Schlitz. Pabst. Miller.
In a town known for beer, Maria Santacaterina, BSBA ’13, is the person to talk to if you’re looking for a great bottle of wine. As director of member experience for Bright Cellars—based in suds-steeped Milwaukee—she oversees the Wine Concierge team. This ever-growing group of cheerful reps is the face of the web-based wine purveyor, handling customer questions, orders, and more.
“We're the largest team at Bright Cellars,” says Santacaterina. “Right now we have 12 concierges and two team leads. The most interesting part about my job is how it has evolved over time. It used to be just handling daily customer interaction. Now it’s much more strategic.”
From her first days at the Sawyer Business School, Santacaterina knew she wanted real-world business experience and that Suffolk could help her.
“I wasn't going to sit and wait until senior year to figure out what I wanted to do,” she says. “I started early and took advantage of Suffolk's Career Development Center, which helped me with my resume. Internship fairs played a big role in helping me find my early internships. And I had great professors, including one who ran his own non-profit consulting firm and encouraged me to continue pursing jobs and internships in the startup world.”
All those Suffolk resources eventually helped her land the job at Bright Cellars.
Founded by two MIT graduates, Bright Cellars uses algorithms to match members to wines they’ll like. It starts with a simple quiz to build a profile. (“What’s the one type of chocolate you could eat for the rest of your life?”) From there, members get paired with their wines, which Maria and her team mail out each month. Members are invited to rate what they’re drinking, which helps improve the algorithm, and earn bottles by referring friends.
Santacaterina has the distinction of being Bright Cellar’s first full-time employee. She heard about the position from a job posting. The CEO saw that Santacaterina had great experience at start-ups, so she got the job. Since then, the company has grown to more than 30 employees and has 16,000 members.
Interestingly, it’s not just the business degree that’s helped Santacaterina in her role: she also majored in art history in the College of Arts & Sciences, and that’s been just as valuable to her.
“My art history classes had me focus on writing, researching and presenting,” she says. “At the same time, my marketing degree exposed me to different aspects of business and also helped me focus my strengths on writing. Both majors helped me land my first job in content marketing, which is essentially writing a lot of blogs. Having the double major helped me diversify my skills, which I think is important.”
Milwaukee? Wine? Hunh?
As any “Laverne & Shirley” fan knows, Milwaukee is a beer town. Four of the largest breweries in the world were based there at one time. Which means you don’t think of a sassy Pinot Grigio when someone says “Milwaukee.” (There’s a reason, after all, the baseball team is the Milwaukee Brewers and not the Milwaukee Vintners.)
“The founders of Bright Cellars moved to Milwaukee to take advantage of an accelerator program and decided to stay,” Santacaterina says. “We have everything we need to succeed: access to great talent, low cost of living, and proximity to our investors. We are a big fish in a small pond, which is the complete opposite if we were to go to Silicon Valley or stay on the East Coast.”
And, really, the internet doesn’t care if you’re based in Sheboygan or Sonoma. As long as people buy what you sell, that’s the measure of success.
“E-commerce has changed everything,” Santacaterina says, “and being a part of it has really opened my eyes to how businesses need to operate now and into the future. My role definitely isn't a traditional one. You have to be able to adapt to the needs of the business in order to help it survive and thrive. That’s exciting and something that I wouldn't be able to do in a traditional corporation.”