Trust Yourself — As the one ultimately making all the decisions, you need to have faith in your ability to do the job. Remind yourself of how capable you are and how much you have to offer the world. There will be times you make mistakes, or second guess a decision, but trust yourself to do what your heart and mind are telling you is the right thing to do.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lia Colabello.
Lia Colabello is the founder of Planet+Purpose Solutions (PPS), a women-led consulting practice that develops and manages comprehensive sustainability initiatives for businesses and non-profit organizations. The PPS team takes a hands-on, customized approach to their work, developing timely, relevant, action-oriented sustainability initiatives that highlight their clients’ greater purpose and reduces their environmental impacts.
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 grew up on the North Shore of O’ahu in a family that was very ocean oriented. My father was a student of Mau Piailug, the last Polynesian ocean navigator who reignited the lost art of wayfinding for future generations by giving informal classes on the beach in front of our house. As a child, I sat in on the lessons, staring up at the night sky and learning how to navigate across the Pacific to distant islands, memorizing the names of stars and how they rotate across the sky from season to season. Our family owned several canoes, including a double-hull sailing canoe, and would sail down the coast — it felt like we were flying across the sea! It was always an adventure with my family. We explored the ocean above and below, surfing, diving, fishing, paddling and sailing. Growing up in, on and around the ocean, I developed a deep respect for nature and a desire to protect it.
I left Hawaii after high school to go to college on the mainland and ended up working in international sports before getting an MBA in global business. The ocean kept calling me, and I was fortunate to land an opportunity to work in coastal conservation, building grassroots activism around the world to protect coastal areas from pollution and damaging infrastructure projects. It was during this time I noticed a rise of plastic pollution on beaches everywhere. I joined the 5 Gyres Institute and began working to stem the tide of plastic entering the ocean through education, policy and by working with businesses to reduce the amount of disposable plastic they used. I really enjoyed working on these projects with business leaders, and when the award-winning eyewear brand Costa Sunglasses asked if I would be interested in launching and managing their Kick Plastic initiative, I knew I had to follow my heart to this new calling. I left the non-profit world and asked Valerie Howell, a dear friend and fellow environmentalist who I met through the South Carolina Aquarium, if she wanted to join me on this journey. That led to the launch of PPS, one of the few public benefit corporations in the southeast. In a few short years, we found ourselves with more clients than the two of us could handle, and we were fortunate enough to bring on Alys Campaigne as the third principal of the firm. Alys’ expertise in environmental strategy and policy was a perfect complement to the team.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Every day brings interesting and inspiring stories and experiences to the PPS team, from the people we engage with, to the work we do to further our mission and that of our clients. One of the most special and fortuitous opportunities I’ve experienced was being invited to speak at the LUSH Summit in London just three days after launching PPS! You cannot imagine all the jumping up and down I did on the day the invitation arrived. It was a leap of faith launching my own business and required courage I wasn’t sure I had. To receive the welcoming embrace of such a renowned company like LUSH so early in the process was surreal and further solidified for me that I was doing what I was meant to do. LUSH is one of the best examples of an authentically sustainable company that embeds social and environmental values throughout their global operations. The LUSH Summit is a breathtaking event that underscores the brand’s purpose, gathering their inspiring cause partners from around the world in one place to share their work with LUSH staff and customers. Every twist and turn of the immensely artistic venue provided a visual and auditory storytelling experience like no other, highlighting the people around the world who give their all to drive change locally and globally.
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 remember the first shared workspace we used when we launched PPS back in 2016. It was a wonderful spot that had great energy, but it didn’t take long for us to realize we needed a space of our own. It had two phone booths people could use for calls, which were clearly designed to hold one person. On more than one occasion all the facility’s conference rooms were booked up, and Valerie and I had to squeeze into a phone booth for client calls. It wasn’t long after that that we found an office of our own!
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?
Everyone has their own formula for success. It’s been my experience that success takes grit, resilience, competitiveness, a supportive network and a positive mental attitude. All these traits were instilled in me by my mother, Phyllis Shipman, an amazing, adventurous woman in her own right who focused her career to help educate the children of Hawaii. After retiring she became a competitive archer, amassing several world records, and was invited to train at the Olympic Training Center where she lived for several years gearing up to compete in the 2004 Olympics. She missed making the Olympic Team by just a few points, but as she taught me over the course of a life well lived, when disappointment strikes, you’ve just got to shake it off and go chase the next dream.
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 must be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Having the courage to bring an idea to market is reliant on a responsive network and an initial financial runway that allows for the time needed for the business to take off and become viable. Statistics indicate that women are already behind when it comes to income equality and the knowledge about, much less access to, business support networks. Additionally, for many of us with family responsibilities, there is a lack of time and financial freedom to spend transitioning from working for someone else to working for oneself.
PPS is bootstrapped, and our entire team sacrificed income to chase this dream we have of helping organizations reduce their environmental impacts and equip current and future leaders to be champions of change. We aren’t an overnight success story, preferring to pace ourselves for the long game. We are focused on delivering excellent work for our clients, but also dialogue with each other to prioritize our families and our own self-care, stepping in for each other as needed to support client projects. I suspect many women-owned businesses are striking a similar balance that is more akin to a marathon than a sprint to an IPO.
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?
Having influential business leaders who seek out women-led businesses and champion our services to their executive-level peers is one of the best ways to overcome the challenges of having a limited network. Not surprisingly, given corporate leadership statistics, the majority of people we work with at the executive level are men, and it is wonderful how many of them cheer us on, not only in our support of their companies, but in our own growth as a women-led business.
I’m proud that PPS is a women-led public benefit corporation, and when I pitch our services, I let prospects know that we are an all-women leadership team. I didn’t realize how rare this was until a prospect I was pitching asked how we were different from other sustainability consulting firms, other than being all women. It thrilled me that he recognized that we were unique in this regard, and in his own experience.
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 independence that being a founder brings is remarkable. The goals I set and how I go about achieving them provide an unspeakable freedom to live life better. There certainly are pressures to provide excellence in the work that our team does, to accomplish the tasks that need to get done daily and constantly add to the prospect pipeline, but being unchained from the requirements of a job where one is focused on stressing about whether a manager values your work, is a wonderful feeling.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
It seems that the businesses that get a lot of attention are celebrated for how quickly they are sold, or have an IPO, or become a “unicorn.” That storyline is continuously celebrated in popular media, and the truth is that this famed one-way ticket to riches isn’t the only outcome that exists. I suspect that with most businesses, generating enough revenue to make payroll and pay the bills is a success story in itself, but one that doesn’t make the cover of business magazines. Double-digit growth is elusive, especially during a pandemic, and sometimes it is just enough to “mind the store” as our team calls it. Go to work every day, produce great outcomes, and close the door at end of the day knowing you did your best to make the world a better place. The roller-coaster ride of a fast-paced startup that is valued at a billion dollars within 24 months makes for a great story, but I suspect statistically it is rare.
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?
Each one of us has the potential to bring an idea to market. The ability to do this successfully depends on the right alignment of experience, skills, network, funding, timing, customers, the idea itself, and so much more. Recognizing when one is in a position to launch an organization, or when it is better to be patient until the ingredients come together, is a crucial trait.
In addition, one must be ready to handle the stress of managing cash flow to meet payroll or landing a client and being ready to scale up to meet that new business demand. It is a different sort of stress for a business owner than one experiences at a “regular job” because you feel ultimately responsibility for the success or failure of the business. The ability to manage those additional pressures gracefully is another trait a founder needs to learn quickly. That’s not to say these types of pressures are better or worse, just different, but it is clearly not something that everyone would embrace.
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.)
The underlying reason for starting your business must be grounded in passion. The ideas, products, services and approach may shift with circumstances, but with passion underlying your reason for why you are launching this adventure, you will find the right formula to be successful.
Building an amazing team is critical to a thriving organization. This step on your journey is as much about knowing yourself as it is about getting to know the people who join your endeavor. They should have the same passion you have for the idea you are bringing to market. Know where you need help, and how to let go and trust that the people you picked to work alongside you have the same dedication you do for the company you are building together, and that they also prioritize excellence in all that they do.
Having supportive clients like our longstanding relationship with the team at Costa Sunglasses is also key. They champion our growth as a women-owned business as much as anyone. In addition, we have the privilege of working with Nuun Hydration on their purpose and sustainability initiatives, and the CEO, COO and VP of Operations at Nuun Hydration constantly ask how they can support us on our journey, which is truly meaningful.
There are going to be days, people and experiences that will frustrate you and your efforts to succeed. In those moments, step back, take some time to breathe, think and learn from the situation. By taking your time, I don’t mean an hour or a day, I’m talking about a month or a year. Don’t blow the opportunity because you are impatient. If you have the runway to wait it out, do it. I’ve been chasing a prospect I really want to work with for four years. Companies shift and morph more frequently than ever, and if it is meant to be, our team will land that account.
Having the financial security to start a busines is immensely helpful. Whether that is through savings, family funds, a bank loan or investor funds, it is tough to start a business if you are also carrying immense financial stress from your personal life. Take the time to figure out how to build a financial runway to launch your business before dropping your primary source of income.
As the one ultimately making all the decisions, you need to have faith in your ability to do the job. Remind yourself of how capable you are and how much you have to offer the world. There will be times you make mistakes, or second guess a decision, but trust yourself to do what your heart and mind are telling you is the right thing to do.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The premise of PPS is to help reduce the impact organizations have on the environment, so from that point of view we help to reduce carbon emissions and single-use plastic, guide organizations to seek out meaningful certifications like B Corp or Climate Neutral Certified and support a vast array of cause partnerships. However, to drive the kind of change we want to see in the world means we can’t do this alone. Our ultimate goal is to equip current and future leaders to be champions of change. The people we work with in our clients’ organizations will inevitably change positions and/or move to new organizations over time, and they take the experiences and knowledge they glean from working with our team to their new positions and companies, which helps to amplify the impact of our work.
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.
Our work, which provides tremendous meaning to each of our team members and clients, has come about because of the immense environmental challenges that our civilization has brought about. The PPS team and the companies we work with aren’t enough to roll back the tide — we need everyone on board to figure out how to change course now. That’s why our purpose is to equip current and future leaders to be champions of change. If we can scale our knowledge, strategies and tactics to help business leaders around the world implement their own sustainability plans, everyone wins. Partnerships like the one we have with Stetson University to offer a short business course on how to launch a sustainability initiative help further this goal. Educating each other and working together to collectively reduce our impact is the fastest path forward to protect future generations from the increasing havoc that is the legacy of historical, and many current, business practices.
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.
When I think of how to build PPS and its influence, the women I look up to are people like Beyonce or Rihanna. I’d love the opportunity to sit down with them and gain insights on how they have built and managed teams across multiple business categories that all link back to underscore their greater purpose, missions and talents. They are out to change the world and so is PPS!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.