Julie Wainwright, Founder and CEO of the designer consignment store, The RealReal, advised students to “be willing to learn from your mistakes” in the second installment of the Conversations with Entrepreneurs series on Thursday, February 23.
Once named one of the most influential businesswomen in the Bay Area, Wainwright recounted her days as an undergrad, the founding and shutdown of her now-defunct company Pets.com, and the strides and missteps she’s made in business.
“If you keep in mind that life is about successes, failures, and learning…it’s what will make the difference between you having a life that is rich, versus one that is limited,” she said matter-of-factly to the audience.
Sitting atop a high chair in front of a large UC Merced banner, Wainwright began the evening by recounting her undergraduate years at Purdue University, where she was first inspired to go into business. While she was still an undergrad, she had started her career in brand management for the Clorox Company.
“It all starts with what you’re doing right now,” says Wainwright to her audience. “Whether you chose the university or the university chose you, you guys are all in a great position because you’re helping form a new university and being taught by really great people. You’re part of a start-up here,” she commented.
Considered a leader and pioneer of the Internet, Wainwright has had more than 25 years of experience in consumer Internet usage. She tells the audience that she started this course of her career by leaving a steady position in brand management to join a software manufacturing company.
“It was a little bit of stupidity, a lot of bravado, and also throwing myself into a situation that I knew would have a lot of interesting opportunities,” says Wainwright.
At one point, Wainwright was asked to go over the highly publicized shutdown of Pets.com. The company, which sold pet products online, was shut down in 2000 after becoming one of the country’s top brands during the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s.
Since the end of Pets.com, Wainwright has had more successes in companies such as Hummer Winblad and Bellamax. She is currently the CEO of The RealReal.com, which is a seller of used, high-end designer products.
When asked how the Silicon Valley has changed in terms of the ease of entering into business, she turned to the audience and claimed that it has become relatively more difficult within the past two decades.
“When I started, it was really more of a meritocracy,” Wainwright told the audience. She went on to say that entrepreneurial opportunities in the Silicon Valley have narrowed for women, minorities, and people over 30.
“So let me just say that a white male in this audience will be fine if you want to get funding,” said Wainwright to laughter. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t try,” she added.
Aside from “learning from your mistakes,” Wainwright advised students to take classes that build both critical thinking and analytical skills, which she said are critical in the business world. Indeed, such classes were paramount to launching her own career.
“I think you’re all incredibly privileged to be here,” she adds. “You’re really a school that is an entrepreneurial school. You’re really forming the basis of the university for future generations.”