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*FEATURE: Where are They Now?

Blindfolded wine experiences. It’s not a scene from “Fifty Shades Freed” It’s a sensory-based experience from AweSomm, (formerly Winefolded), which does corporate, tech and commercial events.

Every now and then, OC Startups Now will check in with entrepreneurs who started their companies in OC to see where they are now. Today, OC Startups Now checks in with Liliana Leon, who founded Winefolded  three years ago. She fills us in on the evolution of her company – the name change to AweSomm occurred within the past week – and why she’s moving operations to Los Angeles and, eventually, New York City.

Leon, who serves as CEO, credits Future Founders and The Hungry Lab incubator in Irvine for teaching her more than her stint at business school did…

Liliana Leon, founder and CEO of AweSomm, (photo courtesy of Angela Howard Photography)

Evolution

AweSomm evolved out of Leon’s participation as a fellow with Future Founders in Chicago in 2015. At the time, she was working on creating her own private wine label as a social movement targeting millennials. Baby boomers had been the top wine consumers in the U.S. until 2015. Millennials quickly took that spot, changing the wine industry and challenging wine producers to not only be more creative but also be more environmentally conscious, she said. She wanted to be out in front of that movement, so she spent a year making her way into the market.

She customized her own internship program over a summer and spent a few months in New York City based on her belief that the Big Apple has some of the best sommeliers in the world, as well as the top distributors, wine bars and shops and high-end dining experiences. And, she started holding private wine tastings in her tiny studio apartment.

“I already knew that creating wine would require a consistent commitment and more capital to invest in production, but in the meantime I was having a blast holding these very informal, very unprofessional, yet very fun underground tastings in my apartment. I was having fun and it helped me pay for business school a little bit, but I didn’t think much about it.”

She started her Bachelors in business and product development at DePaul University but decided to focus on her startup instead.

At the end of a fellowship, she did a final wine tasting presentation for her mentors at Future Founders, and that’s when the epiphany occurred.

If I hadn’t been sitting at a table full of people with years of experience, had I not been challenged by my mentors to see the bigger picture of what could be, had I not been surrounded by the right people at the right time and in the right place, I’m pretty sure I’d still be thinking peanuts,” she said. “After the tasting was over, we sat and sipped wine while brainstorming together, eventually creating and building the idea of what would very soon become Winefolded, blindfolded wine experiences.”

AweSomm enables founders and CEOs the opportunity to bond with their teams, preferred clients and business partners, ranging from private tastings to elaborate dinners.

She had the confidence to start the company based on a variety of factors, including the support of Future Founders, her time at Urban Decay Cosmetics HQ in Newport Beach (parent company is L’Oreal, with HQ in France) andThe Hungry Lab, which leases space from the WeWork co-working space in Irvine. It took her company under its wing in 2016.

“All my former corporate experience came wrapped up with lessons on how to be a great employee,” Leon said. “But the confidence of building, maintaining and growing my own company, especially when the going got really tough, has been possible by the support of Future Founders, The Hungry Lab, Celebrity Event Designer Troy Williams and the guidance and support of my all the many formal and informal mentors and advisors who inspired me to push the company forward. AweSomm itself has been the best learning arena of what to do and what NOT to do. It continues to be a journey that helps me grow into the better half of myself.”

Leon declined to disclose how much capital she’s raised to date.

Winefolded left WeWork in the middle of last year before starting its Pour Tour in France, Germany, England and the Netherlands. When that tour ended, Leon and her assistants worked anywhere and everywhere, including her Irvine home and coffee shops.

Awesomm is now based in L.A., with future plans to move to New York in the next couple years, Leon said.

“We love California and plan to continue serving our clients here on the West coast, but our future long-term goals point us east, so we are already planning and preparing for that shift,” she said.

Once she and the rest of her AweSomm team – there are seven altogether – are settled in L.A., she intends to do more more pop-up booths throughout both areas to connect professionals with wine and food events.

And, the AweSomm team will continue to “travel extensively to continuously find fresh and innovative approaches to experience wine and bring teams together,” Leon said.

On the Road

She and her team already kicked off the new year with a trip to Cuba, followed by a visit to Chicago. The team plans to travel to nine countries again this year, London and Paris among them.

And the company has been selected to participate in the Future Founders Alumni Accelerator in Chicago this summer.

Also in the works – the team plans on filming its first series of “I’m Not A Somm, I’m AweSomm,” to air on YouTube this summer.

About The Author

Deirdre Newman is a veteran journalist, who's covered OC startups for two-plus years.

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