Susana Balbo
Argentina
Susana Balbo
  • Owner and Chief Winemaker, Susana Balbo Wines (Wine)
Born Mendoza, Argentina, April 1956. Master's degree in Enology and Horticulture, Universidad Juan Agustín Mazza (1981)
“I had to find a way to produce modern wines with little resources. It’s amazing how resourceful we can be when we need to: we are not aware of the tools we have until we start using them.”

Summary

In this interview, Susana Balbo, owner and chief enologist of Susana Balbo Wines, shares the impressive story of her career, in which she went from being the first woman in Argentina to graduate with a degree in enology to the owner of one of the country’s most successful wineries.

Balbo begins the interview by discussing the early years of her career and her struggle to establish herself in the wine industry. She explains how, after graduating from university, she struggled to find a job in the male-dominated industry. Balbo ultimately secured a position running a vineyard in Cafayate, in the Argentine province of Salta. This experience was challenging on both a personal and professional level—Balbo was forced to relocate nearly 1,000 miles from home, and to step into a position of leadership as a young woman in a chauvinistic society. In the interview, she recalls some of the difficulties she faced during these early years, including sabotage of wine production facilities, boycotts, and open hostility from workers. Despite these obstacles, however, Balbo persevered for eight years. During this time, she succeeded in overcoming these internal operational challenges, while simultaneously navigating Argentina’s closed economy to produce products that would be competitive in international markets. “My biggest challenge was to try to make modern wines with very little resources and to radically change the style of wine produced in Salta at the time, as it was not widely accepted by the export markets.” In the interview, Balbo explains some of the strategies she used to overcome these and other obstacles in the early years of her career.

In the 1980s, however, Argentina began experiencing a period of hyperinflation, and the winery underwent a series of crises. Balbo recalls how she had to fight with her employer for over a years’ unpaid salary and navigate bank failures in order to secure the funds, in order to extricate herself from the situation. This trying period became a major turning point in Balbo’s life: “I learned that I didn’t want to work for a firm ever again… from then on, I would be self-employed.”

With this new conviction, Balbo and her former husband opened their own small winery in Mendoza, Argentina, in the 1990s. Although they had modest success in the beginning, they soon fell victim to a major swindle, which nearly cost them their business because they discovered they also have a forged insurance plan. “I cannot describe my despair at the time,” she recalls. “I felt the world was falling to pieces.” Still, she persevered. In the interview, Balbo describes how she negotiated with creditors and ultimately extricated herself from the situation. As she explains, “resilience has been a key element in creating a successful business.”

Indeed, even after this trying period, Balbo continued to advance her career in the wine industry. She traveled the world to learn new techniques in wine manufacturing, how to use new technologies and equipment, and to gain a better sense of international tastes. When she returned to Argentina, she became a sought-after consultant who brought about “a revolution in wine style” to the country.

In 1999, after several years as a consultant, Balbo decided to found her own company with her personal savings, but with lessons from the past in mind. In the interview, she explains how she developed her business strategy with the help of Endeavor and through collaboration with colleagues in the industry. She also reflects on the importance of continued innovation to remain competitive—both with regards to product development and marketing and sales strategy.

Balbo closes the interview by reflecting on her time serving in the Argentine congress, and discussing her ongoing involvement with Women 20.

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In this interview, Susana Balbo, owner and chief enologist of Susana Balbo Wines, shares the impressive story of her career, in which she went from being the first woman in Argentina to graduate with a degree in enology to the owner of one of the country’s most successful wineries.

Balbo begins the interview by discussing the early years of her career and her struggle to establish herself in the wine industry. She explains how, after graduating from university, she struggled to find a job in the male-dominated industry. Balbo ultimately secured a position running a vineyard in Cafayate, in the Argentine province of Salta. This experience was challenging on both a personal and professional level—Balbo was forced to relocate nearly 1,000 miles from home, and to step into a position of leadership as a young woman in a chauvinistic society. In the interview, she recalls some of the difficulties she faced during these early years, including sabotage of wine production facilities, boycotts, and open hostility from workers. Despite these obstacles, however, Balbo persevered for eight years. During this time, she succeeded in overcoming these internal operational challenges, while simultaneously navigating Argentina’s closed economy to produce products that would be competitive in international markets. “My biggest challenge was to try to make modern wines with very little resources and to radically change the style of wine produced in Salta at the time, as it was not widely accepted by the export markets.” In the interview, Balbo explains some of the strategies she used to overcome these and other obstacles in the early years of her career.

In the 1980s, however, Argentina began experiencing a period of hyperinflation, and the winery underwent a series of crises. Balbo recalls how she had to fight with her employer for over a years’ unpaid salary and navigate bank failures in order to secure the funds, in order to extricate herself from the situation. This trying period became a major turning point in Balbo’s life: “I learned that I didn’t want to work for a firm ever again… from then on, I would be self-employed.”

With this new conviction, Balbo and her former husband opened their own small winery in Mendoza, Argentina, in the 1990s. Although they had modest success in the beginning, they soon fell victim to a major swindle, which nearly cost them their business because they discovered they also have a forged insurance plan. “I cannot describe my despair at the time,” she recalls. “I felt the world was falling to pieces.” Still, she persevered. In the interview, Balbo describes how she negotiated with creditors and ultimately extricated herself from the situation. As she explains, “resilience has been a key element in creating a successful business.”

Indeed, even after this trying period, Balbo continued to advance her career in the wine industry. She traveled the world to learn new techniques in wine manufacturing, how to use new technologies and equipment, and to gain a better sense of international tastes. When she returned to Argentina, she became a sought-after consultant who brought about “a revolution in wine style” to the country.

In 1999, after several years as a consultant, Balbo decided to found her own company with her personal savings, but with lessons from the past in mind. In the interview, she explains how she developed her business strategy with the help of Endeavor and through collaboration with colleagues in the industry. She also reflects on the importance of continued innovation to remain competitive—both with regards to product development and marketing and sales strategy.

Balbo closes the interview by reflecting on her time serving in the Argentine congress, and discussing her ongoing involvement with Women 20.

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Video Clips by Topic

Gender (1)

Susana Balbo, owner and chief wine maker of Susana Balbo Wines, based in Argentina, discusses getting started as a female winemaker in Argentina in a male-dominated, conservative environment and having to face sabotage and threats of violence.


Innovation (1)

Susana Balbo, owner and chielf winemaker of Susana Balbo Wines, based in Argentina, speaks about innovation in the wine industry and changing the style of torrontés wine production.



Capital Raising

Susana Balbo, owner and chief winemaker of Argentina-based Susana Balbo Wines, discusses overcoming the obstacles that are some of the biggest limitations SMEs in Argentina face when trying to gain access to capital. 




Innovation (2)

Susana Balbo, owner and chief winemaker of Susana Balbo Wines based in Argentina, discusses innovating through two different means: innovating by applying technology to a traditional product in order to keep their traditional customers, and by creating new products and adjusting to the preferences of their customers.



Gender (2)

Susana Balbo, owner of Susana Balbo Wines, based in Argentina, describes the qualities she feels women bring to business leadership, including creativity and innovation, and the challenges they face, including a lack of respect. She also describes how technology might help lower barriers for women wanting to enter business.


Government Regulations

Susana Balbo, owner and chief winemaker of Susana Balbo wines  based in Argentina, discusses the problems of regulatory restrictions, especially around doing business internationally, and the difficulty of competing with businesses that evade legal restrictions.



Sustainability

Susana Balbo, owner and chief wine maker of Susana Balbo wines, based in Argentia, discusses the important role that business leaders play in economic development, especially when it comes to sustainability. She focuses on the importance of creating business leaders who will commit themselves to human capital and protecting the environment.



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Additional Resources

Additional Resources

  • Juan Ignacio Staricco, “¿Reconversión inconclusa o régimen de acumulación dual? Una lectura regulacionista de las transformaciones recientes en el sector vitivinícola argentino,” Mundo Agrario 19, no. 41 (2018).
  • Stephanie Soussloff, "High-Impact Women Entrepreneurs in Argentina: A study analysed through the Endeavor model," Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection (2014).
  • Alejandro Artopoulos, Daniel Friel, Juan Carlos Hallak, “Levantando el velo doméstico: el desafío de exportar bienes diferenciados a países desarrollados,” Desarrollo económico 53, no. 211 (2014).
  • Ann B. Matasar, Women of Wine: The Rise of Women in the Global Wine Industry. University of California Press: 2010.

Interview Citation Format

Interview with Susana Balbo, interviewed by Andrea Lluch, March 6, 2018, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Creating Emerging Markets Project, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School, https://www.hbs.edu/creating-emerging-markets/Pages/default.aspx.