Ignore the haters: Nobody can judge your brand-new venture, because it’s brand-new. As long as you remain in the driver’s seat, you make the rules and stand by them. It’s not up to anyone else to proffer unsolicited advice or judgment, because if you’re committed to your great idea and you’ve seen flickers of success and received positive reinforcement from those whose opinions you hold in high esteem, you’re much more likely to succeed than if you succumb to the negative energy of people who might not even truly know what they’re talking about.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandra Schrecengost.
Alexandra is the Founder of Virtual With Us, curated virtual experiences for corporations. She designed Virtual With Us to tailor hosted activities to the interests of corporate sales teams — from wine and beer tastings to virtual gaming and cook-along culinary demonstrations. Prior to starting Virtual With Us, Alexandra recently worked at Wilson Daniels as their head of Communications across the national and wholesale fine wine brands, overseeing traditional comms, executive visibility, advertising, corporate events, digital content and social media.
Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I lived in Puerto Rico until I was six-years-old and then came to New Jersey where I learned how to speak English. Constantly a determined and organized child, I always enjoyed planning “parties” and making people smile.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? I’m a big fan of Julia Child’s work and general school of thought. One quote of hers that has had a big impact on me is “Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” It may sound simplistic, but the phrase “tremendously interested” really does apply to how I feel about the wine industry, from education to advancement, and of course, tasting and sharing. It’s so tremendous that not even a pandemic can put a damper on it.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much? I loved the documentary “Somm” for a hundred reasons, but particularly because it effectively captures the obsessive nature of wine professionals. Wine is a subject that’s easy to become enamored with. Watching prospective Master Sommeliers shape their careers has inspired me to take my work very seriously, while serving as an active reminder for me to set plenty of time aside for my family and self-development outside of the wine industry.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began? Prior to the Pandemic I was on the senior leadership team at Wilson Daniels, importer of fine wines as their head of Communications and Digital.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic? Immediately after we all started working from home, I saw what a serious impact these measures were having on the hospitality industry. Being so close to so many wine and spirits professionals, my heart was with them during the most difficult times, and I resolved to do something about it, even if it was very small at first. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could use all the different aspects of my background to help.
Around this time, my husband who’s in sales was also struggling to find ways to stay in touch with his colleagues, prospective clients and customers and Zoom was taking over our lives. It came to me that I could blend my background and network in the wine & spirits industry with technology to elevate Zoom experiences in a way that could still be professional yet more conducive to mingling and socializing, and Virtual With Us was born.
I test drove the idea with my husband, and step by step the business came together. Operations in terms of supplier and retail partners across the country was the most complex to figure out. From there, it was growing a sommelier team that could help support a scalable business most especially with corporate clients that host multiple events in one day.
Initial ideas that grew were breakout rooms for networking and war rooms with these corporations as they enjoyed wine. This allowed for senior leadership across all of the organizations we work with and the senior leadership of their clients and prospects to meet, and brainstorm ideas within the industry. It’s really a powerful way to evolve and learn from each other in a casual virtual setting with wine.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
As my work communication shifted entirely to video conferencing, I realized there was a space in the industry to transform what can often be tedious and dull into something vibrant, fun, and above all, memorable. I tried to think about the opposite of “yet another Zoom meeting,” and landed at “a fun happy hour with colleagues.” Those initial ideas turned into a growing, thriving business.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Very well! Professional teams are eager to recreate the interpersonal connections of their office atmosphere that they’ve relied on for years, and we’re eager to provide it to them in an easy-to-enjoy format. Our sommelier partners are thrilled to be back in front of those they’d be entertaining at a restaurant or bar, and we’re thrilled to provide them with a safe platform to share their knowledge. It’s really a win-win.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m grateful to my husband Sean for being the best sounding board I could ask for. Plenty of people have ideas for businesses, but it’s feeling supported and validated by those closest to you that helps you bring those ideas to fruition. Starting a company during a global pandemic is fraught with complications, and having someone like him by my side, cheering me on and contributing his own experiences and skills has been essential to our overall success. It’s reinforced our own partnership to be able to take a collection of inspirations and aspirations and refine them into something of value to so many people.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction? I’d have to say the most interesting was hosting a 400 person virtual gala with 40 breakout rooms and 40 sommeliers. Managing, planning and executing that event on such a large scale all remotely was just magic to watch unfold.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Know your logistics backwards and forwards: We had a couple of hiccups at the beginning of our launch with tasting kits not arriving on time. When you depend on delivery carriers to keep your business moving, you have to do your best to anticipate delays depending on a multitude of predictable and unpredictable factors and choose your dates accordingly.
- Love your topic enough to devote your Zoom life to it: Being on video calls for most of the day can be absolutely exhausting in a way that in-person meetings are not…unless you love the subject of those calls so much that it’s a pleasure no matter what. Even if I’ve been on Zoom all day, if I’m discussing bringing people together over excellent drinks, I’m excited about it (and you can tell!)
- Roll with the punches: Nothing is going to be perfect the first few times. Before we identified and corrected the kinks in our systems and processes, we had a small handful of rocky events with tech issues. The silver lining there is you only have to make those kinds of mistakes once. Now, our programs run without a hitch.
- Prepare for success: When things start going your way thanks to your passion and commitment, they’ll go your way in such a manner that you may not be prepared to strike while the iron’s hot and scale up accordingly to ensure maximum growth. Have your next hires in mind and ready to go so that you’re not spending any of that golden time understaffed when you could be taking advantage of your own success and pivoting effectively to the next stage.
- Ignore the haters: Nobody can judge your brand-new venture, because it’s brand-new. As long as you remain in the driver’s seat, you make the rules and stand by them. It’s not up to anyone else to proffer unsolicited advice or judgment, because if you’re committed to your great idea and you’ve seen flickers of success and received positive reinforcement from those whose opinions you hold in high esteem, you’re much more likely to succeed than if you succumb to the negative energy of people who might not even truly know what they’re talking about.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
Give in easily to whatever your inner self is asking for, and let it happen fully. Sometimes I crave total silence, and other times I want to put on the happiest song I can think of and dance in the living room until I’m out of breath. I also find a lot of joy in my sons, who are still too young to fully understand those dramatic jolts that make us anxious. If the boys find a salamander in the woods and they’re naming it and giving it an elaborate backstory, it’s easy to lose myself in their world and take a break from all the woes.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Wow, that is a big question. The movement I would like to inspire is kindness. There’s a lot of bullying in this word, truly — and especially as a woman, and a woman of color at that, I’ve experienced many moments of bullying and unkindness. You don’t need to behave that way to get ahead and we should really inspire people and push them to their limits in a positive way.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I’m deciding it’s not cliche to say Michelle Obama, even though I’m sure that’s what so many people would answer when asked. Every time she speaks, she invites the kind of discourse that helps people grow into their best, most respectful, most respectable selves. I think respect in its simplest form is what will help us move forward collectively as a country, and that sentiment is something Michelle Obama embodies with all of her work for the American people. I also can’t help but wonder what her favorite wine is!
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find me on Instagram at @alexschrec and Virtual With Us at @virtualwithus
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!