Coast to Coast: Alumna Maxine Fileta Starts a Business

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Stepping into Maxine Fileta's ('15) office at The King’s College, one is immediately teleported to a natural world of sweet tropical fruits, sticky citrus, and a touch of mountain earth. Snake plants and baby eucalypti flow down invitingly from every available surface, beckoning intruders to join her world, if even for a few minutes. Fileta enters. Her hair is in a naturally messy bun, presenting a strikingly at-ease appearance.

Born into a family of entrepreneurs -- her father owning 12 liquor stores and her  brother running his own vape company -- Fileta has always wanted to start her own business. Monica Danielson was Fileta’s best friend since third grade. They both grew up in the same neighborhood in Southern California, and their families loved planning and hosting parties together. Monica went to Arizona State University for nonprofit leadership and management as well as special events management, moving back to California after graduation. Fileta went to The King’s College in New York City to pursue a business degree. Nevertheless, starting a business was a kind of “distant dream,” reminisced Fileta.

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The groundwork for starting her own company was laid during high school and college—all of Fileta’s internships revolved around event planning, including working for nonprofits like Gen Next -- an exclusive collective of successful individuals dedicated to learning about the challenges future generations face in education, economic growth, and global security -- and working as an executive director for New York Students for Rubio during Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign her senior year. Fileta was elected Student Body President at King’s, and was executive assistant to a fashion stylist who owns a company called Wardrobe Guru on the Upper East Side. During her senior year Fileta conceived the idea for her first company, Willow & Wine.

One of Fileta’s core values is credibility, among sustainability and beauty, she says. It’s especially difficult for a new brand just starting out because it has not yet established a credible reputation. Being SBP helped Fileta establish that trust within the King’s community. More people were willing to listen, to trust, to believe. Those people then provided her the sustained support she needed to begin the process of starting up her business, through which she is now able to express and deliver beauty to the world. “It’s all about the people,” Fileta says.

Coming from the West Coast, arguably the country’s epicenter of cultural interaction, Fileta knows the power of connection. Fashion trends are generally set on the East Coast, and move to the West Coast, she explains; wedding trends, however, are the opposite. Working in the industry, Fileta says cities like Los Angeles tend to set the trends, which then migrate to the East Coast. Wedding season in Southern California is four months longer than the other side of the country thanks to pristine weather. Every vendor in every sector of the wedding industry is the best of the best at what they do; they can’t afford to be anything less. They know that, in California, when “Brides are shopping for their vendors, they have the [most accessible] malls in the world,” according to Fileta. The high demand and even higher expectations create tough competition. Brides can choose this photographer, that florist, and piece together a team tailored to their own tastes.

Photo courtesy of Maxine Fileta/Willow & Wine

Fileta and Danielson officially began brainstorming for their project Willow & Wine in January 2015 back home in California. The company launched four months later, in May, at the start of wedding season. W&W is a weddings and events planning company—a “one-stop shop,” as Fileta puts it. It offers planning, coordinating, calligraphy/lettering, and flowers for events. Fileta says she and her three-person team “want to be by the bride’s side from A to Z, even if she doesn’t know that’s what she needs."

Fileta got engaged herself recently to fellow King’s student and Californian Fisher Derderian ('16). “A wedding is the biggest day of someone’s life,” she eagerly points out. “It’s not just the bride’s, it’s also the groom’s, the groom’s family... the community that invests in that day. It’s the union of two families coming into one, and communities coming into one.” That’s why W&W puts more time into clients than any other vendor, she explains. Sixty to seventy-five percent of the company’s resources go to investing time in getting to know couples so that the day of the wedding, everything is just as they want it.

Running a business, “You wear 18 hats,” Fileta admits. “You’re the CFO, CEO, CMO, COO,” she says. To ease the process, there is a communication chain. King’s very own Beth Brooks, recently engaged and wed, has joined the team at W&W as client relations and content curator director. She is the first person to meet with potential clients; she gets a feel for the couple and their taste preferences. She “hooks ‘em,” as Brooks puts it, and then sets up a follow-up appointment with client and creative director, Danielson. Danielson gets to know the couples on a deeper level, which is critical because often, clients are unable to communicate what they want. Danielson “collects and creates the vision,” elaborates Fileta. Finally, Fileta is the details director. She calculates the pricing, the cost, and the maximum number of hours the company can afford to spend on a client without losing money. Then it all comes together.

Willow & Wine booked four weddings its first summer as an official business. W&W did not cater the weddings in their entirety, but offered multiple services.

“It's been so inspiring watching Willow & Wine come to life,” Brooks says. “I remember my freshman year Fileta telling me that her career goal was to become an event planner and starting Willow & Wine with her childhood best friend, Danielson. It seemed like a sweet dream, but for many, their dreams get shaken out...over time. But not for Max. She made her dreams a reality.”

When deciding on a name for their company, Fileta and Danielson wanted it to represent where they come from, a signature mark of the company, and the fact that the owners are Christian. “Wine” captures Californian vineyards, Fileta explains, and the girls’ taste preferences. Psalm 137 tells the story of how Babylonian captives hung harps, used to accompany songs to God, on willow trees, as that was the only way they could worship God. And since the company uses greenery in all of their bouquets, and the general theme of the brand is organic and earthy, “Willow” worked perfectly.

“I specifically remember in the fourth grade putting makeup on Maxine for the first time,” Danielson says. “I was an overly girly girl and she was so into soccer. Since that moment we have always complimented and balanced each other so well... we have so much trust in each other. Running Willow & Wine from two coasts brings up a new challenge every week but we are making it work through great communication.”

"In the next couple of months, exciting things are coming up for the company," says Fileta. A video reel called “Mood Reel,” produced by Joanne Vo, a 2015 King’s graduate and professional video producer in New York, is set to be released featuring the services of Willow & Wine. The company is also launching a blog—“We want people to feel like they can be a part of Willow & Wine without getting married,” says Fileta. They will be featuring things like prom flower crowns, and will be offering calligraphy workshops in New York City.

The end goal for Willow & Wine, Fileta says, is to hire a photographer, a florist and a calligrapher that can all work exclusively for Willow & Wine—people who are all in one place, representing one brand, which can provide clients with what they look for when they go “shopping” for wedding vendors.

Fileta plans to get married in California this upcoming September or October, surrounded by friends, family, and, of course, Willow and Wine. She will continue working as King’s Academic Program Development Manager, and eventually hopes to move back to California. There, she will join Danielson in growing their company in the hub of wedding trend-setting!

For more information, visit www.willowandwine.com.

Photo courtesy of Maxine Fileta/Willow & Wine.