Wendy has always chased what excites her, and with big ambitious goals. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Wendy moved to the US when she was four, and despite her parents’ desire to see her become a doctor, decided instead to pursue a finance education that was a better fit with her extroverted personality. After attending the Stanford Graduate School of Business, successfully co-founding the digitally-native luxury handbag company, SENREVE, Wendy’s ambition—along with her three pups—led her to a new idea for a business. Wendy chats with us about how she turned concept to reality with the formation of Alpine’s pet platform, Antelope and the lessons she has learned along the way.
Can you tell us about your career path — especially going from finance to entrepreneurship — and what you learned along the way?
At the beginning of my career, I was risk averse. I had no safety net to fall back on. There are certain career paths that are expected when you come from an immigrant Chinese family, and I’d originally decided to pursue a career as a doctor. Soon after arriving at MIT, I realized I lacked a passion for medicine. I was too extroverted to be in labs or studying in a room – my true love was talking to people and networking, so I started exploring finance.
Finance was absolutely booming during this time, and going down that path allowed me to see so many different aspects of what makes a business tick. It leveraged my extroverted skills, and I felt like it would maximize my optionality in the future—it was a fantastic way to build a solid business and analytical foundation while I figured out what I truly wanted to do in the future. After spending a few years in investment banking and private equity, I went to pursue my MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business to help determine my true passions.
If you could speak to the young Wendy and give her advice as she was starting off in your career, what would it be?
It’s so important to proactively ask for feedback and do the best job you can in your current role. One area where I have noticed young people make mistakes is always focusing on the next thing. The best way to move up and advance quickly is to give it all in your current job and ask for regular feedback on how you’re progressing. I highly recommend proactively scheduling 1:1s with your direct manager, preparing a self-review, and giving your direct manager space to react to that self-review. You’re essentially making it very easy for your manager to crystallize your areas of development, forcing him or her to vocalize feedback that they have not had the opportunity to share; plus, you stand out for being incredibly self-aware and eager! I wish I had done this more often early on in my career. These feedback discussions will only help you grow and identify opportunities to accelerate your development!
What is your perspective as a minority and female in entrepreneurship?
I think about this a lot. The thing that holds women back, minority women especially, is confidence—it doesn’t come naturally to us. As women, we tend to focus on the tactical, the details that can go wrong, and not let ourselves imagine the big picture–what a best case scenario could be! It’s so important to allow yourself to dream and believe in that dream. Over time, I have shifted my mindset from focusing on what the business is today to projecting what it could be in the future if everything goes well, and believing that to be possible. Anchoring your confidence in that pie-in-the-sky vision, exploring how it can be a massively successful, transformational business, will simultaneously embolden every aspect of your behavior—from how you pitch to investors to how you present yourself to your team and partners.
What compelled you to shift from finance to consumer entrepreneurialism, first with SENREVE and now Antelope?
When I was in investment banking and private equity, I saw early on that my favorite part of the process was the post-investment strategy: how are we going to grow the management team, how can we tweak operations, what’s our five-year strategy? Business school made me realize that many successful entrepreneurs were not that different from myself in terms of skill sets—the biggest difference was they were willing to take the plunge and go for it, so I decided to do just that.
I launched SENREVE at the end of 2016, and a short time later, adopted my first rescue dog, Poke. He really got me through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship—he’s been my rock. I constantly think about him, his health, and how to optimize and elongate his life—even more than I think about my own wellness! I see Antelope as an answer to caring, passionate pet parents like myself—to be this one-stop-shop umbrella of pet products and services that deliver the highest quality and length of life to our pets. In May 2021, I decided to partner with one of my SENREVE angel investors, Graham Weaver, and also Alpine Founder, to launch Antelope.
What has being an entrepreneur taught you about overcoming obstacles?
There is always another milestone that is bigger and harder to accomplish. It can feel like a never-ending climb. You will inevitably run into roadblocks. Every founder is going to run out of money, lose key employees, face a potential lawsuit—those are scary things that are inevitable in the life of a successful founder or C-level executive. It’s important to think of these roadblocks as part of the journey and not get rattled when they come. It’s important to maintain equanimity throughout the ups and downs of entrepreneurship – things are never as bad as they feel in the moment, and they are never as good as they feel. Always remember that, and enjoy this journey! It’s an incredible privilege to be founding and running your own business, to be building something of lasting value—relish that experience instead of just focusing on the final outcome.
What advice would you give others thinking about pursuing a similar path?
There’s no finish line out there that’s marked “success.” One way to stay grounded is to remind yourself about the importance of the journey, much more so than the destination. It’s critical to take time to pause every once in a while and reflect on how far you’ve come and the progress you’ve made. Graham and I were talking one day, and he shared with me a great quote from Vince Lombardi, to the effect that, “I’ve never lost a game—I’ve only run out of time.” This hit home with me—startups don’t fail, entrepreneurs run out of cash and choose to give up. There are always ways to keep going if you are persistent, creative at problem-solving, and disciplined about cash management—and if you keep going long enough, you will figure out how to be successful.
As someone who’s successfully raised money for two ventures, how do you think about the fundraising process, particularly given the fundraising challenges faced by female entrepreneurs?
There was an HBR study that dug into the reason why female entrepreneurs receive only about 2% of venture funding, despite owning 38% of businesses in this country. They found that VCs tended to ask men questions about the potential for gains (for instance, market size and adjacent category potential) and women about the potential for losses (for instance, competitive dynamics and business risks). This difference in questioning drove the majority of the funding gap—entrepreneurs who fielded mostly questions regarding potentials for gains raised on average 7x more than entrepreneurs who fielded mostly questions regarding potentials for losses. Fortunately, the study also showed that if entrepreneurs answered all questions with a focus on the potential for gains, this gap closed. Knowing this, I’ve been very conscious about always painting a vivid picture of the expansive market opportunity and what a transformational business that’s massively successful could look like in pitches.
Why did you choose to partner with Alpine?
There are three reasons why Alpine. The first is practical—capital availability. Alpine recently raised their $2.25 billion dollar Fund VIII. The firm has great relationships with capital partners and will be capable of supporting Antelope through its entire growth trajectory.
The second is Alpine’s M&A expertise. I believe the thesis I am trying is unique—buying and building pet brands that are chemical-free, natural, and have limited ingredients. The most important element that will determine our success is our ability to source and close deals quickly. Alpine’s regimented playbook and 20 years of expertise is an integral element to this thesis.
Third, Alpine’s PeopleFirst strategy. That’s not a tagline they just throw around—Alpine truly lives it inside and out. In fact, Graham sort of undersold this to me. Only when I joined full-time did I see the power and magic of Alpine’s PeopleFirst methodology and playbook. For example, Alpine truly hires people for their attributes, not their expertise, and empowers them with the ownership to grow at an accelerated pace. Alpine also builds an incredible culture of retention and opportunity for their extremely talented team, enabling employees to stick around for significantly longer than the industry standard, and I think that’s so unique and special. Alpine also provides extensive resources for hiring, recruiting, and retaining talent to their portfolio companies. They truly are the best at people, and when you nail down product-market fit, it’s all about execution, and execution is dependent on the people at the helm. They’ve got this formula nailed down. I’m excited to continue learning from Alpine’s PeopleFirst playbook and apply their best practices to Antelope in order to build the go-to brand for exceptionally talented folks who are passionate about consumer brands and pets.
What was your vision behind Antelope?
The pet market is attractive and growing incredibly fast—$100 billion in the US and $225 billion internationally. Millennials and Gen-Zers are having children later in life and having pets earlier and earlier. They are treating pets like family members. Whatever trend you see in food, beauty, and skincare on the human side, there is an analog for our beloved pets.
As all industries increase their adoption of e-commerce, the future, in my view, is in building direct relationships with consumers and distributing via an omni-channel approach—meaning not only offline or online, but both. There’s an opportunity to make Antelope a platform that combines the most interesting aspects of pet consumer verticals and leverage economies of scale to create an umbrella brand that stands for trust, quality, and transparency.
What do you see as the greatest potential barriers to building the next pet omni-channel pet conglomerate?
The market is ripe for growth, but the main risk here is execution and preserving quality at scale. Successful omni-channel distribution will be the difference.
Why did you and Alpine see Bocce’s Bakery as a good investment opportunity for Antelope?
Starting in May 2021, we screened more than 60 companies, and Bocce’s Bakery really stood out. Number one—the quality of their products is amazing. Traditionally, pet foods and treats are ridden with unnatural fillers, but Bocce’s treats typically have less than 10 ingredients. It’s a great option for people wanting to give their pets natural, healthy treats.
Number two—Bocce’s has built a fan-favorite brand. The brand is creative, authentic, and whimsical. For dogs, they have the cutest flavors—so imaginative and appetizing. They really nailed this humanization trend when it comes to branding.
Lastly, Bocce’s has so much opportunity. They’ve built a strong product, brand, and fanatic customer base—all they need is help with scaling it further. That’s where Antelope comes in. We are excited to help them build the infrastructure and processes to scale to the next level.
Bocce’s Bakery was founded by two sisters. What is the significance for you to be launching the pet platform with a women-founded business?
It’s not only female-founded—the entire team is women. The investing deal team and the bankers on Bocce’s side are all women. How rare is that? When we were closing the acquisition, we had this incredible moment reveling in how unique and special that moment was—a woman CEO, women founders, women bankers, and an all-women deal team. It’s been an amazing experience in an industry traditionally dominated by men.