Mireille Guiliano’s career is not what you would call typical or ordinary. Full of twists and turns and unexpected successes, her journey serves as the only proof one needs that it’s worth taking risks, trusting your instincts and always exploring new passions.
Largely considered an ambassador of French style and culture, Guiliano has a certain je ne sais quoi. And perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she is one of the few women who has managed to climb to the top echelon of both the wine and spirits and luxury goods industries. Or, perhaps it’s because after she got there, she then went on to be a best-selling author. Alternatively, it could be simply her attitude toward life in general—an advocate for aging gracefully with an insatiable love of oysters.
Guiliano first came to America as an exchange student in Massachusetts in the mid ‘60s. She returned to Paris to receive her master’s and certification as a translator. Realizing she wasn’t cut out to be an interpreter, she decided to help found the premium French champagne house Veuve Clicquot’s U.S. business unit in 1984—a life-altering move. The House of Veuve Clicquot was almost unheard-of in this country at the time. Despite having basically no managerial or PR experience, she worked her way up to CEO of Clicquot, Inc. (today a subsidiary of LVMH). And under her leadership, Veuve Clicquot’s market share in America skyrocketed from less than one percent to more than 23 percent.
But Guiliano’s professional story doesn’t end there. After publishing “French Women Don’t Get Fat”—which reached No. 1 on the the New York Times best-seller list and went on to sell over 3 million copies worldwide (and counting)—she decided to leave her position as CEO of Clicquot, Inc. in 2006 and pursue her new passion for writing full time. Guiliano followed up her first book with two more best-sellers.
Looking back, Guiliano calls her time in Massachusetts “transformational.” And while traveling through Provence, she took some time to divulge her professional advice—as well as her go-to spots for wining and dining in Boston.
How did your experiences as an exchange student in Weston, Mass. shape you as a person?
They certainly introduced me to applying my values real fast, like being responsible and recognizing my luck. I learned to show my gratitude for all the wonderful things that happened that year from living with great families (six), to making new friends, to learning first hand about a culture I knew very little about, to representing my culture and country, and to giving me tools to pursue my love for languages. They demonstrated that I love to be with people, share my culture and do new things like horseback riding, which I was so scared of trying…but eh, what’s the worse thing that can happen? You fall off and pick yourself up! In short, my Weston year was transformational.
Women are often too afraid to take risks in their careers—something you’ve done a lot of. What would your advice be to someone who’s considering making a leap professionally, whether that’s leaving a big corporation for a startup or launching their own business? Do the rewards usually make it worth it?
Ask yourself, “what’s the worst thing that can happen?” Usually, the worst is really not so bad and you can live with it, so the risk is not high risk. So, don’t be afraid to take risks, but first make a list of the pros and cons and continue to revisit the question “what’s the worse thing that can happen?” There is always a risk-rewards equation, and rewards don’t always make it worth the risk, but you always learn a lot on the way, so it is worth exploring and trying as one can always learn something from a position and a field and enrich our experience. And then you are better prepared to consider the next opportunity … and risk.
It is most important being comfortable with oneself than with other people’s expectations and aspirations. Defining oneself too much by one’s position is a dangerous situation.
Did people think you were crazy to quit your role as CEO? How did you deal with that?
Sure, quite a few thought I was insane to give up title, perks, etc., but to me it was never an issue. I recognize my weaknesses, but ego or ambition have never been on the radar. Once I made up my mind, I turned the page and never looked back. I had 20-plus great years being part of a team building a great brand unknown to the U.S. market and felt it was time for the next phase and stage. No regrets. It is most important being comfortable with oneself than with other people’s expectations and aspirations. Defining oneself too much by one’s position is a dangerous situation.
There’s a lot of hype around “having it all” as a working woman—something that some say is impossible without going insane (or having your health suffer). What’s your take?
I personally don’t believe in “having it all,” at least not at the same time. That sets you up for too high expectations and failure or dissatisfaction in either your professional or personal life or both. In “Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire,” I speak about the four anchors and when one is weak or breaks your balance is off and you suffer. Again, I’d rather look at priorities for the present stage and put something in the background for a while…Having it all is illusionary but you can have a great deal…sequentially perhaps, simultaneously is asking for a lot with lots of drawbacks, always.
I personally don’t believe in “having it all”—at least not at the same time. That sets you up for too high expectations and failure or dissatisfaction in either your professional or personal life or both.
Were there any specific instances in which you personally experienced the so-called glass ceiling as a woman in the business world?
Obviously many times, as the wine world was pretty much a man’s world in those days and many men reporting to me or dealing with me were twice my age and not ready to even listen to a young CEO. I learned to deal with it with humor—or if that did not work telling diplomatically my reasons for whatever I was doing what I was doing, even if they could not understand (though a few did years later and even said so and apologized, which was gratifying). If you give people reasons, even if they disagree with them, there is a level of respect, acceptance and professionalism…and it isn’t so personal.
Nutrition is clearly a topic that holds importance for you—how do you think it ties into success? In other words, how do you fuel your body and mind for optimal energy and brain power?
You are what you eat. Not sure nutrition ties into success, but it certainly helps you be sharp and function optimally, which is essential in any job with lots of responsibilities. Eating lots of different foods and in moderation is key. As for my mind, yoga, walking, cycling were as essential as body and mind do need to work well together.
Where are your favorite spots to wine and dine in Boston?
I love fish places because oysters, scallops and lobster are some of my favorite foods. Locke-Ober, Legal Sea Foods, L’Espalier and Hamersley’s Bistro were top of my list for a long time. Fast forward 21st century I’d say all the small oyster bars but also for sheer quality and consistency No. 9 Park, the Four Seasons restaurants, Clio, Oleana, the Butcher Shop, Coppa and so many others, particularly anything Italian.
What’s one skill that you think played a significant role in your success thus far—and one that you’re working on honing for future success?
Good oral and written communications is crucial. Working collaboratively is increasingly important and good manners like respect for all your co-workers and being a good listener and curious and always willing to learn from others are thus fundamentals. And as the times and media are changing, one needs to always adapt as there is no such thing as too good communications and there are always challenges to be met between senders and receivers.
A lot of women in their 20s and 30s feel a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about their careers. When you started out in New York as a translator and realized that wasn’t the path you wanted to take, how did you go about finding your real passions and new direction?
Prepare, prepare, prepare. And keep dreaming. Make a list of what you’d love to do and go for it with certain realism. Line up your skills to strategize a bit and see what is realistic, even if it means starting at entry level. When I realized that too much of translation was in fields I did not care for like aeronautics, politics, industry, finance, etc., I looked into my real passions like travel, food, wine, and started with a job for a US public relations/ad agency representing the Champagne industry—something I did not know much about at the time (except sipping it and loving it). With my masters degree in English and a boss good at mentoring, I learned many skills I did not have for that business environment—writing press releases, preparing budget plans, lecturing, etc., and I grew into a director position pretty fast. Being French and in New York helped.
Photo courtesy of Mireille Guiliano. This interview has been condensed.