Kendra Kawala

B.A. Arts & Sciences - Medicine, Health & Society, Psychology; Class of 2013

Co-Founder & COO, Maker Wine

Could you provide a brief recap of your career since graduating from Vanderbilt?

After graduating I was fortunate to get connected to a consulting firm called Huron Consulting Group. I worked there for four years in health care consulting. It was the best place to start my career because I was able to work with so many different clients on different projects and wore a lot of different hats. In consulting I ended up doing quite a bit of sales and business development which ultimately took me to business school at Stanford where I did a two year MBA and met my co-founder and now partner in wine.

What is your company and where did the idea come from? What served as the biggest motivator or influence in starting your company?

Maker is the leading premium canned wine brand today. We are really proud to have the top quality canned wines in the world and the highest rated red and white wines out of a can. More importantly, the reason the company is called Maker is that what we’re all about is supporting and lifting up independent producers. Our real differentiator is being able to access, connect and discover amazing human products and stories.

For me, I have always enjoyed industries that are lower in technology innovation and that haven’t changed in a long time. Healthcare and wine are actually similar in those ways. I think going into wine and seeing a wine product in 750 ml glass bottles that hadn’t changed in hundreds or several thousands of years made me really excited to create something new. When I met my co-founder, she was a digital marketer by day and had all of these fun side hustles in food and beverage. She was also a home-brewer. We married these passions for craft and creation on her side with my love for trying to build meaningful change and bring innovation in new spaces. That is what brought us together first as wine-buddies and now to create a company in the wine space.

What is the most challenging thing about being an entrepreneur and how have you worked to overcome this challenge?

I think the biggest challenge is focus. Being a dreamer and also a doer I love to go and try new things but being an entrepreneur requires discipline and building a team around you that is also disciplined in moving towards one direction. One of the biggest challenges for any entrepreneur in the early days is getting distracted with the wrong things. For us, when we focus on the right things – the customer and serving our wine partners  – everything else falls into place. But if you get too caught up on other things you find yourself getting derailed. Then secondly, surrounding yourself with the right and best people. It hasn’t been a challenge but it is something that we take super seriously and put a lot of time and effort into.

What qualities are most important to possess as an entrepreneur?

Resiliency. I was a sales woman before I was an entrepreneur and people always ask, “what do you think is the best place to start?” For me, sales is a really unique intersection between problem solving and relationship building. That pivoted into being an entrepreneur perfectly because you’re constantly problem solving, relationship building and selling your company, product or team. I think resiliency and leaning into the sales-mentality.

What are you most proud of about your business?

I’m most proud that we’re delivering on our mission of lifting up independent producers. Any entrepreneur knows that in order for a business to work, people have to be willing to buy what you’re selling. Launching last year, we confirmed that people want premium craft canned wine. But more importantly, the big moment for me was having our initial winemaker partners and wineries come back to us at the end of the launch year. It’s working to help them get discovered and help get their wines and their voice out there. That was probably the most exciting moment of last year for me.

What advice do you have for students as they launch their business? Are there any tools you consistently use as an entrepreneur?

Try to find people that are a year to two years ahead of you in a similar or adjacent space and befriend them. Founder friends are the ones that keep us sane these days. One of the things that I’ve learned since starting a business is that everything has been solved. Maybe you have one or two unique insights that are actually your own but there’s probably someone that has spent their lifetime thinking about the best way to do that, so go find that person and ask them. It also goes into cold calling and emailing — being willing to put feelers out there.

Cold emailing and cold calls are the number one tool. No matter what the medium is, I think there’s many resources and things you can do to consume information, but my recommendation is to take your ideas and put them out there and see what comes back to you. That’s also where the resiliency comes into play because if you’re willing to put more out there you’ll get more back. A lot of it won’t stick so you need to be willing to roll through that.

What do you do to live a balanced life? Do you have any interesting or fun hobbies?

One of my friends and mentors coined the term “episodic balance” and I love it. The theory is that over the course of periods of your life there will be balance, but in any given day you might not feel entirely in balance. You might have a Sunday that’s your day of self care but then there will be a couple of days during the work week where it’s all work based stuff. For me, I have really tried to internalize that concept of “episodic balance” and not put too much pressure on myself to be balanced everyday and instead just focus on whatever I’m doing at that point in time. For me what that looks like is being intentional about it.

I carve out weekends. I like to camp, hike and go backpacking. I’ll drive off the grid and go backpacking for a couple of days. I physically remove myself from my space and I get off technology. That’s my style. Everyone is super different but I think finding ways to ground yourself and reset and create time and space is important. Startups are a marathon, not a sprint. Have startup friends and take care of yourself. 

I also journal every morning. It is the most clarifying and insightful activity that I do any day.