Rena Ogura (MBA ’22) shares her experience co-founding a company at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and her commitment to driving diversity and inclusion in the wine industry.
Tell us more about your background and what inspired you to be an entrepreneur.
When I left my family and friends in Japan to pursue an education and career in the U.S., I never imagined that being an entrepreneur in America was an option for me. I needed a work visa to remain in the U.S., which meant that I would have to pursue “traditional” careers with large corporate organizations. And while I enjoyed my experience in management consulting in New York City, I always found ways to share my passion for wine—a hobby I discovered during my undergraduate years.
When I took my first wine course in university, I was immediately mesmerized. For years, I had struggled to find ways to express my own cultural identity as a Japanese individual in the U.S. While I continue to grapple with this dilemma to this day, I was captivated by a wine bottle’s ability to seamlessly and captivatingly reveal the intricate stories of the land it was raised in—a skill that I so desperately desired.
Wine became, and continues to be, a conduit for me to feel connected to others. It naturally gravitates people towards each other—both strangers and old friends alike—and yet, it is such an introspective experience. It is just you and your five senses. Everything, from the pop and sizzle of opening a Champagne bottle to the scent of stained wine on the cork, is a critical factor that conveys the story of the land in which the wine was made.
I began to host events with coworkers, clients, and friends anchored around wine, which I soon discovered was a refreshing and engaging way for people to get to know each other better. That was when my co-worker at the time (and now co-founder), Mike, approached me with the idea of unleashing this magnetic power of wine.
What is the problem that you are trying to solve?
Night Inn was started to “bring togetherness to the home.” We saw a lack of alternatives to traditional night life that were engaging, affordable, and comfortable. We asked ourselves, “Why does night life have to mean a night out at crowded public spaces full of strangers? Why could it not also mean a fun night in the comfort of your own home?” Mike and I knew that this at-home option was not only viable but also attractive, based on the wine tasting events that I had hosted.
As we prepared to launch a direct-to-consumer booking platform that would offer at-home hospitality experiences, such as having a three-Michelin-Star restaurant sommelier or world-class bartender come to your home to entertain you and your guests for a private wine or cocktail tasting, Covid-19 struck. Our mission remained the same, but it became even more important than before to bring togetherness in a virtual world. However, there were more challenges that we now wanted to tackle: we saw the devastating downfall of the restaurant industry and its financial impact on sommeliers, and at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in March, we became painfully aware of the lack of diversity and inclusion in the wine industry.
So today, we are trying to solve three issues: bring people together, celebrate and support hospitality professionals, and elevate the unheard yet unique voices in the industry since representation matters.
What is your solution?
With Covid-19 hitting right as we were about to launch an in-person and at-home service, we had to pivot quickly. We reduced our scope from multiple hospitality categories (wine, cocktails, liquor, and cooking) to just wine and transitioned to a virtual experience.
Today, Night Inn offers virtual wine tastings through its OnlineVines program where both individual and corporate guests can book private wine tasting sessions with incredibly talented sommeliers. We curate the wines for the session based on the guest’s preferences and the sommelier’s expertise areas.
Our experience is distinct from other virtual wine tastings in that it offers an interactive experience that creates a dialogue between the guests and our sommeliers, as opposed to lecture-style sessions that are educational but dry in nature. This engaging session is enabled by bringing on sommeliers to our platform who have unique stories to share and by empowering them to speak about wines they care about (e.g., sustainable wine producers, female winemakers changing the Italian landscape, delicious Black-owned wine brands).
Who is the team behind your startup?
The Night Inn team is a trifecta. We bring highly complementary skill sets, all of which we see as core competencies in operating a brand that sells an experience, as opposed to a physical product. Our CEO, Mike, brings customer- and market-focused strategy, as well as finance expertise, from his strategy role at a major media company. Our Head of Business Development, Ryan, brings sales expertise and deep relationships in the NYC restaurant industry. And I, as the Head of Product, bring the product expertise as a sommelier and the growth strategy with my background in strategy and innovation consulting.
Each of us, in addition to our skill sets, brings a mentality that we believe will be a powerful driver of company growth and a strong organizational culture: relentless commitment to driving positive change in the hospitality space. The Night Inn team does not come from a hospitality background, which we actually believe is a strength. It eliminates any biases to traditional ways of operating and providing services—for our “Guests,” we are able to bring the lens of everyday consumers and focus on delighting the customer rather than adhering to the strict and often snobby boundaries of the wine industry. And we still have personal networks in the industry and product knowledge, which helps to lower the barrier to entry in the hospitality space. With this fresh perspective, we not only expect ourselves to successfully scale “having a night in” as a viable alternative to a night out but also see ourselves as champions of diversity and inclusion, which the hospitality industry has traditionally struggled to lead.
With OnlineVines, we prioritize elevating unique sommelier voices and wine brands (e.g., people of color, women, LGBTQ+, sommeliers and wine producers who have taken untraditional paths). Half of our sommelier team are women, and we are one of the very few direct-to-consumer wine platforms to actively promote and incorporate wines produced by underrepresented minorities. We believe that businesses today have an amplified responsibility to represent minorities, be inclusive, and have an open dialogue with consumers.
We like to think that a lot of exciting opportunities are ahead of us! With over $15,000 in revenue generated in three months, we are now at a place to pause and re-evaluate. With a team that is part-time on the effort, we feel that it is paramount for us to slow down, recalibrate, and strategize on our long-term vision. As we continue to identify ways to bring togetherness to the home and to champion diversity and inclusion in the hospitality space, we are exploring more product and partnership opportunities. We aim to develop subscription-driven packages to make our wines and tasting sessions consistently available at an affordable price point. We are actively working with exciting partners who are helping us to explore the intersection of sports and wine by specifically working with athletes who own wineries or are interested in learning more about wine.
Stay tuned on our journey and check us out at https://nightinnexperience.com.
Rena Ogura (MBA ’22) is from Tokyo, Japan and graduated from Cornell University in 2016. During her time at Cornell, she discovered her passion for wine and became certified as a sommelier (Level 1 – 2016; currently studying for WSET Level 3 but on pause due to Covid-19). Prior to HBS, she worked in management consulting in New York during which time she also co-founded her company, Night Inn.