Kahlúa Liqueur Owes Its Success To One Seriously Impressive Woman

Kahlúa bottle with cocktail shakers
Kahlúa bottle with cocktail shakers - Noam Galai / Getty Images

Powerful women often find themselves in unlikely places. As just one example, Kahlúa liqueur, the well-known Mexican coffee liquor brand, wouldn't be where it is today without the help of Maria del Pilar Gutierrez Sesma.

One of three children, Sesma was raised by her widowed mother on a low-income farm in Mexico near the Arizona border. In the late 1950s, Sesma's mother moved the family to Mexico City so Sesma could earn her accounting degree. While studying at National Autonomous University of Mexico, she took a job at Kahlúa, then a small start-up company, and often worked herself to the bone. By 1960, after graduating as the first woman to achieve high grades in NAUM's accounting program, she began working full-time at Kahlúa and, within two years, became the general manager and manager of operations.

While Sesma was at Kahlúa's helm, the management team gradually became entirely women, and the media eventually dubbed them "the Kahlúa ladies." (The company, however, was still overseen by men, including Jules Berman, an American who bought it in the early '60s.) Although the Kahlúa ladies only lasted a short time, Sesma's impact on women's opportunities at the company helped establish its reputation. "Women are not automatically accepted, but they will be once they show they are capable," Sesma told The Los Angeles Times in 1990. Throughout her career (and while running multiple factories), she helped expand the brand's global presence and developed working relationships with key coffee suppliers.

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Maria Del Pilar Gutierrez Sesma Ran A Tight Ship At Kahlúa

Kahlúa espresso martinis
Kahlúa espresso martinis - Kahlúa

By 1990, Maria del Pilar Gutierrez Sesma had become the ultimate boss at Kahlúa. No batch of the liqueur could leave the building until someone placed a shot glass of it on her desk for a final taste test. To advise production, she would usually arrive early in the morning and stay until late in the evening. She was also a hands-on manager who threw plenty of company parties: For major holidays, she gifted each employee a bottle of Kahlúa and a hand-picked poem. But Sesma wasn't just the businesswoman behind the liqueur in your favorite espresso martini cocktail recipe — she was also a philanthropist. In addition to caring for her employees, she donated to charities that aided young girls in developing their professional skills.

Although the Kahlúa brand was created by a group of men in 1936, its stardom arguably wouldn't have been possible without Sesma's influence. The brand claims that Kahlúa has been the number-one coffee liqueur sold globally since the 1980s, and according to Statista, it sells about 2 million cases worldwide per year. While little is known about Sesma's life today, feel free to give her — and her monumental leadership at Kahlúa — a toast the next time you sip a white Russian.

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