The coveted executive of the year award is given annually to one woman who has demonstrated consistent growth and success along with great contribution to humanity. This year Trademark Women of Distinction has selected Sarah Kauss President of S’well.
EXECUTIVE OF THE
From spin class to board meetings, S’well water bottles are everywhere, which means sales are climbing. Revenues of the reusable stainless steel canteens, which claim to keep drinks icy cold for 24 hours, topped $100 million in 2016, up 10-fold from two years earlier when the company had just $10 million in revenue.
The self-made woman behind the craze is Sarah Kauss, who says she set out to bring chic, reusable water bottles to the masses after realizing that the water bottle she toted around couldn’t keep up with her lifestyle – in terms of both her personal style and busy schedule. She told Forbes recently that she realized if she could build something better, she could convert the non-converters. “If I could convince an entirely new customer – a new segment of the market – to be interested,” says Kauss, “I thought that could be the big idea I’d been searching for.”
So far, it seems to have worked. Kauss, 41, launched her first of now more than 200 designs in 2010, funded with $30,000 of her savings. Today, the bottles are sold in 65 countries in such stores as J. Crew, Nordstrom and Starbucks. She has turned down investors and still owns 100% of S’well. Her ownership of the fast-growing firm has created a fortune Forbes estimates at $180 million, making her an up-and-comer to watch for Forbes’ annual ranking of America’s Richest Self-Made Women. A spokeswoman for Kauss declined to comment and called the net worth figure “inaccurate.”
Florida-born Kauss began honing her entrepreneurial drive from an early age. Her parents owned a few small businesses; her first job was scooping ice cream at their local shop. She studied accounting at University of Colorado at Boulder; she then got a job as a CPA at Ernst & Young. After receiving her MBA from Harvard Business School, she worked in consulting and later commercial real estate. But she had caught the startup bug and was always on the lookout for the idea around which she could build a company. “It wasn’t wasted time,” says Kauss of her early jobs, “I used every single thing that I learned in those careers and the different experiences made me have the confidence to do what I do right now.”
Shortly after launching S’well, Oprah’s magazine came calling and Kauss expanded the product line with a few additional colors. Sales picked up and CEO Kauss says she reinvested all the profits back into the business, increasing her inventory, in particular. “There were definitely some skinny times in the beginning,” Kauss recalls. “But I had so much confidence that I would be able to sell the inventory. There was something really elegant about being self-funded. It made me really nimble and confident. I personally could do it because I didn’t have anyone depending on me- no children, no mortgage payment, no spouse at the time.”
In 2012, Starbucks tried out her bottles in stores around Austin and Atlanta. Three years later, the bottles rolled out into thousands of the coffee chain’s locations. It was after that in 2015 that sales skyrocketed 370% percent to $47 million, which made S’well the year’s fastest-growing woman-owned business in America, according to an annual report by Women Presidents’ Organization and sponsored by American Express. In 2016, S’well created a cheaper line for Target, called S’ip by S’well. Through it all, S’well has supported environmental research and has donated $800,000 to UNICEF to bring clean water to Madagascar. “My mission is to make the world a more beautiful place,” she says. “It’s really getting people to think more thoughtfully about what they consume and what they use.”
Today, S’well is expanding its product line into more sizes, like a model that fits in a lunchbox. It’s also going after corporate deals like it has with TEDx conferences and Google, which contracted S’well for branded bottles. Many Silicon Valley companies are building state-of-the-art campuses where they are going green and banning plastic – and Kauss sees a big opportunity. She also says the company is taking on products infringing on its trademark through its in-house legal counsel. “A part of me is delighted that it has disrupted the industry. Competition is incredibly healthy for an industry. But when it comes to a copycat, we fight the trademarks,” she says. “We do a lot of product testing. As much as something might look like the product, the quality is always not there.”