Founder Profile: Sharon Rowe, CEO of ECOBAGS and Author of The Magic of Tiny Business - Hudson

 
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Hi Sharon! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a mom, wife, actress turned entrepreneur…A founder/CEO of a culture shift company and, most recently, the author of a book, The Magic of Tiny Business (You don’t have to go big to make a great living). I’ve been married for 32 years to a wonderful man who’s a teacher and an amazing pianist and have two grown children, an artist and an engineer.

What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
I’ve been in front of audiences since I was young…first as a cheerleader for the Hebrew school basketball team and then in Jr. High and as a jazz dancer and actress through High School. I’ve been performing in plays since I was 14. I went to Clark University (’79) in MA majoring in theatre with a strong interest in women’s and environmental rights. I studied at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, National Theatre institute. My acting focus took me to Washington DC where I worked with Living Stage/Arena Stage bringing improv theatre to the incarcerated and other high risk audiences. From DC I moved to NY to see if I could be a working actress and performed in many off-off….and even further off Broadway shows and on TV with Nickelodeon’s, “Don’t Just Sit There.” At some point along the way I received an Emmy for voice work. I was very lucky to land a day job at CBS 60 Minutes to support myself and after I left there to pursue acting even more, did a lot of other odd/weird jobs but only waitressed for a single day!

Where did the idea for Eco-Bags Products come from and how did you begin your business?
Eco-Bags Products was born at my kitchen table in Washington Heights NY when I had a newborn. My husband named the brand, ECOBAGS. I was employed by a training company, working from home in the early days of faxes and the first apple computer and I didn’t like the work or my boss even though I was well compensated.  I was also tired of how dirty our neighborhood was with all the single-use plastic bags getting stuck in trees, the gutter and floating in the the Hudson River. I remembered using reusable cotton string bags in Europe years earlier and decided to start using them myself. I noticed that other people were commenting on my bags and saying it was a good idea…I thought to myself – can I make a go of this to create an income, have flexible hours doing something I think is important? I decided to create work that works for me at a time when very few people were working from home (1989).

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What was the process of setting up Eco-Bags Products like? How did you find your production partners and establish the business as a BCorporation?
Like I said, this was 1989 – My original market research, to see if my idea was solid, was done walking around my neighborhood shopping and using the bags. I collected responses from people in shops. I also went to local retail stores, on Columbus and Amsterdam Ave in NYC and spoke with shop owners.

When I thought the idea could fly I had to find suppliers. This was the early days of the internet so I mostly faxed and called Embassies to find manufacturers. I sent faxes all over the world. The first response came from a German company so I went with them. A few years later I switched to new production partners and have been with them for 26+ years. What was most important to me was finding a manufacturer who made the products well and responsibly. I knew from the start I wanted a clean and sustainable supply chain.

My company became as certified B Corporation in 2012 but honestly, we set out on a B-like path from our very beginning. Since being a Bcorp we have been recognized as Best for the World every year since 2013.

What goes into the sourcing and design of your products?
We only work with partners who can provide responsible, certified goods which means certifications and certifying the certifications. We visit our production facility as often as possible. We are not about winning a bid at the lowest cost. We would rather say “no” than compromise on our brand promise.

Over the years, how has Eco-Bags Products grown and changed? How has it remained the same? What has been a non-negotiable in your company?
We’ve grown from a single person (me) operation for almost twelve years to much larger including multiple warehouses, printers and production partners. We made it onto Oprah and saw explosive growth and weathered the Great Recession. We’ve seen our brand concepts of clean supply chain and reusable lifestyle products adopted all over the world grow with and way beyond us. When we started we were the only brand doing what we were doing (or so we thought) which is why Time Magazine called me a “Pioneer” and Glamour called me and “eco-hero.”

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When did the concept for The Magic of Tiny Business: You Don't Have to Go Big to Make a Great Living arise? What was your process of creating this book?
The decision to write my book came from customers, fans and friends asking me to write it. They could see I created a business without making the kind of compromises they felt they were making. I was able to stay true to what mattered most to me in terms of making an impact, creating profit and having personal time for my growing family and health. They saw that I wasn’t struggling with work/life balance and that I had, from their perspective, created work that works for me which is what I set out to do. The concept of “Tiny Business” came up in a conversation with my entrepreneurial sister, Ellen Ornato of The Bolder Company. I took on the concept and expanded it adding “Magic” along the way.  Magic is when there are a ton of hidden, articulated steps to follow to create an illusion of ease.

The process of creating the book took about two years starting from writing a proposal, pitching it, finding a publisher and then writing. When I started I didn’t know anything about the publishing business but I knew how to ask for help. I asked for a lot of help, finding and hiring people. I was very lucky to be in the same BCorp community as Berrett Koehler Publishers who are all about their mission of “connecting people and ideas to create a world that works for all.” When I pitched the book they said “yes” so I got to work– fast!

We love the concept of your book! Could you tell us more about knowing when to scale or not to scale your business? Did intuition lead you in any way?
My business took years to “take off” and scale mostly because I started a business for a market that didn’t exist. I wasn’t thinking about scaling when I started and the business environment was very different. I was focused on making a profitable, sustainable business where I didn’t have to work nights, weekends and could take as much vacation as I wanted.  

Scaling is as much as business question as it is a personal one. I think it can happen intuitively but really, the type of business you have and your goals will determine if you take a patient or push approach and how you think about exiting. I didn’t start with an exit plan. I don’t know if that was the smartest way but I just started it like that.

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What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
The passion around what and how I do what I do comes with a perspective over 26 years, riding high and sinking low and understanding that basic business principles, cash flow, and commitments to listening to myself and the marketplace have brought me to where I am. I hear about people wanting things to happen “fast.” The truth is each business idea is a seed and not all seeds grow at the same rate; some you can force growth and others you cannot.

What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face with Eco-Bags Products?
Challenges with Eco-Bags Products are the same as with any business – retaining a good team, managing growth, expanding market share. What’s unique about my company is that we are not about “growth at any cost.”  Saying “no” to a project is as important as when we say “yes.” For example we have a big box chain store that wants to work with us but they also want 90 day terms and discounts off for all sorts of things. We decided that it wouldn’t be worth our time to work with them. They would be high maintenance, high stress and low profit. Saying “no” can be very powerful.

At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
It is so essential for women to support each other and to talk, more openly, about money, finances, business strategies and careers. We are so geared to get together and talk about family and personal issues. This is all great but we need to work together and supporting each other’s work as peers. I’m a member of the Women’s Presidents’ Organization and Ellevate. Both of these organizations bring women together to build successful enterprises and strong relationships.

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What creative women do you find inspiring?
I always get stuck on questions like these because there are many who inspire me. Today, it’s my close friend, Tessa Horan Bell, a friend from my CBS 60 Minutes days. Her screenplay is winning all sorts of accolades and I’ve watched her develop, write and submit it through years.

How do you deal with moments of self-doubt?
Self doubt is a great teacher. It illuminates something I haven’t explored. I don’t let it stop me. Sometimes I dig deep into it. The key thing is I keep moving forward. You can move forward with or without self–doubt.

What are you trying to learn right now or what is something that you are wanting to learn?
I want to write a play. I’ve been in the theatre for years and started writing only a year or so before I wrote my book. I’m extremely practical and want to build a skill I can do anywhere, at any age. Theatre requires showing up for rehearsals. Writing requires a daily practice anywhere.

What are some of your favorite places in Hudson Valley?
I love the Hudson River – swimming, kayaking or just having a picnic on the shore. Sunsets are magical.

I love Croton Point Park, Teatown Reservation, hiking up Anthony’s Nose near the Bear Mountain Bridge, swimming in the Croton River…and that’s just a short list. Living along the Hudson, 45 minutes from NYC on metro north, in a river-town village is perfect for now.

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