UCLA Anderson’s MBA student-led retail business conference, Evolve, addressed the future of retail

UCLA Anderson’s Evolve Conference Looks Ahead to the Future of Retail


MBA students invited forward-thinking CEOs, founders and change-makers

April 24, 2023

  • UCLA Anderson’s 2023 Evolve conference addressed the theme of the Future of Retail
  • Students in the Retail Business Association invited keynote speakers and panelists representing e-commerce, direct-to-consumer, fashion, CPG and more
  • Evolve’s brand showcase spotlighted up-and-coming local brands

UCLA Anderson’s student-run Retail Business Association hosted the 2023 Evolve conference under the theme of the Future of Retail.

Building companies with purpose was the common thread throughout the conference. Keynote speakers discussed starting and growing brands with deeper meaning and purpose. RBA president Joe Benoit (’23) asked Peiman Raf, CEO and co-founder of fashion brand Madhappy, about his experience growing a brand that promotes inclusivity, positivity and mental health. When asked how he tailors the brand for his consumers, Raf answered, “Honestly, I don’t. And I don’t think that’s what the best brands do.” He explained Madhappy’s proven philosophy that striving to deliver original and authentic messages to its audiences without sacrificing their unique ethos helps build brand loyalty and establish meaning. Given Madhappy’s success in recent years, such a philosophy appears to work well for them.

“Be dynamic, survive and push forward. It’s a tumultuous sea that we ride out here. Find whatever foundation you can stand upon — that will help you ride the waves.”

— Blake and Brandon Shirk, Co-Founders, SOVA Hospitality

Jake Capps, managing partner and co-founder of the purpose-oriented private equity firm Meaningful Partners, shared several stories illustrating how his portfolio companies prioritize purpose as well as profit. Fast casual restaurant chain &Pizza, for example, builds a unified company culture by prioritizing fair working conditions and wages for all of their employees. “So much so,” said Capps, “that many of them have the ‘&’ symbol tattooed on their bodies … It’s trite but true: culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Michelle Wahler of Beyond Yoga added, in conversation with RBA’s EVP Stephanie Benjamin (’23), “I’d rather charge more for our goods and help our community (of employees), because they deserve to be paid more.” Wahler attributed her brand's longterm success to sticking to their mission of team and customers first, and to comfort  across all sizes.

Other presentations and conversations related to the future of retail technology. Anderson alumnus Scott Gladstone (’11), president of international and corporate development at Dine Brands, shared insights related to improving the customer dining experience through virtual ordering and AI assisted recommendations. The Evolving Customer Experience breakout panel included alumna Sarah McMahon (’21), head of customer retention at Vans, who spoke to Vans’ customer engagement strategy and how it influences both online and in-store experiences.

“Be vocal about what you need and the relationships you’re trying to build.”

— Mitchella Gilbert (’21), Founder and CEO, OYA Femtech Apparel

The conference closed with a fireside discussion between Andres Engel, COO of MeUndies, and Anthony Choe, founder of Provenance, a private equity firm that invested in MeUndies in 2020. Engel and Choe discussed how MeUndies was different from other direct-to-consumer companies. “It changed my mind,” said Choe, who initially was not interested in investing. “When I looked at the customer loyalty numbers for MeUndies, they were better than anything I had ever seen — in food, in vitamins, in anything.” Engel, in parallel, shared his personal journey of leaving a job in investment banking to join MeUndies as COO, a move that resonated with the many MBAs in the audience who may be considering a similar career pivot.

Final keynote speaker Angelic Vendette, CMO of Alo Yoga, discussed how Alo has differentiated itself from its competitors. “A huge advantage we have is that we’re vertically integrated,” she said. “But also, we work hard to be on the cutting edge.” Vendette, interviewed by Assistant Professor of Marketing and Behavioral Decision Making Franklin Shaddy, explained Alo’s marketing strategy of working through many short-term sprints throughout the year to release campaigns and activations. Doing so helps Alo stay relevant up to the moment for its consumers.

“Overcommunicate and have wins in my back pocket — that’s how I influence internal partners.”

— Angelic Vendette, CMO, Alo Yoga

Evolve’s brand showcase spotlighted up-and-coming local brands. The showcase featured Anderson entrepreneurs Hawkins Golden (FEMBA ’23) from YoBe and Brian Dubow (’23) of Hit of Happiness, and, among others, Vodium marketing fellow Lia Sanfelippo (’23), RBA’s VP of social and community.

“Don’t hurry the journey.”

— Andres Terech, Adjunct Professor of Marketing and Associate Faculty Director, Morrison Center for Marketing and Data Analytics