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Kendall Antonelli: Embracing Joy

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Mother, entrepreneur and community leader Kendall Antonelli shares her whole self, flaws and all, spreading joy wherever she goes.

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Shirt and skirt by Kick Pleat

By Stacey Ingram Kaleh, Photos by Annie Ray, Styled by Parke with Inspiration from Kick Pleat, Risque Nation and Spring Frost, Metalwork by Shaesby, Glasswork by Katie Kismet, Hair & Makeup by Livia Pope with AllDolledUpAtx, shot on location at Butler Dance Education Center

You may know her from her warm welcomes at Antonelli’s Cheese Shop. Perhaps you recognize her from a Capital One commercial or enjoyed her keynote speech at a recent event. Or maybe you’ve run into her at a nonprofit board meeting or children’s school program.

Multifaceted with a magnetic and contagious enthusiasm, Kendall Antonelli is a force for good in the community. She leads with authenticity, is spontaneous—yet simultaneously deeply thoughtful—and radiates positive energy with an easygoing nature that makes conversation immediately comfortable.

Antonelli exemplifies leadership in many forms. A mom who talks about her two children—Everett Max, age 9, and Elia Jo, age 7—with the utmost pride and joy; a caring partner who speaks of her husband, John, as her “greatest love of all time.”

She is a fearless entrepreneur who has designed her own path to success and brought others along with her. A giving member of her community, devoting time and talent to nonprofit causes she is passionate about. And she is an activist. A touring speaker who is open and honest about her struggles with mental health and evangelizes the need to destigmatize mental health issues.

After speaking with her for just a short time, it becomes apparent that Kendall Antonelli is a woman on a mission. She merges her passion and strong sense of purpose to support her family, her employees and her greater community.

Building Fortitude and Resilience

Even with such an impressive resume, Antonelli comes across as down-to-earth and is outspoken about her flaws. “I’m fantastically flawed, and I think we all are,” she says. “We can gain power from our vulnerability.”

Born in Houston, Antonelli spent most of her childhood on a ranch in Cool, Texas, participating in activities with 4-H and the rodeo. Early in life, she developed an understanding of and appreciation for ranchers (like her parents), farmers and hard work. It’s obvious in the way she approaches her own work today. She credits her mom for paving the way for her. Showing her how to be a “working woman in a man’s world” as well as how to embrace generosity with a “there’s always room for more at the table” view of hospitality. “My mom is a freaking rockstar,” she proudly states.

Antonelli holds a bachelor’s degree in Culture and Politics from Georgetown University and a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. She met her husband, John Antonelli, in college, where it became clear they were meant to be together. Though their path to actually doing so was anything but easy. Upon starting college, Kendall learned her mom had been diagnosed with colon cancer. (Thankfully, she’s a survivor.) Her mom knew about the cancer but did not want to deter her daughter from leaving home for college.

Triumph Over Tragedy

Not long after, during Kendall’s sophomore year, her dad tragically and unexpectedly passed away. Around the same time, her Nana was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. And on the night of a spring dance, which she later learned was when John had planned to make his first move, Kendall ended up in the hospital. After a year of recovery and learning to “own her power,” Kendall asked John to a winter dance, pinned him against the wall and kissed him. With few exceptions, Kendall and John haven’t spent a day apart since.

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Shirt and pants by Kick Pleat, shoes by Risque Nation

She’s often asked how she took the plunge to become an entrepreneur. “I’ve experienced loss and have had a lot of people die on me,” she reveals. “I know it’s so cliche and trite, but I was of the mindset, ‘You only live once. Let’s just do it.’ And if we flop and fail, we’ll be wounded, our pride will hurt. But we’ll have known we did it, as opposed to years later looking back with regret, wondering why we never gave it a try.”

While obstacles and family hardships abounded, Kendall pressed on. Through it all, she found love, partnership and the inner strength she carries forward with her in her multitude of dynamic roles today.

Creating Home and Working to Spread Joy

With New York native John at her side, Kendall planted roots in Austin 18 years ago when embarking on a master’s degree program at UT Austin. While pursuing her degree, she began a career in Austin’s nonprofit sector as a law clerk at American Gateways, eventually leading a project to help undocumented migrants with their immigration cases. After acquiring her degree, she decided to make a major transition to start a business working alongside her husband.

On their honeymoon in Grenada in 2007, John and Kendall hatched a two-year plan to create a business centered on cheese. The couple co-founded Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, where she serves as president and John as CEO. What started as a grilled cheese club with friends gathered in a modest bungalow kitchen has grown into the intimate cheese tasting and storytelling experiences Antonelli’s Cheese Shop offers today. In 2010, two years and five days after their honeymoon, the doors officially opened at Antonelli’s, Austin’s first cut-to-order cheese shop.

The couple discovered they work well together. They value communication in their relationship and business. Each year they have visioning sessions where they write down their goals in sharpie, an intentionally permanent ink, on giant sheets of butcher paper. “I totally believe in that adage that writing your goals down and visualizing them helps them come true,” she encourages.

No Typical Day

“What I love about being an entrepreneur is that there is no typical day,” she says. “In fact, routine is challenging for me. [John and I] love the hustle and finding inspiration to try new things, but we’re at our best when we do things simply and stick to our mission.”

For Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, that mission is epitomized in their motto: “Do Good. Eat Good.” “Do good” centers on helping their greater community. “When people spend their hard-earned dollar with us, we, in turn, try to do the same,” Kendall shares. “We give back to our community. We take care of our people. Every person matters to us. We realize that we have a superpower. That we can be a force for good in people’s lives.”

The second half of their mission focuses on supporting makers. “For us it’s about supporting farmers and ranchers who treat their land sustainably and regeneratively, who treat their herds and animals humanely, who treat their teams ethically and who make delicious goods.”

For the Antonellis, these words carry weight. They put these promises into action to create a cycle of good. They treat their employees like family. Providing health insurance and an EAP program with 24/7 access to mental health care providers, among other perks. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Antonelli’s prioritized their team members and partners. “Our goals during the pandemic were to keep every single team member employed and to not let a single Texas cheesemaker go out of business,” Kendall says. “We accomplished both of those as far as we know, but we worked harder than we’ve ever worked. We changed more in 10 days of business than we had in the previous 10 years.”

Core Values

Some other core values that serve as a foundation for how the Antonellis run their business include working to improve every day and being a “juggernaut of awesome,” as Kendall puts it. “Not everybody wants cheese or needs cheese,” she says. “But everyone could use a friendly interaction.”

Kendall believes in the power of a smile and in going above and beyond to create joyful moments and spread positive energy. Quoting Dolly Parton, “If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.”

“[John and I] feel that we’re on a personal mission to spread joy, and it just so happens that we do it through the gospel of cheese,” she says. Beyond putting smiles on faces through “the gospel of cheese,” Antonelli’s has an annual “philanthroplan” that designates monthly nonprofit beneficiaries to receive a portion of their proceeds. In 2021, some of those “charitable cheese causes” included the Austin Justice Coalition, Multicultural Refugee Coalition, Latinitas, Central Texas Young Farmers Coalition and Austin Center for Grief and Loss. Antonelli’s also responded to Winter Storm Uri by teaming up with Good Work Austin to donate hundreds of pounds of cheese to St. David’s Hospital and worked with Runner City and the Greater Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to provide protein packs for neighbors experiencing homelessness.

Leadership that Reverberates

In addition to donating money and goods, Kendall and John give their time and talents. They each serve on two to three nonprofit and association boards at any given time.

Kendall currently serves on the board of directors for the ACE Foundation, Austin Child Guidance Center and Austin Food Bloggers Association. Formerly, she served as president of the board for the Austin chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a philanthropic society of professional women leaders in the fields of food, beverage and hospitality. “Kendall represents the evergreen leadership that is constantly examining for improvement. Knowing that improvement in the organization starts from within its leadership,” shares friend, fellow Les Dames member and Founder and CEO of The Cook’s Nook, Joi Chevalier. “I will always commend and marvel at Kendall for her leadership style that comes from a small, quiet, self-reflective place, yet reverberates big and boldly across her organizations. Whether it’s her company or within shared philanthropic work.”

Family and Work Life Blend Together

Her days start with breakfast-time dance parties and end with her family on the couch playing a game or watching America’s Funniest Home Videos. “Home to us is chaos and cacophony and dog hair.”

But according to Everett and Elia, “Home is where you can toot without judgement.”

Kendall shares that everyone agreed on this over a bagel breakfast earlier that morning. She paints a picture of a close-knit family, where everyone takes an active interest and participates in each other’s lives, even preparing together for an interview.

In fact, John and the kids shared how they would describe Kendall. Words like “loving,” “kind,” “beautiful,” “awesome,” “rock ’n’ roll,” “funny” and “courageous.”

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Kendall admits she initially felt like it was ironic that she was asked to be included in the “Moms” issue of Austin Woman. “I don’t consider myself to be a traditional mom,” she confesses. “Can’t sew. I don’t volunteer at school very often. I’ve dropped my children off at school on days when there is no school. I’ve been last in the carpool line more days than I can count.

“I’d chosen to be a little bit late that day,” she recalls. “I was in a fantastic meeting at work. I’m passionate about what I do. I was collaborating with another woman-owned business, and we were jiving. All was good, and I kept saying, ‘I can still make it.’

“Then I laughed, and I said, ‘Yep, this is the kind of mom I am,’” Kendall says. “And I realized that I’m okay with being a different kind of mom.”

Kendall Antonelli Shares Her Whole Self

John says Kendall is no stranger to expressing her flaws. “She truly shares her whole self without any apprehension,” he says. “On our first date she started by telling me all of her perceived flaws. It was a remarkably Kendall way to start a relationship. It’s her openness and willingness to be vulnerable that give others confidence to navigate their own unique journey. Whether that is our team, our kiddos or the communities in which she flows.”

Though upfront about her imperfections, Kendall is also confident in her strengths as a mother. “Each mom has their own superpower. Mine is not in sewing a cute costume, and it’s not in decorating the halls. And I want to be clear that I need every one of those moms in my life because it truly takes a village. Everyone in my mom group is my superhero for being able to be so present and be such a force in their kids’ lives in that way. I do think that I am present and a force in my kids’ lives, I just do it in a different way. Want them to see that I love my work. To know that they came from my love and relationship with their father.”

One member of her village, neighbor and friend Zara Oakes, says that Kendall’s superpower is that she puts people at ease. “Kendall is someone you feel like you have known forever, even if you just met her,” Oakes says. “She is impressively capable at using her own vulnerability and personal hardships to create genuine connections.”

Family Comes First

Kendall acknowledges that she is privileged to have a community of support in other moms, neighbors, colleagues and especially a “fantastic partner that shows up 100% of the time to help with parenting duties.” She emphasizes the importance of continuing to focus on their relationship as they navigate parenthood, “If we aren’t good and healthy, how can our relationships with our kids be good and healthy?”

“Family comes first” is one of the pillars of the Antonellis’ business, and it applies to them as well as to their employees. “When we decided to go into business together, John looked at me and said, ‘If we ever realize this is getting in the way of our marriage, we walk away,’” she says. “Now that we have a team, for them, it means that if they have an emergency, they can take time away and have a job to come back to. We work not only because we love it, but because we are taking care of the people and things and pets that matter to us. We try to keep that perspective.”

An example of one manifestation of this viewpoint during the pandemic is their hiring of team members’ unemployed partners. Kendall highlights that working with pods of people who were quarantining together was also good for business because it minimized risk.

A Sense of Adventure

A sense of adventure and appreciation for all people and cultures are attributes Kendall wants her kids to inherit from her late father and understand on a deep level. During her first pregnancy, she and John wrote down a goal to take an international trip every other year. Now they take an international trip every year (barring the pandemic) for one month during the summer. “Our kids have untraditional holidays,” she says. “During the holidays, our kids sit in the cheese shop while we cut cheese all day. We do it through the day leading up to Thanksgiving and the day before Christmas.

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Dress by Risque Nation and coat by Kick Pleat

We work the eve of every big holiday….What makes it okay is that we take off the month of June. 10 or 11 months of the year, we give our business everything we have. Then we completely unplug for a month to just be with the kids.” It’s not an easy path, trying to be fully present with work and with family. Kendall acknowledges there is some guilt, but it is a path the Antonellis created and owned and it suits their unique lifestyle. “We live a balanced lifestyle; it’s just that we live in extremes.”

A Whole Wide World

The Antonellis’ month away each year allows team members to grow their leadership skills. Travel also gives Kendall and John the opportunity to visit cheesemakers all over the world and build meaningful relationships, often forged by dining family-style (kids included!) with the people whose products they stock in their personal homes.

“We want our children to know their privilege,” she says. “We also want them to know that the world is so much bigger than what they can immediately see around them. It gives them appreciation for what they have and lets them know there’s so much beauty out there and different ways to envision their lives and the paths they can take.”

Family travel experiences, for Kendall, contribute to her personal sense of wellness by creating space to focus on her core values.

A Leading Voice for Mental Health

“It’s important to talk about mental health,” she says. The cause is near and dear to her. These days, she tours as a keynote speaker on the subject, encouraging open dialogue. If people openly speak about their personal mental health journeys, they can lift each other up and share different models and methods for getting through the toughest times.

“If you’ve had a bad day or week, knowing how to take care of yourself is important,” Kendall says, emphasizing that this looks different for everyone. “I know for me, it’s a good night of sleep, it’s going for a walk or run, eating healthy that day, and I know it’s being with my loved ones. When I feel myself going off track, I get back to measuring those activities and asking, ‘Am I getting enough sleep? Am I drinking enough water? Am I hugging my children?’

“To people on the outside, I may project this image of success,” she says. “I am very fortunate. I’m a woman who owns my own business and has this beautiful family. Yet there’s a time I would have told you, even if you told me what was in the future, ‘I don’t think I can make it there. I can’t get through the hurt or pain.’

There’s No One Way to Heal

“Sometimes getting through the day is the accomplishment. Sometimes we think we can rock the world and we check everything off the list and it’s the best day we’ve ever had. And sometimes the win is just making it to your bed at night.” She nearly tears up. “I’m amazed that I can sit across from you and say there was a time I thought I would not be here.”

When it comes to support systems, Kendall credits therapy for helping her in long-term struggles with mental health, and encourages those going through tough times to use professional mental health resources as well. “I’m a woman of a lot of words, but sometimes I just don’t know what to say to a friend experiencing a hard time,” she openly admits. “Sometimes there are no words and it just sucks. But we can say, ‘Just know that you are not alone, there are resources available to you and you can get through it.’
“There’s no one way to heal,” she says. “But we need to be talking about it. We need to destigmatize mental health.”

Giving Grace

Throughout the conversation, Kendall continues to reiterate the value of self-care. “I’ve learned that if I can show up for myself first, then I can show up for others in a more profound way.” She talks about finding the energy and motivation to give to her family, her employees and her larger community, all areas where motherhood is an asset. “That’s what parenting is and motherhood is. It is giving of yourself endlessly and tirelessly, day in and day out. Our lives shouldn’t stop when we become mothers,” she insists. “We’re afforded the opportunity to keep growing and keep having new adventures and do it alongside these little ones. We don’t shape our kids. We create their environment and love them so that they can be the awesome people they’re supposed to be. I can do that best when I’m taking care of myself.”

When asked what advice she would share with fellow working moms, Kendall takes a deep breath, then answers, “Give up worrying about dropping the ball. I drop balls all the time, and have learned to prioritize which balls I can drop. When I drop the ball, I pick it up, give myself grace and keep moving forward. I tell my kids they are loved every day. I acknowledge when I do something I’m not proud of. We recognize we’re on a journey together and we are okay for it.”

“Women have an infinite capacity for love.”

In her unique brand of humble confidence, Kendall confides that she is blown away to be featured as an Austin Woman cover woman. She is proud to join the other women, women whom she admires, who have graced the magazine’s covers over the years. She hopes readers can find inspiration as she has in these pages.

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Outfit by Kick Pleat

“It’s amazing to me that women have an infinite capacity for love. Live out of that abundance. We always have more to give. There’s always more room at the table.”


READ MORE FROM THE JANUARY ISSUE

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