Purdue University's
School of Management
Spring 2022:
Issue 23, Vol. 1

Getting Real - Presidential Lecture Series welcomes management alumna Julie Wainwright

Julie Wainwright

Purdue University alumna Julie Wainwright wasn’t about to let a high-profile public and personal setback stop her from making a lasting and trailblazing impact in the world of e-commerce.

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, joining a select group of women in history — 33 at last count — to guide their company through an initial public offering.

Wainwright joined Purdue President Mitch Daniels for a conversation at the latest Presidential Lecture Series event on March 29 in Stewart Center’s Fowler Hall. The event, titled “Shedding Setbacks and Achieving RealReal Success,” was sponsored by the Purdue President’s Council.

“Don’t let others define your success or your life. Recognize the obstacles are real, but don’t get sidetracked by others’ agendas,” said Wainwright, who earned her Purdue degree in industrial management from the School of Management in 1979.

An e-commerce innovator, Wainwright founded The RealReal in an effort to bring authenticated luxury resale online. Through the San Francisco-based company, she has changed the way consumers buy and sell high-end luxury across all categories.

The RealReal’s successful IPO also signaled growing interest for the secondhand fashion market, which in 2021 had a $37 billion annual market size, according to consultant Bain & Co. That’s up 65% from 2017.

And with a market capitalization now at $2 billion, Wainwright’s company is capitalizing on another trend, one that is fueling the interest in resale: an increased focus on sustainability, especially among millennial and Gen Z consumers. Over 50% of Gen Z has bought or sold items secondhand, according to a report by BCG-Altagamma.

Wainwright founded Pets.com in 1998 but was forced to shutter the company in 2000, a victim of the dotcom bubble. A high-profile marketing campaign gave Pets.com a widely recognized public presence, including an appearance in the 1999 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and an advertisement in the 2000 Super Bowl with its popular sock puppet advertising mascot.

For over 20 years, Wainwright has been at the helm of leading tech companies, notably as CEO of Berkeley Systems and Reel.com. She is a frequent speaker, advisor and supporter of nonprofits and education. In 2021, Wainwright was named to Forbes’ inaugural 50 over 50 list.

“I give to Purdue and the students at Purdue because I know firsthand the power of an education from this University to enhance and expand a person’s life.”

Wainwright grew up in South Bend, Indiana, raised by artist parents. Initially planning to study pre-pharmacy at Purdue, she changed to business after she was inspired by the entrepreneurship classes, where she learned how small steps can lead to giant leaps and opportunities.

“Those classes coupled with finance, accounting, consumer psychology and statistics provided the foundation for my success,” Wainwright said. “Adding art classes gave me a creative outlet that greatly influenced me. As Andy Warhol said, ‘Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art, and good business is the best art.’”

Wainwright has received a number of awards for her work with The RealReal, including being named one of Tech Crunch’s 40 Over 40 Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs, The San Francisco Times’ Top Female Entrepreneur in 2013, one of the San Francisco Business Times’ Most Admired CEOs and receiving the FashInvest Innovation Award.

Elite students in Krannert’s new Integrated Business and Engineering (IBE) undergraduate degree program are also benefitting from the Julie Wainwright Scholarship for Women Who Make a Difference. She established this scholarship in 2020 to acknowledge and elevate Krannert women enrolled in the IBE program. “I give to Purdue and the students at Purdue because I know firsthand the power of an education from this University to enhance and expand a person’s life,” she says.

The scholarship provides up to full tuition, fees, and room and board for two in-state students and two out-of-state students. All females accepted into the IBE program are automatically considered for the scholarship, which is renewable provided the recipient remains enrolled in the program. Selection is based upon academic merit, with preference given to students who are participating in the University’s Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program.

Written by Phillip Fiorini

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