The Climb Is Its Own Reward


lice Kao ’01 is not afraid of taking the steep climb to achieve an end. In fact, what others might view as obstacles, she sees as potential footholds in scaling the heights of entrepreneurship, as well as achieving personal growth and satisfaction.

This story is about one of the fastest-growing trends in sports and recreation: indoor climbing. Recently, Kao opened her fourth Sender One Climbing location in Southern California on the site of the former Mann Festival Theater on Lindbrook Drive in Westwood Village. But this is about more than just a facility; it’s also about Kao’s life and career path with its unexpected twists and turns, guided by a philosophy that it is essential to be passionate about what you do.

“The purpose of our company is to discover yourself and connect with others through climbing,” Kao said. “That came from my story, because through climbing, I found myself again. And I found other people through climbing.”

Raised by her grandparents in a traditional Taiwanese family who came to the United States when she was 12, Kao was an economics/international area studies major at UCLA. She initially followed a typical career trajectory for an econ major, working as an investment banker for Lehman Brothers in Downtown Los Angeles before they moved to the Oppenheimer Building in Westwood.

“I wanted to do the thing that I thought was so cool and sexy – work on Wall Street. But it just wasn’t me,” Kao said.  She pivoted into the toy industry, which took her overseas and, eventually, to the first glimpse of a new path forward.

“In ’06, my ex-boyfriend and I broke up and climbing was a thing that helped me feel better. I was living and working in London at the time, selling toys, and I walked into a climbing gym, since it was rainy all the time and I was looking for an indoor thing to do – and that’s how I got into it. I share the story because a lot of times when I’m climbing, I’ll ask somebody, ‘Hey, how did you start?’ and a lot of people will say, ‘Well, I’d gone through this terrible breakup, this terrible thing happened to me and then I discovered this thing.’ Sometimes it takes a life change for you to try something new or to disrupt your routine.”

Returning to Southern California, Kao continued her climbing activities, then set out to turn her recreational/therapeutic passion into a career, opening the first Sender One in Santa Ana in 2013.  Locations at LAX and in Playa Vista followed, before the Westwood facility began to take shape.

“We've been trying to open this gym since 2019,” Kao wrote in a blog post on her website. “There were delays due to COVID, then delays due to the city permitting issues. We were supposed to open this past summer but we ran into a major permitting issue halfway through construction and we had to stop work, rip out some of our work and re-do a bunch of work.”

UCLA has played an important role in navigating this process, both in the life skills Kao garnered during her student days, as well as with a more immediate, tangible contribution.

“Anderson Real Estate [in the UCLA Anderson family] is our landlord. They have been incredible. They are the most reasonable, understanding landlords,” Kao said in an interview on the day of the facility’s pre-launch open house. “With the city it’s been really challenging, but my landlord and I have been working together – we’re on the same team.

“Before this was a theater, it was a grocery store [a Ralphs supermarket, one of the original buildings in Westwood Village]. While we were in the permitting process in 2019 or 2020, the historical committee wanted us to take the marquee down so it could restore the historical nature of the grocery store. It was going to cost at least $200,000 to take it down and I said, ‘I don’t have that in my budget.’ Anderson Real Estate helped us fight to keep the marquee. I’m really glad we were able to keep it, because it looks really beautiful.

“Our logo for this building is actually a film strip, because we wanted to acknowledge the historical nature of this building.”

The Westwood location is Sender One’s second bouldering-only facility. The 8,000-square-foot climbing center also includes a 2,000-square-foot upstairs mezzanine with training boards, fitness and yoga.

“When I started climbing, about 18 years ago, it was a different sport,” Kao said. “Now, climbing is one of the fastest-growing sports in America. It’s actually in the Olympics; we have six athletes going to the Olympics this summer in Paris, so that’s helped get the awareness of climbing up.

“In our other locations – in L.A. and Orange County – we really focus on a family-oriented experience,” Kao said. “We have a dedicated climbing area with a birthday party space; a lot of people find out about us through the birthday parties they come to.

“Here in Westwood and in Playa, we are targeting an audience of students and young professionals. That’s why here it’s a bouldering-only gym (shorter walls, 14-18 feet). Bouldering is the fastest-growing climbing segment, with a demographic of roughly age 18 to 35.

“We’re doing a lot of different things, like outreach with student groups, working with the UCLA Climbing Club. We made a very intentional choice that what we build has to serve this community. It would be great if people came into Westwood to come [to Sender One], but I have to count on this community to support us.”

Kao is active with her alma mater – and not just as a tenant. She loves giving back to a university that she considers instrumental in her personal and professional ascent.

“I’m on the advisory board for Startup UCLA, I’ve mentored students, gone to demo night and it’s been awesome,” she said. “One of the things I’m passionate about is the idea that there’s no linear career path. I think if you pursue something you’re passionate about, the money will come. You have to really love what you do, because you spend way too much time at work – it’s not worth just going for a job. I think this generation is getting it.

“What I always tell my husband, who went to Harvard, is, ‘You know what I learned at UCLA? I learned how to make it work. I learned how to live.’ Because, as opposed to going to a small, liberal arts college [where they’re kind of shepherding you through], this is the world. ‘You know what students, you want to know what it’s like? There’s not going to be a counselor sitting you down. You’ve got to figure it out here.’ That’s what people need to learn – to figure out how to live in the world, work the system.”

Kao has found firm footing in her life and career – and is helping others, in the classroom, office or gym, to find theirs.

“There are so many resources at UCLA – if there’s something you want, you will find someone who will help you, but no one’s going to feed it to you, you have to find it. I tell students, ‘Don’t sit around waiting; there’s no one coming to rescue you.’

“This is my way of giving back; coming here and opening a business trying to help a community that helped me.”

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