Electronic commerce had been on an inexorable upward swing for years when COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns sent online buying into overdrive in early 2020. Suddenly stuck at home, even the most die-hard brick-and-mortar shoppers began scouring the internet to order their items online — from pasta to puzzles to Pelotons.
“People want to buy online, and, especially during a pandemic, they have to,” says Randolph E. Bucklin, Peter W. Mullin Chair in Management and a professor of marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. “We’ve had five to 10 years of acceleration toward e-commerce occur in one year.”
How buying habits have changed: Online purchases now account for about 14% of total retail sales, a huge bump from August 1994, when a Philadelphia man’s pioneering computer purchase of a Sting compact disc made the New York Times.
For two UCLA Anderson alumni, e-commerce has become more than a way to stock a pantry or outfit a home. It has provided two distinct career paths, with some strategic crossover between their two companies.
Mandy Pardehpoosh (B.A. ’03, ’09) works in product marketing at Shopify, the commerce platform of choice for more than 1 million businesses small and large seeking to market their wares online.
Tomas Ponce De Leon (’10) develops global marketplaces for Walmart eCommerce. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, runs a distant second in online sales to the behemoth known as Amazon, which holds 40% of the e-commerce market. But Walmart is gaining ground with strategic alliances and its push to allow customers to pick up grocery orders at Walmart’s physical locations.
Online purchases account for 14% of total retail sales, a huge bump from 1994, when a Philadelphia man’s pioneering computer purchase of a Sting compact disc made the New York Times.
In June 2020, Walmart partnered with Shopify to expand its third-party marketplace site, with the aim of adding 1,200 Shopify sellers.
The two alumni talked about their backgrounds and how their UCLA Anderson schooling helps them compete in the pandemic-fueled realm of e-commerce.
Born in Michigan, Mandy Movahhed Pardehpoosh had a peripatetic childhood that took her family to New York, Connecticut and Southern California by the time she was 12.
“My dad would get antsy,” she says. “He worked in biotech, and I inherited his need to move around.” Her mother has taught Spanish and French, and English as a second language.
Pardehpoosh, 41, cheerfully acknowledges her love of shopping and the hours she spent at malls in Thousand Oaks and Topanga. “My entire preteen and teen years were spent going to the mall,” she says. “I was an early e-commerce shopper, but I still enjoyed the in-person shopping experience as well.”
After high school, she spent a gap year teaching English in southern China, where she grew to appreciate the food, the people and the culture. As an undergraduate at UCLA, Pardehpoosh majored in political science and international development, with a minor in Chinese.
Mandy Pardehpoosh credits her network of Anderson friends and her marketing concentration with helping her succeed in e-commerce. “My skills in critical thinking and analysis are always going to be helpful.”
She briefly considered a career in public policy, but an unpaid stint as an education policy researcher in Washington, D.C., changed her mind. Her bosses recruited her to be a volunteer coordinator for the Election Protection Coalition, which operated a nonpartisan hotline for voters concerned about disenfranchisement. This took her to Akron, Ohio, where she worked as a volunteer manager the week of the 2004 presidential election, despite not having any previous field experience. “I was so nervous that I went way overboard. I worked 20 hours a day for a week, but it ended up being the most satisfying professional experience of my life.”
The experience taught her she preferred collaborating with people to documenting research on a spreadsheet. For the next few years in Washington, she worked as an event marketer and conference coordinator for nonprofit organizations, and then took a job at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, where she supported Black-owned businesses.
Although she found the nonprofit world personally satisfying, she was hitting a professional ceiling and was looking for more opportunity overall. She decided to pursue an MBA.
She graduated during the Great Recession that followed the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble and the devastation of world financial markets.
An Anderson colleague introduced her to an entrepreneur who had founded a cloud storage backup company. Pardehpoosh worked with him and a handful of other employees in a small room in Westwood Village. The experience provided her a valuable crash course in customer service and marketing, though the company’s resources were constrained. Another Anderson friend lured her to Chicago to work in marketing at a startup that digitized test-preparation materials for a mobile app and desktop computers.
After two and a half years there, Pardehpoosh had earned a reputation as an effective marketer for startups. She took a job in New York with Handshake, a startup that offered a commerce platform for businesses selling wholesale goods.
Until technology was introduced, ordering between manufacturers and distributors and their buyers was a cumbersome affair. Pardehpoosh gave this example: Sales representatives for a candle-making company would pound the pavement, going from boutique to gift store and gathering orders written on carbon-paper forms. Weeks later, back at the home office, the reps would give the order forms to an employee who would input the desired quantities into an ordering system.
Enter Handshake, whose software for iPad and iPhone allowed sales reps to place their orders from the field or for companies to order directly.
While at Handshake, she reunited with Pedraum Pardehpoosh, a friend she had met years ago who worked in tech in the Bay Area. Handshake encouraged her to work part-time from the Bay Area, and she and Pedraum married. (He is a director of product management at Airbnb.)
In 2019, Shopify, a Canadian company, quietly acquired Handshake in an effort to build its own business-to-business operation. Pardehpoosh is a product marketing lead and covers checkout and B2B on the platform.
Companies pay a monthly fee and use Shopify software to buy a domain and quickly create a website to market their wares. Among brands using Shopify are Unilever, Allbirds (shoes), MVMT (watches) and Kylie Cosmetics by Kylie Jenner.
During the pandemic, she and Pedraum and their toddler daughter, Elham, lived much of the time in Thousand Oaks with her parents, while traveling periodically to the Bay Area to monitor a renovation of their home in Burlingame. They recently began to settle in there.
Pardehpoosh credits her network of Anderson friends and her marketing concentration with helping her succeed in e-commerce. “My skills in critical thinking and analysis and understanding business overall are always going to be helpful,” she says.
Tomas Ponce De Leon
At age 18, Tomas Ponce De Leon left his native Bogotá, Colombia, to pursue a career in the United States as a professional motorcycle racer. After six rough-and-tumble years, and multiple injuries, reality sank in.
“I was lucky to receive some good advice from my landlord — to go to college,” he says. Ponce De Leon went to the University of California, Riverside, and majored in business administration.
His mother had lived in New York for many years and become a U.S. citizen. Under rules in place at the time, her son, now 41, could also become a naturalized citizen.
He moved to Miami, where he enjoyed living among other Colombians and Cuban Americans. “It’s a Latin American city in the United States,” he says. In Bogotá, he had attended a French school, and his facility with the language helped him land jobs in business development with Cartier, the Paris-based luxury goods company, and CMA CGM, a French shipping company.
He returned to Southern California and earned his MBA at Anderson, where his exposure to business modeling and marketing propelled him into the world of consumer packaged goods.
He soon became the brand manager for Clorox Co.’s Glad trash bags in Oakland. His chief responsibility was to start an e-commerce site for compostable trash bags, a specialty item that Clorox decided to sell only online. The product took off.
“I fell in love with the whole e-commerce thing,” he says. “It was interesting to see how this small project became widely announced internally within Clorox, shining a light on the idea that e-commerce is coming.”
With that triumph under his belt, he once again heeded some friendly advice, this time from a fellow Anderson alumnus who was a product manager with eBay. He urged Ponce De Leon to move to one of the big guns: Amazon or eBay. “My buddy grabbed me by the ears,” Ponce De Leon says. “I listened.”
Ponce De Leon managed advertising budgets for eBay, which was encouraging brands to market their products on the site. He led the company’s globalization strategy, ensuring that the site was accessible to far-flung customers and companies.
In 2018, Walmart eCommerce hired him as senior director of global marketplace development, with an emphasis on Canada and Mexico. He recently transitioned to work on the U.S. marketplace business.
When companies or individuals decide to enter the digital realm to sell products, they must decide on one of two models: direct or marketplace. They either set up their own e-commerce site to sell products directly to consumers or sell via a third-party e-commerce marketplace.
At UCLA Anderson, Tomas Ponce De Leon’s exposure to business modeling and marketing propelled him into the world of consumer packaged goods.
Walmart eCommerce enables connections between sellers and customers of products that would not be found in Walmart stores. The company’s strength is its “omni-channel” convergence. The aim is to provide a seamless experience, whether customers are shopping on a mobile device, in a store or in some combination. The company is also expanding options to fulfill orders more quickly, à la Amazon. (There is no sign that Walmart is planning to follow Amazon’s lead and produce movies and streaming shows.)
The COVID-19 pandemic has speeded Walmart’s efforts to allow customers to buy groceries online and pick them up at brick-and-mortar locations (as Amazon does with Whole Foods). “When you think about Walmart’s store expansion,” Ponce De Leon says, “we’re within five miles of everyone in the United States. The reach is great. We know that Amazon is ahead of us, but it’s with our skill that we’re going to compete.”
Ponce De Leon, who lives with his wife, Karla, and two daughters in San Jose, is among the millions whose daily routines have changed drastically during the pandemic. He no longer spends three hours commuting to and from the company’s Sunnyvale office. That means he gets to see his children at breakfast, a plus. But it’s also tough to disconnect from work.
Post-pandemic, he expects the company to embrace a hybrid model, with employees spending three days in the office and two working from home.
“I certainly miss being with my team and brainstorming in a room,” he says, “but I don’t miss the driving.”