GeekWire Podcast: Jane Park on SPACs, the immigrant ethos, and brands in the Amazon era

Jane Park at the New York Stock Exchange this week. (NYSE Photo)

Jane Park, the CEO of newly public Athena Consumer Acquisition Corp., hadn’t imagined herself leading a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, before accepting the job. She decided to consider the pitch from venture capitalist Isabelle Freidheim for one reason.

“It took some convincing, a little bit. I wasn’t sure if I had the right capabilities. I have always sat on the entrepreneur side. So to be on the acquiring/money side is a new perspective and vantage point for me,” she said. “I don’t think I would have taken the call if it wasn’t the fact that it was an all-female SPAC.”

That’s how the Seattle entrepreneur ended up with Freidheim and the Athena team at the New York Stock Exchange this week, as they rang the opening bell a week after raising $230 million in an initial public offering. Next on Athena’s agenda is the process of identifying and acquiring a consumer-oriented company, leveraging those funds.

Park is believed to be the first Korean-American woman to take a company public as CEO on the NYSE.

A Yale Law School graduate and former Starbucks executive, she went on to found and lead Julep Beauty, a physical retail chain and e-commerce brand that was acquired by private equity giant Warburg Pincus. She went on to found sustainable gift-wrap company Tokki, leading the company through a pivot during the pandemic.

She’s also a board member of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, which holds its 2021 OpportunityTalks Breakfast at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 9.

On this episode of the GeekWire Podcast, Park talks about the ambitions of Athena’s team, the future of consumer brands in the Amazon era, her own life story, and her family’s experience as immigrants.

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Listen above, subscribe to GeekWire in any podcast app, and continue reading for highlights.

On the symbolic significance of her new role: “It’s super meaningful to have me ringing the bell, to have that visual step. It’s another reason why I wanted to take on this role and this challenge. … My dad was an orphan. When all of the stuff was happening with our borders, it really made me think about what it means to be separated. He was walking home from school one day, and he was on the South side, and his parents were on the North, and he hasn’t seen them ever again since he was nine. He was taking care of his sister, who was six. And she would cry at night and ask for her parents. He had to just figure things out. … So for somebody like that to see his daughter achieve something like this, in just two generations, it is really meaningful for him. And it took a lot of sacrifice and hard work on their part.”

On the immigrant ethos: “I think one of the most important constructs you have in your mind as an immigrant is that you can travel through different worlds. And once it’s possible for there to be more than one world, then you can make up your own rules. … [Growing up], the rules inside my house were so different than the rules outside my house. I had to develop some translation muscles pretty early to say, ‘Both of these worlds can be true, both are valid, both are amazing and flawed in their own ways.’ ”

Athena’s chances of acquiring a women-led company: “We’re looking for really great management teams. Look, the truth of the matter is that it’s really unfortunate that there are not as many women-led companies in the unicorn, billion-dollar, ready to-go-public stage as there should be. Only 2% of venture funds go to women-led companies. … That’s what we’re dealing with. So yes, we would love to work with a phenomenal team. It would be a huge bonus if it was run by a woman. And we would love to extend what we’re doing on gender equality and how we think about the world. But it that’s definitely not a defining characteristic [of the potential acquisition].”

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Tokki’s gift bows, and QR code adoption: “There has been obviously nothing good about the pandemic, nobody would sign up for this. But one thing that has happened is that people are using QR codes. At the beginning, half of our website was explaining how to use a QR code. … Now, I am 100% sure that the answer would be 100% of the people who are scrolling Instagram know how to use the QR code. And only 10% of our audience did about a year and a half ago.”

Amazon third-party aggregators and consumer brands: “I can see the consolidators having a reasonable play. Where they are going to be strong is not with consumer brands that have the love of a consumer, but around selling a widget more thoughtfully, in a more operationally efficient way. .. It might be like the new CPG company, like CPG back in the day consolidated brands and they consolidated operations and delivered to grocery stores in a more efficient way.”

Audio editing by Curt Milton; Theme music by Daniel L.K. Caldwell.

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