Elizabeth Schneider’s moment of clarity about the direction of her career occurred during a dive off Ecuador’s Galapagos islands. The setting was serene, but risky nonetheless.
“It was really quiet there,” she said. “But I had to avoid the sea lions and sharks.”
She had decided to step away from the corporate role she began after her 2005 graduation from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School to strike out on her own.
“I didn’t know I would be in debt for several years,” she said, “but that’s OK.”
The wine enthusiast had left UNC’s business school with the dream of working in the wine industry. Her first two offers came from McNeil Consumer Healthcare and Toyota. Both were a far cry from the vineyard. While mulling over the two options, she visited the Kenan-Flagler job postings online and found what she was looking for.
Within the week of her application, she was offered a job at a California winery and she took it. Schneider spent two years in the Bay Area learning about the industry and wine, and all the ways she disliked the corporate world.
“There’s a lot to corporate that doesn’t involve being a good worker,” she said. “Saying the right things or playing golf. I’m not good at playing along. I liked the industry and learning; not the political side. I found that most didn’t even care about the industry or wine. They were more about lifestyle.”
But she struggled on, fell in love, and got married to a successful businessman in Atlanta, whom she had met at Kenan-Flagler while they pursued their MBAs. She eventually moved to Atlanta and worked remotely for the California winery until 2009. Soon the off-site job ended and she was asked to move back–an offer she was begrudgingly considering. But then the fateful dive came, along with her husband’s advice.
“My husband said, ‘You have to quit,’” she said. “‘You’re not cut out for the game they want to play.’”
While Schnieder decided to leave the corporate winery, she kept her passion for wine. Her training at Kenan-Flagler also came rushing back to her. She said it represented all that business, in her mind, was supposed to be.
“UNC is a very special place,” she said. “There is such a sense of pride and community. It’s not a cutthroat business school.”
Schneider’s positive experiences at Kenan-Flager and her negative experiences with corporate culture have guided her to where she is now: An entrepreneur in a minimally endeavored field.
She launched Wine for Normal People, a blog, in 2009, and expanded the brand to a podcast in 2011. The recorded discussion of wine news and reviews won iTunes’ Best New Arts Podcast for 2011. She is also writing her first book called, obviously, “Wine for Normal People” – her literary agent was a Twitter follower before she asked Schneider to write a book.
“I knew I wanted to write a book,” Schneider said. “A lot of people are social, but don’t know about wine. There was simple stuff I wanted to address and it’s all the stuff people want to know. It’s not exactly in a 101 format – you have to have a good head on your shoulders.”
She said her podcast, produced with her husband, Mark (aka MC Ice), receives tens of thousands of listeners and downloads per month.
Though her podcast is successful, Schneider isn’t earning any revenue off the venture yet. The blog and podcast have grown through word-of-mouth and social media. At the same time, she has consciously chosen to avoid advertising to underwrite her efforts.
“I want to be very careful,” she said. “It’s coming back to my MBA. If you don’t stay true to yourself then you’ll fail. I have to be picky. I don’t want wineries influencing the podcasts. People trust me and I don’t want to lose that. I would rather wait for the right sponsorship than to lose that trust.
“I slam wineries and critics in my podcasts. I’m a Jewish New Yorker – I don’t care. (The MBA program) was two years and very intense. You learn about yourself and your weaknesses and strengths. I learned professionalism and how to deal with people. I know I’m not a great corporate person, but I’m a great service provider.”
She said her MBA taught her how to lead and how to be suspicious. As much as she admits she hated going through the case studies, it gave a view of the pitfalls other companies fell into.
Schneider knows growing a successful business is a struggle and she learned firsthand from her peers in the MBA program. She added that those who speak in front of groups saying they made their business successful in one try with few problems are one in a million.
“There something to be said for staying committed and the MBA helps that,” she said. “I ran into business students who would come up and say, ‘Yeah, my first three businesses failed.’ I was like, ‘Wow. Thanks for telling me that.’ Most people are just trucking along and they finally make it. If you see a successful [entrepreneur] – it’s been five to 10 years and they’re just now making it. UNC gave me the confidence level to say ‘Why can’t it be me?’ That stick-to-it-ness – that is from the MBA. It has a huge amount of value.”
–Dustin Bass, @dbass_cmn