How one diversity advocate is helping shape wine industry
The daughter of a Pakistani father and third-generation German mother, Maryam Ahmed said helping people understand each other has always been part of her story.
Today she’s among the most vocal and well-respected advocates for diversity in the wine and food industries, where she has combined her passion for people, communication and education to lead projects to create change.
“People tend to talk about diversity in broad strokes, meaning the only action is big action,” said Ahmed, who lives in Napa. “But every day is an opportunity to make an impact, whether it’s a conversation with just one person or creating an education program that puts tools in the hands of hundreds of organizations. I want my biggest impact to be on people, because we’re the ones who are going to get it done.”
Ahmed was born in Binghamton, New York, where she developed her interest in food and wine during her teenage years thanks to a close friend’s large, joyous Italian family.
“They were always cooking and celebrating, and wine was a big part of that,” Ahmed said. “So I developed an interest in wine from a very celebratory, conversational place. For me, wine is about the connection you have with the people around you.”
It’s a sentiment clearly reflected at Maryam + Company, Ahmed’s Napa-based consulting business, which focuses on creating opportunities for advances in diversity, equity and sustainability in the wine and food industries.
One of her most important initiatives is the Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum, which she cofounded with Akilah Cadet. The biannual event brings together wine industry leaders and organizations committed to equity and diversity to collectively solve problems and bring that knowledge to the wine trade.
“I like to think of myself as a bridge, not just in terms of diversity and sustainability, but also to how people and brands communicate, engage and collaborate with each other,” Ahmed said. “I saw a need for more collaboration in the wine and food space and many lost opportunities. That’s when I knew I could help.”
A graduate of Cornell’s Hotel School, Ahmed skipped a traditional internship and instead opted to work at a winery in Ithaca, New York.
“I knew I wanted to be involved in the wine industry. It just took me a while to figure out where I would fit best.”
After relocating to the West Coast to study enology and viticulture in Washington, Ahmed moved to Napa to work for the Culinary Institute of America at Copia, where she oversaw the consumer and trade education program and events for five years.
At the Culinary Institute, Ahmed developed a passion for education and formed diversity and sustainability committees to help bring diverse voices to the institute’s public education programs.
Then the pandemic hit.
“I had already begun contemplating the greater impact I could have in the food and wine space and saw a huge opportunity to help businesses diversify from the leadership level down,” she said. “The pandemic definitely catalyzed my plans to launch Maryam + Company.”
Given her broad spectrum of expertise and vast professional network, Ahmed is one busy woman. In addition to helping businesses further their goals for diversity and sustainability, she also creates educational initiatives and strategic projects for wine and food brands.
Earlier this year, Ahmed launched Field Blends, an immersive food and wine travel experience focused on creating conversation around emerging wine and agriculture trends.
“It’s really a program to really bring people together and take into account we all learn differently,” Ahmed said. “We also work with partners who are really mindful about diversity and sustainability and also part of the change happening in their region.”
In March 2023, Ahmed will help relaunch Do the Work, a three-part workshop offered through the Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum designed to educate people in the wine trade on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Since its launch last year, the program has trained more than 120 wine professionals around the world.
This year, Ahmed was named one of Wine Enthusiast’s Future 40 Tastemakers of 2022, an honor given to those who inspire innovation, break down barriers and build a better future for the wine industry. She also was nominated for a Wine Star Award by Wine Enthusiast for 2022 Social Visionary of the Year.
“I am definitely an eternal optimist and a happy realist, so I know change takes time,” she said. “Every day we have an opportunity to make a difference. So if we look at it that way, we can allow for a little bit more patience and grace. We’re all part of a big network and no one can do it alone.”
You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or email@example.com.
Wine & Lifestyle Reporter
Wine is the indelible heartbeat of Sonoma County. As the wine industry continues to evolve, my job is to share the triumphs, challenges and trends that affect our local wine region, while highlighting the people — past and present — who have contributed to its success. In addition, I cover spirits, beer and on occasion, other lifestyle topics.