Desire to learn — I often say I have made every mistake possible and at first that really freaked me out, but I have an insatiable desire to learn and as I begin to use the “failures” as an opportunity to learn and get smarter our company to begin to find incredible success.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharelle Klaus.
As the visionary behind DRY, CEO, Sharelle Klaus has always had a passion for the culinary world and celebrating each part of a meal — including the beverages. After having four children and not being able to enjoy wine or cocktails with her meals for nearly 10 years, Klaus recognized the need for a refreshing, clean, non-alcoholic option in the market that was worthy of pairing with a great meal in addition to premium non-alcoholic mixology. Klaus has made it her mission to establish a culture of Social Drinking for Everyone through her cornerstone line, DRY Botanical Bubbly — a lightly-sweet bubbly beverage perfect for toasting to all of life’s celebrations. As an advocate for advancing the sober curious movement, she also spearheaded DRY’s investment stake in Austin-based sober bar, Sans Bar, and co-authored a beginner’s handbook to the ritual of non-alcoholic mixology, “The Guide to Zero-Proof Cocktails,” in November 2020.
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 have been very entrepreneurial since I was a kid. It started with a business selling Christmas wreaths when I was 10, from that point on I knew I wanted to create my own company. In the late ’90s when I was the mom of two young daughters, I started a technology company and had the opportunity to learn so much. The company eventually folded after the internet bubble burst, and we were not able to get our second round of financing. I vowed after that experience that the next company I started needed to be something that I was passionate about with a clear mission. So, after having two more children, I came up with the idea for DRY! I created a non-alcoholic beverage that would create an elevated experience and help me feel included at events, dinners and celebrations even when I chose not to drink alcohol.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Oh my, there have been so many stories over the last 16 years. I think one of the most impactful times was during the recession of 2008. I was in a board meeting and our main investor casually mentioned that he in fact was not going to be honoring the investment that he had committed to. I had to take my company from a team of 20 to a team of six in a one-week period. It was one of the most stressful and scary times for me, but I learned so much about myself and what it takes to run a company and would not trade that experience for anything. You truly learn how to lead during an experience like that.
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?
There is an endless supply of these stories but maybe my favorite — I was getting ready for our very first production run. We had created this beautiful (award winning) packaging and I was so excited about these incredible flavors that I had developed. I was feeling on top of the world. Then the co-packer called me, and he says “we have your bottles and ingredients, but we don’t have your case boxes (the boxes the bottles all go into). I had literally forgotten that you need an outer case box to put the product in! So, my first run of product was put into another brand’s case box. That was beyond embarrassing and ridiculous. Probably the most important lesson I learned from that was that I really needed to hire someone that had a better eye for detail than me. It is critical to understand where your weaknesses are and try to hire for that.
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?
Very true — and there have been so many people that helped me and DRY get to where we are today over the last 16 years. I really could not have done it without them. But, the most important person to me in the early years was this incredible woman named Jeanette Thebeau. She came in as our CMO (before I could even pay her) and she gave everything to help get DRY off the ground. She is the true “author” of the DRY brand! She had so much more experience than I did in the CPG business, and she taught me so much.
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?
Without a doubt what is currently holding back women from founding companies is access. Women need access. Access to financing, expertise, suppliers, talent, the list goes on. When I started, I felt I had to try and gain entry into the “old boy’s networks” and that can be extremely challenging. In the last five years, I have seen incredible growth in women coming together and creating our own networks. One of DRY’s first investors was Golden Seeds — a fund and angel group that invests in women-led companies. EY has an incredible program called Winning Woman that has also helped women gain access. I have been blessed to meet and work with so many stellar women founders and we have all worked to support and provide access for the next generation of women founders.
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?
Women simply need to support and help their fellow female founders. I have learned not to expect much from the government or from the old networks. We can simply create our own and begin to truly compete.
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?
Women should become founders because we have the intuitive capacity to be incredible leaders and we have our fingers on the pulse of what the world needs. I also believe we, women in general, are far more relentless when we hit obstacles. Most women simply won’t quit. And my favorite reason — because the more of us there are, the bigger our network gets!
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I always wanted to be a founder because I wanted to be the “boss”. But, in reality, being the boss also means that the majority of decisions lie with you and that can be an exhausting and heavy burden.
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?
Being a founder takes a tremendous amount of energy and dedication to your goal. There are endless ups and downs, and you need to be able to continue to show up even when the lows are very low and you need to keep your head about you when the highs are really high. In the end, you have to show up day after day even when it can look impossible. So, people with relentless energy and commitment will have a better time in this role.
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?”
- Commitment — When I was faced with cutting 75% of my staff in 2008 and not clear on how we would get through, I needed to still show up each morning and lead regardless of whether I had cried myself to sleep the night before.
- Passion — I am extremely passionate about the mission and goals of my company. I once asked a very successful CEO who invested in my company why he invested in DRY with an unproven CEO and he said — “your passion, I have no doubt you will do what it takes to get the job done”
- Desire to learn — I often say I have made every mistake possible and at first that really freaked me out, but I have an insatiable desire to learn and as I begin to use the “failures” as an opportunity to learn and get smarter our company to begin to find incredible success.
- Humility — I have been humbled time and time again with this company. I have had to learn the painful lesson that I can’t do this alone and that I have to continually ask for help. I also must hire people far smarter than me and allow them the power to do what needs to be done.
- Ability to have fun — I have a beverage company and that is fun, and I want to create a fun place to work. I have had some of the craziest and most fun times with my teams over the years. I can get a bit too tense at times, so I always need to remind myself — we create bubbly drinks — so best to lighten up and have a little fun!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I believe that DRY is changing the way people think about drinking — which was my goal when I started the company. I want everyone to feel included in every celebration and want to show that alcohol does not have to be at the center. We have written The Guide to Zero Proof Cocktails, we have invested in a no alcohol bar, and we continue to innovate and champion the zero-proof lifestyle. Respecting all people and giving people options to me is making the world a bit better.
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.
My other passion is working to build resilient community businesses based on biodiversity in the Andes and the Amazon — and connect them to markets across the globe. This biodiversity in critical to the health of the Amazon and the world needs the Amazon!
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.
Jimmy Carter. I have been enamored with Jimmy Carter since I was a child. He is a man who in most people’s eyes didn’t succeed in the game of US politics but who took those skills, the network and the authority from his time as President and dedicated his life to making the world a better place. He truly has used his gifts in the most admirable and impactful way. I would give anything just to sit with him and listen.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.