Inspire Me

S'well's Sarah Kauss On How Getting Advice From Your Past Self Can Help You Through Your Toughest Moments

The founder and CEO says journal writing is what bolsters her when she has to tackle a big challenge.
S'well's Sarah Kauss On How Getting Advice From Your Past Self Can Help You Through Your Toughest Moments
Image credit: Courtesy of Sarah Kauss
Entrepreneur Staff
Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.
6 min read

A family trip to the Amazonian rainforest littered with plastic water bottles and a question from her mother -- “What would you do if you could do anything?” -- were the twin driving forces that inspired Sarah Kauss to launch S’well in 2010. Before starting the business, Kauss was a certified public accountant and a real estate developer. She enjoyed those career paths but was still longing for a greater purpose.

The company is the maker of reusable, insulated and stainless water bottles, designed to be stylish while still making a positive environmental impact. Today, the business sells its products in thousands of stores and in 65 countries all, achieving year over year growth and $100 million in sales.

As the company has grown, Kauss says that sometimes it is easy to get overwhelmed, especially during periods when it seems like every day is filled will never-ending challenges. But the camaraderie she has with her team members, and seeing positive responses from customers, provides her with inspiration to keep going.

“When I stand in front of the office and see 100 faces looking back at me, I'm inspired to be a better leader,” says Kauss. “I know they are looking to me for direction, answers, leadership, culture, humor, all while pushing through the highs and the lows of running the company. And I don’t want to let anyone down.”

She also stays motivated by reflecting on advice from her past self, through the journal she has kept to chronicle the last eight years of her life as a founder and CEO.

“I truly believe anything is possible if you just think big enough,” Kauss tells Entrepreneur. “I’ve learned that no matter how insurmountable a challenge seems in the moment, we always overcome it. So I remind myself of this and just get busy with the team moving forward.”

Kauss shared her insights about building a company with a passion to make the world a better place.

Who really encouraged you to launch the company?

There wasn’t just one cheerleader in my camp. My parents were and always have been some of my biggest advocates. My mom is the one that encouraged me to answer the question “What would you do if you could do anything?” -- and I was on a trip with her when the idea for S'well came to me. Then a network of people helped me get S’well off the ground by giving of their time, providing insights and valuable expertise over many cups of coffee.

Who is a woman that inspires you, and why?

Being the founder of S’well has opened many doors and allowed me to meet so many amazing women. One woman I admire from afar, though, is Melinda Gates. She has figured out how to use her position and voice for such amazing good. The balanced way in which she promotes her efforts, engagements and storytelling is quite inspiring. You can’t help but want to rally around her causes.  

When you are feeling at your worst, what inspires you?

Food -- I love to cook and bake, finding my most relaxing moments creating new recipes for family and friends.

What inspires you at work?

It's what we’re able to do for the environment and communities in need. Since the beginning of S’well, we’ve partnered with a range of organizations to bring awareness to the water crisis and other issues centered on helping live healthier lives. We’ve been active partners with UNICEF USA since 2015, and we’ve helped UNICEF provide 500,000 people in Madagascar with access to clean water through its WASH program. This measurable impact is what inspires me to keep going, plus the millions of single-use plastic bottles that we’re helping to displace.

The fact that our efforts as a company attract a team of people who bring their own do-good passions to the table is doubly rewarding. We recently launched a program called People with Purpose that allows team members to take time away from the office to volunteer and includes highlighting their different efforts on our blog and social channels. I love knowing and seeing all the amazing things that the team is doing.

Are there lessons from earlier bosses or mentors that you think back on when you need an extra boost or bit of encouragement?

My boss and mentor at EY was an important influence at the start of my career. She helped me understand early on the importance of taking control of your career. She taught me to choose my clients and work on projects that inspired me. Taking this approach gave me the opportunity to work with accomplished entrepreneurs and certainly gave me inspiration for starting S’well.

What is a quote that inspires you, and why?

Right now, it is a quote from [former U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” When in the middle of chaos or periods of major change, it is the little things that I crave most and appreciate that much more when getting to the other side.

For those women who are looking to start a business, or have begun but are feeling discouraged, what advice do you have for them to keep going?

Don’t let perfection get in your way of moving your business or idea forward. Perfection can be your worst enemy, keeping you from jumping into the world of entrepreneurship altogether or receiving the feedback you need for success. The fact of the matter is that your business will evolve as you put it out in the world for people to experience. This process presents an opportunity to get feedback and make it better as you go.

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