In this episode of “End Of Day Drinks,” VinePair’s editorial team is joined by Dia Simms, CEO of Lobos 1707 Tequila & Mezcal. Simms details life before entering the spirits industry, explaining how her prior experiences working in the U.S. government and at Combs Enterprises laid the foundation for where she is today.
As president of Combs Enterprises, Simms oversaw the meteoric rise of Cîroc. Her leadership helped ease the transition into the spirits industry. Lobos 1707’s forward-thinking approach — with its focus on diversity and inclusion — caught the eye of celebrity investors such as LeBron James and Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as the tequila-drinking population as a whole. Finally, Simms lists Lobos 1707’s current lineup, which includes a Joven, Extra Añejo, Reposado, and Mezcal coming soon.
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Cat Wolinski: Hello and welcome to “End of Day Drinks” with VinePair. I am Cat Wolinski, VinePair’s senior editor recording in Brooklyn, New York. I’m here with members of our editorial team. We have our tastings director and producer Keith Beavers, our assistant editor Emma Cranston, and we have Elgin Nelson, editorial assistant. We are speaking today with Dia Simms. She is the CEO of Lobos 1707 Tequila & Mezcal. It’s a brand that launched last year, and it’s just the latest in a long line of very impressive things that Dia has been involved in. She previously served as the president of Combs Enterprises, as in Sean “Diddy” Combs Enterprises. She was in that role as the company’s investment in Cîroc vodka transformed that brand into a billion-dollar ultra-premium vodka brand. She’s also been on Ebony’s Power 100 list and Billboard’s Women In Music list. And on our list, as someone we’ve really been looking forward to speaking with and having on the show. So before I give too much away, Dia, take the mic. Say hello!
Dia Simms: Ooh, la la. That’s a wonderful intro.
C: You’re a wonderful guest. I had to pull out the stops.
D: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here today.
C: First of all, where are you joining us from?
D: I’m in sunny Los Angeles, and I know this is probably cliche to say out loud, but it is actually enormously, incredibly gorgeous today. It’s extra L.A. today.
C: Surprisingly, it’s actually a nice day here on the East Coast, too, but that’s pretty rare. Are you usually in L.A.?
D: I mostly grew up in Queens, N.Y., and I am between New York and Maryland most of the time. However, we have lots of exciting things going on with Lobos 1707 in L.A., Miami, and all over the country. I travel wherever I have to go to move this wonderful tequila.
C: Absolutely. And where is the company operating right now? Is it mostly in Maryland?
D: No, the company is in the Lower East Side in New York. We would love to have you by our office. We had great investors behind the brand, and we could have gotten a swanky office. No, we want to be at the heartbeat where culture is being created. The Lower East Side is so famous for everything from the height of sneakers to the coolest trends coming out for the last 100 years. In some ways, it is very much one of the last zip codes that represents the tradition of old New York. We built our office in the spirit of a wolf pack to be able to be an actual den. We have a full stage, a huge bar, and a super-long table that our founder actually built with his own hands. Once we start to move out of the pandemic, which I believe is happening, we already extended our reach to the community. They can hold community board meetings here. If you’re a young artist and you need to shoot your campaign or cover art, you can come to shoot here because it actually used to be a studio, so the lights are incredible. We wanted to build an office that serves the consumer. It is not just a one-way experience, and we want to walk it like we talk it. We love the space, and we’d love to have you guys there.
C: Wow. We would, of course, like to come by. VinePair is actually based in Manhattan. We’re all remote right now. Some of us are Brooklyn, some of us are in New Jersey, Elgin is actually in the Bahamas.
D: Oh, OK.
C: Anyway, that sounds like such a cool space. Is it part office and experiential marketing space?
D: Yeah, we can host events and dinners. We actually have a kitchen in there. We’re having dinner actually on Monday, Covid-19 safe, with an amazing chef. It’s a flex space, but it was more important to us. After last year, we are living in a transition of what an office even is, because obviously, it doesn’t matter where we are. Train, plane, or hotel, you’re at your office if you have your device with you. We thought that it doesn’t need to be so traditional. It’s really an opportunity for us to survive as a company.
C: That is so true, and I think what you’re saying speaks to your adaptability as a businesswoman. I’d love it if you could take us through your career track, what led you here, where did you start, and everything in between.
D: Oh, yeah. My career track was not at all linear. It definitely wasn’t the plan to go to school and then going into the spirits business. It was 100 percent not the case. I am a super geek, and I love to learn. The only thing that was consistent was how can I bring the utmost excellence in every single thing I do. My job title was so very different from tequila. I started off working for the Department of Defense, negotiating defense contracts, and I was very young. I was 21, and I was handed a $120 million contract to negotiate.
D: Exactly. As you can imagine, the contract I was negotiating, people were thinking, “What is this whippersnapper doing in the room? You really should be getting my coffee.” It was the absolute best training ground for every single thing I did. After that, I was sent to what was called then the Defense Acquisition University, where I was trained in negotiations. I had a secret clearance. I felt that was very cool, but most importantly, I had to be in a space with people who had been in the industry, respectfully, for 50 to 60 years. I was brand new, and I understood very much on day one that frankly, extensive knowledge is going to be my only weapon. If I had to memorize the federal acquisition regulations and know them backward and forwards, if I had to fight for the taxpayer’s money like it was my own money, then I would do so. Beyond that, it was the things I learned there, negotiating for trainer jets, helicopters, and integrated logistics support for jets at a tripartite agreement with Singapore friends. That was it. I didn’t know it then, but when I had to negotiate deals for Puff Daddy, fast-forward 15 years, or when I wanted to pick the movie with my husband in the kitchen, everything I learned, the Department of Defense had everything.
C: Wow. That is just worlds away from what we think of as being in the spirits industry, but it’s transferable skills, right? I love the example about watching the movie with your husband. We’re negotiating things every day, and whatever we’re doing involves the entire globe.
D: Yes, so from defense I obviously got bored, and I had an opportunity to apply for a job in advertising, sales, and radio in Maryland. I applied, I got it, and took the job. Again, very different from the rigor of working for the U.S. federal government. This was basically sales, but it’s what you call “eat what you kill.” You get a certain amount you’re paid, but you have to sell enough in order to cover it. I always say it’s like selling crack without any addiction. It’s drama and excitement, but there’s no addiction. You really have to sell the thing. It was one year of learning a lot about advertising and marketing. Again, I got great training. I was working with Clear Channel, so they trained me on out-of-home, television, and radio ads. This is way back when we were getting trained on a fax machine. Now, what I really learned is the right marketing demographic, how the demographic focuses, how to segment your marketing approach, and how to sell. Again, it is just an invaluable thing no matter what job you’re in. And after actually doing it for a year, it occurred to me I could be doing it for myself. I got with some girlfriends, and we launched our own marketing company called Madison Marketing, which is where I really first got into spirits. I got Seagram’s as a client, and then I ran a small on- and off-premise promotions team in the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area. I’ve always been focused. If I send a promotional model to a liquor store, I want to ensure that we sell enough bottles that we pay for ourselves. I always wanted to go back to Seagram’s and say, “You may have paid us X, but we moved this many bottles.” That was intuitive as an entrepreneur. It helped build a good reputation in the beginning and give me my first entree into the service industry. Then, I was on and off in sales for a while and ended up back in New York working for Power.105 Radio, which was, at that time, a brand new hip hop station.
C: Oh, my gosh, yes.
D: It was a big deal back then because Hot97, in hip hop, it’s the first biggest hip-hop station in the world. Puff, at the time, refused to advertise on the other station Power105 out of his great loyalty to Hot97. When I started working there, I ended up inheriting all the music labels as clients and I was told Bad Boy Records will not advertise on that station so we really wanted to get them as a client. I made it a mission and eventually convinced them, the executives, to take a chance on them, and we started to get more business for Bad Boy Records. At some point, one of the marketing executives called me and said, “Look, Puff is looking to hire a chief of staff. I think you guys would get along, and you send me a lot of emails at 3 in the morning. So I think you don’t sleep, he doesn’t sleep, so you can interview for the job.” So I took the interview. It was a super-fast interview, maybe five minutes. I had no idea how it went, but they called me and said, “I would like you to come to take the job but because you haven’t managed really large teams before, would you be willing to start as an executive assistant?” I told them I didn’t care what they called me, and I’ll be there in a couple of weeks.
C: Wow, that’s amazing. OK, so did he end up advertising on Power105?
D: Oh, yeah.
C: As president of Combs, if I’m correct, you were the first person to also become president of that company ultimately?
D: Yes. I was there for 14 years and again, I started off as an executive assistant, and then I grew to become the first president in the history of the company. Puff always acted as the president himself so I am always forever honored and grateful that he gave me a chance to run the company because that’s been his real baby since he was 19. It felt like a family business to him, and I am always grateful for that chance.
C: Wow. Were you also involved with Cîroc? Could you tell us about how that happened?
D: Before I had a baby, Cîroc was my first baby. Puff, as you can imagine, was offered tons of opportunities to work in the spirits industry, but he took it really seriously. When this opportunity came about with the Diageo, we were really thinking about how the approach would be, how we’d make sure there was responsible consumption, and if minorities were going to be supportive of this brand, how do we make sure that they benefit economically? When we had the chance I went to him and said, “Look, I am actually trained in negotiations. I know I’m your chief of staff today, but I would like to be on the team to negotiate with you for this plan. Would you include me?” He said, “Sure.” It was a very small group of us. We worked with Diageo for about 10 months, and they were phenomenal partners throughout. When we finished the deal and were getting ready to launch Cîroc, we went back and said, “All of your legacies have been rooted in exceptional marketing.” At that time, the marketing team was very small. I said, “I would like to relaunch the agency you had before called Blue Flame and take lead on Cîroc, which would mean I would step away from my current role.” As chief of staff, I managed all of his estates, security, everything to do personally as well as all the businesses. It would mean stepping away from that and focusing on this one vertical. He basically said, “Sure, if you replace yourself, you can do it.” I went to get Blue Flame funded and then started hiring people and did both jobs for a year. A year later, when Cîroc was doing crazy numbers, up 1,000 percent in multiple zip codes, I knew I needed to just work on this. If you look at the efficiency of our time, this is why we have an amazing brand here that people are really responding to. He finally agreed and then we were off to the races.
C: That’s obviously its own job completely. I can’t believe you’re doing both for a year.
D: Yeah, it was intense. It’s funny because I started in 2005. It was the same year I got married too, so that was a crazy year of my life.
C: Oh my gosh, you had time for a wedding? That’s amazing.
Emma Cranston: Hey, Dia, this is Emma just chiming in. Fast-forwarding to Lobos, what has it been like to move from vodka to tequila? What do you think you’ve been able to really do with Lobos that you couldn’t do with Cîroc? Is there anything, possibly in terms of the mission statement, that you feel are really proud of Lobos?
D: Well, I’m incredibly proud of Lobos 1707 as the brand and for the team. I previously worked in that space. I worked with Sean on another tequila at one point. I’m super familiar with the category and was excited to have this chance to launch a brand at this time. I think the biggest difference is less about the specific brands and a little bit more about the timing. We’re living in such unprecedented times. It was really important to the founder, and we launched 1707 to be really respectful of that. I mentioned earlier about the way we built the office, we wanted inclusion to be built into the core of what we do. It is not an afterthought where it is something you do on Tuesday night and one person does during left-handed purple hair day, it needs to be part of the footprint and the heartbeat of the way we build the company. I’m really proud to say now, coming up a year later, we’re intentionally 50 percent women-led and we’re over 60 percent diverse. I think the foundation of who we are being set before we spent the time on what we are, I think makes a difference all the way down to the liquid.
EC: Yeah, that’s awesome. Specifically, I’d read so much about Lobos’ mission to build a bigger table and everything you were talking about with your offices, it sounds like you have a super-dynamic, inclusive space. How has the Lobos team reflected that, and what does that look like in action?
D: Absolutely, so a couple of things. Here’s a simple thing that I think is a good example, though. When we did our launch creative, and fortunately I built a lot of brands where you come up with some cool idea, shoot it, and it’s all about the cinematography. We really said, “Look, the easy thing to do is tell the truth.” Our creative featured the actual jimadors who worked on this brand. The actual owners of the brand and everybody in our launch creative commercial are a real part of the Lobos family, which is different from a lot of other brands. Even in tequila space, you’ll see the jimadors blurred out, obviously a lot of times in the background. They really are the rock stars of the brand when you think about it. Even though we’re so fortunate to have huge luminaries like Arnold Schwarzenegger and LeBron James behind the brand for us, the liquid, the people, and the humanity in the way our brand operates? That’s the real superstar.
Elgin Nelson: That is a perfect segue to my question. Last year, VinePair published an article on why celebrities want to create a tequila brand. That’s the thing now, everyone wants to make a tequila brand, and celebrities are backing that. Given your investment from LeBron James, how has Lobos benefited from that? Also, what is your position regarding celebrity tequila, because it is a big thing right now?
D: It is. I don’t believe in celebrity brands for the sake of celebrity brands and the consumer is too smart. They can read very quickly through inauthentic pairing, right? With LeBron, that’s really natural. I can spend a little time on this to help give a heartbeat to this. Lobos means wolves in Spanish. Our overarching cry is this famous Kipling quote, which is very familiar with us: “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and for the strength of the wolf is the pack.” LeBron — besides falling in love with the actual liquid, the heritage, and the true story of the fact that our founders’ family have been in the industry for 400 years and that we use barrels from his bodega in Spain — all of that truth was really attractive to LeBron. Beyond that, he’s such a big believer in the need for respecting every member of your team, and the fact that each one of you being strong together makes all of us strong as a collective. His presence is quite natural to the brand. I think the other key piece is that all the people who are behind our brand wrote checks as investors. It is not an endorsement deal, this is not somebody who doesn’t really drink the brand and is doing it because they’re getting a check every couple of weeks. They believe in it as businessmen, they believe in the proposition, and they believe in the product. I think you can very much sense the difference when something is authentic and when it’s forced.
EN: As a team, when you say wolf pack and LeBron bringing that mentality to the Lobos team, what other investors helped bring the brand along that weren’t necessarily part of the wolf pack? That is central in launching a global brand, and you see that a lot with these celebrity tequila brands as well.
D: Well, a lot of times the people, frankly, are not necessarily the names everybody knows. People that we’ve hired, I’ve worked with for years on other brands, and they are the difference makers. The real experience makes it different. This is not the sexy answer, but I think the reason why our brand is five times our original forecast is that we have experienced people who understand how to build a brand and industry. Especially on this podcast, you guys get it more than most. It’s not as easy as having a cool idea, adding a celebrity, and then you can go sell it. You need to really understand and respect every liquor store owner who is busting their butt and feeding their family on this. I think our team, when I look at who really makes a difference, it’s the woman who used to be my assistant, my chief of staff, and now she’s running business development. She goes into this as her family business. That is a difference-maker. LeBron and Arnold Schwarzenegger would say that as well: “You guys have built an incredible team that I’m proud to work alongside everyday.”
E: I think that’s really exciting. You mentioned earlier, too, about your team and how it’s 50 percent women-led and 60 percent diverse. I’m just curious, where do you see the future of women and people of color in general entering the world of spirits? It’s something we talk about a lot on this podcast. How do you see other spirits brands creating those entryways? And how has that become such a priority for Lobos? Do you think other brands should be adopting this approach?
D: The good news is we’re at an inflection point where we can now speak unabashedly around why diversity is just very simply good for business. The first thing that has to change is the idea that adding diversity to a business is some type of charitable endeavor. Every bit of research shows that when you have diversity of thought, you have higher profits, are better for business, are better for retention, and you drive more sales. I think you have to change the approach. The second piece is we look at at a broader level, not just spirits, but as a country. There’s a lot of outstanding conversation and great passion around civil rights but I actually feel the thing that we don’t talk enough about is entrepreneurship, real equity, real ownership. I’ll give you just an example that I spent a lot of time on, but I think this likely reverberates to many diverse populations. In America, the average white American is worth 13 times than the average Black American is worth. When you get down to just business owners, that drops to just three times, which is very exciting news. If you believe there’s been 400 years of civil inequity in this country, and it’s already just a three-times difference, we have to focus on entrepreneurship and ownership as a path forward. We look at the spirits industry and the number of founders who have built a company successfully. We look at the Aviation stories, the Casamigos stories. Less than 1 percent of them, in a meaningful way, have Black and Brown constituents. Women are a little bit better, but it’s still in the single digits. That doesn’t make any sense. Women are 50 percent of the population. The spirits industry has a lot of work to do at every level, from every tier, but the great news is every conversation I’m having, everybody’s ready to do the work. The more we have these conversations, I feel like we’re progressing forward. It just needs to be a math-based, metric-based approach, not just theory.
C: Absolutely. I couldn’t have said it better myself. This is actually a perfect way to conclude our conversation. I know you’re a very busy woman, probably on the way to somewhere.
D: I’m so grateful, guys, for the time and the chance to talk about this. We’re really thrilled. Lobos 1707, we have our Joven out now, our Reposado, our Extra Añejo, and our Mezcal coming soon. If you guys haven’t personally tried and you guys indulge, please do try and let me know what you think about it. I’m really proud of it.
C: The Extra Añejo sounds amazing to me.
EN: Dia, can you also shout out your socials? Anywhere we can follow you?
D: I’m on all social media accounts Instagram, Twitter @diasimms.
C: Thank you so much, Dia, it’s been a pleasure.
D: Thank you so much. Have a great one.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of “EOD Drinks.” If you’ve enjoyed this program, please leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps other people discover the show. And tell your friends. We want as many people as possible listening to this amazing program.
And now for the credits. “End of Day Drinks” is recorded live in New York City at VinePair’s headquarters. And it is produced, edited, and engineered by VinePair tastings director — yes, he wears a lot of hats — Keith Beavers. I also want to give a special thanks to VinePair’s co-founder, Josh Malin, to the executive editor Joanna Sciarrino, to our senior editor, Cat Wolinski, senior staff writer Tim McKirdy, and our associate editor Katie Brown. And a special shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, VinePair’s art director who designed the sick logo for this program. The music for “End of Day Drinks” was produced, written and recorded by Darby Cicci. I’m VinePair co-founder Adam Teeter, and we’ll see you next week. Thanks a lot.
Ed note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.