I have a lawyer I’m in touch with regularly. I’m a certified project manager from my banking tech days. I have a roadmap for my business and prefer things planned out. He gave me some advice referring to his own business which is that sometimes you have to expect things to be imperfect. You should just assume that it’s an imperfect world and work from there. This is my first time as an entrepreneur and that advice has been very important to me.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheila Donohue— Founder, CEO, and Sommelier of Vero.
Sheila is a New Yorker living in Italy for 20 years. After becoming a sommelier and getting to know hundreds of smaller producers with great tasting authentic products, but mainly unknown around the US, she decided to start ‘spreading the love’ by bringing these hidden gems from anywhere in the world direct to people who want to explore and experience more out of wine, food and life.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Before coming to Italy in 2001, I was into learning about wine (and food too). Having a full-time job in Fintech, was a side passion — and once I moved to Italy, it was easy to cultivate. But after marrying my Bolognese husband who is tied to Bologna, Italy for his job with his three-generation bakery, I was actually getting homesick and wanting to go back to the US. Though we talked about going back to the states, I eventually realized I wasn’t really going anywhere! So I threw myself into fueling my passion for wine and studying to become a sommelier. Upon getting certified, it set me off on exploring wine and food as a career.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Only one percent of the wineries in the US make it to your local store, so you can imagine that a small producer outside of the US has a very slim chance of their product being sold in the US. I know that there are a lot of small producers everywhere, not only in Italy, but also in other countries, and in the US. I’ve been convinced of small producers’ products and stories, their passion, and the good that they’re doing. There’s a demand for these hidden gems in the US. So I started a company that has a different business model that I didn’t find anyone doing two years ago, which is focusing on the end customer and selling direct-to-consumer and direct-to-trade, e.g., wine stores and restaurants. We’re opening up a category that was not available to people in the US in the past.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When you work in the wine industry, you have to spit out the wine you taste — and I learned why the hard way. When I was in sommelier school in Italy in 2006, that’s the one thing they didn’t teach us. As I started to dabble in the industry, I couldn’t help but get tipsy at tastings. This wasn’t great, as you need to still have your brain function to work! So I would have some embarrassing moments. I once gave my business card to a woman only to have her say, “you already gave me your card!” I had completely forgotten that we already talked. So I quickly taught myself how to taste and spit. Lesson learned!
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
The person that comes immediately to mind is Helen Gallo, a friend of my friend’s sister-in-law and a wine expert in the US. Just as I have 30 years in banking tech, she has that experience in wine. She, like me, had some changes in her professional career around the same time that I did, in 2016–17. She’s been my mentor since then, and is a great sounding board. Back in my sabbatical year in 2017, she recommended trade events to attend where I met many producers and other wine industry professionals that helped form my vision for the business. Once I decided to move forward with the company, I ran things by her (and still do!) — like producers and products I’m thinking of importing, how much to import, and what to price them at. There are alot of moving parts in this industry and especially when you go it alone it can get overwhelming. Having a mentor like Helen is a huge help.
Another person that comes to mind is a client with a wine store in LA. Right when Covid-19 hit, I was pretty desperate because restaurant clients were suddenly canceling orders, or not paying at all. Wine stores stopped buying because no one knew what was happening. Many customers were as distraught as I was and were hard to get a hold of. This client, Jeff Bonafede, was there. He was responsive and transparent, and ready to jump in and help as soon as he could. When I had an idea to do a virtual event together in April 2020, he immediately said yes. In my previous job, I was in charge of marketing and did many virtual events on the B2B side. This enabled me to get up and running quickly to do virtual tastings, and having this loyal client participate in the first one was just what we needed to get going. Throughout the past year, Jeff has continued to be really supportive of Vero and our producers.
Whether it’s someone like Helen who’s a mentor that I interact with often, or it’s Jeff who is supportive during challenges in running a wine business, these two have been a great inspiration to me.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I think disruption is usually a good thing when it has a positive intent. One of the current disruptions in the wine industry, which is an emphasis on organic, biodynamic, and natural wines, has the best of both worlds — it is changing the landscape for wine, but it still uses methods that have “withstood the test of time,” as you said.
Natural wine is a disruptor because it’s made in a very genuine way. To give some context, I was teaching at the CIA recently and a professor mentioned that in the US you can add up to 200 ingredients to wine without having to disclose that on the label. That’s a huge eye-opener and shows that you don’t know what you’re getting when you buy wine. There is wine made and sold all over the US that has aspects that aren’t good for you, and some people do complain about not feeling good the next day and can’t figure out why. It happens to me too. Most wine in the store is a mystery; you don’t know what’s in it. The approach is to make wine like Coca Cola. I’ve seen it firsthand, there is a tinkering process that happens at commercial wineries. Two producers, I work with, Antonella Manuli and Lorenzo Corino, came up with a method for making natural wine which is going back to basics. Using grapes that have historically been in that area, working the soil a lot, not adding chemicals, and keeping it vegan. Lorenzo said the land should be like the forest floor, there should be leaves and waste covering the ground. That is how things used to be, yet it is now considered disruptive.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1. I have a lawyer I’m in touch with regularly. I’m a certified project manager from my banking tech days. I have a roadmap for my business and prefer things planned out. He gave me some advice referring to his own business which is that sometimes you have to expect things to be imperfect. You should just assume that it’s an imperfect world and work from there. This is my first time as an entrepreneur and that advice has been very important to me.
2. My husband has been an entrepreneur his whole life, along with his family. They are small business owners. I spoke to him recently about a problem with a supplier. As a bakery owner, he has many suppliers and has been dealing with them for years. Thinking he would lend a sympathetic ear, instead, he told me to just suck it up! He started to rant about his difficulties with suppliers and many other issues he faces, like with cash flow, tax burdens, bureaucracy. While I do believe it’s important to listen to yourself when you are stressed because that stress is your mind telling your body that there is something to detangle, at the same time I have to learn to not overdramatize when problems occur since this is ‘business as usual’.
3. This isn’t advice per se but more of a challenge that emerged recently when speaking with Adam Teeter of Vinepair, a prominent wine media company. I spoke about how right after Covid-19 hit there was a webinar among the big players in the Italian wine industry. It was an intimidating audience. One of the speakers said we need to shorten the go-to-market journey for wine producers and I thought, duh, that’s what my company does. That’s how we came about, to streamline the whole process, from import to marketing and sales. Adam asked if I said anything in that moment and I hadn’t, so that challenged me to speak up for myself in the future. I tend to be shy about my business as a newcomer but to his point, I need to be more vocal.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I created a marketplace with Vero. We have the suppliers, small producers and buyers. It’s like one platform with supply meeting demand. The next area of disruption is to disrupt the back office behind my business and to help other players in the market to benefit from that as well. Tapping into my 30 years of experience working in technology, I’m working on a software platform.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
It is harder for women in the wine industry specifically, because it is predominantly male. This is true about many industries, so I think the challenges I’ve faced may be familiar to others as well.
I’m thinking of that webinar. There was one woman producer involved, but she didn’t have an important role. There are more women in wine than in banking tech, which is saying a lot. But still — the wine industry tends to be an old boys network. I remember someone telling me in my sabbatical year that you have to have thick skin to survive in the wine industry. It is tough but a different type of tough than banking and technology, which is more political and can involve backstabbing. I remember going to the American distributor association conference three years ago, and they have the biggest lobby controlling how wine and alcohol get sold in the US. I heard a lot of talks about how we’ve been in this business since prohibition. There were posters at the entrance with women models to attract people to the conference, which assumes the attendees are male. Things have changed since then and the head of the organization is now a woman.
That’s exciting because having more women alongside you in an industry can definitely help build confidence. One of my demons is having the confidence that I need to be able to say something; the fear of failure. If there’s a certain setting where I feel more comfortable I’ll speak up. When I did an Instagram live interview recently, I trusted the woman who was interviewing me and was in a setting where I felt I could share and not be judged so I got vulnerable and delved into my personal journey to creating Vero. Hopefully, my openness can then also help encourage other women as well.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
I read a lot of articles and there was a WSJ article from January 6 titled How to Stop the Negative Chatter in Your Head. It spoke about how most of the day we’re talking to ourselves and don’t even know it. It was timely reading this article because I realized that for quite a while now, at least five years, I don’t listen to music much because I need to hear my own thoughts, and music tends to be a distraction for me. Given that I’m steering this company and constantly busy and stressed, I feel like I really need to listen to what my mind is saying. That made an impact because it also talked about how we were all really challenged by negative chatter and that for so many being impacted by Covid-19 or being forced to be alone a lot, that has increased the self chatter. The article gave advice on how to deal with it. I realized that I was already doing some of the things suggested, i.e. to create order around you. A couple of weeks ago I started organizing my office — even though I was busy I felt I needed to. It also spoke of rituals to help cope with stress; I’m a practicing Catholic, I’m spiritual, and rely a lot on spirituality. There are scriptures of the bible that I will remember in stressful situations.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
In a country as large as America, many businesses are successful because they’re able to reach high volume, economies of scale. That goes against small businesses and artisanal and unique things. I so often hear statistics in the wine industry about a reduction in the number of small producers. The reason for starting my business is to be a bridge between these artisans and the final consumer. It’s not easy because it’s hard to have economies of scale with small production wine but I think that small businesses are built on authenticity and a personal touch. Having ecosystems like Vero to help small businesses is what we need more of in the world. With Covid-19, I read how it hurt a lot of small businesses, such as restaurants. My movement is to shorten the go-to-market distance for small producers and help people to find, learn about, and buy their products. I fear that if the movement isn’t a success, these precious producers will just disappear.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“God didn’t give us the spirit of timidity, but the spirit of power, love, and self-discipline,” 2 Timothy 1:7. My college roommate was an engineering major who liked to party and study hard. I shared this verse and it helped her get through the challenges of college life. It relates to the WSJ article I mentioned earlier about how we need rituals to focus and deal with stress and things that work against us. It is something that comes to mind automatically as a survival mechanism when I’m under stress.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!