Turning My Hobby into a Successful Career: Alice Kao’s Story

Alice Kao, an EO Orange County member, has taken a career path that started at Wall Street and led her to opening a rock-climbing gym, Sender One Climbing, with her husband and another business partner in Santa Ana, California. We interviewed Alice about her interesting career transitions and how she’s creating a life and business that are truly her own.

What has been your biggest “aha” moment as an entrepreneur?

The biggest thing, I think, is that I never thought I could make my hobby a career. When I graduated from UCLA, I went into investment banking because I thought being on Wall Street was the thing to do. I discovered that wasn’t “my thing” – it’s really hard to be a woman on Wall Street! I did a few years as an analyst, and then I decided I wanted to do something else. I changed careers and worked in the toy industry for 11 years. My last job title before starting my own company was Vice President of International Sales for a toy company. I had joined at its start-up stage and helped the company grow to US$50 million, wearing many different hats along the way.  And even though I was very happy in this position, it wasn’t 100% secure.   I wanted to control my fate in my own hands and I felt the only want to do that was to have my own company.

Were you always interested in rock climbing? What made you decide to make a career out of this hobby?

No, I actually discovered rock climbing during a difficult time of my life. I had just moved to London for work, after living in Hong Kong for a year. I was looking to meet new friends and start a new hobby, so I signed up for an introductory climbing class at a local climbing gym. Climbing helped me find myself and get my life back together.

When I got back to the US and ran into my now-business partner and my future husband, I told them how my life had changed. I wondered if I could actually make this into a business and do this for other people.  We all had similar experiences with climbing, and this is our company’s purpose is to “discover ourselves and connect with others through climbing.”

You talk about overcoming personal struggles through creating your business. What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve overcome, and how did you do it?

I was sent to the United States to live alone at age 13, while my parents stayed in the South Pacific. My mom, who has built several successful companies over the years, was in the process of rebuilding a business, in addition to taking care of my four year-old brother and father, who was undergoing treatment for cancer. Since my family couldn’t afford to move to the United States together, my mom did her best to give me an opportunity to go to school here.

I had a caretaker who lived down the street and came over once a week to pay bills and sign my permission slips. Otherwise, I got myself out of bed every morning to go to school, cooked, cleaned, did housework, and organized my life. My mom sacrificed a lot to give me this gift. It was up to me to see how far I can take it.

If you were to engage with other women who are interested in becoming an entrepreneur, what would you say?

I think I would say, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of trying hard – see how it goes.” Life is a series of experiences, and this rock climbing entrepreneur experience has been one of the best ones in my life. My mom has obviously been a huge inspiration to me, personally and professionally. She showed me that you can survive the worst of situations, start from scratch and make something wonderful. People have asked me what I will do if this doesn’t work out. Well, I’ll figure something out. Who knows, I could go back to selling toys!


Thanks to Alice for sharing her story! If you have an inspiring entrepreneurial story or career tips to share, email us!


Categories: Entrepreneurial Journey Guest contributors Inspirational Interview members WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS


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