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WSET pioneers: Female empowerment through education in India

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Introducing Sovna Puri DipWSET, on running WSET’s first all-women course in India.

For more than a century, 8 March has marked International Women’s Day (IWD). The day is an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements, to increase the visibility of the gender biases still present around the world and to encourage people to take action for equality. The theme for IWD 2020 is #EachForEqual, drawing on the concept of collective individualism – the power that our personal attitudes and actions have to shape the world around us.

When Sovna Puri DipWSET decided to organise an all-women WSET Level 1 Award in Wines course in India last July, she wasn’t aware of IWD’s snappy hashtag. But in retrospect, her idea of running a course exclusively for women in India’s hospitality industry was certainly in step with the #EachForEqual theme: together women equipped with a WSET education can change the face of the industry.

As a WSET Certified Educator, Puri worked with hospitality group The Lalit Delhi to train a number of its guest-facing women employees. Through a number of sessions, she taught her students the fundamentals of different wine styles and regions through both tastings and conversational lectures, so that they could take this knowledge back to their workplace.

“A WSET qualification makes people from the hospitality industry much more confident while interacting with and serving guests,” she says.

“The idea of doing a WSET Level 1 Award in Wines all-female course was to identify women with an aptitude for wine, and to empower them to develop this interest.”

Barriers to success

At the moment, India’s wine and hospitality industries are “mainly male-dominated areas with only a few women who shine through”, Puri explains. This is due to the multitude of roadblocks women face when forging a career in wine and hospitality in India.

Challenges include sexist behaviour from both customers and employees, relatively low salaries, and negative perceptions of the industry – the same issues that women face in wine and hospitality around the world, but with specific cultural nuances making it more complex: “Alcohol is considered taboo among families in many parts of India, so working in an industry or in a job that is closely linked to even serving alcohol is a big no-no, especially for women. Working in the hospitality industry is also synonymous with very long hours and night shifts which, for conservative families, doesn’t bode well. For some families, working in such jobs may mean their daughters are never able to find a suitable husband; this is an important fear and a huge deterrent, especially in smaller cities and towns.”

A WSET qualification makes people from the hospitality industry much more confident while interacting with and serving guests. The idea of doing the WSET Level 1 Award in Wines all-female course was to identify women with an aptitude for wine, and to empower them to develop this interest.


Knowledge is power

Puri thinks that wine education is one of the first steps in changing the culture in Indian hospitality - she has experienced the positive impact of wine education first-hand. While working as assistant head sommelier at the Michelin-starred restaurant Benares in London, she took the WSET Level 3 Wines & Spirits course.

“I was really fortunate to have an ongoing formal education in wine parallel to actually working with wines and tasting them daily,” she says. “It helped me gain theoretical knowledge as well as practical. I used to taste 50-80 wines from all over the world every single day for over two years!”

She then moved back to India where she worked for Sula Vineyards - a producer and importer of wine and spirits - for seven years. It was during that time that she began to realise the difference that wine education could make in the industry.

“Once I joined Sula to head tastings and training for them, my WSET knowledge really helped me to simplify complicated wine concepts and connect with people at a deeper level,” she remembers.

Recognising that she wanted to increase her wine expertise and her impact on the industry, she decided to take the next step in her wine career and pursue her WSET Diploma . “The knowledge I gained during the rigorous WSET Level 4 Diploma was tremendous - it helps me so much when I am conducting tastings or teaching courses. My aim is to share this knowledge with as many people as possible.”

Attendees pose together with their teacher, Sovna Puri DipWSET, at WSET’s first all-women course (Level 1 Award in Wines) in India. 
Attendees and educators for the first all-women course (WSET Level 1 Award in Wines) in India.

Individual education, collective change

Last summer’s all-women course is evidence that Puri is succeeding in her personal goal of inspiring others to develop their own passion for wine, and helping to increase the number of women in the industry. Naina Dasan, manager of The Lalit Delhi’s Kitty Su restaurant, was one of Puri’s students on the course. “It sparked my interest in wines,” says Dasan.

She passed WSET Level 1 Award in Wines with high marks and was one of two women that the hospitality group then nominated to progress to the Level 2 Award in Wines course.

For Dasan, the all-female sessions highlighted that there are not currently enough opportunities for women in her field to come together and learn: “[The courses] made me realise that this is an excessively male-dominated industry. The industry needs more women, and I think The Lalit, WSET and trainers like Sovna are doing an excellent job in bringing more women to it.”

As Puri continues to bring WSET courses to both hospitality staff, the wider trade and consumer enthusiasts in India, she hopes to find more students like Dasan, and prove that wine is a profession open to anyone.

“Changing mindsets will certainly impact women in this industry positively,” she says. “And teaching, training and tastings will play a huge role.”

If you are ready to start your wine education journey, you can read more about our full range of qualifications here, or find a course provider near you.

Prepared for WSET by Kate Malczewski