S’well founder Sarah Kauss on being a female entrepreneur

October 27, 2014, 11:00 AM UTC
Photograph by Patrick James Miller for Fortune; Courtesy of Swell

What’s in a water bottle?

Some $10 million to $13 million in projected revenue, 22 full-time employees, up from seven a year ago, an urgent move to bigger offices, a spot on the 2014 Fortune 40 Under 40 list, and a lot of self-discovery for its creator, by the sounds of it.

Sarah Kauss, the founder and CEO of S’well, is having quite a year—after a long, methodical start to her company, which makes stainless-steel water bottles. She spent nearly a decade working in more traditional areas like tax auditing and real estate before founding S’well in 2010. Now, four years later, her bottles have become a fashion must-have and can be found everywhere from J. Crew to Neiman Marcus to Starbucks to Whole Foods. To read our profile of Kauss—no. 36 on the 40 Under 40—and her business, see: How S’well swelled.

In Fortune‘s talks with Kauss for that profile, the entrepreneur spoke at length about being a woman in business, and we found her commentary interesting enough that we wanted to share it separately. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Fortune: So many entrepreneurs drop out of business school to start a company, but you graduated and then spent nearly 10 years working in other jobs before launching S’well. Why the wait?

Sarah Kauss: When I left Harvard, I don’t know that I would have had the confidence to start my own business in the way that I did now. I think I would have been more apologetic about it.

Did you find that in your more conventional career, before launching S’well, you faced more hurdles because you’re a woman?

No, I don’t think I ever felt any different because I’m a woman, but I probably wasn’t thinking about it, either.

I think, in everyone’s career, they have felt at some point like maybe they didn’t get the best assignment or maybe they struggled, but I don’t think it was because I was a woman any more than because I had brown hair. I think it was because life is just hard sometimes.

I do have to say that now, later in my life, I have more strong women friends and women entrepreneurs that I know and work with than I did earlier in my career. I don’t think I thought it was that important. I didn’t really see myself as a so-called strong woman early in my career. I just thought of myself as one of the guys—all of my friends were guys, all the people I knew in my graduate program were guys. But now I pay more attention to it.

Nowadays there is a great rising tide around female entrepreneurs. Have you noticed a change in the way women are perceived in business?

I think that I think about it more. I personally want to support more women-owned companies, because of S’well. We are a very feminine company. Most of our employees are women, same for our customers… and it’s hard not to have S’well just be a reflection of myself as a customer. So it’s hard for me to not be a feminine business owner, because I am a girl, but at the same time, I don’t lead with that. It’s a part of the story, but in the business world, I don’t think it has to be part of the story.

Being a sexy startup is enough for us. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or you’re old or you’re a woman or a man or a kid, I just think the product should tell the story. There’s a real cult of personality these days around startups—like, ‘Who were your investors, where did you go to school, how many followers do you have on Instagram’—but if you just push a great product, people will want to know the story. It’s not like we did a Super Bowl ad saying, ‘We’re a woman-owned business, and I struggled with this…’ I’m happy to make the product lead and then have someone look behind it and see me.

How many of your employees are women?

We’re at 20 people working in the office, and two of them are men. I keep looking around and thinking, ‘We need some gender diversity.’ But if you hire the best people that come in, sometimes they look like you. We have a coder, a wonderful senior web developer, who’s a hacker—and she’s a woman. I hate to make a big thing of it, but that’s really cool to me. And it’s not even like I’m doing this on purpose, she just happens to be a woman. It’s hard, because we wish that we had half and half, but we don’t yet. That could be because of the industry we’re in, the gift industry, but we get a lot of girls applying here.

Did you initially see S’well as a product for women?

You know, in the beginning, I always thought it could be for everybody. When we started we had one bottle, one color, one size. It was shiny blue. It’s pantone 312, ocean blue. And it’s gender-neutral. We’re getting into a lot of men’s stores now, like Jack Spade and Cole Haan, and it’s great that they’re picking us up.

If you had advice for female entrepreneurs, what would it be?

To do it all the way. When I first launched S’well, I didn’t have any metric in mind, per se, but if I wasn’t going to sell 100,000 water bottles, why do it? It couldn’t be a side project. I had left a real estate company and started S’well, but I was also sort of looking for a job, but not really. I had a moment where I went to a fancy lunch at Del Frisco’s, and was introduced to someone who was starting a new real estate company. He asked me to come on as the managing director. And it was a lot of money. I thought, ‘I could do this. And I could do S’well on the side.’ I mean, I bought a new suit, I had a lawyer look at the paperwork, I was going to take the job. And then I thought, ‘I’m never going to be able to give my heart and soul to S’well.’ I know myself, I can’t do anything half. If I was going to take the job, I was going to be all about the job. So I had to turn it down. I called him and said, ‘I wish you all the best, but’—I was kind of embarrassed to say it—’I’m going to go start a water bottle company.’

If it was embarrassing at first to say you were starting a water bottle company, how do you say it now, when people ask what you do?

In the beginning, I would say, “I started a water bottle company.” But now I just say, “I created S’well. Do you know it?” And so often, they do, and I’m so surprised and pleased. If they don’t, it’s okay, and then I say, “Oh, it’s a reusable bottle.” Some people don’t get it. Like, my grandfather passed away last year—he was a really amazing businessman—and he just never understood S’well. To his dying day he would tell me, “You know, you would sell a lot more of these bottles if you sold them with water in them.” He didn’t understand why someone would buy an empty bottle. And that’s okay.

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