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Sarah Smith of Southern Caramel: “You need to have a plan”

There will be times (many times) when you come to a crossroads in making decisions, don’t let it stop you. When to take out a loan, or hire a web developer, or should I pass off the accounting work? There are so many issues that feel like you will make the wrong decision. And maybe […]

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There will be times (many times) when you come to a crossroads in making decisions, don’t let it stop you. When to take out a loan, or hire a web developer, or should I pass off the accounting work? There are so many issues that feel like you will make the wrong decision. And maybe you will, but don’t let it cripple you. Fear is something we should listen to. Waiting on something is a perfectly reasonable response. But sometimes we need to push through that fear and not let it hold you (and your business) back.


As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Smith, Founder of Southern Caramel.

Sarah started Southern Caramel in 2013 as a way to stay at home with her newborn daughter and as her daughter grew, so did the business. Prior to her title as “The Caramel Lady”, she worked in the Aerospace industry on the Space Coast of Florida. The Space Coast is still her home and a magical place to grow a family and a business. When she comes home her daughter cuddles up and says, “Mama, you smell like caramel” and that is the perfect ending to another sweet day. Sarah’s love of gifting and celebrating is the heart of Southern Caramel. In her spare time, she loves planning parties and finds great joy from life’s celebrations that Southern Caramel plays a role in. Her interests include party planning, cooking, and outdoor activities with her family such as kayaking and clay shooting. She loves to volunteer with her church community and work with children. Planning the next family vacation is almost as much fun as taking the vacation and she and her husband and daughter love visiting new places (and eating in new places).


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?

I worked in Program Management in the Aerospace industry as a glorified “bean counter” and then scheduler. I had benefits and company matching retirement. I told myself I would never be an entrepreneur, and then I had my daughter. My priorities shifted, and I wanted to be home with her. Thus, Southern Caramel was born.

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

In 2019, I was awarded the Female-Owned Small Business of the Year by WeVenture, a Woman’s Business Center through the Florida Institute of Technology that has been a huge asset to me and Southern Caramel. Awards are based on the nomination, and the sweetest part was that I was nominated by my dad (and business partner). It was an unexpected surprise and blessing to win the award but knowing that my male partner valued women owners was the cherry on top.

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 first started making the caramels as a “side hustle” when I was still working my full-time job. One day I emailed my boss and told him I would come into work late because I needed to take care of a baking issue on the way in. He came up to my desk and told me that even though we have flex time, the hours shouldn’t be used to make caramels on a workday. I looked at him like “what are you talking about?”. I had needed to sign some documentation in person at my bank and had misspelled “banking” issue as “baking” issue. We had a good laugh about it, and needless to say, I never cooked caramel on company time (at least at that job). I learned the importance of proofreading that day!

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 alluded to it earlier, but it would be my dad and co-owner, Jim DePietro. I managed Southern Caramel on my own (with an employee or two) for the first few years. We were in a kitchen-sharing situation, and it was clear that our growth would always be limited by our production capabilities in that space. Dad joined in 2018 and really gave the company the boost it needed to take it to the next level. As my father, he helped me to stop thinking small and see the potential of what Southern Caramel could be. He has handled automation and production improvements ever since.

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

Fear. I don’t think that is exclusive to women, but I do think it is a unique set of fears. Women are afraid of how they will be perceived and of losing their families. There seems to be more at stake than the financial risk. What if we lose the people we love most because we aren’t doing what is expected of 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?

I have been blessed with two very supportive men in my life. My husband and my father don’t think it is strange to have a woman founder or leader. We are a family of girls. My sister and I, and now my daughter. I think showing our girls that we can do anything is great, but we also need men that support that. The more men that are on board with gender equality and raise their daughters to lead with confidence, the better.

Also, let’s close that wage gap because that is still a thing.

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?

Think of all the ideas out there that will never be executed if women still think they can’t do it. Think of how many businesses we would have to stimulate the economy, jobs that would be created, and how many more opportunities there would be to give back to our communities.

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

That you have to be a type-A personality. We tend to hear stories about founders that all seem to have a certain personality. They wake up at 4 am, they keep a journal by their bedside for those 2 am ideas, and they always get a full workout in because they want to keep their mind and body sharp. I would love to be that person, but I am not. The things that drive us will look different, and that is ok.

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?

You have to be willing to learn new things. If you like routine, and you are content knowing what your job requirement is each day, then starting a company is not for you. It can be overwhelming — all of the things that you don’t know. But you better be ready to learn, and quick. I love that aspect of what I do. Work is certainly never boring.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

You need to have a plan. Write a business plan and revisit it. The first few years, I had no plan. I was happy making caramels and being home with my baby. When it was time to take things to the next level, we needed to know where we were headed and how we were going to get there. And that map has changed a few times based on the sales data. Having a great product or service is only 10% of the equation. Sales can be hard. There have been seasons where we feel like our product “sells itself” and there have been seasons of asking why are these sales strategies not working?

You will be lonely, but as time goes on, you will build relationships. Nobody out there has run a company exactly like yours. You will feel like you are navigating it alone. You can find mentors and colleagues to talk through things, but only you can do the work. Tapping into a network of other founders is helpful. It is nice to know you are not alone in feeling alone. We are structured as a partnership, and even with 2 heads, there are countless new things to walk through.

Having your own business is stressful. I always considered myself a “laid back” person. I was unflappable. Running a business has changed that, and I am constantly learning new ways to manage stress. From weight gain to sleepless nights, it has been a journey to focus on my health in the midst of all the changes. One of the drivers for starting a business is finding that “work/life balance”. This was a key motivator for me and as time goes on that balance is increasingly difficult. Your family and community need you and your business needs you. Time management can feel like an uphill battle.

You will have to do things you really don’t want to do. It is nice to tell yourself that you will pay somebody or hire somebody to do the things you don’t want to, but that is not always the reality. Cleaning our grease trap definitely falls in the category of “Why am I doing this?”

There will be times (many times) when you come to a crossroads in making decisions, don’t let it stop you. When to take out a loan, or hire a web developer, or should I pass off the accounting work? There are so many issues that feel like you will make the wrong decision. And maybe you will, but don’t let it cripple you. Fear is something we should listen to. Waiting on something is a perfectly reasonable response. But sometimes we need to push through that fear and not let it hold you (and your business) back.

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

Southern Caramel is committed to giving 10% of our sales to local organizations. We support causes such as Women battling breast cancer, Alzheimer’s programs, and women’s shelters.

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.

I think our children (not just our daughters) need to know how great their ideas are and be empowered to explore them and know they can contribute. Think of how many kids make it to 18 and have no clue about their potential. They have been beaten down and told to be silent, and it would never cross their mind to start a business or run for office.

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? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Jenni Britton Bauer. I am blown away by what she has created and just love following the success of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. I believe mentorship is a powerful component of owning your own business. To have a mentor like Jenni would be a dream!

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

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