From humble beginnings to running the nation’s top pet destination, Cockrell School alumnus Sumit Singh has enjoyed an exceptional career marked by perseverance and integrity — two important characteristics of a leader. In early fall, Singh sat down with us to share his thoughts on leadership, business and what it really means to be a Texas Engineer.

What led you to pursue a degree from Texas Engineering?

“What starts here, changes the world” — I could not be prouder or more in agreement with this message staring boldly at any potential student who visits UT Austin’s homepage. It is the core essence of this statement that attracted me to UT. Encouraging its students to think boldly, invent new real-world solutions and/or solve complex challenges is engrained in the university’s and the Cockrell School’s (and its faculty’s) spirit. Additionally, as an industrial engineering undergraduate student, I was looking for an engineering program that would not only enhance my engineering knowledge but also provide a wider perspective by blending science, application and people-oriented concepts together. The Cockrell School of Engineering’s graduate program did exactly that for me. I was able to architect a multidisciplinary course track blending my engineering courses in optimization, decision sciences and statistics with management courses. This strong and early foundation — combined with UT’s culture of bold, inventive thinking — has been a critical contributor to my professional success.

Do you find yourself incorporating any of the skills you learned at UT on a daily basis?

While I often say there is nothing more valuable than experience, a strong foundation that builds character is essential to succeed in life or career. At UT, I learned how to be relentlessly curious and I made it my priority to immerse myself in the core concepts of the problems we were learning in class — to dissect the component pieces and then rebuild the solution better and optimally. UT also exposed me to a diverse and immensely talented student and faculty community with varying backgrounds and interests from all over the world. This provided me the confidence and the mental elasticity to connect with a diverse collection of people, teams and topics at a level that many leaders are not able to appreciate.

Prior to working at Chewy, you served as a top leader at Amazon. What motivated you to make the jump from Amazon to Chewy?

My time at both Amazon and Dell was invaluable. Foundationally, I grew up with two companies that pioneered e-commerce, supply chain and cash flow models. They helped fuel my passion and fascination to build world-class teams that live at the intersection of customer experience, technology and scale.

Chewy presented an incredible opportunity to innovate at the highest level, while connecting with people on the most personal level. The pet category is large, valued at $100 billion in market size in the U.S. alone. It is also inherently emotive, so much so that customers refer to themselves as pet parents. I saw the potential for Chewy to become a world-class institution, delivering growth, profitability and customer experience at scale.

What obstacles have you had to overcome in your career, and how did you overcome them?

The personal and professional adversities I’ve had to overcome have shaped me as the leader and the person I am today, and I wouldn’t trade any of it. My humble, middle-class upbringing inherently taught me the value of perseverance, hard work and creative problem-solving. But, the lack of resources — especially money — made it very hard to dream the big dream of coming to the U.S. My family overcame this by meticulous planning and borrowing large sums of money to support my travel and education in the U.S. Moreover, I am indebted to UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering, and especially to Dr. Ronald Barr, who offered me a teaching assistantship that was instrumental in providing stability and a head start.

Shortly after I arrived in the U.S., the horrific events of 9/11 occurred and the economy quickly went into recession. Through UT’s career fair and my own efforts, I landed an internship at Dell and was one of the handful of interns who received a job offer to join Dell full time in 2002.

I am also constantly learning from my mistakes, which is something all leaders must acknowledge and act on. I constantly took on the tough, complex problems my colleagues passed on. I succeeded in some and failed in others. This has helped me become a builder and a more courageous leader.

Why are you passionate about Chewy’s mission, and what do you feel differentiates it from other online pet care brands?

Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to raise a pet. There are so many people involved, from pet parents and their friends and family, to shelters, breeders, vets, groomers, boarders, suppliers and more. I am passionate about our mission “to become the most trusted and convenient destination for pet parents and partners” because it is emotive, comprehensive and gives us an opportunity to serve and connect all of these communities together. Additionally, our mission constantly reminds us that customer-centricity is king.

Chewy is unique because we believe in providing an experience that makes an extraordinarily positive impression from the get-go, so much so that our customers become evangelists for the Chewy brand. This fuels long-term memories and high levels of customer engagement for long periods of time. We invest behind this experience in ways most companies don’t.

How do you define success?

Doing what you’re passionate about and being good at it seems like a pretty good definition of success to me. At Chewy, we’re passionate about innovating and delivering the best customer experience. There are presently 100 million American pet households, and we proudly serve 17 million of them. Serving all of them would be pretty cool.

The spirit of inventiveness, speed to execution and a relentless focus on customer experience are an organization’s true assets — our culture and people bring this to life. Those are the traits we believe make us successful.

With the rise of e-commerce in response to COVID, many e-commerce businesses have altered their operations and offerings to meet shifting demands. What changes have you seen among your consumers, and how have you and your team responded?

I’ve seen the adaptability and relentlessness of the human spirit, and I’m in awe of our teammates at Chewy displaying that every day. We’ve adapted internally and externally to respond to customers’ needs both as pet parents and people, communicating with a focus on moments of comfort, empathy and relatability with pets. This has enabled meaningful dialogue within our company and within our pet communities, especially those that have been hit hardest by the crisis.

We transitioned our customer service team of over 2,000 team members (providing 24/7, U.S.-based support) to a nearly 100% remote environment in a matter of several weeks, enabling us to provide a high level of customer service, safely. Across the company, we created new benefits and policies, shifted operations and invested in remote marketing production capabilities to enable a safe and productive working environment. We have donated nearly $19 million to shelters across the country at this time of need. Last but not least, we innovated at pace and launched over a dozen customer-facing features to protect or improve experience and business continuity.

Are you a pet owner yourself? If so, how has that shaped your decisions at Chewy?

Yes, I am a proud pet parent to a Shih Tzu named D. My role as a pet parent certainly fuels and substantiates my appreciation for the power of pets to bring us together, and the best part is I get to experience the benefits of that every day. He also gets to “taste test” all the new treats and toys that we launch!

Dog with bowtie