Meet The Woman Making Her Mark in the Cigar World - Exclusive Interview with Sarah Saunders
We interviewed Sarah Saunders, the founder of the Women’s International Cigar Club (WiCC) for our Cuban Cigar Blog this week and she had some extremely interesting things to say about her experiences in the Cigar World and the role women play in it.
'Our aim is to empower and educate women so that they too are knowledgeable in this industry and that their experiences and stories should and shall be heard.'
The WiCC was founded just six years ago, but since that time the club has created a necessary space for women to enjoy cigars, meet like minded individuals and in turn educate themselves and others about cigars. The Club has around 500 members which is forever growing and gaining interest from all over the world. In the last six years it has expressed the female voice in events held in various cities across Europe and hopes to co-produce events in Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin and the USA later this year.
Sarah, despite having serious jet lag after her flight back from the 20th Habanos Festival in Cuba, kindly agreed to us interviewing her about the WiCC, the cigar industry and more. She answered the phone animated and full of the fire needed to be inside of someone who has founded such an inspiring and interesting club in a male dominated world.
- Tell us about yourself, how did you go from being a chef/events director to being the founder of the WiCC?
In fact, I’m still both of those things and in a way it (WiCC) was these two skills that gave birth to the idea of WiCC. Being a chef and an events director, developed my understanding of gastronomy, hospitality and people themselves. I realised that there were many events that I was going to that seemed to be missing something and I was inspired by this space that I thought I could fill with my own knowledge of the cigar industry, whilst combining it with the other areas of interest. My whole life has been about food and I have an understanding of gastronomy and flavours, this informed my interest in cigars and I wanted people to understand that cigars are very different from cigarettes, they’re more like a fine wine or a Michelin star recipe.
- What led you to establishing the WiCC? Was there one profound moment which led you to starting it?
There was, certainly yes. It was when I was in Cuba around twenty years ago, partaking in the Charity Cycle ride. Over the years, by taking part in this event, I learnt an incredible amount about the culture of Cuba and was both aware and impressed by the women in this country. The women here expressed amazing confidence and dignity and were celebrated for their differences and I wanted to create a society back in the U.K which would celebrate this too. As well as this, it was obvious that gender had a smaller effect on cigar smoking in Cuba and I saw so many women smoking their cigars without an eye brow raised or a single remark, which is quite different from where I’m from. This made me realise that there were a large amount of women cigar smokers in the world, who didn’t have a platform or space to express their interest and enjoyment in Cigars and I decided to create that space for them, whilst allowing men to take part in the conversation too. (The WiCC allows both men and women to become a member and men are able to take part in a number of the events that take place).
- How long have you been smoking cigars? Do you remember your first cigar and what were the most prominent things about that moment?
I have been smoking cigars for 16 years now. Initially I smoked local cigars and still enjoy doing so. But one moment and one cigar which stands out for me is the Lancero from Trinidad Cigars, which was gifted to me by Edward Sahakian at the Habanos Festival many years ago. (Edward Sahakian is an internationally renowned, multi-awarded cigar merchant and winner of Habanos Man of the Year in 2017). What was so prominent about this moment was the sheer generosity and encouragement I felt from Edward Sahakian and everyone at the festival. These people were willing to spend their time educating me on the different cigars and were also interested in what I had to say about them.
- What is your favourite cigar and why?
I don’t actually have a favourite cigar, nor brand. I think we get so hung up on brands that you forget what it’s all about. I can honestly say to you that the last cigar which I really, really enjoyed was given to me by Reza, the owner of Cohiba Atmosphere in Antwerp (a gorgeous members-only lounge in the middle of the architectural and fashionably cool landscape of the charming city in Belgium). The cigar was un-banded and unbelievably good, I’ve never known anything like it. It was like smoking silk. (Sorry readers, Sarah never asked him which cigar it was, so we guess you’ll have to go to Antwerp and ask the man yourself!)
- What’s your favourite thing about the cigar industry?
My favourite thing is the community. It’s a very friendly community once you have access to it and when you do, you meet some really incredible people and make some amazing friends. The thing about cigars and when you sit down to smoke a cigar, you have to have time to do so and the people you surround yourself with is just as important as the cigar itself. The misconception that cigar smoking is self indulgent, in some cases is true, but more often than not it is something that you share with others. For me, that’s the really important thing.
- Do you think there is a misconception of women smokers?
Yes, definitely, it’s obscenely obvious. Do you remember the ‘female cigar’- the well known brand Romeo y Julieta Cigars created around 8 years ago? This was not the success they had hoped for, because women are not looking for a cigar that is specific to them. They are looking for a range of cigars to accommodate for an array of tastes. All women are different and one size doesn’t fit all, it just doesn’t work like that. Similarly, there’s a huge misconception that all women like smaller and lighter cigars, which is simply not the case. I know women who enjoy a large ring gauge and deep, spicy flavours and I also know women who enjoy small ring gauges and lighter profiles, so it’s just ridiculous. Despite that being said, I do see this misconception changing, slowly a better understanding is being realised and I’m very happy about that.
7.So you hold events in Italy, Cuba, the UK and Croatia? What are these sort of events?
Every year, in Cuba, I hold the Havana Party which, in essence, celebrates Cuban Cigars. It’s where members of the WiCC can enjoy custom rolled cigars, good company, delicious food, fantastic music and much more. As well as this the WiCC has supported other cigar groups at events worldwide. We organise accommodation and ticketing for these events, which gives women who may have been worried about travelling alone or felt isolated, the opportunity to do so without such hindrances. We’ve also co-hosted events for the last three years in London with JJ Fox Cigars, which we will hopefully continue to do so in the future. Alongside this, we’ve also supported events held at the Mareva Club in Split, which is a beautiful cigar venue in an idyllic town on Croatia’s coast.
8. What do you want to tell the women smokers out there and what do you think they would gain if they were to join your society?
Our platform is for women who are interested in cigars and cigar smoking. It’s a place where they can feed that interest, learn and grow, as well as meet others who share similar interests. This space gives them the opportunity to enjoy the process of cigar smoking and tell their story. In an essence the WiCC validates these women’s experiences by giving them the stage. Our aim is to empower and educate women so that they too are knowledgeable in this industry and that their experiences and stories should and shall be heard.
9. The Cigar Industry is a typically male orientated world. Have you found it difficult to be taken seriously/ had any prejudice comments/found yourself in any uncomfortable situations, or have you in fact felt the opposite of these things?
It’s absolutely a mixture of both. It’s no doubt that the #metoo and Time’s Up campaign extends into this part of the world too and it’s one of the reasons why I set up the club in the first place. Like I said earlier I wanted to create a safe, significant and serious platform for women to be represented in this industry. Right from the outset, there was what I call boy schoolboy tittering, a lot of people were ‘amused’ by the idea and came out with all of the stereotypical comments which, quite frankly, went over the top of my head. I held my head up high, stuck to my guns and the significant women I knew in the cigar world were of immense support. I knew what I wanted to do with the club and I knew what it required, it was just a matter of changing the conversation and making it happen. Despite that being said, there have been many men in the Cigar world who have supported, encouraged and promoted WiCC and we have enjoyed events and conversations with these people over the last six years.
10.There are a number of successful women in the cigar industry, who inspires you the most?
There are several women actually and I could go on endlessly about the ways in which they inspire me, but that would mean you listening to me for hours. One of these women and at the forefront of my mind is Jemma Freeman (managing director of Hunters & Frankau), who not only is extraordinarily knowledgeable and a real powerhouse in the cigar industry, but she was also personally very supportive of me setting up the club. She represents everything I really wanted to share with other women, which is incredible elegance, wit and humour, seriousness and depth of knowledge in the industry. Another woman who inspires me is Yolanda Medina, a senior Cuban roller resident now at the Melia Habana in Havana. Yolanda told me her stories of creating cigars and educated me on just how much the role of women in this domain is ubiquitous. They are present in every stage of the process, be it in categorising leaves, rolling cigars, marketing cigars and even the very business of cigars and that presence needs be recognised and celebrated.
11. Last and final question, what’s the next step for WiCC? Can we let any of our readers know about any upcoming events?
Our first event is the London heat of the Mareva Long Smoke event which is held in Split, Croatia every year on the first Saturday of September (to find out more about the Long Smoke Challenge event go to: www.clubmareva.com). The date for our London event is the 18th July 2018 and it’s going to take place at the JJ Fox Cigar Shop in St James Street, London. If any of your readers want to participate in this fun and really exciting challenge they can contact me by my email to get involved (email@example.com). The second event (which is yet to be confirmed) is a cigar smoking area at the Rye International Jazz Festival taking place this summer from the 24th to the 27th August. We’re hoping to get this confirmed very soon, as we very much enjoyed partnering with JJ Fox Cigars a few years ago at the Cowdray Park Polo Gold Cup and hope to create a similar atmosphere at this year’s wonderful summer jazz event.
The WiCC will continue to create this weaved tapestry of events, where music, arts, food and cigars can come together. We have created a 6 part event series titled "Women's Cigar Sense" which will explore the different senses and cigars from a women’s point of view. The first event from this series is going to take place on the 31st of May this year in London (venue tbc) and it’s going to be based around the theme ‘Scent of Cigars’. The event is ticketed and costs £55.00, many spaces have already been booked but limited spaces can be reserved if your readers want to email me or check our WiCC website they’ll be able to find out more information.
It was so great to catch up with Sarah after spending some time with her at the 20th Habanos Festival. We couldn’t be happier that the WiCC is expanding and and we’re looking forward to seeing what else they have in store for women smokers in their upcoming events. We think it is a great society and something we support wholeheartedly.
If any of our readers want to know anything else about the WiCC, feel free to contact us via our email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact Sarah herself, she’ll be very happy to answer any of your questions!