‘Shedding Setbacks, Achieving RealReal Success’: Q&A with Purdue alumna Julie Wainwright

Purdue alumna Julie Wainwright will join Purdue President Mitch Daniels at the next Presidential Lecture Series event beginning at 6 p.m. ET March 29 in Stewart Center’s Fowler Hall.

The event is titled “Shedding Setbacks and Achieving RealReal Success.” Sponsored by the Purdue President’s Council, the event is free and open to the public and also will be livestreamed at purdue.university/RealReal.

Her persistence, patience and what she calls a formula to “fail forward” led to the 2011 launch of The RealReal, a luxury consignment business with a focus on sustainability. Wainwright became a Wall Street star in 2019 as part of a select group of women in history — 33 at last count — to guide their company through an initial public offering.

Wainwright had been named CEO of Pets.com in 1999. The company, however, became a victim of the dot-com bubble after the site went public and then collapsed in 2000.

But as a Purdue alumna, she was unwilling to let that high-profile public and personal setback stop her from making a lasting impact in the world of e-commerce. And today, The RealReal is changing the way consumers buy and sell high-end luxury across all categories. The San Francisco-based company now has a market capitalization of $2 billion. Wainwright, who earned her undergraduate degree in industrial management from Purdue’s School of Management in 1979, answered questions on a broad range of topics in advance of her return to campus as the guest for this month’s Presidential Lecture Series event.

QUESTION: Failure. Fear. Freedom. Those three words seem to define much of your path toward success the last 20 years, specifically following the demise of Pets.com in 2000 and the birth of your current company, The RealReal, in 2011. Can you put into perspective how these three words have helped frame your philosophy around business and success?

ANSWER: When I failed publicly with Pets.com, it gave me the freedom to take on more risks, and taking risks comes with fear of the unknown. However, I let the failure and the fear fuel me, enabling me to successfully conceptualize, build and launch The RealReal, now in business for more than 10 years!

Q: You’re among an elite class of women CEOs — just 33 at last count — who have taken their startup companies through Wall Street and led a successful initial public offering. What does that mean to be in such incredible company? What expectations and/or responsibilities come with that achievement and as a CEO of a company with a market capitalization of $2 billion?

A: First, that number is very small, so small that it makes me mad. It’s a reminder of how much work still needs to be done. That number, 33, is the number of women who have founded and taken a company public, but some of those women had male partners. If you strip the male-female duos and only focus on just solo women-female founders, that number shrinks dramatically. As an entrepreneur, one of my key focuses and passions is to help other female entrepreneurs and empower them to feel confident and bullish to go after what they want. You fight strength with strength, and I’m here to remind female entrepreneurs all the time that it’s possible.  

Q: The RealReal is making upcycling and environmental sustainability a key part of its mission. You have penned op-eds expressing concerns about fashion, calling it one of the dirtiest industries in contributing 8% of the world’s total carbon footprint, in large part due to the explosion of “fast fashion” brands. And in 2021 The RealReal launched its ReCollection project, which partners with houses and designers to create new fashion products from unsold or defective pieces of their dead stock. What is driving The RealReal’s commitment and financial investment in upcycling and support for a more sustainable future for fashion?

A: For the past decade, The RealReal has championed the circular economy, extending the life of luxury goods through resale. Over the past couple of years, we started exploring how we can address pieces that can’t be recirculated in their current state, and we started with offering repair services in our stores. However, we still lack scalable paths forward for the vast amount of items that can’t live on in their current state and risk being part of the garbage truck’s worth of textiles that are landfilled or burned every second. And we know finding a way to keep those pieces in circulation is critical. The fashion industry is poised to miss the 1.5-degree pathway laid out by the Paris Climate Accord by more than 50%. But recirculating just 1 in 5 items would help achieve that goal. The ReCollection program is an expansion of The RealReal’s work to keep luxury items in circulation. This upcycling program is possible because the quality and craftsmanship behind luxury goods means they can have many new lives — and ReCollection supports that.

Q: While the world sees The RealReal as a leading fashion company in an estimated $200 billion annual luxury resale market, you describe it as a tech company? Why? How does this fit with your move to launch brick-and-mortar “shoppable” stores in the past few years?

A: Only TRR (The RealReal) offers full-service consignment, and we’re able to do that because of our use of technology throughout our business. Consigning with us is easy. You can drop off items at one of our 19 retail locations, meet in person or virtually with an expert for a complementary valuation, meet with a “Luxury Manager” in your home, arrange an at-home pickup, or ship directly to us with our prepaid shipping labels. Unlike peer-to-peer sites where you do all the work, we authenticate every item, then photograph, price and list it, plus manage payments, shipping and returns.

We use real-time advanced algorithms for intelligent pricing (which factors internal data plus external trends). Our site uses deep taxonomies to make it possible for us to factor demand, condition, style and age to provide the most optimal pricing. And we use machine learning in our authentication process that helps us operationalize our business. Because of the combination of human oversight and our technology integrations across our organization, we’re able to add more than 10,000 items to our site daily.

Q: Like most global companies, The RealReal has confronted serious obstacles because of the COVID-19 pandemic. How have you been able to navigate the company through this historically challenging time, even for online retailers?

A: While we were impacted from a staff and store standpoint, traffic trends remained healthy despite a significant reduction in advertising spend, and our sell-through rebounded quickly to pre-COVID-19 levels and still remains stable despite COVID-19 and all of its variants. Our team was very agile, creative and nimble as we were forced to reinvent our supply acquisition strategy. We pivoted to virtual appointments. We launched curbside, which was well-received by consignors. And we pivoted from in-home appointments to at-home, allowing curbside pickup outside your home.

People will increasingly look to monetize luxury products in their homes as the pandemic continues and the economy suffers. And once we’re out of COVID-19, people will still have the option to buy and shop secondhand luxury because it’s a great investment and ultimately better for the planet.

Q: What special place does Purdue hold for you these years since you graduated? Do any lessons, insights from your days as a Boilermaker still resonate with you today, and of the value of your Purdue undergraduate degree in industrial management?

A: There are two classes that I took at Purdue that truly changed my life. The first was a case studies and entrepreneurial business class led by Arnold C. Cooper, professor in the School of Management. He was enlightening, inspiring, and he encouraged his class to take risks. I also took a consumer psychology class that helped me understand the consumer mindset, and it was that professor who actually helped me land my first job out of college, at Clorox. The two classes helped shape my future in a big way. Two more things have also stayed with me since I graduated Purdue:

  • The winters were way too cold!
  • I can still smell the fall crisp air when we’d come back to campus after the summertime. It was beautiful.

Q: How different might your advice be today if you were able to talk as your today’s self to the Julie Wainwright of your days, say, as a Purdue student?

A: I naively thought that when I graduated from college, women had equal rights and equal pay. That was a tough pill to swallow once I got out into the real world. I’d advise my Purdue self that things are not equal but that, yes, you’ll be a part of the change, albeit that change takes a long time.

Q: Any final thoughts for your Purdue/Greater Lafayette community audience, particularly our students, ahead of your return to campus?

A: Purdue is a unique school because it really does ground everyone in amazing math and science skills that will serve you in any path you choose. However, in order to balance your life, you need creative outlets. And the good news is you can find those outlets at Purdue. I want to encourage all of you to embrace those opportunities and round out the omni edges of your brain. That will help you think beyond the analytics side of your brain, opening more doors for you.

On the contrary though, there are a few things on my wish list for Purdue:

The university has a long way to go in terms of  creating an environment for young adults to be innovative. They’ve lacked the innovation that Stanford, for example, has, yet it is critically important to empower innovation in everyone. Even if you don’t become an entrepreneur, having the mindset will have you become a strategic problem solver while encouraging self-accountability. These traits will only do you well in any direction you choose your career to go in. I’d like to see more innovation programs to build off of Purdue’s already strong education track.

— By Phillip Fiorini