Female Founders: Sara Bell of RIISE World On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
I wish someone had told me about the basics of corporate law, as there are various challenges that all start-ups face and having this understanding could’ve saved me a lot of headaches and sleepless nights.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Bell of RIISE World.
Sara Bell is the CEO and Founder of RIISE World, a multi-faceted lifestyle destination with one key focus — to change the narrative and shift the image of ‘going green’. Sara believes that being a responsible consumer shouldn’t come at the expense of style or taste. Through RIISE’s content, RIISE Shop and the upcoming RIISE TV Series — consumers will be given the opportunity to invest in beautiful objects and inspiring individuals that are environmentally friendly and celebrate those who are taking real steps towards meaningful change.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was born in Sweden and spent most of my childhood there. It was a very liberal, typically Swedish ’70s upbringing and it was there that I first developed my deep connection to nature. My family relocated to England when I was 11 and I found it to be a huge culture shock. In my early 20s I moved to Australia and worked in finance, inspiring an ongoing interest in the concept of risk. I went back to university and did a masters in environmental management, and became fascinated by energy and renewable power. This passion landed me in London, working on a smart grid project and later setting up a smart energy start-up, Tempus Energy. I quickly came to realise the hypocrisy inherent in the industry and spent four years legally challenging fossil fuel subsidies worth billions in the European Courts. While I won the case, the scheme was unlawfully reintroduced — which only solidified my belief that we can no longer place our trust in politics and public policy to solve climate change, and that we need to excite and inspire individuals to action.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
From hosting panels at fashion week to presenting to investors in Silicon Valley, there are many situations that I didn’t imagine I would end up in. It has been interesting to work on our original TV series, which we’ve internally been calling ‘climate entertainment’. Original and binge-worthy, our TV series show a glamorous, exciting and entertaining alternative to the current climate change narrative. Our productions will take TV sustainability to the next level, for example sourcing only sustainable and vintage fashion for wardrobe, serving extraordinary vegan food on set and offsetting any remaining emissions with innovative ocean carbon sequestration technologies. We embed both products and ideas seamlessly into the storyline, positioning them as the situation normal and the real objects of desire. It has been interesting pitching our TV series to streaming platforms and meeting with top actor agents to secure talent.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I feel as though most mistakes aren’t funny, but are tinged with a small amount of pain (dependant on the mistake size!). However, one mistake was probably not budgeting far enough into the future when first starting. Within 24 months of launching, the company had tripled in size and was already set for international expansion. We weren’t prepared for that kind of growth in such a short period of time, so we had to re-evaluate our financial goals to keep pace with our rapid growth.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
While running Tempus Energy I was mentored by an investor who became a director of the company. His approach was intuitive and very people focused and I learned a great deal from him.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I think one of the primary tasks of a parent of a girl is to teach her how to vibe out ‘don’t f**k with me’. It’s a task most parents perform abysmally at. Instead we allow society to give girls subtle and not so subtle messages about the need to be attractive in appearance, in behaviour. For me it is the behaviour that is most damaging. A lot of what you have to do to build companies is ugly. By raising girls in this way we are actively preventing them from being qualified to build companies.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
At an individual level we need to empower women to go after what they want, to show that competition is positive and that it’s OK to outshine. Being prepared to show how powerful you are in turn creates a powerful example to others and empowers them. Governments should provide more rigorous paid parental leave and normalise the taking of paid parental leave. This is important because it ensures women can return to the workforce after having children at the same level of seniority as before they left, helping to maintain their career progression while balancing motherhood. It also normalises working parents and positions CEOs as situation normal.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
In founding a company you trade certainty for freedom. I have never enjoyed being told what to do. Provided you are able to sell your vision to investors and then back it up by growing revenues, you are afforded an enormous freedom about how you run your life and how you spend your time. I’ve single-handedly raised three children while building companies. A few mornings a week I used to start my day at 4am and work until 7am while my kids were still asleep. It gave me time to be present with them while they were awake. I was able to go after my goals while still parenting. Annoyingly, kids rarely do what you tell them to, they watch you and copy what you do which is why it’s so important to live the life you want to live no matter the risk. It provides a powerful example to your children.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I think one myth is that as a founder you have to shoulder all of the work and creative burden yourself. Of course you have to be across all facets of the business and lead the company vision, especially in the early days, but it’s important to make smart hires based on gaps in your own skill set and understanding. Not only does this create a more diverse company culture from the outset, it fosters a dynamic environment where so many ideas outside of your own worldview are brought to the table. Another myth about founders is that you have to have one idea and stick to it. In my experience of building companies, this is very rarely the case. An idea often morphs and pivots into something else and as a founder you have to be open minded and nimble enough to constantly adapt.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
There is no one-size-fits-all mold for a founder. I’ve met founders who are extroverts, and some who are painfully shy. Regardless of your personality type, as a founder you need to have an extreme amount of resilience and be OK with not knowing what the near future holds. In building my companies I have had to make many personal sacrifices, like forgoing the security of a regular paycheck in favour of following my passion. As an adult I have never been pressed by the need to fit in, I think largely because I lost my sense of belonging when I was 11. The ability to stand completely alone is very useful to being an entrepreneur.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- I wish someone had told me about the basics of corporate law, as there are various challenges that all start-ups face and having this understanding could’ve saved me a lot of headaches and sleepless nights.
- I wish someone had told me that it can get lonely being a founder. All decisions end with you, so it is important to equip yourself for this responsibility.
- I wish someone had told me about the importance of marketing. You can have a million great ideas, but what’s the point if nobody sees them? Putting a strategy around driving new customers to your channels is integral for long term growth.
- I wish someone had told me it’s OK to start small and just see what happens. We launched RIISE Shop after our editorial platform as a bit of an experiment. It now forms the basis of our business model and by September will feature over 60 globally leading sustainable brands.
- I wish someone had told me that there’s no such thing as an ‘overnight success’. This turn of phrase has been invented by PR companies. What may look like an ‘overnight success’ is the result of years of hard work and determination.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My goal with RIISE is to help solve climate change. With the 2030 deadline looming, climate change truly is one of the biggest issues we collectively face. It concerns all humans, regardless of cultural context or walk of life — so I see this as doing my bit to make the world a better place. Rather than approaching climate change with ideological views and making people feel overwhelmed, scared and helpless, I am realistic that climate change is an economic problem and therefore needs an economic solution. I want RIISE to bring optimism, beauty and hope to the climate change conversation, empowering people to make better purchase decisions. For my staff and the people I work with, I’ve also tried to use my success to make their worlds a better place. I’ve established RIISE based on the principles that are most important to me. Most aren’t doing enough to support women returning to the workplace after having children, to ensure they resume their career trajectory. RIISE’s parental leave policy and willingness to hire staff on a part-time and flexible basis is designed to combat the drop off we see of female executives once they have children. As a start-up, we’re offering more in terms of parental leave than some of the biggest firms in the world.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We often hear the ‘buy less’ mantra when it comes to sustainability, but I am not sure how realistic this is under capitalism. It’s human nature to crave newness and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Instead of buying less, I would like to encourage a movement where people ‘buy different’ and actively choose to spend with the brands and businesses who are taking responsibility for their environmental impact. This will drive a huge shift in consumption and cause all others to follow suit or risk becoming completely irrelevant. Every item on RIISE Shop has been individually vetted against our Climate Credentials, a set of ten criteria that judge its environmental merit across all stages of the supply chain. This holds us and the brands we champion accountable, ensuring that when people buy they can be part of the solution.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I have enormous admiration for Laurene Powell Jobs and the work she has done in founding Emerson Collective. As an organisation it has achieved a great deal in the climate space as well as other areas and the willingness to operate both with a not-for -profit and deeply commercial mindset is truly inspiring.