Leah Caplanis is the kind of woman who can go through a challenging and debilitating experience but come out stronger than ever before. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at only the age of 26, but through her journey with cancer, she discovered more about herself and ultimately started her own company a few short years later. Leah is now the CEO of SOCIAL Sparkling Wine, a deliciously refreshing, sparkling wine line. Her dream is to revolutionize the alcohol market, as she works to create products that taste good and are good for the consumer too. Prior to launching SOCIAL, Leah worked for Nestle USA for eight years in sales and marketing. She received her MBA from University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and her bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University. She currently resides in Chicago, working tirelessly on making her brand the best it can be.
It’s remarkable not only what Leah has gone through with her health, but how she created and blossomed a business with the intent to offer women an alcoholic drink alternative that’s more refreshing and healthy. Find out more about Leah and SOCIAL in our interview below!
KN: Leah, thanks for being a part of the “Shine On” series! Can you share your story and how you came up with your idea to start SOCIAL Sparkling Wine?
Leah Caplanis: When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, I decided to forgo surgery and other invasive medical treatments and took on a more holistic healing approach. I decided to follow a strict vegan diet and abstained from alcohol. Three years later, I was healed and ready to enjoy alcohol again!
The first time I drank alcohol after being diagnosed was when I was out with friends in the Old Town neighborhood in Chicago. I went into a liquor store in hopes of finding a more health conscious option. I managed to find one skinny, low-calorie drink; however, I didn’t really like it and thought to myself, “well, why don’t I just make one myself?”
Not only did I want access to more health-conscious alcohol options, but I also fell in love with the idea of creating an alcoholic beverage with women in mind. The thing with the alcohol industry is that in the past, men were the primary drinkers so the companies made products to meet men’s needs. Now, women are drinking a lot more, and there’s a huge market and room for growth in women’s products. The idea behind SOCIAL is that women can feel refreshed and have something to drink throughout the night, keep calories down, and wake up the next morning still ready to give their best to the world!
KN: I love that! I think it’s incredible you came up with the idea and just totally went for it. What would you say is unique about SOCIAL Sparkling Wine?
LC: SOCIAL Sparkling Wine is unique because we believe that we are providing our consumers with some of the cleanest alcohol available today. Our canned wines are only 10 ounces and 88 calories. They have less calories for the same-size vodka soda drink that tends to get women too drunk too quickly!
KN: And you forgot to mention how tasty they are! I had a chance to try the Pink Grapefruit Ginger and it was delicious! What’s a typical day like for you as the CEO of your own company?
LC: Each day is pretty unique, but I’d say my day usually starts off the same way. It consists of waking up, meditating, jumping on my trampoline, drinking mushroom tea, getting ready, and going to the office. At work, each day is different. For example, some days I am with the team in the office working on pitches, contracts or brainstorming new product ideas. Other days, I am flying to different cities to meet with retailers, meet with media (like editors and morning shows), or to meet with investors. After work, I enjoy going to networking events to expand my circle of influencers and business professionals.
KN: It has to be so exciting to own your own business. What has excited you the most and what have you found to be the most challenging?
LC: One of the things that is most exciting about SOCIAL is that we are innovators in the wine industry! It is exciting for me to make and provide an alcohol option that fits into the health-conscious consumers’ lifestyle. And even more than that, it is especially exciting to produce this product with women in mind!
One challenge that I face is something that many other start-up business owners can relate to; everyday, there is fear that comes in that something shitty is going to happen. There is fear that something will go wrong or the company won’t succeed. The challenging part of this is how to react to it — you need to continue to believe that it’s all going to work out and to have faith in yourself!
KN: I agree, I think fear is ultimately what can keep people (and women in particular) from achieving their utmost potential. What has been the biggest challenge or failure with your business? How have you pushed through it?
LC: One of the biggest challenges I have faced with SOCIAL so far was finding the right producer. At one point, we had a producer who said they wouldn’t keep producing our products if we did not give them equity. At this point in time, we were running out of stock which caused major stress for the SOCIAL team. The team and I explored and researched our options. We looked into stock and equity, as well as found a new producer who might be a better fit. One thing that I learned from this experience is that having options always helps to alleviate stress!
KN: Right, you can’t put your eggs all in one basket, as they say! Speaking of stress, how do you manage it these days?
LC: I try to manage stress in healthy ways. For example, I love yoga and find it to be very helpful when I am feeling especially stressed. Every morning too, I wake up and meditate and jump on my trampoline. These two activities really help prepare for me for the day and subdue the stress!
KN: That’s great! How do you balance life and being a CEO?
LC: Balancing life and entrepreneurial responsibilities isn’t always easy. Lately, I’ve been booking vacations or camping trips. I’ve been aiming to designate time to do the things that I really, really enjoy. At work, I try to delegate tasks that I don’t enjoy or am not so good at. This way, work doesn’t feel like work!
KN: In regards to your life in general, what has been your best decision to date?
LC: The best decision I’ve made in my life is not removing my thyroid. When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, one of the medical options offered to me was to remove my thyroid. However, I decided I wanted to go in a different route and focus on changing my diet instead in order to heal. Through the process of incorporating healthier foods into my daily life, I learned more about myself and it motivated me to fix things in my life that were causing me unease so I could be healthy and happy. Even better, changing my diet to heal my thyroid was the inspiration for SOCIAL Sparkling Wine!
KN: You are a true inspiration! I can’t imagine going through such a difficult experience and having to make such important decisions. Who would you say has inspired you over the years?
LC: So many people have inspired me over the years, but in particular, other female CEOs who are creating products. In the past, women’s needs were not as understood because a lot of marketers were men. But now, we live in an era of strong, intelligent, powerful and badass women. Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Gwyneth Paltrow – all of these women produce female-focused brands and demonstrate strength and femininity in such graceful ways!
KN: I couldn’t agree more! Over the years, what would you credit your success to?
LC: Once when I was 12, I heard someone say, “as long as you add value, you will always be taken care of.” This saying has stuck with me and really is what I base my success off of. Providing something that serves people adds value to their life. Meeting people’s needs is what I think will bring you success!
KN: If you had one general piece of advice for women starting their own business, what would it be?
LC: The only thing stopping someone from accomplishing something is their fear. Once you overcome that, the world is yours. Don’t let fear make you give up. The only people who fail are those who quit!
KN: Yes! You said it! Thanks so much for sharing your story and thoughts, Leah! Do you have any parting thoughts or advice?
LC: Life is meant to be enjoyed and we enjoy it the most when we are healthy, connected to those we love and are giving our best to the world!
If you’d like to get in touch with Leah, you can connect with her on LinkedIn.
Kelly Nash is a Chicago-based writer, career coach, speaker and founder of Lipstick & Ink®. She also works full-time in technology as a Role Strategy and Employee Engagement Manager at Salesforce and has over 12 years of digital marketing experience. Kelly has been featured in Thrive Global, Chicago Tribune, International Association of Women, General Assembly, Salesforce, and SheFactor. She’s fueled by black coffee, sunshine, a good ink pen, and a bold lip.