Pia Carusone’s career path has taken quite the unexpected turn. Less than 10 years ago, she was working in the world of politics and named one of Politco’s “50 Politicos to Watch.” She served as Chief of Staff for former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords during the tragic Arizona shooting in 2011, and later joined the Obama Administration as the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security.
Today, though? Carusone has said goodbye to all that and is focusing her efforts in a completely different industry: distilling craft spirits like vodka and whiskey. In 2016, Carusone opened the D.C. distillery, Republic Restoratives, along with her co-founder, Rachel Gardner. In this edition of “In Hindsight,” Carusone reflects on her unlikely career transition and how every job prepares you for the next.
When I first announced my plans of opening a craft distillery in Washington, D.C., everyone I knew was like, “Wait, what? Doing what?” My own mother had a hard time making sense of the situation. In fact, up until just before we opened Republic Restoratives, she kept calling it “the brewery.” Which, of course, meant I kept having to explain: “Mom, it’s a completely different thing. Brewing beer and distilling spirits are not really not as related as you think…”
I don’t blame her, though. It’s not often you have a daughter who goes from crafting a career in politics to opening a craft distillery in the nation’s capital. But, that’s exactly what I did. In 2015, along with my co-founder Rachel Gardner, we launched our first Indiegogo campaign with the goal of bringing craft spirits to D.C. We ended up raising $119,000 from that campaign, which was at that time the largest crowdfunded distillery in the country!
So, how did I get here?
Well, to be honest, I had just come through some really intense years of working as a political staffer. I’d gone through the horrifying experience of having my boss, former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, being nearly assassinated during the 2011 Arizona shooting. In the aftermath of that tragedy, I stayed in politics. I later joined the Obama administration as the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security.
By the summer of 2013, though, I was ready to call it quits. I left the federal government and pondered whether to do something next. It was time, I decided, for something completelydifferent in my life.
I’ll admit I was never one of these people that have a super strong vision for what my career would look like, or what I wanted frankly. As for politics? I studied American Politics in college and was interested in International Relations. I was paying attention, but I wasn’t like one of those US Presidential history buffs or anything!
But, I was really motivated by the 2003 election and Howard Dean was an inspiring candidate for me. I worked my way into a job on his campaign and from there my career just took off. Every step connected to the next, from working on Giffords’ team to the Obama administration.
“The nature of the work demands that you be the one to make something happen every day.”
Around that time, I connected with Rachel, who is more like a sister than a friend. We share a love of craft spirits and decided to bring that to the city that I love and call my home: D.C. You see, D.C. is a lot like New York and L.A. People just come through for whatever they’re up to. What we wanted to create, though—it didn’t exist, yet.
So, we said, “Why not us?” That’s how we jumped into the start-up world. Which, just so you know, has some striking similarities to politics. When you’re working in politics, the nature of the work demands that you be the one to make something happen every day. If you’re not making it happen, no one is.
That’s at the basis of entrepreneurship. It’s the sense that you have a vision and you have the wherewithal to push through, even in the moments where everyone around you doubts it. And you start to doubt it, the other side of you feels the need to keep moving forward. Otherwise you’ll just never get anything done. So, no, I never owned a business. But that didn’t really scare me too much. I’d gone through the political machine, hadn’t I?
“Starting your own business, though, becomes gut-wrenching when you start to sign on the dotted line for all the various commitments.”
Of course, there was still a lot to learn. Financially-speaking, I had never been in this kind of debt before. I’d bought a home when I was 30 and there’s the bank loan and all that kind of stuff. Starting your own business, though, becomes gut-wrenching when you start to sign on the dotted line for all the various commitments. It was over a million dollars’ worth of work! It was stressful, contentious, just overall really, really difficult.
I asked friends, “Give me some names of the top contractors in D.C.” And everyone laughed. There are, I learned, no top contractors in D.C. “They’re all going to screw you over, but choose the one that you think is going to screw you over less,” is the advice we got. We certainly got a lesson in being really hard-nosed about what you want. More than anything, the finances, the build, it was the reality check that starting your own business is not just a fun idea. It’s a very real, concrete objective that comes with consequences.
“The good thing is we believe in what we’re doing. And we’re not afraid to admit what we don’t know.”
The good thing is we believe in what we’re doing. And we’re not afraid to admit what we don’t know. When you’re working as a campaign or political staffer, it’s respected to be honest about what you know and what you don’t know. It’s actually frowned upon to sort of fudge it.
My career roles over the last 15 years have been decadent, in the sense that I’m managing campaigns or serving as the chief of staff. What that meant was that I’m sort of inch deep, mile-wide on my whole scope. I’ve long been very comfortable not being the in-house expert on any one thing. My strength rests in being able to see all the balls in the air and figure out which ones needs to be focused on.
Thankfully, the craft industry is really open in terms of helping train and educate would-be distillers. Rachel and I went to multiple conventions. We learned everything from how you make vodka and whiskey, to the finances of distilling, and the regulations you follow. We sat through dozens of hours of training and by the end, we knew enough to get by in the decision process.
Rachel and I approached opening Republic Restoratives with the mentality of: Okay, we’re embarking on this massive project and we don’t know everything. We have to be honest with ourselves, each other and our team. We can’t be embarrassed to ask for help. I have no shame in that.
There’s still a lot of headway we still need to make in our distillery and as a craft industry. But here’s one thing I know: There is such a raw sense of satisfaction when you go into a bar or a restaurant and you see one of your brands on a cocktail menu or you see a bartender pouring it.
“Ask yourself: Do you feel rewarded?”
Here’s my bit of advice for you if you’re thinking about not just a major change of pace. Ask yourself: Are you learning? Are you challenged? Are you having fun? Do you feel rewarded? If you are, you’re in the right spot. If not, move on.
And if you ever want to plot career moves over a drink, you can find me enjoying a Manhattan on the rocks at Republic Restoratives.