on my father’s side of the family, his mother was more from the Creole descent in Louisiana and Alabama. They did it in slightly different ways. My mother’s family is Baptist, they didn’t believe in alcohol; my father’s side partied a little more. My father’s mother would make gumbo [and] a lot of the traditional Creole dishes, but then my father’s father was a good cook too, and he would do more traditional Southern food, [like] okra, succotash. So everybody in my family was an influence. [There were] different types of food, but it was always good food.
What perspective or example do you want to impart on your daughters through your work?
I definitely want to show them that it’s okay to have balance in your life and not to be all one stereotype. You don’t have to be the total homemaker, but it’s okay to take pride that you make a good meal, or [know how to] entertain or throw a good party. It’s okay to really want to make money and have a profession and a world outside of your family.
I just want them to understand the importance of being. We’re all humans here on this earth together. [I want them to understand] the importance of being a part of a community, and not just looking for what you can get from it. That’s really what helped me in getting through the tough times in my life. I moved around a lot in my career and had to start over again. Some people find it difficult to move to new places and to start over and embrace change and new beginnings. I think that it’s inevitable that that’s going to happen at some point in life. If you have a community, it’s a lot easier.
Issue No. 23
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK
"What now?" It’s a question many stay-at-home moms have wondered as their newborns become toddlers, and then children going off to full days of school. Former corporate world veteran Judia Black decided to found enJoie, a food and wine lifestyle media company after almost a decade out of the corporate world. Yet her journey is marked by great losses. Black spoke with mater mea about moving past one of the hardest things a mother can go through to create the career of her dreams.