Week 16 | Sterling Champion and Ilana Broad on starting SHE

Sterling Champion and Ilana Broad on starting SHE

For Week 16 of Female Founders Weekly we interviewed Sterling Champion and Ilana Broad of SHE - a benefit corporation working to make gender equality an everyone issue. SHE certifies businesses that have at least 50% women and/or gender diverse individuals in management, creative, and/or ownership levels of a company. Sterling believes she has spent her whole life preparing for SHE - which was born out of an idea that came to her on International Women's Day in 2017. Since then, Sterling has been hard at work fine-tuning and crafting the business in partnership with Ilana. In the course of their personal gender journey and their professional career, Ilana observed first-hand the disparate opportunities and recognition afforded femmes. They were honored to be approached by Sterling to assist in building and launching this movement to recognize and celebrate women and gender-diverse people in business. Together, alongside the SHE team (hi, Meg!), they have built SHE, with the intention of influencing consumer buying behavior and impacting the economy, at large.

THE INSPIRATION: How did you get the idea for SHE?

Sterling: The idea for SHE came to me out of a need I had for an easier way to find out which brands were owned and run by women so that I could, in turn, more easily support them! When I started doing more research on the subject, I was impassioned and driven by how unequal the market share and revenue has been - and currently is - for women-owned and run businesses. Did you know that in 2019, women-owned businesses made up 42% of all businesses in the U.S. but only captured 4.2% of revenue? That number is smaller for BIPOC women-owned businesses, who have 50% of all women-owned businesses, but capture only 23% of total revenue. (Source: AMEX, The 2019 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report (2019).)

I knew I had to pursue making SHE a reality so that statistics like those could change. Not too long after, I approached Ilana, who shares a similar passion and drive for reaching gender equality, and asked for their help to start and grow this movement. Since then, we’ve spent 18 months building the company and are so excited to announce that applications to become SHE Certified have officially opened up

THE PITCH: What is SHE?

Ilana: SHE is making it easier to verify and display a company’s achievement of gender parity in the workplace using our collection of certification marks, the SHE Marks - SHEruns, SHEmakes, and SHEowns. Getting SHE Certified is a voluntary means for companies across industries to address growing customer demand for transparency, social responsibility, and gender parity - almost 75% of consumers, globally, are favoring brands that share their values. It is our hope that certifying companies and having them display the SHE Marks will impact buying behavior for the everyday consumer, and, in turn, shift financial support and growth to companies that are gender equal.

FROM IDEA TO REALITY: Practically, how did you get started?

Ilana: We made a list of goals we had, questions we needed to ask and have answers to, and steps to get each of those done, and we kind of just started… checking things off the to-do list and adding them to our formal “to-done” list. Once we had a basic understanding of what it would take to get this off the ground, our initial priorities were the legal foundation underlying the marks and the overall company, and developing sustainable, human operations. At that point, it was really all about squeezing in the time between our other jobs, until we hit a breaking point and took this full-time!

WORK EXPERIENCE: Did you rely on any previous business experience to help you get going?

Sterling: Part of what makes Ilana and I such great partners is that we have very complementary skill sets. I come from the world of branding, operations, and people operations and Ilana has a background in law and community organizing. We also both have experience in entrepreneurship, starting and running our own companies in the music industry. Together, we’ve relied on our past work experiences - both good and bad - to shape our approach. Additionally, we’ve both put a ton of time into researching and learning best business practices to help shape SHE into what it is today! 

FUNDING: Did you raise capital or did you bootstrap?

Sterling: We decided to forgo the investment and VC route and have been bootstrapping our business for the last year and a half. Luckily, SHE has had little overhead and is not super capital intensive - the largest expense we have at the moment is our time (and legal fees)!

Ilana: We got some feedback from other femme founders that, combined with the available data, indicated to us that VC isn’t the most friendly environment to femme founders - a PitchBook dataset shows that 98% of VC funding in the U.S. in 2017 and 2018 went to male founders, and founders who were women raised on average less than half of what men raised. We’re starting this company to impact global gender equality, and unfortunately that current inequality often includes and impacts financing. Maintaining our agency and forward-looking goals and operations is of paramount importance to us.

CHALLENGES & MOTIVATION: What have been your biggest hurdles and what motivates you to keep going?

Sterling: Honestly, my challenges change on the daily. That’s what keeps the journey of running a business exciting! Last week, it was putting my web developer hat on and figuring out how to get our applications working on our website. This week, it’s mapping out our Q4 goals for marketing and press. What motivates me every day is the potential for SHE to have real life impact on buying behaviors and workplaces!

Ilana: My answer to both, only half sarcastically, is “finances.” More seriously, I’d echo a bit of what Sterling touched on: I think we have the opportunity and privilege to start a company designed to impact people positively and that constantly feels, both, heavy and moving.

SUPPORT NETWORK: Who do you lean on the most for support?

Ilana: When we saw this question, we both kind of cocked our heads through the video chat and said, “...you?” 

Sterling: Running this business with a partner has many benefits - including being uniquely qualified to help one another work through the challenges that come with running a start-up, especially when working in such a niche space in the market. We’re also both well versed in our industry and regularly keep up with gender equality-related news and reports, so, in other words, we can speak each other's language!

Ilana: It’s worth mentioning that, while Sterling and I rely on each other a lot for support as entrepreneurs, it’s also necessary to maintain a community of support outside of our work environment. We can’t be everything to each other, and it’s important to both of us to intentionally unwind outside of the company. We’re grateful for the love we share with our friends and family; they’ve been invaluable resources in our lives and in our business.

WORK-LIFE BALANCE: How do you manage work-life balance and what do you do when you’re not working?

Ilana: It’s an interesting question, and it relies on this post-industrial idea that you are defined by your job (and your success at your job is paramount to your success in life, etc.). We’re trying to build more of a life-work balance at SHE. This is obviously very difficult at this stage of development, when most entrepreneurs have new job titles every day, but we’re working very hard to see and treat ourselves as full human beings who need to recharge in order to give our all to this movement. As far as my specific hobbies, I like to take care of my houseplants, crochet simple patterns, play music, get dressed up and go dancing (pre-COVID-19, of course), and talk with loved ones about our dreams for the future.

Sterling: Throughout my professional life, I have gravitated towards roles that were outside of the M-F, 9-5. I liked the flexibility it allowed me to fit my work around my life, instead of the other way around - a philosophy we are exercising in our operations at SHE! In my every day while growing and running this business, I enjoy little moments of grace - like meditating, laughing, exercising, and eating away from my desk. When I’m not working, you can find me trying new recipes and restaurants, working with my hands on something creative, spending time in the sunshine and going back to concerts and events (when appropriate)!

CELEBRATING THE WINS: What has been your proudest achievement so far?

Sterling: My proudest achievement has been bringing this idea to life and building a business that is a business for good, with people that share the same vision - a gender equal, and more sustainable, future! I’m grateful for every day that we get to work towards change and that there’s been an overwhelming amount of support for our movement, especially from other women founders and entrepreneurs. It really feels like we’re all in this together.

Ilana: I’m learning to come to terms with the idea that it will be extremely rare to see or feel a distinct “achievement,” so I’m celebrating every new “draft.” Do I remember the day we finished the first draft of this document? Sure, but I’ve updated it 100 times since then. Do I remember when we properly registered as a benefit corporation? Absolutely, but working to maintain that status every day is worthy of celebration, too.

ADVICE FOR FUTURE FOUNDERS: What’s your best piece of advice to other women starting a business?

Ilana: Invest in your own education. There is an incredible amount of content created by experienced professionals available to you, a lot of it for free. Find a set of trustworthy sources, and spend time learning. 

Sterling: My more general advice - ask questions, do your research, read, and sign up for that webinar/course/class! More specifically - remember and refer to your overall vision and mission for the company’s impact, culture, and operations when making every day decisions.


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