While venture capitalists have a lot to teach about satisfying a hunger for success or cultivating an appetite among consumers in the digital space, few can mix those food metaphors as literally as Anthony (Tony) Owen ’97, ’03 MBA, partner at DOM Food Group and managing partner at Little Joe Ventures.
Owen’s work combines a unique set of flavors, if you will. DOM Food Group acts as a next-level venture studio that incubates, invests in, operates and consults with scalable food businesses of the future, or “digital-first food brands,” as he calls them.
In complementary fashion, Little Joe Ventures partners with and invests in transformative brands, influencers and entrepreneurs to build innovative, scalable businesses. It has backed the likes of famed Chicago chef Rick Bayless in developing Tortazo, a fast-casual Mexican food concept.
Moving from focusing solely on Little Joe to founding DOM about three years ago, “We saw an opportunity, a change happening,” Owen recalls. “Even pre-COVID, it was around how food space businesses operated, and how customers and guests made purchasing decisions around food.”
A pain point he’s addressing centers on personalities who have a wealth of content and followers but lack “the operational capacity or infrastructure to actually build a business around it.”
Back at the Evanston campus for the Kellogg School of Management’s 2023 reunion, the Los Angeles-based Owen discussed how he’s leveraged listening skills in a multidimensional way to realize business success. Simply put, it’s more than just a verbal thing.
“I think in this day and age, we’re just not as good listeners as we used to be,” Owen says. “As much as I love what the virtual world has enabled us to do in terms of flexibility and work-life balance, there are components missing and skills underdeveloped because we probably don’t spend enough time with each other in person. It’s listening not just to what you hear but to what you see and feel as well.”
And while many think of the career climb in terms of a ladder, Owen compares it instead to a rocky slope — a metaphor he sees as especially apt given his own business experience. “I’d say now more than ever it’s a mountain,” he contends. Ladders may point upward, but in the end, they’re bidirectional. Especially in the entrepreneur’s world, progress is measured over time by overcoming uncertainty, stagnation and failure.
As Owen puts it, “Mountains have steep inclines, plateaus and declines. But ultimately, you’re heading toward a peak.”
Owen reached an initial peak through his MBA experience. He cites the Kellogg School’s Midwest location and Midwestern mentality as factors that set Kellogg apart for him. “It was an environment where you wanted to spend two years really developing yourself,” he says. “Chicago is a melting pot.”
As new graduates step out into the world today, they’re entering a fast-changing business environment that currently includes a pullback in VC funding. But Owen sees the upside of an environment that forces people to be more creative. “My recommendation to graduates is to have confidence in yourself and your ability to overcome obstacles,” he says. “It’s a cycle — things go up, things go down.” Don’t lose heart, he tells students and alumni: “Follow your intuitions. You know that if you’re here at Kellogg, you have the capabilities.”