Sarah Kauss: A thirst for excellence

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Alumna Sarah Kauss left the high-powered world of international real estate to launch a unique company — a global sensation that’s helping to build a better working world.

Sarah Kauss is on a mission: to persuade everyone to say “no” to plastic water bottles. Her company, S’well, produces the world’s “Best Reusable Insulated Water Bottle.” The product — sleek and attractive enough to appear in fashion photo shoots — has been embraced by celebrities such as Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Hanks and Jimmy Kimmel.

After all, the company’s motto is “Thoughtfully Designed to Drink in Style.” In the US, S’well products are sold at Neiman Marcus, Saks, The Container Store, J. Crew, Nordstrom, Athleta and some Starbucks locations — as well as many specialty retailers. As of 1 January 2015, the company had sold more than one million units. In 2014, Kauss was named to Fortune’s “40 under 40,” and she was the first EY alum to have been selected as a member of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning WomenTM program.

Solving a problem and making a difference

In addition to helping stem the use of thousands of plastic bottles every year, S’well is part of a charitable community that gives back. By using S’well bottles, consumers are not only reducing the number of plastic bottles in landfills and oceans, but also supporting efforts to bring clean water to the world’s poorest communities.

S’well has teamed up with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF to help provide clean drinking water to children around the world. S’well’s charity partners also include American Forests, a long-standing nonprofit that works to conserve forests and promote tree planting, and Drink Up, a private sector partnership that encourages water consumption, whose Honorary Chair is Michelle Obama.

Kauss does not remember a time when she didn’t carry a reusable non-plastic water bottle with her everywhere. While municipalities across the US were considering bans on plastic bottles, she had long been keenly aware of their environmental impact.

Kauss shared a moment when she remembered traveling by boat on the Amazon and seeing plastic bottles floating by. “It has just always been one of my pet peeves,” she said.

Making waves in the boardroom

Prior to founding S’well, Kauss had already embarked on an impressive international career. She was leading international development for Alexandria, the largest real estate investment trust (REIT) focused on science and technology campuses in urban settings.

At the age of 30, Kauss was holding her own in boardrooms from Paris to Dubai, making the case for funding to support the development of research laboratories. She was involved in nearly every aspect of every project, and it was in these moments that she valued her background in accounting.

The language of business

“Through it all, I had my accounting to make me feel comfortable,” Kauss said. “It really is the language of business. If you’re not afraid of the numbers, what else is there? Having my EY background was so valuable — it really gave me a lot of confidence.”

If you happened to be at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the late 1990s, you may have spotted Kauss running the Career Fair as her summer job. Impressed with the recruiters from the accounting firms, she changed her major from marketing to accounting.

She was particularly attracted to the people of EY. A memorable conversation with Jo Marie Dancik, Denver’s Office Managing Partner at the time, left a powerful impression on her. After Kauss introduced herself, Dancik urged Kauss to take charge of her career: “Ask for the clients that you want, for the things that you want and don’t just do what comes to you.” Kauss recalls the conversation vividly — describing Dancik as “outstanding.” EY was the clear choice.

A flat organization

Kauss embraced audit work at EY with her characteristic brio, appreciating the variety of clients and the teamwork. On her very first day at a client site, she had the opportunity to make a difference.

“I was reviewing journal entries and found an item that looked questionable.” Kauss recalls her amazement that the organization was so “flat,” that even on her first day at the audit, the partner said, “Just go in there and talk to the CFO. We trust you enough to represent us as a company.”

As it turned out, the team had to make an adjusting journal entry. Kauss later transferred to Los Angeles, where she was exposed to high-energy, high-tech clients such as Geocities, which was later sold to Yahoo. David Bohnett, Geocities’ co-founder, advised Kauss to consider business school.

And so she entered Harvard after the tech wave began breaking apart in 2001. The 9/11 attacks occurred during her first week at Harvard Business School, and Kauss’s perspective on her career goals changed drastically. She remembers feeling as though she wanted to find a career that seemed more mission-driven or soulful.

After receiving her MBA, Kauss spent another year at Harvard working in the Leadership Initiative, a leadership and curriculum development program focused on research. With a longing to return to the business world, Kauss took a position at Tapestry Networks, a firm that establishes business networks to address specific common issues, such as how to set up effective international operations.

She was presenting on this very topic at INSEAD, an international business school with campuses in Europe and the Middle East, when she was offered the position at Alexandria. She worked at Alexandria for six years, traveling around the world.

Kauss moved back east to develop the Alexandria Center for Science and Technology, where she did everything from design and development to work with teams of architects to renegotiation of contracts with the union, as well as leasing and hiring brokers to come up with the marketing plan. Visitors to Manhattan can view the Center’s striking high-rise in East River Science Park, next to the FDR Drive.

When the international market picked up again, the idea of working with California-based Alexandria while living on the East Coast and working with clients in overseas time zones seemed daunting. Kauss decided to resign. Her next move: to see whether she could make a go of the beverage bottle business.

Growing brand ambassadors

The year was 2009. Back in Manhattan, Kauss was unemployed and committed to developing her idea. She worked with a design firm in New York to come up with the name and a manufacturer in China to develop the bottle itself.

Once she had a finished prototype, 3,000 blue bottles piled up in her New York apartment. On her own, with no staff, Kauss did her own sales and PR. She sent out samples to stores and to the media, including Oprah Winfrey’s O, The Oprah Magazine.

Following the sample delivery, O came back to Kauss asking for the bottles in seven colors. It was at that time that Kauss took a leap of faith and ordered thousands of units of the bottle in various colors. Soon the S’well bottle became a fixture on the “O List” of recommended products. And today, S’well bottles come in more than 90 colors and styles.

Creating brand ambassadors

Early on, Kauss made a savvy and deliberate decision to court mom-and-pop and small specialty stores before taking on retail giants like Nordstrom. She did not want to go to the big retailers without the ability to report “the sell-through rate in small stores.”

Today, S’well bottles are sold in thousands of specialty stores in the US. “They love us, and they’re the ones that call us regularly to say, ‘Can you believe it — I sold 80 bottles yesterday? Can you air-ship more?’ It is the small specialty shops that are out there telling the S’well story. They’re our front-line ambassadors,” Kauss says. And she credits her “starting small” strategy for having advocates who are really cheering for her brand.

Recognizing the entrepreneurial spirit

Last November, Kauss was selected as a member of the 2014 class of EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women, to join the elite program for women entrepreneurs leading some of the country’s most exciting high-growth companies. This special group provides Kauss entry to EY’s customized leadership program designed to connect her with the advisors, resources and insights necessary to scale her business.

Kauss is enthusiastic about the program and keen to spend more time with the other members of the network. “I’ve never been in such a group of committed, smart, amazing women where I can honestly say, ‘this is what I’m struggling with. What did you do about this? There is just not any judgment.’ It’s a very safe place to say, ‘I actually am completely making up what I’m doing right now.’”

It’s also safe to say that Sarah Kauss is one of the great improvisers in business today.

This alumni story has been extracted from the April 2015 Connect Magazine. To read the full interview download the Connect Magazine.

Watch this short video of Sarah recounting her exceptional EY experience.