July 3, 2022

Female Founders: Sarah Evans On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

You don’t need to hide your failures. There were many reasons I was insecure about my abilities when I founded Well Aware (one being that I’m female), and this self doubt manifested in my concealing my mistakes and missteps. I figured out pretty early — thanks to an incredible early team and some saintly mentors — that I could not only reveal my losses, but I could strengthen myself and the company from them. Sharing what I’ve done wrong has given our organization more credibility, and it’s helped me learn how to be vulnerable with my team. And, as it turns out, vulnerability as a leader attracts more people to your vision.

sarah-evans-headshotAs a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Evans.

Sarah Evans is the founder of award-winning water non-profit Well Aware and co-founder and CEO of for-profit technology company Well Beyond, dedicating her work to changing the way water projects are executed and managed in developing regions of the world.

She has built teams of staff and volunteers who implement and advise on projects that are realistic and lasting through strategic partnerships, true community involvement and empowerment, hygiene and sanitation education, impact measurement, and digital expert support.

Under her leadership, Well Aware’s reputation for project success (100% vs 40% industry average) and cost effectiveness (averaging $15 per person for decades) has prompted numerous collaborations with other NGO’s worldwide to guide their water infrastructure projects. Evans and her teams work with the great potential that already exists in struggling communities while catalyzing development through access to clean water.

The Interview

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?

At the time, it seemed I had landed on this path purely by chance. I studied communications and law, and, up until my big pivot, I had been working in firms and focused on a very different kind of career. But, when I reflect on my journey, I do see a theme that would eventually lead me to where I am today.

I’ve always been drawn to the needs of the most vulnerable. Even at a very young age, my parents tell me I liked to give my toys away, on the spot, to other children who looked like they needed one. And, during those formative years, my family and I lived “off the grid” in rural Australia without running water or electricity. We literally lived off the land, and it was instilled in me that managing with just the basics is not only enough, it’s a happy life.

In high school, I was a pretty standard overachiever, and I found myself being the captain of the cheerleading squad and in every possible activity and school club. I graduated in the top five of my class and was named “Ms. Crockett High School”. By most measurements of success, I was there. While I can’t say that this particular kind of achievement really made me happy, I did take note of my proclivity to lead.

Then, I was a civil engineering major in college until I switched to communications with a focus on oration. To follow that, my law school studies included a heavy load of environmental law, and I was the president of the Environmental Law Society, as well as a clerk for the EPA in clean water.

Fast forward to today, and I am leading companies that are quickly gaining notoriety for our innovative approaches to clean water in developing countries. I get to use my civil engineering background, my knowledge of water issues, my leadership skills, my public speaking training, and, probably most importantly, my focus remains on the needs, potential, and true support of the most vulnerable.I might just be piecing things together to make it make sense, but I do think that my role today is exactly where I’m supposed to be, and part of me has always known that.

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

My work is anything but boring, and I know I should really write a book someday. We have lived through some very interesting, and sometimes precarious, scenarios. It’s difficult to choose between being detained in Lagos, having our truck toppled by elephants, or

I think I’ll go with the story about Mike. Mike Mutuku was my driver on my first trip to Kenya when Well Aware drilled our very first water well. I was bright eyed and naive. He was kind and helpful. On the many days we spent together going back and forth to the drill site, we got to know each other. I learned that he not only supported his three children, but also gave money to more than 20 other children in orphanages. He lost his father when he was a teen, and then took the role of supporting his mother and siblings, all 13 of them!

As a young man, he served in the Kenya military and was a UN Peacekeeper in Bosnia. He then went on to be a general contractor and later transitioned into professional driving for tourists.

That’s just Mike’s backstory, the interesting part is what happened after we met. That first drill changed the trajectory of both of our lives. On my flight home from that trip, I started planning how I could continue doing this kind of work. And, as soon as I got home, I reached out to Mike to see if he could help. His immediate response was, “yes, please.”

Mike worked for free for two years helping me understand why most of the water systems in Kenya ended up broken shortly after they were installed. We both wanted to do this work better. He found contractors and NGO partners, and he was unexplainably available. After those two years, he became our first paid employee.

Today, Mike is the Well Aware Director of Projects, and he oversees a growing team of seven.. We all still look to Mike as our North Star, and we know that our foundation of integrity in what we do was built by Mike.

It was a wild chance that Mike and I would meet the way we did and go on to be business partners for good. But, there are hundreds of thousands of people in East Africa who are glad we did.

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?

I would absolutely not be where I am today without the support, mentorship, and guidance of many. I’m deeply grateful to have had several fierce female mentors along the way, and I am paying that back now.

I think most of the credit, though, goes to my ten year old daughter. I know that sounds silly, since she wasn’t even born when I began this adventure, but I can say with complete certainty that she’s helped me the most.

I was already passionate about this work before Violet arrived, but when she did, I felt an even deeper connection to the cause, specifically how it impacts women and children. As a mother, when I would breastfeed my baby, I started to feel the fear that other moms feel when they have infants in places without any water. I couldn’t conceive of how terrifying it would be knowing that your baby may die because you couldn’t find water that week and the breastmilk wouldn’t come. But I was suddenly keenly aware of this pain, and boldly motivated to push forward in my work for them.

The inspiration I’m gifted from my daughter didn’t stop as she grew. I still catch a glance of her frequently and think about other children just like her who aren’t as lucky. She reminds me of how important my mission is, and she keeps me grounded in my purpose.

My child also happens to be hilarious and kind. She’s a strong centering force in my life, and managing stress, which is inevitably often in my role, is drastically easier with her around. She’s not a mentor per se, but she’s taught me most of what makes me a great leader.

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?

There remains much that still holds women back, despite progress in certain areas. I’m not even sure where to begin, since it’s a systemic issue involving many variables that need improvements.

Possibly the most important challenge is our role in the family. It’s been an interesting 40 years to have lived through in the United States. When I was young, it seemed that we were on an optimistic trajectory toward gender equity, but many of the advancements that started giving us hope have been cleverly compromised and even dismantled in recent years.

As women often hold the responsibility of bearing children, it would seem there would be accommodations for women to start a family without sacrificing most other things that make us productive and important contributors to society. But, that’s not really happening the way it should.

When I had my daughter as a single mother, I knew I would not be able to follow through with my commitment to my fledgling company without help. Luckily for me, I have safety nets. My daughter and I lived with my parents until she was 5 years old so that I could raise her and build Well Aware. But if that’s the only way to do it, then only women with privilege get to do both — raise a child and run a company. That eliminates over half of the female population in this country who may otherwise be world-changing leaders.

Then, even where women are able to manage leadership and household matters and child rearing, we aren’t living in a culture that provides support to make it anywhere near as simple as it still currently is for men. The U.S. has no legal requirements for maternity leave, no standardization or notable funding for early childcare, very little flexibility in the workplace, and we are paid less, overall, to be able to support these things ourselves.

Also at the forefront of this obstacle for women reaching executive positions is how we are perceived as leaders. I watched a recent TEDx talk about the “Likability Dilema”, wherein women are rarely perceived to be both likable and competent. I don’t think I need to unpack this bais, as it’s pretty well recognized. But, I do think it needs to change to truly reach an equitable gender balance in C-suites. And we really, really need this balance. We are half of the world, and we are not yet being led into the future by people who represent us.

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?

Grassroots, local campaigns for women political candidates is statistically an effective way to further female representation in our governments. Adequate representation has the potential to transform opportunities and equity for women in business (and beyond).

In leadership roles, we can make changes that protect our rights and open the doors that were locked behind the men who walked through them first. We can fund better early child care and workplace maternity leave and flexible hours.

Culturally, I think we all have a duty to dispel myths about women as leaders of companies, of local governments, and of countries. As explained in the aforementioned TED Talk, these myths are ever present in our professional lives. But, perceptions can change, and I believe it to be our personal responsibility, each of us, to recognize when we manifest this bias and course correct every time we falter.

As women, we can continue to elevate each other and ensure our words are positive and encouraging. As humans, we can create conversations that challenge these perceptions and provoke an evolution of thought that leads to change.

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?

The world needs more female founders and women in all leadership positions. Similar to my point above, we won’t achieve a better environment for the advancement of all women until we’re the people steering the ships and making the decisions.

Since I have been leading companies over the last 14 years, I’ve been told many times by younger women that my path has inspired them to create companies and initiatives as well. A few years ago, I received a hand-writen note from a previous intern explaining the impact I had on their path. Before reading that note, I had no idea I was making an impact on her in this way. I didn’t even directly work with her. It really wasn’t about me at all, but the role I was serving and the path I was forging. She watched it and realized that she, too, could do it.

So, those of us who can push through and make those paths should. It’s our responsibility. The more paths we open, the more young women will travel with us.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

This question made me chuckle. I was so misguided about what a founder was before becoming one twice. I imagined a founder in their garage stacking product to sell or building business plans while investors and customers awaited their emergence from their makeshift think tank with their proof of concept.

While the garage office is on point, the rest is only common on the silver screen. In reality, there are fits and starts, and one success for every two failures. There are sleepless nights, and very lean years. Relationships are compromised, and certain people leave your life.

Then new people and opportunities enter your life, and, eventually, there is momentum. For me, there was no single moment that it all clicked and the machine was running on its own. But there did come a time when I noticed more and more people looking to us for advice and referencing me as a subject matter expert, and it started sinking in. The company was functioning just as I had dreamed it would, and for a little while, I felt content. Then, I decided to do more. And so it goes for us founders.

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 are so many different “types” of successful founders, so I won’t try to profile “the way to be” to find success in starting a company. I have seen common themes, though, in triumphant leadership, and the two strongest characteristics seem to be patience and fortitude.

Patience is everything. Whether I’m frustrated with a contractor or beginning to feel hopeless about a deadline, if I can’t be patient with myself and others, the outcome is almost always regress and anxiety. Lacking patience also prevents us from “zooming out” and understanding the big picture and how all the pieces work together, which is imperative for the captain to be able to manage.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my role as an executive came from an employee. She pulled me aside one day to kindly explain that my impatience with staff output and communication was confusing the team. She said, “if we think everything’s on fire, we don’t know where to start putting them out.” I will never forget that. I’m forever grateful for her candor and care for my role, and I have been a much more patient person since that moment.

Fortitude is also fundamental for founders and requires the patience I just spoke to. It’s really, really difficult to fight thoughts of giving up that inevitably surface many times on the entrepreneurial journey. Birthing and building a company is not for the weak-willed.

When things aren’t going well (and this can happen often), and your team and your vision are counting on you to figure it out, it’s an incredibly trying exercise to find your fortitude and battle your way out of it mentally. However, and I can attest, that each time you get through it, you get a little tougher, a little wiser, and a little closer to your goals. I call this the rock tumbler — maybe because that was one of my favorite toys as a kid. You put these craggy, dull stones into the machine and watch them be beaten and spun and banged against each other. A while later, the stones are more evenly shaped and a bit smoother. After it’s done several times, there are these shiny gems that remain, rocks that became beautiful from the turmoil they just survived.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

You don’t need to hide your failures. There were many reasons I was insecure about my abilities when I founded Well Aware (one being that I’m female), and this self doubt manifested in my concealing my mistakes and missteps. I figured out pretty early — thanks to an incredible early team and some saintly mentors — that I could not only reveal my losses, but I could strengthen myself and the company from them. Sharing what I’ve done wrong has given our organization more credibility, and it’s helped me learn how to be vulnerable with my team. And, as it turns out, vulnerability as a leader attracts more people to your vision.

Being inflexible as a boss is old fashioned and ineffective. I don’t know exactly where I got my notions of leadership, possibly from being an 80’s kid, and all the popular movies then portrayed the boss (almost always a man) as being rigid and distant. But, again, thanks to those early team members, I opened myself up to creating the kind of work environment and structure they wanted. Then, I realized that’s the office I want to be in, too!

Being a single mother will not preclude you from doing big things. This one was especially difficult for me. I knew my top priority would always be this beautiful child, and I wasn’t seeing or reading about anyone being able to pull off doing what I mapped out for us (my baby and me). When I received my first national award — Toyota Mother of Invention — the comments on the announcements were heartbreaking. So many people were telling me that I was awful and selfish for being a single mom with demanding international work. I let it get to me for a little while, but then I let it fuel my desire to move forward. Now my daughter is 10, and she’s an amazing young person with excellent grades in school, so many creative talents, the best sense of humor, and a beautiful and deep understanding of the world.

Just because it’s never been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count all the times someone told me I couldn’t do something because it didn’t already exist. These weren’t internet trolls or simple acquaintances, either. Men and women that know me well and whom I trust and respect have said, point blank, “that won’t work”. As visionaries, I think it’s sometimes difficult for people who aren’t dreamers to see what we see, and that’s OK, but we shouldn’t allow it to hold us back.

You don’t have to chop all your hair off to be seen as more competent. Yeah… I did this. When I was gaining respect in my field, and my company was really getting some traction, I started letting myself think that, in order to level up even more, I would need to be less feminine. Instead of Elizabeth Holmes-ing my voice, I decided to chop off all of my hair. It was really short. I actually really liked it, and it may happen again. But next time, it won’t be because I think I need to be more masculine, because when I let it grow back out a couple years ago, our success continued to grow. Go figure.

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

The entirety of my professional life is devoted to making the world a better place. I started Well Aware 14 years ago, and we have been able to scale consistently and provide more clean water every single year, having helped over 300,000 people to date.

Three years ago, when I started my second company, Well Beyond, it was to address the same global problem — lack of clean water — from a different angle, leveraging investment dollars and private-public partnerships. Now both companies work together to maximize the impact we can have to get closer to solving the global water crisis.

I also actively share my expertise and experience with younger organizations, and I write regular articles on nonprofit growth and leadership. I’m hoping these efforts make a difference, too!

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.

Naturally, I will say we need a stronger movement behind addressing water issues worldwide. I’m biased, but I’m still certain it could make the greatest impact for us all. Especially now, as we are already seeing the effects of climate change on groundwater and coastal areas, we have tangible, visual warnings that can fuel a much broader, more cohesive effort to combat significant further damage.

Where global water issues pertain to water access in developing countries, the cause I’ve devoted my life to, our combined efforts to tackle this devastating problem aren’t working as well as they could.

I wrote about perception above, and this one is a perception matter, too. Most people who support efforts to get clean water to the people who need it most may not understand what really needs to be done and built, but that’s not your fault. Our sector — the water charity industry — has done a poor job in two main ways:

1) We’ve been telling funders that the job is done (i.e. the water well is a success) when it begins to yield water. But, that’s not true. That project is not only not a success if it breaks down six months later, it’s also more harmful to the community that began to depend on it. We need so much more focus on what I call “results over time”. We must have a greater focus on how long these water systems will last, and we have to let the people funding it know that this has to be a priority in this work.

2) As a sector, we have also failed at evolving with the times and with technology. The way that most of this work is done overseas hasn’t really been updated in decades, and it still has underpinnings of colonialism. We now have so many more tools, knowledge and advancements to leverage to be better. Digital communication tools could not only revolutionize international development work, but also make it so much more cost effective and impactful.

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 with, and why?

Jane Goodall, final answer. For a long time, I have greatly admired her trailblazing and unwavering commitment to her cause. At the same time, she is gentle and compassionate. Her soft words hold more power than any loud ones ever did, and the way she has navigated challenges and defeat have served as a guide for me on my own path.

Read the Original Interview Here

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