For Social Entrepreneur, There's No Sugarcoating the Need for Hard Skills | Net Impact

For Social Entrepreneur, There's No Sugarcoating the Need for Hard Skills

Sarah Endline, CEO & Founder, sweetriot

Anyone who meets Sarah, the fun-loving founder of the chocolate company sweetriot, will see they’ve got a real live wire on their hands. A creative businesswoman with a passion to bring a social mission to the world of chocolate, Sarah founded sweetriot in 2005. Since that time, she’s managed to get her Fair Trade products into 1,700 stores and garner coverage in the New York Timesand on The Today Show. Yet what’s notable about Sarah isn’t just her entrepreneurial mindset, it’s that before founding her company, she gained her experience working within established organizations.

If you haven’t found “it,” keep looking

Knowing that she wanted to do something both entrepreneurial and world-changing, Sarah spent her early career actively learning skills of the trade that would serve her later on. Not surprisingly, her early jobs tended to have entrepreneurial elements, such as helping the World Bank start a corporate citizenship program from scratch and marketing for the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship.

She then headed to Harvard Business School on a social enterprise scholarship, throwing herself into every entrepreneurship class available and writing numerous business plans. Still, no single thing completely “clicked.” After graduation, she figured she’d keep testing the waters and dove into the internet world for yet more learning. “I spent time at Yahoo!,” Sarah explains, “because they had purchased this very entrepreneurial company, and I felt I was really learning about entrepreneurship there, about the Internet and how consumers were changing.”

As Sarah discovered at Yahoo!, even big companies can act like start-ups.

Learning to trust your gut

As successful as she was at Yahoo!, Sarah’s former boss and mentor encouraged her to start her own enterprise. She reached out to numerous entrepreneurs for advice and then took the leap, quitting her job and diving in head first.

Some might think that’s not the safest approach to developing one’s career. “I was in the beginning stages of approaching my real business plan. But I left Yahoo! without a fully formed idea.” But Sarah couldn’t help it: “I felt, my God, I’m going to wake up one day and be fifty and say to myself, ‘what did you start?’ I didn’t want that to happen.”

The a-ha! moment

After leaving Yahoo!, Sarah started thinking about the entrepreneurial businesses that inspired her, like Ben & Jerry’s and the Body Shop. That’s when it hit her, stick with something tangible, something you love. The answer was clear: candy! After some research, she landed on chocolate, a product with genuine organic origins. With chocolate, she could engage in Fair Trade practices, adhere to sustainable manufacturing processes, and incorporate a social mission.

All of her experiences had prepared her to take on this new challenge. She was scrappy. She knew how to assemble a great team who had expertise she didn’t. And she knew how to generate the buzz she’d need to make a real go of it. Sarah’s social enterprise was born.

Sarah's advice

Now that Sarah has completed several legs of her professional journey, she has some thoughts to share:

  • It’s not just a job, it’s a culture: Especially during the interview process, pay as much attention to the company’s culture as the job you’re interviewing for. In many cases, taking a less exciting job in a company with a great culture will do wonders for your career.
  • Recognize your passions: When Sarah identified her longtime love of sweets as central, that’s when the business and mission really came together. While it’s great to be practical, your work will get even more rewarding if you focus on something you’re passionate about.
  • Connect with like-minded professionals: Sarah didn’t confine her learning opportunities to just what was available at her job. She networked like crazy to meet people from outside her circle who had entrepreneurial experience and advice.
  • Find the right team: Sarah knew that her biggest talents lay in her leadership and marketing skills. So she took pains to gather professionals around her who were both committed to the sweetriot mission and were experts in areas she wasn’t, like sustainable agriculture and manufacturing.

Even if you don’t fit the personality profile of a mission-driven entrepreneur, anyone looking to take their career in a direction that’s right for them can learn from Sarah’s path.