You’re going to learn so many skills. Anyone who has started a company will attest, the number of things you have to do to launch anything is overwhelming. Legal, financial, PR, marketing, web development, etc. As a founder, you must have your hands in every element of the business, which will quickly help you develop a baseline understanding of many different elements. Because of this, your professional development will be quickly accelerated and you’ll understand where you truly thrive as a company grows.
As a part of our series called “My Life as a TwentySomething Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zach Pelka, Co-Founder and CEO of Une Femme Wines, a premier Champagne and sparkling wine brand. As a four-time founder, Zach is a passionate entrepreneur who has led international teams through early start-up and growth stages. At age 23, Zach sold his first company, Paytronage, a financial technology start-up that provided an equity-based alternative to student loans backed by major fintech players and investors. Following the exit to Lumni, he managed all finances and fundraising for the 70 person company across 5 countries as Head of Capital Markets and Investor Relations.Previously, Zach helped launch a number of companies, including Merchants of Beverage, a high-end wine and spirits digital start-up. Zach is an alumnus of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied finance and operations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Thank you very much for having me! So much like a lot of others entrepreneurs, I grew up in an incredibly entrepreneurial family. My parents had several internet businesses while I grew up, which gave my sister and myself an itch. My sister and now business partner, Jen, is 12 years older than me and began running companies when I was in high school. With my parents and my sister constantly preaching the value of running your own business, I began in a similar vein. I started small with a golf ball business and sports card business, which ultimately led me to attend The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
At Penn, I was around some of the smartest humans alive which constantly drove me to think bigger and grander, especially when it came to different start up opportunities. After a few summer internships working for investment banks and VC firms, I realized that my skill set lay in the heavy quant-finance world, but my heart was all in on being an entrepreneur.
My Senior year at Penn, I had this crazy idea that instead of investing in an individual start up, what if you could invest in the entrepreneur. This would allow early stage investors to bet on the person, rather than one specific idea, since so many starts up fail, but in the long term the founder succeeds. Conversely, you could think of someone wanting to own equity in Elon Musk, to get access to Tesla, SpaceX, Solar City, etc. rather than just one. This idea led to the creation of Paytronage, which effectively created an alternative equity-based product to traditional student debt. I launched this with my best friend from Penn and we quickly raised funding, hired several PhD engineers as well as a General Counsel, launched a pilot, and were rapidly acquired by the largest player in the space.
This rapid foray into the start up world further solidified my interest and passion for running and starting new businesses. After Paytronage, my team had a foray into crypto at the wrong time, which then led me to truly re-evaluate what I wanted to do and what I was interested in from a deeper intrinsic perspective. At the same time, my sister, Jen, was running Magnum PR and The Riddler in San Francisco. I’ve always looked up to Jen and thought that she had the most interesting / enjoyable life of any entrepreneurs around me. When she asked if I had any interest in starting a Champagne brand with her, I responded ‘this is what I would want to do when I’m retired. Of course I’m in.” The opportunity to launch a Champagne and Rosé brand from scratch with Jen, who is such an expert in the space, was an absolute no brainer. And from that, Une Femme Wines, the first of several larger brands we’re launching, was born.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company? What lessons or takeaways idd you take out of that story?
I’ve worked for Wall Street Banks. I’ve pitched some of the most high profile investors in the country. But I have NEVER been more intimidated than in my first industry wine tasting. For many novices in the food and wine world, sommeliers and wine experts can seem incredibly intelligent, and it’s very easy to say something or do something embarrassing. In my first industry event, before I even knew anything about the space, I went to two separate tasting booths. The first booth, I was trying to figure out what questions to ask, so I name-dropped one of the only things I had a sense of in the space: ‘Who is your distributor’. It turned out, the entire tasting event was put on by a distributor (which I didn’t know) and everyone within it was their portfolio companies. Needless to say, I left that booth red in the face. At that point, I walked over to the next booth, asked to taste one of their cabs. I hadn’t perfected the classic wine swirl at this point, and tried to swirl my glass and ended up throwing the entire glass of red wine straight onto my white button down. This all happened within 5 minutes of walking into the event.
I’d say the biggest takeaway is that no matter what industry or job you’re in, things will feel intimidating at first, but once you get fully entrenched in it, you realize everyone is incredibly kind and started as a rookie at some point too. The hospitality industry stands out to me as one where the people go above and beyond to really try to help you, which is why I truly love working in it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Une Femme Wines is unique in several key ways. When starting Une Femme, we were able to lean on learnings from Jen’s Champagne bar, The Riddler. The Riddler has only female investors and was developed to focus on women empowerment and create a safe haven for successful women. That resonated deeply with the San Francisco and New York communities, making the locations an overnight success. What we quickly learned was that women oftentimes did not have a brand that they were deeply connected to in the Champagne space, and that the legacy players such as Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, etc. were on average over 200 years old. With Jen coming from a heavy marketing background and me coming from the finance/start up space, we thought there was a perfect opportunity to basically create a product line extension of the Riddler brand and develop a CPG-type alternative to the traditional champagne houses that focused on women throughout the supply chain, transparency of product, and giving back.
At Une Femme, all of our winemakers are women. My sister is the face of the brand. We only have women investors. Our distributors are women led, and we focus heavily on women-owned restaurants, retailers, and partners. We do all this while giving back to Dress for Success with every bottle sold.
We feel that by developing a specific product that resonates with women, we’ve developed an incredibly high quality, beautifully packaged product that connects with consumers on a deeply intrinsic level — something that is so key to today’s consumer.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’d really have to say my sister Jen. From helping me navigate the crazy process of applying to college to encouraging me to forego the traditional Wall Street path to start Paytronage, Jen has always pushed me to do the unthinkable. Many of my peers have always questioned the non-traditional paths that I’ve taken, but Jen has always pushed me to think bolder, bigger, and more out of the box. Starting companies is incredibly challenging with so many ups and downs. Oftentimes, you’re stuck in a rut and need someone to help you out of it. She is 100% of the time that person for me. Whenever I need help or inspiration, she’s always the first person that I turn to. I’m so incredibly grateful that now we’ve been able to team up because we bring very different perspectives and skill sets to the table. While our parents were nervous at first about us working together, they’ve come to really love the idea and cherish the idea of developing a long-term family business that can outlast all of us.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
With Une Femme, it’s really exciting because we’re constantly evaluating new products or partnerships to launch. In our first year, we’ve already launched three skus — a Premier Cru Champagne in partnership with Gonet Medeville — The Juliette, a Napa sparkling rose alongside Sam Sheehan of Poe Wines — The Callie, and a really fun 187mL personal-sized bottle for parks and picnics — also The Callie. We’re planning on launching several more skus in the next 12–18 months with new wine styles and winemakers. Further, we’re working on multiple fashion collaborations with Une Femme and really cool women-owned fashion brands (although we’re not able to disclose the partners yet). The thing I’m most excited about is that we’re launching a new wine in time for the holidays that will be giving back to the firefighters in California. We’ve seen such destruction due to climate change in recent years and our family has been personally affected by it, so we want to support those who are fighting so honorably for California.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When founding Une Femme, giving back was one of the major focal points that was non-negotiable for Jen and me. We knew that we wanted to support women’s endeavours in the work world, which was why we were so happy to partner up with Dress for Success, to help empower women in the professional world. One of our primary driving forces for scaling Une Femme is to be able to continue to increase our contributions to Dress for Success and other incredibly organizations that align closely with our mission.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
This is a no-brainer for me. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I’ve read the Power of Now (and the similar variants by Tolle) easily 10 times. I think that oftentimes people get caught up in the daily routines and ups and downs of life. Many of us simply go through life without having the opportunity to stop, reflect, and truly live in the moment.
Any time that I’m feeling uninspired, anxious, or in a rut, I’ll read this incredible book, which instantly snaps me out of it.
The basic premise of the book is that people often are reflecting on the past or thinking about the future, but every single moment of your entire life happens ‘in the now.’ By truly embracing every moment, whether good or bad, and just focusing on the present, I’ve lived a significantly more fulfilling and enjoyable life than before I read this book.
It’s fairly spiritual and some of the concepts are a bit out there, but I couldn’t recommend this book more.
Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. Please share an example or story for each
- Your peers, friends, and sometimes family will make you second guess your decision to go the non-traditional path. Everyone is a critic, and being a start-up founder leaves you wide open for very public failure. I’ve had co-workers and bosses scoff at concepts being impossible or statements around there’s no way you could achieve this at such a young age. This is just people talking — the most important thing to do is believe in your own ideas and ability to execute on it. No one else’s opinion matters.
- It can get really lonely at times. Large corporate organizations have big teams, HR departments, offsites, and well established communities. Odds are if you’re starting a company, it’s going to be you and one to two others. Very quickly, you’d do anything to find other co-workers to spend time with. While your friends are going to company holiday parties, you’re going to be grinding away trying to solve problems only you understand. This is all part of the process that will make the success even more rewarding.
- Financially, you’re going to have to be ok with taking a short term hit. There’s no secret that the most wealthy individuals in the world are entrepreneurs. But, the thing that people often ignore is the years of struggling through constant rounds of fundraising, taking pay cuts, and taking under-market pay for the hopes of a long term payout. I learned very quickly how to live on a small salary out of college, which has helped to ground everything else financially afterwards which I greatly appreciate.
- You’re going to lack experience and oftentimes not know what you’re doing. People learn through experience. You get experience with time. As a young founder, there are going to be many, many mistakes that you make because it’s the first time you’ve done it. Instead of viewing these ‘rookie mistakes’ as bad, be thankful that you’re making them at such a young age. I’m now on my fourth financed company, and I can unequivocally say that I’ve learned so much just by making these inexperienced mistakes — but that’s how you become a better and smarter leader.
- You’re going to experience failure in some way or another. Statistically, 90% of new ventures fail. Meaning, on average, you’re going to have to start 10 companies before having one truly succeed. It’s a hard, hard business to be in and many times you’re going to feel ready to quit. Being humble about those failures and using them as motivators and learning experiences is truly key to making the next one the success.
- You’re going to learn so many skills. Anyone who has started a company will attest, the number of things you have to do to launch anything is overwhelming. Legal, financial, PR, marketing, web development, etc. As a founder, you must have your hands in every element of the business, which will quickly help you develop a baseline understanding of many different elements. Because of this, your professional development will be quickly accelerated and you’ll understand where you truly thrive as a company grows.
- You’ll get to meet so many interesting people. The different people that I’ve been able to work directly with, hire, or pitch is truly astounding. If you have an interesting product or company, nearly anyone will be excited to talk with you about it. I’ve learned that if you’re just honest, direct, and kind, many seemingly unattainable individuals will be happy to talk to you, and potentially even become close investors or mentors.
- The financial upside is high if executed well — it is truly a meritocratic industry. There is no ceiling in start ups. If you execute and perform well, you can be rewarded tremendously.
- You get to control your own schedule, living location, etc. The flexibility of running your own business is truly amazing. I’m doing this interview currently from Alaska, where I’m going to be for the next month. In today’s age, the ability to work from anywhere has really empowered entrepreneurs to experience some amazing things in life, all while building incredible businesses.
- You get to set the direction of the company and values. As aforementioned, it was so important for Jen and I to start Une Femme with a charitable component. As the founders, we simply baked it into our financial models and did it. As a founder, you set the direction. You set what’s important. Being deeply connected to your product and intrinsic mission is so important and will drive you through those challenging times.
What are the main takeaways that you would advise a twenty year old who is looking to found a business?
I’d say the same thing a close mentor told me when I was evaluating starting Paytronage — “Burn the ships.” There’s always going to be reasons why not to start a business — money, time, experience, etc. There’s always a future of when you’ll try to start something, but that often is just an excuse that leads to it never getting started. I can’t emphasize enough that the best way to found a business is to just go all in, believe in yourself, and enjoy the ride. Even if the venture fails, the experience and things you’ll learn about business and more importantly, yourself, will be more than worth it.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Elon Musk. As a fellow Wharton Grad, I’ve always been fascinated by his ability to run several businesses at the same time and continue to innovate and seemingly defy gravity in all of his ventures. We’ve been simultaneously managing Une Femme, The Riddler SF and NYC, and Magnum PR, and I feel like there’s never enough time in the day. I’d love to learn how he’s been able to manage several public companies at the same time.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
@zachpelka and @unefemmewines
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you for having me!