Emily Bruno, co-founder and chief administrative officer of Denizens Brewing Co., hadn’t thought about becoming an entrepreneur before. In fact, she says she never really had a strong sense of what she wanted to do professionally, even when she was a child.
Her career path up until Denizens was winding and varied, ranging from working at the U.S. Department of State to the National Women’s Business Council. She says she loves trying new things, so she loses interest in repetitive jobs quickly. That’s why becoming her own boss gave Bruno a sense of variety and excitement she says she lacked in her other positions.
Being chief administrative officer means Bruno’s duties are vast and all-encompassing, including the realms of human relations, strategy, operations and finance. She describes herself as a “jack-of-all-trades” and a “one-person back office” for Denizens.
“I had a little bit of a meandering career in D.C. I didn’t stick with a subject matter long, I jumped around,” she says. “I felt like my next move was to start my own business. That was around 2012 and 2013 when craft beer was getting popular in D.C.”
As a natural-born leader and a self-motivated go-getter, Bruno says when she decided to open the brewery with her wife and brother-in-law, she discovered she’s always had this entrepreneurial spirit.
“I’ve always pushed against rules, I’ve always had a strong point of view and I’ve always had a strong sense of autonomy and independence,” she says.
The trio’s vision for Denizens was a tavern that serves as a hub of community and inclusivity — a third space where visitors feel at home. They achieve this every day on both a large and small scale, according to Bruno.
“We make this very diverse profile of beers because it helps bring craft beer to a wider audience… and the thing that’s most rewarding is engaging with our community on both micro and macro levels,” she says.
From the zoomed-in point of view, Denizens is a space loved by individuals in their community; so much so that Bruno fondly recalls a couple who took their engagement photos in the brewery, where they had their first date. From a wider perspective, Denizens is making real change happen on a policy level by advocating for the needs of small businesses and the craft beer industry as a whole.
Bruno says this drive to have a lasting impact on people’s lives and on the industry as a whole is extremely rewarding, but the most valuable thing she’s gained through her personal entrepreneurial journey is growth. She’s realized just how strong and resilient she truly is.
“Being an entrepreneur is like being punched in the face every day — you face a lot of roadblocks, but you have to keep getting up,” she says. “You’re definitely in a David and Goliath situation, but I’ve enjoyed learning about myself and learning what I’m capable of.”
While being an entrepreneur is a grind for anyone, Bruno says she has faced her own set of challenges as a woman in the industry, including the difficulties of proving her credibility. She recalls an argument she had with male a construction worker back in 2013 about how many sinks should be in the women’s bathroom at the first Denizens Brewery location in Silver Spring.
“It’s about being a woman in the world in general,” she says. “Your expertise is questioned — how people hear and see you… it’s a little more challenging than something more specific to craft beer.”
But Bruno says because the craft beer industry is traditionally dominated by white men, working within it can be especially challenging as a woman, just like any male-dominated space. On the bright side, though, Bruno says it’s gotten better since she entered this field in 2013.
“I’ve seen a lot of improvement and change. There’s a lot of work being done to open doors to more people like women and people of color,” she says. “The industry is doing a good job of challenging stereotypes.”
No matter the industry or subject matter, Bruno offers this piece of advice to women who are aspiring-entrepreneurs: it’s all about self-confidence, resilience and introspection.
“It’s an age-old thing that women always over-prepare and feel like they need to know everything, but they don’t. You just need to know yourself and know what your strengths and weaknesses are,” she says. “It’s okay to be wrong and to try and fail. Having that self-confidence is truly critical, especially for women who want to own their own business.”
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