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“If you’re going to start a business, you have to be prepared to hear a lot of nos,” says JoAnn Elardo, who launched Wicked Dolphin Distillery in Cape Coral in 2012. As a woman entrepreneur, Elardo, 56, has heard “no” more than most.

In 1991, she decided to start a sportswear and footwear retail company in Poland. The Berlin Wall had recently fallen, and Communist Bloc countries were newly open to investment. “I got on a plane and I high-tailed it over there,” she says.

People liked to give her a litany of reasons why it wouldn’t work. “You can’t start a business in Poland,” they said. “You can’t trust anybody over there. You can’t distribute footwear because you’re not a man. We’re not going to give you a license or distribution deal because you’re just going to get pregnant and leave.”

Elardo’s response? “I had the kind of mindset that said, ‘I can do anything anybody else can do; I just need the opportunity.’”

Her initial store soon branched out and franchised, and in 1994 Converse approached Elardo about distribution and licensing. She took a licensing deal for central and Eastern Europe, becoming the first woman licensee and distributor for the brand. From there, she continued to build her business until a cocktail at the time, and it was a lousy cocktail made with lousy rum,” Elardo recalls. “I asked myself, ‘Why isn’t Florida making any rum?’” That’s when she decided to create Wicked Dolphin.


TASTING ROOM: JoAnn Elardo tastes her award-winning rum in front of South Florida’s largest copper pot still.

As a woman in business, Elardo understands that she’s up against hurdles men don’t always face, especially when it comes to inflated pricing. Her solution is to research everything. “You have to do your research and know more than they do.”

With her track record in successful entrepreneurship, it’s no surprise that Elardo said she felt called to start her own business. “I always knew,” she says. “I think most entrepreneurs always know. You just feel it.” Some of this desire came selling the company in 2008. “What a ride,” she says.

Elardo and her husband retired to Cape Coral after the business sold. Her mother owns a home on Pine Island, and she’d fallen in love with the area. One day, as she was reading about some of her investments in the commodities market—sugarcane futures, in particular—she noticed that a large percentage of the U.S. sugarcane crop is grown in Florida. “I was having from her upbringing—her father owned his own contracting company, as well as a restaurant and fish market on Long Island—and some of it is innate. For other potential entrepreneurs searching within themselves to see if they have what it takes, Elardo counsels, “You have to like a challenge. Because when you start your own business, everything’s a challenge.”

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