With a passion for wine paving her path, Julia Littauer, MBA ’20, embarked on her entrepreneurship journey by launching Sovi, a brand of non-alcoholic wine that allows consumers to enjoy a glass while focusing on a more-balanced lifestyle. Having recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of the company, Littauer can’t help but reflect on the integral role that receiving the Jonas Weil Entrepreneurship Fellowship has played in Sovi’s success.
Transforming a passion into a business
After experiencing a life-changing bottle of wine while studying abroad in Italy as an undergraduate, Littauer’s passion for wine was born. From becoming a sommelier out of college to co-founding Sovi in 2021 with her husband, Alex Littauer, MBA ’20, Littauer was certain that working in wine was where she belonged. What was uncertain, however, was how she and her husband could afford to pour their hearts and souls into their new business having both just finished graduate school. That’s where receiving the Jonas Weil Entrepreneurship Fellowship made all the difference for Littauer.
Since 1997, the Jonas Weil Entrepreneurship Fellowship has assisted more than 70 entrepreneurial alumni of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management with student loan repayment, allowing recipients to focus more on starting their businesses and spend less time and energy worrying about their student loans.
“When you’re starting a new company, you can’t pay yourself a salary right off the bat and having loan repayments every month is a big thing hanging over your head,” Littauer said. “I was very grateful to be able to apply for the Jonas Weil Entrepreneurship Fellowship and get it.”
Full steam ahead
With the Jonas Weil Entrepreneurship Fellowship making it possible for the Littauers to give their undivided time and attention to their startup, something that might otherwise not have been possible, Sovi is able to position itself more effectively as a premier brand in the non-alcoholic wine industry.
“This first year was a lot about testing out, ‘Do people want this product, and can we make a good version of it?’ It showed us that the answer to both of those is ‘yes,’ so we now need to figure out how to accelerate the growth of the business,” Littauer said.
With Sovi fostering an inclusive wine experience for everyone from the designated driver to the marathon runner it’s not surprising that consumers nationwide have latched on to what the company has to offer. While it was the non-alcoholic beer industry that took off first, Littauer realized while listening to a guest speaker in a wine marketing class at Cornell in 2020 that the non-alcoholic wine trend might be next to catch fire. She was right.
“Both my husband and I have a lot of experience in wine, and the fact that we didn’t know about non-alcoholic wine at the time shows how uncommon it was,” Littauer said. “It has grown a lot as a category since, taking after the trend of non-alcoholic beer, but we’re in this set of brands that are early adopters.”
Trusting the process
Sovi and Littauer finding their niche in the wine industry was largely made possible by the Jonas Weil Entrepreneurship Fellowship, but her time participating in eLab, Cornell’s student accelerator, also played a role in the company’s success. Littauer’s participation in eLab helped uncover just how viable of a business concept Sovi truly was, even if this discovery was in a round-about way.
Initially, Littauer and her husband were trying to address the problem of shopping for wine—something that can be difficult and overwhelming for the average consumer who might not be a wine expert. Through their customer discovery efforts in eLab, they found out that it was a challenging pain point to address. Combining that realization with Littauer’s inkling that non-alcoholic wine was about to take off, the idea for Sovi was sparked in the spring of 2020.
“It was really useful to have gone through all of the motions with our previous concept and then to take everything that we learned and apply it to Sovi,” Littauer said. “We discovered that this concept actually worked a whole lot better than our old one did.”
With Sovi’s first year in the books, it’s onward and upward for the company, which has several new products, including a white wine to complement its rosé and red, on tap. With the solid foundation that the Jonas Weill Entrepreneurship Fellowship has provided for Littauer, Sovi is poised to continue making its mark in the wine industry, one sip at a time.