S’well Founder Sarah Kauss on Meaningful Mentorship
Even if you haven’t heard of Sarah Kauss, you may be familiar with her work.
Ten years ago, this Girl Scout alum founded and self-funded S’well, a water bottle company aimed at reducing single-use plastics. Available in a variety of designs that complement a wide range of personal styles, Sarah’s products are beloved by many a consumer and have allowed her to build a hugely successful lifestyle brand that is environmentally conscious at its core.
“A [good part] of the mission for S’well came out of ‘leave a place better than you found it,’ something I learned as a Girl Scout,” says the proud alum, who joined as a Brownie and stayed involved all the way through high school. “That’s in my DNA.”
Sarah, now 44, helms the $100 million-plus company as CEO—and she says she’s been fortunate to have had some great mentors along the way.
“[I’ve been connected to] mentors through formalized programs, friendships . . . and completely random, happy accidents. There have been times when I’ve . . . had a spark of connection with someone and they’ve stayed with me for a long time,” she says.
Sarah’s mentors have helped her with everything from business tactics, such as how to approach a new customer or pitch a new product, to balancing motherhood and work. They have also helped her on the road to self-acceptance and imparted a valuable sense of community.
“The mentors in my life are not perfect humans, and they make me feel OK about not being perfect either. They also make me feel less alone—like we’re all on a journey [together],” she explains.
Read on for Sarah’s tips on finding your own mentors.
1. Don’t be shy.
“Think big and reach out. So many women really want to link arms and pull people up behind them,” Sarah explains. “I get emails and Twitter messages from people all the time, and I think people generally do like to give back.”
“You might get some no’s,” she adds, “but you might be [pleasantly] surprised, too.”
2. Start with a simple ask.
There are a lot of ways to craft that first ask, says Sarah.
“You could say, ‘I’m looking for a mentor,’ ‘I’m looking for some advice,’ or ‘do you have time for a coffee or a 15-minute call?’”
2. Tailor your message.
Successful people are often busy and in demand, so a form letter won’t get the job done here. Instead, find a way to connect with potential mentors in a personal way, advises Sarah.
“The [requestors] that resonate with me have a very specific thing they’re asking for help with; they might say ‘I’m from your town’ . . . and talk about sustainability. There’s some reason they’re reaching out to me specifically, and so the messages are sincere and coming from the heart,” she explains.
“I still keep in touch with a student I met while speaking at a university a few years ago. She wrote to me after the lecture and there was just something in her note that struck a chord with me—she reminded me of [my days] at a university.”
3. Understand the value of perspectives outside your company.
Sponsors lift you up from within your organization, which is important—but part of the value of a mentor is that they’re not too close to your work.
“A mentor brings a really fresh perspective,” Sarah explains. “They might not be so close to the individuals you work with, the personalities, the situations . . . They’re standing on the balcony of your life and helping you look down on it.”
4. Be open to people who are outside your field, too.
“Some of my mentors are in tech as opposed to consumer goods,” says Sarah. “The way they approach things is refreshingly different.”
Often these individuals will offer solutions that she initially doesn’t think will work in her industry—but on thinking through the advice, she’ll arrive at a new way of looking at a problem.
5. Set boundaries.
For potential mentors who are in the public eye, respecting privacy can be key.
“Set some ground rules about confidentiality, about what you’ll share with each other as opposed to outside the relationship. In this day and age of social media people need to be able to say ‘this is my challenge, this is my advice . . . this is where things fell down’ without worrying that [the words] will pop up somewhere else later,” says Sarah.
“In my more formal mentoring relationships,” she adds, “we have a written code of conduct—we won’t try to hire each other’s employees, for example.”
6. Stay engaged.
Sarah suggests reaching out to your mentors quarterly or even monthly to keep the relationships going over time.
“[Turning] to a mentor when there’s an acute crisis is probably OK some of the time, but building the relationship in other ways is important. Check in and share the highs and lows, the opportunities and the challenges, and then when a crisis comes up you’ve been there all along; you’re not joust reaching out in a panic.
7. Remember to follow up.
After a mentor helps you through a crisis or even a more straightforward decision, make sure you close the loop by letting them know how you resolved a situation.
“Those [mentees] who keep in touch let me know what happens. One girl sent me a handwritten card following up, and now I’m really invested,” she says, “because I feel like I helped put her on her path.”