Sadie Higgins of Gleam: “Be yourself”

Be yourself: there’s a reason this is the number one suggestion. You don’t have to be what people think a female founder needs to be, wherever that is. Just be you. Your unique set of traits brought you to where you are and that experience will make all the difference in the company you lead. […]

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Be yourself: there’s a reason this is the number one suggestion. You don’t have to be what people think a female founder needs to be, wherever that is. Just be you. Your unique set of traits brought you to where you are and that experience will make all the difference in the company you lead. I never thought I’d say I’m the founder of an app, and to be honest, it still feels a little funny coming from a creative background. But creativity and tech are a beautiful pair and I love thinking of solutions in a different way.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sadie Higgins.

Sadie, an entrepreneur at heart, is a busy mom of three from greater Boston, by way of Florida. Her first business was an on-site brow shaping company that was founded in 2014, three months after having her first child. After seven great years, Pluck came to a screeching halt when the pandemic hit. Literally, the day before lockdown, she had begun working on an idea that would eventually turn into Gleam. During quarantine, her mental load was weighing heavily on her, like most parents. She started forgetting birthdays and turned to big box companies at the last minute to get gifts out as quickly as possible. What she was sending and how she was sending it didn’t reflect how she felt about the people she was sending gifts to. Sadie knew there had to be a better way. Gleam was created to help relieve the mental burden of gift-giving, while also wanting to support small businesses rather than big retailers.

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?

From as young as about 12 years old I knew that I wanted to be my own boss. That knowledge led me to continuously explore different interests; sports writing, travel writing, working as a barista (as every starving artist does at some point in their lives), until I jumped into my first real solo career as a makeup artist. After years of making my mark as a beauty expert I started my first company, Pluck: an onsite brow bar, right after my first son was born. Making my own schedule was the most important thing to me at the time. Then the pandemic hit and Pluck tanked. Luckily, I had already begun thinking about the idea that would eventually turn into Gleam.

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

Gleam started out as an entirely different company. I wanted to find a way for people to connect during the pandemic when they couldn’t see their family members. The idea of making it easy to sign and send an electronic or physical group letter was originally what I was working on. Turns out there was no real way to make it a profitable company. During this time, starting a business while raising three children during a pandemic while my husband was working full time and renovating our home was absolutely wreaking havoc on my mental load and I began forgetting birthdays. And this is how Gleam was born. Had I given up when the original idea failed, I wouldn’t be sharing this story now.

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 created my own website. It was awful… not even functional. But I had to start somewhere and I wasn’t afraid to just put something out into the world. I remember a developer friend of mine saying at the time, “Wow, you really went for it,” which was code for “wow, this is terrible!” But it was a start and I needed to make the company real.

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?

Business-wise, I’ve been very grateful for two developers who were super helpful in guiding me in the right direction, Tim Noetzel and Jeff Whelpley. They both came with years of experience in startups and shared multiple resources to help me think and rethink the company. The most amazing person has been my best friend, Michelle, who would offer to watch my children for a few uninterrupted hours of work. Some of my favorite early days were spent at the dining room table with both of us glued to our laptops, eating hummus, and finding the coolest small businesses to partner with Gleam. Ladies… have friends in your corner cheering you on and be the cheerleader for all of your girlfriends. If you’re really lucky, you won’t just find cheerleaders, but teammates, too.

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?

First things first — women are still not paid equally for the same job as a man. That needs to change, stat. When men have more wealth they have more opportunities. When a seat at the table is full of men, it can be difficult to relate to an idea. Representation matters.

We are definitely progressing as a modern society but there is still work that needs to be done as far as gender roles are concerned, especially in regards to a family. The mental load of females is greater than that of a man. Companies treat men and women differently when hiring mothers versus fathers. With more female founders, change will naturally occur.

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?

Pay women equally. Read Eve Rodsky’s “Fair Play” to work on equality in partnerships. Champion the successes of women by supporting female-owned businesses. Become a female founder!!

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?

Sheesh, this is tough to articulate because it really is just so intuitive. If more women are founders, more role models are created, the seats at the decision-making tables are more diversified, and equality will be easier to achieve.

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

I’m a female in tech so clearly, I’m organized, powerful, and uber-wealthy because I just sold my company for 10.5 million dollars to some gigantic tech company. While I do like to think of myself as powerful, my three notebooks with chicken scratch ramblings will tell a different story about my organization (if Siri doesn’t remind me, it isn’t happening). I would describe myself as more of an artist or creative than a tech guru, and there’s plenty of room for that in business. Then there’s this myth that every app idea is sold for millions within the first year after minimal effort. Some companies take years and years to just break a million in profit themselves. You’ve got to put the effort in.

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?

No, not everyone is cut out to be a founder and that’s okay! You have to be fearless in the sense that you have to be willing to completely put yourself out there. As an extrovert, this can still be incredibly difficult for me some days. If you really want to succeed you have to be willing to compromise, to pivot when something isn’t working. Sometimes that means starting over completely. That requires incredible patience and conviction.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Be yourself: there’s a reason this is the number one suggestion. You don’t have to be what people think a female founder needs to be, wherever that is. Just be you. Your unique set of traits brought you to where you are and that experience will make all the difference in the company you lead. I never thought I’d say I’m the founder of an app, and to be honest, it still feels a little funny coming from a creative background. But creativity and tech are a beautiful pair and I love thinking of solutions in a different way.

2. Find your people: in life and in business. I couldn’t lead without constant support from my husband, friends, and mentors. Having people who hold me accountable on days that feel impossible keeps me going. Having a support system makes all the difference on those days. My team is diverse and unique and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Again, representation matters.

3. Be willing to adapt: you won’t hit every idea out of the ballpark. You might have to stop, reassess, and make major changes. The dream you had might come in a different form and the path to get there most certainly will change at some point along the way. This definitely happened to me in the beginning stages of Gleam when the idea shifted so drastically. It was terrifying at first, but when I thought about being the actual user and how much this app would help my life, it wasn’t so overwhelming to shift gears.

4. Give yourself grace: starting a business is constant. There are big wins and sometimes big failures but mostly your days are spent somewhere in between these moments. Talk to yourself like a friend would in all of these instances. Women especially feel like they have to “do it all’ and enjoy a proper “work/life balance”. But that’s garbage. Just do your best and know that sometimes you’ll be at your worst. It won’t stop you from succeeding. In fact, it makes you human.

5. Enjoy learning: read. There are few moments in my day I get to just spend leisurely sitting around but I manage to sneak in some pretty amazing books when I can, some that really helped me during the seed stage like Lean Canvas and “The Storyteller’s Secret.” I also follow and learn from people on social media who inspire me like Jenna Kutcher, Suneera Madhani, and Morgan Harper Nichols. Albert Einstein said, “Once you stop learning is the moment you start dying.”

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

Gleam could have gone in a different direction — we could have easily used big box companies with free shipping for our gift suggestions. But instead, we decided it was more important to support small companies with as minimal of an environmental impact as possible. It is vital to our mission that we don’t create more “stuff” to end up in landfills but instead to help people give more intentionally in order to reduce waste.

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.

Not to sound to cliche, but Whitney had a point when she said “I believe the children are our future.” Hire underprivileged youth. Everyone needs an intern, an extra hand. If you have a business, consider giving kids a shot by helping them to build their resumes which in turn will give them a better chance to go to college and maintain steady jobs in the future.

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.

Tina Fey. If the arts make the world go round then she’s surely helping to spin it. While she’s an incredible storyteller and all-around badass, she’s also used her voice to speak on behalf of women and pushes to defy the norms of women in business. Besides, it would be awesome to hang with someone who enjoys a good cupcake sandwich as much as I do!

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

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