With a calm nature and endless well of creativity, Wyoming native Amber Pollock is determined to make home a better place — and to take the rest of us along with her.
Last summer, former Gov. Matt Mead named Pollock to the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming Executive Council, making her the youngest member of the statewide board. She has a personal stake in seeing Wyoming’s business community succeed: Her family owns Casper’s Backwards Distilling Company, a rapidly growing producer of fine spirits.
Before she joined Wyoming’s business community, Pollock, who has a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in music education from the University of Wyoming, was shaping young minds as a music teacher in Casper.
“Amber has a great demeanor with people. She’s very soft spoken and she doesn’t need to raise her voice to get your attention or to say what she needs to say, either with adults or children,” said Wendy Doctor, who taught with Pollock at Casper’s Southridge Elementary.
“I think that really endeared me to her, because some people think they have to be loud or draw attention to themselves to be heard,” Doctor said. “Amber has a real art of creating things without having to raise her voice, and I think that is still something she does in her business.”
In appointing Pollock to ENDOW, former Gov. Mead fulfilled a commitment to give greater representation to Wyoming’s youth and young workforce at a state level. This was a priority of the Empowering the Next Generations to Advance and Grow the Economy Council, spearheaded in 2018 by Sheridan native Jonathan Updike.
Madison Mankin, a Gillette-based member of ENGAGE who served as vice president of its leadership council, said Pollock has great ideas and is a warm, forward-thinking person.
“As a young business woman in Wyoming, I feel represented by Amber in a way that only another young Wyoming business woman can represent me,” Mankin said. “I feel hopeful that with people like Amber serving the state, other young women in Wyoming will feel like there is room at the table.”
Pollock joined ENDOW alongside Sheridan County’s Rosie Berger, the first woman to ever serve as House Majority Floor Leader, and Johnson County’s Karen Hostetler, the president and founder of Mountain Meadow Wool Mill in Buffalo.
“People like Amber show the next generation of women that they too can have a piece of shaping Wyoming’s future,” Mankin said.
Long before this, though, she was a child in Casper. Pollock graduated from Natrona County High School in 2006 and went to St. Louis for college. When she decided to change majors to study music education, she knew she had to come home: The program at UW was great and it was affordable.
After completing school, she applied for jobs in several states, but Wyoming — and specifically, her hometown — called her back. She took a job with Natrona County School District 1, where she could work at two elementary schools with each student in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Pollock, Doctor said, is a talented violinist and singer, but she let the students shine.
“What my job really was, if you are going to boil it down to its most important part, was to teach creativity with music as a vehicle,” Pollock said. “I really changed my perspective after my first year to figure out how to teach not just musical skills but also teaching the creative process while we were in class.”
That often meant letting the kids have control. She would give them choices — both, she knew, would work — but she wanted the students to have authority over the classroom and even their music programs.
“Kids are inherently creative and imaginative, so it’s really a matter of not putting music, or their creativity, in a tidy little box but instead to see the results of their exploration,” Pollock said.
A year and a half into her teaching career, Pollock and her family began talking about starting a family business. They’d seen major shifts in the national economy and wanted to take control of their own future. Pollock’s younger brother, Chad, had an interest in absinthe, and the family began researching the distilling process.
From there, things took off. Being creative people open to adventure, the four family members left full-time jobs to start their distillery.
Today, Backwards Distillery is a mainstay in downtown Casper. According to a 2017 Wyoming Craft Distilling Industry report by the Wyoming Business Council, Backwards was among the top sellers in Wyoming, alongside Wyoming Whiskey, Grand Teton Distillery and Kolts Fine Spirits.
“In the tourism space, Backwards is very important because when we host site visits in our community, they are usually included on our itinerary. They are something very unique in our community,” Brook Kaufman, CEO of Visit Casper said. “Amber is such a pioneer in her space. She is young, she is energetic, she is inspiring. Backwards is always trying new things, and they are such a driver in this community.”
Pollock participated in the public sphere as a part of the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance when she realized the impact a local business can have on a community.
“When customers buy from in-state producers, that money stays in Wyoming. It hires people, it goes right back into us being able to buy more corn from a farm down the street and sugar from up in Worland,” Pollock said. “That becomes money that stays and circulates in Wyoming and generates more money in our in-state pool.”
Backwards, she said, is the kind of business that naturally draws interest. As more people started talking about the distillery, she began to consider her role in moving Wyoming forward.
She found that people were often most open to new ideas on boards like CAEDA. There, she learned that state and local boards are a great place for young people to get involved — especially because a board made up of people in the same age demographic can suffer from stagnation.
“Generally, the demographics on most of our boards and governing bodies are pretty homogenous, and I think it naturally falls that way because, well, of the way of the world,” Pollock said.
“If younger people push out of the comfort zone a little bit and get involved, it think it makes a board stronger,” she said. “I really believe you need both people who have been involved for a long time, and people that haven’t, to truly have meaningful discussion, otherwise you are just in an echo chamber.”
The challenge, Pollock acknowledged, is that when you make your ideas known, you can be vulnerable to criticism.
“Basically, what you are asking of people is to put themselves in a position where they can draw criticism, or where their opinions can be shot down. Nobody really wants that,” she said. “It’s much easier to have opinions and share them in your own echo chambers, but that is not where those ideas need to most be heard. … They need to be heard out in the open. There are real challenges, and it is a hard position to be in.”
Because she shares her ideas, Pollock is an example of what Wyoming can be, Kaufman said.
“She really is a role model for the women coming behind her on how to get involved, claim your space and make change and really influence your community in a positive way,” Kaufman said.
And for Pollock, Wyoming is home.
“I don’t want to have to move to find the things I want, and I don’t think anyone else should have to either,” Pollock said. “There are so many reasons why we love being in Wyoming. I have high expectations for this place that I call home. If you’re going to have that, you’re going to have to contribute.”