Let’s face it, I’d been a corporate girl my whole life. I interned at a market research firm in New York from the time I was a freshman in undergrad and had lived the life of the click-y shoed corporate warrior for years. Although I wrote my Kenan-Flagler application essay about being a wine entrepreneur because I was so passionate about wine, once in school I was set on getting a great job in brand management and climbing that corporate ladder as far as I could go. I was even a Peer Counselor, helping other people figure out how to do the same! I was fully immersed in “the game.”
I was fortunate to receive a bunch of job offers out of school, among them the one I really wanted, at a large winery in California. I packed it in and moved to the Bay Area and was excited to put what I’d learned at Kenan-Flagler – teamwork, practical business solutions and leadership — to use. But alas, within a few months I quickly learned the meaning of “be careful what you wish for…”
If you’ll indulge me, the experience of moving from the nurturing, supportive, multi-cultural, integrity-first culture of Kenan-Flagler to this un-named large winery, was a bit like blanching a tomato….it was a shock to my system and one for which I wasn’t fully prepared. Because although I thought that I was a corporate soldier, and was able to convince companies of that too, I soon realized that my inability to fit in with more conventional business cultures (I should have known, since that included some group situations at Kenan-Flagler too!), and my discomfort with the politics involved with the promotion engine that seemed to drive brand management at my former company, made me stick out like a sore thumb. Although going into school I was never a fan of this behavior, coming out of Kenan-Flagler, my outlook had changed so much that it was no longer possible for me to engage in full-on office politics or the competitive behavior that was necessary to get ahead. I excelled in the “work” part of things, but just couldn’t stomach the “Game of Thrones” type play that seemed to dominate the culture.
So after four years and the support of my wonderful, kind, brilliant former classmates, including my husband, Mark Eisenbeis (MBA ’05), I stopped denying something they had known about me for a very long time and had gently been trying to tell me: I was meant to be an entrepreneur!
Having little concept of what that entailed or what I would do (beyond the business plan class in the core curriculum I didn’t even think to take classes in entrepreneurship), in 2009 I started a blog called “Wine For Normal People.” It was borne of the frustration I felt with being trained and taught by wine people in California and other places. These people were so condescending and snobby and seemed to want to horde wine knowledge – as if sharing what you knew somehow violated a code of silence among wine experts. I was also annoyed that there were people in the industry dumbing down wine to try to hop on the “wine is accessible” bandwagon. Where was the straight, honest talk from a trusted source about this hard subject?
I sought a middle ground. Thinking about my friends and the questions they asked me, I realized that there wasn’t anyone translating wine for smart people who wanted to know more without the gimmicks. I acquired certifications – I’m a Certified Specialist of Wine and a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. I kept blogging while working. Then, in mid-2009 I quit the big, hulking winery and created a corporate wine edu-tainment company and then a podcast.
Two years later, Wine For Normal People was voted by Apple as the Best New Arts Podcast in its Review 2011. A listener, reader, Twitter follower (@normalwine), and huge fan happened to be a literary agent in New York and signed me for my upcoming book. I’ve been discussing opportunities with TV producers as well.
All this is very exciting, but none of it would have been possible without my experience at UNC Kenan-Flagler. The educational grounding I acquired has helped me to plan new avenues for my business. I think about a much bigger picture and am optimistic that it’s possible because I’ve got ideas on how to get there. The leadership opportunities (positive and hard alike) gave me great perspective, taught me when to fight battles and when to walk away, and gave me the confidence to always do what feels right in my gut.
But more than anything, the friendships I formed with my classmates and with some amazing professors (Valarie Zeithaml is my hero) allowed me to feel good about the fact that I maybe didn’t belong in the corporate world and that it was not just ok to forge my own path, but something that I was born to do. My friends’, professors’, and my husband’s belief in me, their trusted observations of my strengths and weaknesses, their ears to listen, and humor to help me through the hard times (and there are plenty in the world of the entrepreneur) have taught me more than I can say. Although my two years in Chapel Hill were two of the best of my life, the legacy of my time there – namely learning that there are different paths for everyone to follow and mine wasn’t in corporate America – is something I hold near and dear to my heart every day (my husband and my future Tar Heel daughter are pretty good reminders too!)
As I continue on my mission of bringing “Wine For Normal People” to an ever-larger audience, I keep the lessons of Kenan-Flagler in mind every day. And when I talk to current students, the message I always give them is don’t be afraid to go outside the lines and create your own opportunities….with Kenan-Flagler behind you, if you trust your instinct nothing can hold you back!
Elizabeth Schneider (MBA ’05) is a wine expert and educator, blogger, podcaster and author of the forthcoming book “Wine For Normal People.” You can find her on Facebook on the “Wine For Normal People” page, her blog at winefornormalpeople.blogspot.com, on Twitter @normalwine, or download her award-winning podcast on iTunes.