Excellence in Action

Rosie O’Neill ’00, MBA ’05

Photo of Rosie ONeill

Rosie O’Neill ’00, MBA ’05 is the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Sugarfina, a luxury candy boutique founded in 2012.  In only five years, Sugarfina has become the fastest-growing confections brand globally and now operates 40 retail locations plus e-commerce, wholesale and corporate gifting channels. Named to Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People” list, and Goldman Sachs’ “100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs,” Rosie is disrupting the sweets space with an innovative approach to confections and retail. Rosie graduated from UCLA with a BA in Communication Studies in 2000 and a MBA from UCLA Anderson School of Management in 2005.

Interviewed by Stephen Mendoza • August 31, 2017

Describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.

I’m a double Bruin, I started at UCLA as a Communication Studies major and during my time at UCLA, I did a few internships mostly in PR. After school I worked in PR, marketing and branding, all on the agency side. I think it was really fun coming out of college because I got to try a lot of different things and work with a lot of different clients. That really helped me understand what I liked and didn’t like. I really loved when I worked on consumer brands like Razor Scooters and food companies so that gave me good training ground for the type of business I wanted to work in. I realized I really liked branding and marketing so I decided to make the leap into the brand management side of things. In order to make a transition like that, I needed to go back to get an MBA. So I went back to UCLA to study marketing and strategy. In between my first and second year, I did an internship at Mattel because I loved working on consumer products. During my internship, I got my dream job working on Barbie and kept working there while I was finishing my second year of school. I was there for about 7 years and worked my way up from an intern to Director of Marketing on Barbie. I was the youngest director in the company and I was overseeing the largest brand so it was very cool to have a lot of responsibility. I had a great experience there and a great team. In 2010, I met my now-fiancé Josh. On our third date, we went to see the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and that’s when we came up with the idea for Sugarfina. It was this idea of “Why aren’t there any candy stores for grownups?” The current options for candy in the U.S. were not very elegant and not something you give for gifts. We wanted to create a candy store that was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, something that was beautiful, had incredibly high-quality candy and carried something you can be proud to give as a gift. So that was our dream for starting Sugarfina, we worked on it for a couple years and then we went live in summer of 2012.

What inspired you to choose this career path?

A lot of people will take the entrepreneurial path right out of college and for a lot of people that’s a great path but personally that wasn’t the path for me. During my time at Mattel I really learned the ropes and developed a broad skillset. I’m super appreciative of the time that I spent at Mattel because I actually think it turned me into a better entrepreneur. I always knew that one day I wanted to venture out and do something on my own but it was important to get that bigger company experience first. Now that I’m following this entrepreneurial path and I’ve started a business, it’s hard and takes a lot of energy as well as a really broad skillset. Fortunately, that was something I was able to develop earlier in my career.

How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?

I took a lot of great classes when I was an undergrad. One of them in particular was Marde Gregory’s class where she would bring in speakers from all types of industries and companies and you would also do an internship in conjunction with the class. I think it is so inspiring to hear people’s stories and just the wide variety of choices there are. Business and marketing are not topics that are taught in high school for some reason, and I think a lot of people go into college and don’t even understand what those different careers paths can look like. I love that I was able to take so many classes at UCLA that really opened my eyes to all the different possibilities. When I went back again for business school, I got a very holistic view of all the aspects of running a business which included everything from finance and operations to HR and legal. I got to do a lot with marketing which is really my passion. I was really appreciative to have that big picture view and the network of both schools has been amazing.

In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?

When you’re running a business, you’re on a constant search for great talent and I find that a lot of the time, the best way to find talent is just to get out there and tell your story. So I find that doing interviews, articles and speaking events at UCLA has been a great way to stay connected. The school has an alumni email list that I use all the time when we’re recruiting for new positions. The UCLA alumni network is actually really deep and really helpful and so that’s been a great way that I’ve been able to stay connected with my fellow alumni.

What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?

I think for me, the biggest challenge was making that transition from the corporate environment at Mattel to running a business. I had a really big team at the time. For every different function, there was a group of people, but when I started this business with Josh, it was just the two of us. For every single aspect of the business, we had to figure out who was going to do what, who knew how to do what and if we didn’t know how to do something, we had to figure it out and learn it. Having to learn how to do everything was definitely challenging. However, it was kind of a fun break from what I had been used to and it really got me out of my comfort zone. Now we’re at a stage in the company where we’re able to build up a really great team and finally hire people who are truly experts in their roles and appreciate them even more.

What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in Entrepreneurship / Retail?

I think one thing is to really know yourself, your personality and what you’re comfortable with. Don’t be afraid to try different roles, so you really learn as much as you can. One of the things that has helped us grow so quickly and stand out as a company is that it’s different from anything out there. So I would say, for any industry or category that you’re going into, be really bold and do something that is different.

How do you support and participate in the UCLA community now?

I love doing speaking events, podcasts, web articles… any opportunity where I can share the Sugarfina story and what I’ve learned along the way.  At school, you study and take classes about business and entrepreneurship, but hearing from people who have been through it really brings things to life.  I love talking to younger entrepreneurs and helping them get to that next step with their business.  And for those who are looking for a new opportunity in their career, I always love to look to the UCLA network for talent. Whenever we have an open position I usually send an email out to those at UCLA first, often before we even post the position publicly.

What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?

The school puts a lot of effort into matching alumni with current students and more recent alumni. That makes me really proud because in today’s day and age, your network is everything. I feel like UCLA has been doing a great job of building and facilitating those networks. I’m really proud of the school because I have friends that go to other schools that don’t have that network at all. I feel very proud to say that UCLA is a great resource and a great connector of students and alumni.

What’s next?

Our company just reached Its five-year anniversary and we’ve been growing like crazy. We have 40 stores in the U.S right now and we’ll be adding 10 or so by the end of the year. The next big focus for us is expanding overseas so we’re laying the groundwork to start to open Sugarfina boutiques around the world. So sometime next year, you’ll start to see us expand into regions like the Middle East, Asia, and the UK. It’s going to be a very exciting day when we open our first store overseas.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Stephen Mendoza earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from UCLA in 2018. Prior to joining the Partnership UCLA / Alumni Career Programs team as a student staff member, Stephen had successfully completed internships with Ernst & Young, J.P. Morgan, and Disney. Through the Excellence in Action alumni spotlight series, Stephen expanded his network, met successful business professionals, and shared their advice and life experiences with the greater UCLA community. Stephen is now building his career as a Financial Analyst with Wells Fargo Corporate Banking.”

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