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Here is why being bullied didn’t stop me from building a business

To: Those who doubt themselves

From: Marisa Sergi (As told to Lauren Brill)

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To Those Who Doubt Themselves, 

I know exactly when I started to doubt myself. 

Middle school. 

In seventh grade, I wasn’t really into make-up or fashion. I was still a little kid, but everyone else began to move on.

One day, a girl told everyone at my lunch table to put their elbows out far to make it seem like there wasn’t room for me to sit there. When I tried to sit down, they all did it at the same time. 

It felt like the room was spinning. Immediately, I ran to the bathroom and balled my eyes out. 

Two years later, it happened again. After I found new friends, this guy who joined our group didn’t like me.  He claimed he needed more legroom at the table and asked everyone to vote on who we should kick out. Everyone wrote their vote on a piece of paper, and once again, I was left out.  

It felt like the ultimate rejection.  I didn’t understand why I was always a target. My self-esteem plummeted. There was this feeling that I was going to be a failure and a loser my entire life. I thought no one saw value in me or wanted to be my friend.

I questioned everything I did and I felt like I couldn’t be myself anymore.

Throughout high school, I barely spoke to anybody and didn’t raise my hand in class. I didn’t attend any school events, like basketball or football games. And I removed myself from all extracurriculars. The idea was to avoid any places where someone could bully me.

The constant bullying deeply hurt me and I will never forget it, but I have also tried to move on with my life. 

The constant bullying deeply hurt me and I will never forget it, but I have also tried to move on with my life.

Thankfully, I did have a loving family who helped me develop a passion.  My grandparents immigrated here from Italy and brought over the tradition of winemaking. We made so many family memories making homemade wine in my parents’ garage or basement. I loved how food and wine brought us all together. It was special, and I wanted to turn it into a career. 

Marisa has been making wine with her family since she was a young child.

I went to Cornell University to get an enology and viticulture degree (essentially the study of making wine). To graduate, I needed to create a capstone project. Instead of doing traditional vineyard research or research in a lab, I proposed to my advisers, documenting the process of creating a brand, which I called RedHead Wines. They agreed.

Instead of just putting wine in a bottle and hoping it would sell, I did research. I looked at what red blends retailers carried at the time and designed a red blend that they did not have on the shelves. Then, I showcased how it was a unique product.

As part of the project, I wrote a business plan. The business plan won numerous prizes, including one from the Queen Entrepreneurs Competition in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. We were one of four companies who placed out 200 companies who entered the competition. One of the judges was the senior vice president of marketing of Constellation Brands, which is one of the largest wine companies in the United States and globally.  Winning this award made me believe that RedHead could be a real business. 

But to start a business, confidence is required. 

When you build a business, you have to speak in front of people and meet new people. You can’t be timid. Instead, you have to talk with clarity because you need to convince others to support you or invest in your company.

Fortunately, I made friends in college who were willing to help me. One friend trained me on how to pitch my business, structure a presentation and network with people. For one of the competitions we entered, I had three other people on my team who coached me on the entire process. 

The friends I made in college helped me step into a new role as an entrepreneur while also helping me find my voice as a young woman. They supported me and transformed the way I viewed myself. 

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Initially, I sold my wine through my family’s winery and wine bistro. After college, I went to work for a privately held winery out in California. While I liked my job, after a year and a half, I couldn’t stop thinking about my brand. I didn’t want to have any regrets in life. So, I resigned and threw my life savings into my business. 

I had a loose plan on how I would do it and who I was going to lean on. The biggest challenge was not knowing how to utilize my time best, but I figured it out. 

In 2016, when I went full-time into my company, which I renamed as Red’s, we were already in 100 stores. Now, five years later, I made enough money to buy out my family’s winery, L’uva Bella Winery. All of the brands under L’uva Bella Winery, including my original red wine, are sold in seven major markets with more than 8,000 accounts. 

A pivotal point in our business was when Wal-Mart agreed to put our product on a test market through their open call program. Wal-Mart is very selective with its products. It was a wake-up call for the places that initially didn’t take me seriously.  

Today, we have 30 full-time and part-time employees. 

I am so proud of my ability to grow as a person and help others grow as well.  As a company, we genuinely care about our employees, our customers and our partnerships. And I lead my company with kindness, as I know how important it is to treat people well. 

Even the little things, I think, make a difference. Last week it was hot in Ohio. Our team was working hard. So, we just went down the street, bought some popsicles and ice cream, and our group enjoyed a nice ice cream break. 

While I still have a lot to learn as an entrepreneur and as a person, at 27 years old, I am very confident in myself.

If you are someone who questions your worth or value, I want you to know you can love yourself and believe in yourself. 

Find your own path and go to places where you feel comfortable and accepted. Maybe volunteer at an animal shelter or anywhere else that interests you. Remove yourself as best you can from negative environments and associate with peers or even adult mentors who support you. 

A passion, along with positive people, helped me to stop doubting myself. And what I realized is that it’s only when you stop doubting yourself that you can discover your true greatness. 

You can do this! I believe in you. 

Marisa Sergi
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