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Sara Rotman of Wellfounded Botanicals: Why We Need More Women Founders & Here Is What We Are Doing To Make That Happen

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. While being an entrepreneur is exciting, inspiring, and rewarding it comes at a great cost and building resilience is the number one indicator of success. Learning that discomfort is not the same as failure is vital. If safety is your goal, being a founder is likely not for you.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing ​​Sara Rotman.

​​Sara Rotman is CEO and Founder of Wellfounded Botanicals and is an industry leader and pioneer. In addition to launching Wellfounded, Rotman owns and operates one of California’s largest legal outdoor cultivation farms (the largest woman-owned legal outdoor cultivation farm in CA), described as the gold standard by CDFA compliance officers, local politicians, and fellow farmers alike.

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

Reluctantly labeled the “Branding Guru” in the press, my professional expertise includes strategy, iconography, campaign, social, product development, digital, copywriting and design as founder and Chief Creative Officer of MODCo Group, which I grew from inception to nearly 100 million dollars in annual billings. Best known for my iconic logo design and comprehensive branding work for Tory Burch on her eponymous brand, my professional experience spans more than 25 years working in the fashion, finance, beauty, and entertainment industries. With numerous awards, successful brand launches, and repositions to my credit, I have a thorough understanding of the unique sensitivities and issues involved in creating and maintaining a brand’s identity — and how to best position it for longevity and growth. Often called upon to develop or update brand strategies for fashion, beauty and lifestyle startup and powerhouse brands alike, I have launched or breathed new life into some of the world’s most noteworthy brands including Tory Burch, Carolina Herrera, Theory, Nina Ricci, Thompson Hotels, Bliss Spa, Goop, Joe Fresh, Amazon, Under Armour, Sony Music, Universal Music Group, MTV, Lane Bryant, Coyuchi and Campari.

An avid equestrienne, I purchased the farm I now call home, as a sanctuary for my horses and planned it as a weekend retreat where we could enjoy homegrown organic vegetables, eggs, and my newly planted olive grove. Happily, nestled in Santa Barbara’s wine country, it had everything this foody, wine lover could ever hope for: A perfect climate, bucolic setting, a wonderful community of farmers, artisans, wine producers, and farm to table restaurants any oenophile would be envious of. However, shortly after moving in, I was struck with a grave illness that landed me in the hospital in renal failure, and my plans and my life changed. Near-death experiences tend to shift one’s priorities, and I was no exception. When I finally got out of the hospital, I was still too sick to work. Reluctantly, I closed my company and re-focused my energy into becoming well again which was an odyssey all its own. After a lengthy and painful exploration of everything medicine has to offer, it was Cannabis that provided the only therapy and relief from my illness. With this discovery my farm evolved into more than a sanctuary for my family and our animals, it became a true place of healing. A place to grow all our own food, create a true farm-to-table experience, grow legal Cannabis, create therapies for myself and others in order to support my health, family, and community.

After slowly regaining my health, I traded in my branding work for clients to focus exclusively on my own entrepreneurial efforts. I made the decision to exclusively work on projects I was passionate about and had an ownership stake in. Happily, one of the first opportunities that fate sent me was to join up with my dear friend and tech guru, Jonathan Strietzel, to create the brand strategy, packaging, and iconography for Wine Chips. When he described the concept to me it had all the elements I look for when I am positioning a brand for success. Elegantly simple — it was easy to understand, there was nothing like it in the market and we could create a living personality for the brand itself beyond just creating a commodity subject to market conditions. Engaged and ‘sticky’ or long-lasting brands are what I strive to create, brands that resonate with consumers, that have ‘legs’ or natural brand extension opportunities, are resilient and that will create enduring, even rabid loyalty. This concept had all these elements and a great very human founder story. This was something I was excited about. In short, I was all in.

Both efforts are now gaining serious momentum. Wine chips have quickly earned over a million dollars in gross sales and are carried by over 700 retailers. As for the farm efforts, I am now in my 7th year as a cannabis professional and have become an industry pioneer and leader. My farm, Busy Bee’s Organics, Inc. is one of California’s largest legal permitted and licensed outdoor cannabis farms and has been described as the gold standard by California Department of Food and Agriculture compliance officers, local politicians, and fellow farmers alike. I have brought my entrepreneurial leadership and skill to the industry beyond just farming by becoming a local and statewide advocate for the cannabis industry and have launched my own Cannabis and CBD brand, including the world’s first luxury CBD fragrance via an international licensing agreement with Scent Beauty for my brand, Wellfounded. Both Wine Chips and Wellfounded are born out of the most personal work I have been developing on the farm I call home.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

All entrepreneurs are born survivors, and all survival stories are interesting. Some details are more painful than others, some more humorous but all based on the innate need to survive and thrive. I can honestly say that after over 35 years as an entrepreneur there is not a single story that stands out more than the others. In my career I have had sandwiches thrown at my head, death threats, absurd unearned legal entanglements, I’ve been hit on by clients and bosses, I’ve been asked to use the service entrance at more than one client’s home when arriving for meetings, I have been exalted as the genius that turned around failing businesses, had friends and colleagues die by suicide mid-project, I have been hosted by despots wives in third world countries, I had my head patted by condescending vendors and I have (legally) sold more cannabis than anyone ever dreamed of. I kept my business afloat through September 11th and the financial crash of 2008, and I had it brought down by personal illness. I have also built multiple successful brands and continue to be inspired by the unexpected, the impossible and the purely beautiful. Throughout my history, there has been quite a lot of interesting, strange, and downright insane. All I can really say is you have to be prepared for anything because what’s coming is never quite what you planned on and perhaps, I should have been taking better notes along the way.

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 have made many mistakes in my business life, and I can honestly say that while I learned from each and every one, I found none amusing. Champions hate losing more than they love winning and mistakes are the equivalent of losses. Each is a painful reminder of our mortality and how much we have yet to learn. And each should sting enough to never repeat. That’s the lesson. If I found mistakes funny, I would potentially find them less painful, and the lessons shared may not stick. I hate mistakes, but I’m willing to make them-lots of them, just not twice.

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?

There are several extremely important figures in my life and career that have profoundly impacted who I have become and my capacity for success. They are as varied as my career, and some came from unexpected places. The common thread is that each of them was truly accomplished in their specific fields and was generous with that knowledge. All of them were honest with me and candid with the truth even if it was uncomfortable to share. My deep respect for each of them was the thing that made those uncomfortable truths bearable and teachable. In learning from these thoughtful mentors, I have resolved to strive for that same directness with the people I mentor. I am grateful for the tough love I got from each of these folks. In my experience, the millennials generation and those that come after seem to be less and less able to hear anything but positive feedback, I think that’s a crippling handicap to their learning and their eventual success. I think we do our younger entrepreneurs a disservice by not letting them feel failure. That sting is what motivates excellence. I think it is something to be embraced not shielded from.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Once and Future King — The Badgers Tale. It celebrates the power of education and has been an influence in my life since I was a child.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I have been broke ass broke at least four times in my adult life. And I have successfully rebounded every time. One of our inspirational sayings around our house is. ‘You know who fails? SUCCESSFUL people’. While I have had setbacks I learned and became smarter and stronger with each of them. I started my adult life completely broke when my family couldn’t pay for college. I dreamed of going to school in New York City and refused to let a thing like not having any money stop me. So, I left home, moved to the cheapest neighborhood I could find (Manhattan’s 34th precinct which had at the time the highest murder rate in the 5 boroughs) got a full-time job working in my chosen field instead of as a bartender to accelerate my career and tripled my school semester hours so I could finish school in the least amount of time possible. I lived on free melba toast and mustard sandwiches swiped from the school’s salad bar and endless free coffee refills. The second time I went broke I had left my lucrative job at a big advertising agency to start my own firm (in downtown Manhattan) and within a year I was in a very expensive divorce and then September 11th hit taking several of my friends and my anchor clients with it. It took me two years to rebuild a large enough client roster to pay off my divorce settlement and sustain and grow my fledgling business. I played multiple roles (read all) in the office until I could afford to bring on employees. This gave me a better understanding of what the business needed and made me a better leader to my new team members. The third time was when the financial crisis of 2008/9 happened and all my clients stopped paying, evaporated, or requested/required that they pay only half of what they owed me because they felt they had leverage over me and my company. During any economic downturn, branding and advertising are always the first line-item companies cut. At the time my industry was a reliable bell weather for the financial circumstances to come. And this was bleak. That Christmas I was forced to lay people off for the first time in my life. I was devastated as I take my responsibility to my employees very seriously and cared deeply for them. I went back to doing almost all the jobs at my firm to service the few clients I had left. Placing my ego aside I took on any client I could find and a second job to help pay the bills until I could get the company back on solid financial footing. I put my head down and worked till I was able to re-grow the company to our peak of ~100M in billings. Then I got sick while the world of social media and ‘maker’ digital culture replaced many of my company’s historical income streams. Thankfully strategic and creative talent cannot be easily replaced, but it did need to be re-considered and repackaged. This was what led me to close my business and concentrate exclusively on efforts that I had an ownership stake in. I understood that being a service would never produce residual income or exponential growth. I needed to become the business’ that once were my clients. I have failed spectacularly a few times, but what I did in the face of failure made me a stronger entrepreneur, leader, and person. Another of my favorite sayings is ‘pressure makes diamonds’. Which is a loving reminder that not everyone handles adversity or discomfort the same way or with any success at all, but if you can endure, something magical is inevitable.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I don’t know if I would ever be comfortable considering the work, I have done to be important enough to make the world a better place, but I do take the responsibility of caring for my employees and team members by providing them opportunities with dignity very seriously. I work hard to mentor other women to provide the maximum opportunity for independence and entrepreneurial growth. All my senior staff are women, Latinx, or both. We also favor women’s businesses whenever possible in our vendor selections so most of our key support teams are led by women as well.

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 must be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience, what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

That’s a loaded and complex question, the fact that we even have to ask it is part of what’s holding us back. The notion that 20% of female-founded companies are being funded is progress is outrageous. I believe that even talking about female lead businesses as different from our male counterparts is part of the problem as it ‘others’ female leaders in a way I detest. I hate that I am considered ‘the largest female-owned cannabis farm in the state’. Yes, that is an honor, but the truth is, my farm is simply one of the largest and best run farms in the state regardless of my gender. We would never say ‘the largest male run farm… so why do we dimmish my accomplishment because of my gender? It shouldn’t even come up. Like so many other women leaders, I’m simply good at my job and have been successful as a businessperson and I have done so in the face of blatant sexism like every other female entrepreneur. Yes, it’s harder, yes, we are still going to have to do more to be considered equal. And yes, that’s profoundly infuriating. However, in my life, I have found the best weapon against this insipid ‘othering’ is to simply refuse to recognize inequity exists. Of course, it does, but I don’t want to provide oxygen to that fire by talking about it incessantly. I will just be better. I will thrive. And I will bring as many women along with me as I can until, we fill the universe with competent professionals who provide jobs, opportunities, and role models to other women (and men) without having to talk about our gender. Ever.

This might be intuitive to you, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Any entrepreneurial minded person should be free to become a founder and should be empowered to pursue that path. We are half of the population and should statistically represent half of the business opportunities. Especially as we traditionally control more than half the budget of people’s disposable income and income decisions. That is real power and I am continually mystified why businesses who create for and advertise to women are not run by women. Perhaps we should be asking why aren’t more women interested in taking on the vigor of entrepreneurial leadership? What cultural pressures and training have been implemented in the past 30 years to discourage this path? What are the values currently in place in 2021 that discourage entrepreneurial leadership in young professional women? In some cases, I see progress but more often I see a rollback of attitudes towards equality in both women and men that is deeply distressing. Balance is one thing, but a lack of interest in becoming leaders is something we cannot ignore as an ingredient in this inequity. It’s not only that we are being discriminated against-yes that happens far too often and is a legitimate obstacle to success for all women. But I also think there is also an apathy that’s creeping into our collective psyche that must be overcome. And how are we as members of society training our children and mentees to either participate in this inequity or to overcome it?

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

I am not sure how to answer this just for women, as I believe we shouldn’t be singled out and the strengths required of any entrepreneur are the same. But I can answer with the 5 considerations I lean on to remain successful in my efforts as a founder.

Lead by example. Being able to see other women succeeding in business and life is the most inspiring evidence that becoming a founder is not only possible but is an empowering, exciting, and rewarding career path that any woman can follow should she set her mind to it. I remain deeply inspired by the other women I see succeeding. I celebrate their victories as if they were my own, as each of them makes the rest of us stronger. Being wildly and exuberantly supportive of other women’s businesses is something we must consciously do more of.

Ask for help. Find other professional women you admire and make friends with them. Having just a few other business owners to bounce ideas off, learn from and problem solve with is vital to success. Surround yourself with the people who are what you would like to become. This is the reason our ivy league schools continually pump out wildly successful people, it’s not just the curriculum, it’s the lifelong social circles developed at these schools that help ensure the success of the people who are granted entry. Whether you attended a fancy Ivy League school or not (I did not) you can and should create your own circle of success. In my experience and practice, most successful women will be generous with their time if you are respectful of it. I know I make time for young entrepreneurs who are genuinely curious. Just leave your ego at the door, there’s always someone smarter than you at the table, close your mouth, open your ears and be grateful for the wisdom you will receive.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. While being an entrepreneur is exciting, inspiring, and rewarding it comes at a great cost and building resilience is the number one indicator of success. Learning that discomfort is not the same as failure is vital. If safety is your goal, being a founder is likely not for you.

Never give up. Not ever. Not for anything. Or anyone. Not once. Not ever. This doesn’t mean feeding the futile, or not recognizing that one has to take a different path. But it does mean thinking around corners, solving problems and being willing to be deeply, profoundly uncomfortable for long periods of time, and enduring intense disagreements with people you love until you reach your goals. Being comfortable with discomfort is a big part of this, (to repeat what I wrote above — it’s important enough to say it twice). All of that said, I’m also proud to have learned to prioritize grabbing a little life along the way.

Be adaptable and optimistic, always. Learning to accept, move on and reinvent myself after the forced humility that grave illness imposed on me is the best example I can offer for this pillar of entrepreneurial success. Accepting failure or being forced to change everything about your winning formula when the business climate demands it isn’t just difficult, it’s a seismic shift for any driven entrepreneur. For me, being suddenly confronted with the removal of all the abilities that have allowed me to succeed was both devastating and bewildering. I have always used my strength and stamina as fuel to excel. But when I got sick that strength failed me completely and I was left feeling very naked and alone. My business was failing with my health and most of the tools that I had developed throughout my career were no longer available to me. Finding a new motivation and inner light while facing crippling illness, pain and depression was the most challenging thing I have faced. The tool that saved me was my relentless optimism and a willingness to adapt to survive. I’m not a Pollyanna and I recognize that optimism is nothing without disciplined analysis and back-breaking work. But I have learned that in order to do what many consider impossible you have to be 120% certain you will succeed even if conventional wisdom tells you otherwise. This is a trait I have always had but didn’t understand as well as I do now. Earlier in my career, I thought I was just relentless-disciplined and willing to work harder than any competitor to win. The crucial optimism part came from years of overcoming challenges and learning to trust that this optimism is the secret sauce, not just the discipline. With it, I am always able to find the path forward, even if it is circuitous, unlikely, or ill-advised. My illness and the cascading challenges that it produced obscured that optimism for longer than I would have liked but after emerging from that time in my life I now recognize that as my primary strength.

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.

If I could wave a magic wand and change the world, I would ask our wealthiest businesses and business leaders to commit to protecting our global forests, oceans, and wild places by providing viable financial alternatives to the people who live in and around these natural resources. We must create jobs, education and opportunity for people who are the stewards of these vital spaces but also of their own families and independence. It sounds so simple, and it is being done in small pockets around the world, but not often enough and not as a systematic method. The conservation groups almost always get this part wrong. The tendency is to lay blame on the industry as exclusively destructive and to create an adversarial relationship between all environmentalists and industry. Creating a situation where the public believes you can only have one or the other. In my own county, there is a deeply rooted culture of considering any business bad, even if that business is furthering the goals of protecting the environment. We will never be able to protect anything if there is a greater financial incentive to destroy it. We must find a way to monetize conservation for the communities that are currently earning a living off destructive practices — and we have to do it in a way that the people living and earning there can become and remain independent. When I think of my own industry, and the appropriate focus on social justice, I am deeply troubled by the lack of vision put forth in providing the necessary education and resources required to open and operate a viable business. Handing out grants or forcing partnerships doesn’t provide the necessary tools to successfully navigate regulatory overstep, community legislating, or even the basics of tax preparation and labor rights. If we fail to provide these tools, we fail to provide for the future success of these entrepreneurs and community leaders. And their success should be the goal. While some of this is specific to my industry it’s all part of the same concern. We need to provide access to expertise, vendors, and funding to aspiring business owners, both to get more women into the workforce but also to protect our natural resources. If we can find a way to make protecting the environment profitable and provide opportunities for our at-risk communities to thrive, everyone wins. But we should get the business community on this because bureaucrats aren’t to be trusted with innovation or fiscal success.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to meet Stacey Abrams, I find her story drive and intelligence deeply inspiring, of course, I would be thrilled to meet Oprah for the same reasons, Martha Stewart for her resilience and reinvention, and I would be honored to meet Michael Jordan as his singular drive in everything he does is otherworldly.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Wellfounded.com and Sara Rotman on LinkedIn

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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