Every business needs a story—more today, in this age of storytelling and social media, than ever.
Sarah Kauss has had a good story from the day she started S’well Bottle in 2010. “From the very first bottle that we sold, S'well's been a partner to water charity,” she says on the new episode of Making a Leader, the interview series that Nina Easton and I host on SiriusXM.
Kauss’s startup story goes like this: On a hike with her mom in Arizona a decade ago, Sarah started thinking about how water bottles tend to be plain and basic and certainly not the kind of function-meets-fashion item that retailers such as Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom might carry. Combining her Harvard Business School cred with an offer of help from her then-boyfriend, Kauss studied the water-bottle business, recruited a designer, found a manufacturer, invested $30,000 of her own savings, and started S’well out of her apartment in New York City.
So began one of the fastest-growing global brands created by a woman entrepreneur.
The story propelling S’well’s ongoing growth is its mission to do good for the world. Since 2015, S’well has worked with UNICEF in Madagascar, where nearly half the population lacks access to clean drinking water, Kauss says. As CEO and 100% owner of S’well (that’s right, S’well has grown without outside capital), she has directed $1.7 million of the revenue to supply clean drinking water to Madagascar. This money goes a long way—helping more than 500,000 people, particularly women. “Women often can't have a vocation outside of the home because they spend so much time collecting drinking water,” Kauss says. “And girls often drop out of school because they don't have access to bathrooms.”
Last year, Kauss donated 320,000 S’wells to New York City schools, to provide every high schooler in public and charter schools a reusable, stainless steel bottle.
The big idea is to rid the world of single-use plastic water bottles. A surprise, Kauss says, is that S’well’s environmental focus on helping the planet also helps the company hire “a higher-level employee.” By that, she means people who are well along a career path and want to make a positive impact. “Starting the company, I thought it would be important to our customers,” Kauss says, “but I don't think I fully realized it would be such a benefit to getting a higher level of professional within the organization.”
Another surprise: Her “then-boyfriend” Jeff Peck, who was very skeptical about the business, is now S’well’s President and Chief Technology Officer. He was less skeptical about love. He is now Kauss’s husband.
On Making a Leader, award-winning interviewers (and Co-CEOs of SellersEaston Media) Pattie Sellers and Nina Easton bring listeners up close and personal with extraordinary leadership duos. Listen to this episode of Making a Leader on SiriusXM Insight Channel 121 Wednesday, August 14, at 10pm ET. This show will repeat on Insight Channel 121 on Saturday, August 17, 6pm and Sunday, August 18, 9am.