Invest in people. The right people are so important to my business, that when I find them, I will do whatever I can to keep them. Sometimes it isn’t obvious what the right role is for somebody at that time, but I have never regretted keeping good people around me. Usually the right opportunity for them will fall into place before long. A few years ago, we had an assistant manager who was starting to take on some work on our website because she was interested in learning that side of the business and we needed the help. She was proving to be a huge asset there. At that time, we were considering moving to a bigger warehouse space in a less expensive location. She came to me one day to let me know that she had to move to Salt Lake City, Utah for personal reasons and she unfortunately was going to have to leave Sprout. I said, “well why don’t we look for warehouse space in Salt Lake?” We ended up finding a great spot there, and she drove a Uhaul with our web inventory across the mountains to Utah. It’s been the perfect location for our warehouse since then.
For my series on strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzanne Price.
Suzanne Price is the CEO and founder of Sprout San Francisco, a chain of 6 boutiques and an e-commerce site that specializes in baby products that are natural, organic, and free from toxic chemicals That includes the ones you’ve heard about like BPA, BPS, phthalates, parabens, pesticides, PVC, and formaldehyde — as well as many you haven’t heard of yet. We do the research so that you don’t have to.
Previously a Senior Equity Research Analyst in the Green Living Consumer Sector at ThinkEquity, a San Francisco-based investment bank, Suzanne spent several years studying organic products and the impact of toxic chemicals on our bodies. Thinking about starting a family in the midst of this research was, to say the least, quite intimidating. She realized that there was no one place to shop that carried all-natural baby products and employed knowledgeable salespeople. In 2009, Suzanne founded Sprout to provide this service to new parents. Everyday Suzanne is inspired by her daughters, Hannah and Amber, to keep up-to-date on child safety and chemical research, making it easy for new parents to provide healthy environments for all of their children.
Suzanne has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Columbia Business School. She is on the board of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners and the Children’s Environmental Health Center (CEHC), and is a member of the Cancer Free Economy Network.
Thank you for joining us Suzanne! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In 2008, I was working for an investment bank as an equity research analyst focused on the “Green Living” consumer sector. I was studying the trends in people buying more organic products and I was getting to know a lot of great companies in the space. I learned from them that this trend was based on real science, and that there were many chemicals lurking in our everyday products that were harmful to our health, many that were even banned in Europe but sold here. I also learned that many of these ingredients were endocrine disrupting chemicals that can have long term health effects, especially on a developing child. At the time, my husband and I were thinking about starting a family. One day, it hit me that I knew all these terrible things about children’s products and that I would be so paranoid about everything I bought once I got pregnant. I thought, “wouldn’t it be nice if I could just go to one store and know that everything there is safe?” When I searched and found that such a store did not exist, I decided to create it. Now we have 6 locations in 4 metropolitan areas and an e-commerce site as well.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I set out to start this company, I wanted to educate consumers so that they could make smart choices about their purchases. I think we have actually done a good job with that and that we have created a significant level of trust between us and our customer base. It is always heartwarming to me when I meet a customer who tells me that they feel a sense of relief that they can shop at Sprout and not worry about the safety of their products. They trust that we have done our research so that they don’t have to. That is exactly what I had hoped would happen.
One thing that I didn’t expect however was how fervently our incredible team of employees would become ambassadors for the cause of environmental health. Every time someone new starts working at Sprout, we explain why it is we do what we do, and we ask them to study for a test that shows they know all of the chemicals we are trying to avoid so they can pass this information on to customers. We have had people come to us with varying levels of awareness of these issues, but they pretty much all end up caring deeply. Now, after eleven years in business and with six brick and mortar stores worth of retail employees, we have a lot of current and former ambassadors out there. Many of the young women who have worked for us while they were in, or just out of, college are now starting families of their own. Often they reach out after all these years to ask questions about new products, or share what choices they are making to keep their children safe. It makes me so happy to have had this lasting impact on people who mostly came in just looking for a temporary retail job.
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?
Before the first store opened, we ordered tons of products that we would have to sticker with our own tags. Every article of clothing and tube of sunscreen and tiny little wooden train piece would have to be stickered with the proper tag. Since the construction dragged on longer than we hoped, we had to keep the boxes sealed up until days before the grand opening party. That’s when my business partner and I finally started tagging and figured if we just worked long hours we would get through it. We dragged our husbands in to help but it was still just too much. We had one employee who we brought in early to help with tagging and then we started calling in friends, bribing them with pizza to help tag. Looking back, it seems like a fun party but it sure was stressful at the time! I definitely learned from that experience that you can’t do it all on your own and to always plan to have help on hand, even when you aren’t sure you’ll need it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What stands out about Sprout is that we are authentic to our mission in everything we do. We stand by it, even at the cost of profit if need be. One story exemplifies this well. Back in 2012, our most popular single item by far was a toy called Sophie the Giraffe. Many kids use this toy as a teether as it is made of rubber, that we understood to be all natural rubber, and is easy to grip. Around this time though, we heard somehow that Sophie had been removed from shelves in Germany. We started to investigate something that was very hard to get answers to. It turns out that an EU law had changed, and any toy meant for sucking or teething could now have no more than 0.1 mg/kg of nitrosatable substances in it. Nitrosatable substances are chemicals used in rubber products that can become nitrosamine when mixed with compounds in the stomach. The US has no law about nitrosatable substances whatsoever. I asked our sales representative from the company that makes Sophie to please send us testing data. It showed that Sophie tested at 0.5 mg/kg for nitrosatable substances. When I protested that this was not in compliance with EU law, I was sent new testing data, with a later date on it, that showed Sophie now had 0.05 mg/kg of nitrosatable substances in it, now under the limit. I asked if the formulation had changed and was told that it had. I then asked how I could know if what we were selling were the new Sophies. I assumed that since the US had no relevant law, that all the old Sophie’s were being dumped on the US market. In response, the company threatened to sue me if I defamed Sophie’s name. As we vow to adhere to whatever the strictest available standards are, and since I did not believe the Sophies we had in stock met this new EU standard, we pulled all the Sophie inventory from our shelves. We took our best selling product out of our stores for something that none of our customers even really knew was an issue. We could not claim to be who I wanted us to be if we kept selling something that we didn’t believe was the healthiest possible option for our little customers.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
At the time of my writing this, all six of our brick and mortar stores are shut down due to the Coronavirus stay at home state regulations. We are doing our best to still serve our customers both online and through curbside pick up at most of our locations. We have had to be creative about how to help people in the way we would in a store when we could give lots of personalized advice. We have instituted a “text a question” line and have store managers who would otherwise be busy in the stores answering questions through the online chat on our site. None of these functions are automated or use a third party. We are trying to provide the same great customer service through our knowledgeable full time employees as we would in the store setting. Having a baby, especially your first, can be a completely overwhelming time in a person’s life. When you add to that the concern about whether the products your child will encounter are safe, it can be downright scary. Our team does an amazing job helping people through this process when we can walk them through it face to face, and now we are doing our best to find innovative ways to replicate that help remotely.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Onething I have learned after 11 years of leading a team, is that you can’t force people to do work they don’t enjoy and do it well. Everyone has different strengths, and often those strengths line up with the type of work they like doing. You have to let people lean into their strengths and not force them to be someone they are not. For example, An excellent salesperson who loves interacting with customers may be intimidated by computer work. Forcing her to spend a good portion of her day managing an excel spreadsheet may just drain her energy and take away from her ability to focus on the customers. If I have a great employee, I have tried to make the role fit the person and not force people into the wrong role. I have also always tried to find my employees opportunities for growth. If they are doing well and want to take on more, I try to find a way so that they can continue to find work interesting and intellectually challenging.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
The best advice I have for managing a large team is to delegate. Find the people you trust to manage others and let them do their job. You cannot have your hand in every aspect of the business all at one time. You have to trust others to manage portions of it for you, and you also have to hold those people account able for what happens on their watch.
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?
There have been so many people who helped me get where I am including so many dedicated Sprout team members, friends who have talked me through wanting to quit numerous times, and my wonderful husband who has always trusted and supported the big decisions I’ve had to make. However, if I have to highlight one person then I would like to tell you about my dad. When I was little, he left a very secure job to take a big risk and start something for himself. He’s always told me how glad he was to make that decision. He also always made me feel that I could do whatever I set my mind to if I worked hard enough. He also taught me that if you love what you do every day it doesn’t feel like working. My dad invests in small companies, and when you hear him talk about his companies, you can tell this has always been more of a passion than a job. I always wanted to feel that way. I knew with starting Sprout that, no matter the ups and downs, I would always have the passion for the substance of what I was doing.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I do believe that consumer behavior can bring systemic change. One example is BPA in baby bottles. When we first opened, BPA was still legally sold in bottles for babies. As moms began to demand BPA-free bottles, manufacturers knew they would have to change their formulations to meet demand, and opposition to a federal ban fell away.
I work closely with a number of brilliant, science based organizations to advise me on what are the next chemicals of concern we should be paying attention to so that we can help bring about similar success stories. For example, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners is at the forefront of research on endocrine disrupting chemicals that lead to breast cancer. I take their lead when researching personal care products for babies and share their findings with my customers. The Center for Environmental Health has been warning me about PFAS chemicals in stain resistant fabrics for years now. I in turn have been pushing stroller manufacturers to stop including these chemicals on their fabrics.
I hope that if I can educate enough customers to demand safer products, then manufacturers will actually start taking toxic chemicals out of their products. My goal is to be an advocate on a broader scale than just for the customers in my store who can afford my products. Until certain chemicals are removed by market demand or by legislation, children whose parents can’t shop their way out of the problem will still be exposed. I continue to support the organizations who are working tirelessly to make these changes for all of us.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Invest in people
The right people are so important to my business, that when I find them, I will do whatever I can to keep them. Sometimes it isn’t obvious what the right role is for somebody at that time, but I have never regretted keeping good people around me. Usually the right opportunity for them will fall into place before long. A few years ago, we had an assistant manager who was starting to take on some work on our website because she was interested in learning that side of the business and we needed the help. She was proving to be a huge asset there. At that time, we were considering moving to a bigger warehouse space in a less expensive location. She came to me one day to let me know that she had to move to Salt Lake City, Utah for personal reasons and she unfortunately was going to have to leave Sprout. I said, “well why don’t we look for warehouse space in Salt Lake?” We ended up finding a great spot there, and she drove a Uhaul with our web inventory across the mountains to Utah. It’s been the perfect location for our warehouse since then.
Give positive feedback
I’ve discovered that giving positive feedback doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me, even if I am thinking positively about my employees most of the time. I always tell them when there is something they could be doing better, but I take for granted that they know that the rest of the time I am thrilled with the work they are doing. I didn’t learn this about myself until my wise COO pointed it out to me. I was praising someone to her, and she asked if I had told the person whom I was praising directly. I realized I hadn’t. People do need to hear when they are doing a great job, and I have been trying to remind myself of this point ever since.
Ever since the second year of Sprout when I stopped working on the floor with customers every day, I realized that I am not the person most in touch with the day to day needs of the business. My sales people talking to customers, my social media and web team fielding questions remotely, and even those managing vendors and inventory are getting feedback and information that I can only learn through them. I need to always be listening to their perspective and incorporating it into high level decision making. If I am not listening to feedback from others on our team, I will be missing critical pieces in how to best serve our customers. One small example recently was in the ordering of “newborn” sizes. I don’t like to order clothing items in the size marked “newborn” because they last for such a short period of time. I would rather advise a new parent to purchase a “0–3 months” size and just have it be a little big in the beginning. I don’t like to see parents waste money on items they will not get much use out of. Recently one store manager mentioned that she was getting requests for newborn sizes, mostly from gift givers. I polled the stores and it seemed like this was a common request. I had just never thought to ask the question. It turns out we were missing out on sales because I was making a decision based on my own judgement and not the counsel of those closest to the customer.
Even though I ultimately have to make the big decisions, I’ve learned to remember to communicate the process and the reasoning with the team along the way. Whenever we’ve opened a new store, it has involved a long lease negotiation process. I don’t ever assume it’s going to work out until it’s official. I used to keep these negotiations under wraps until the end, but now I’ve learned to share more with the whole team beforehand. If word inevitably gets out through the local community or business partners that we are looking at a new location, and one of my team members hears about it from outside the company, that would make them feel bad and make us look bad. I’ve learned to be more communicative as decisions are being made so that more people can feel like part of that process.
Make tough decisions
This is one that it took me too long to learn, but delaying hard decisions only makes the underlying problems worse. Our second store was on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where I grew up. I thought this would be the perfect neighborhood and I thought that the traffic we would get would justify the high expense. For a number of reasons, including three years of scaffolding covering our window and the space being bigger than we really needed, we never were able to justify the costs of this location. Given that this was the neighborhood of my childhood and where I still had a strong community, I really wanted the store to work there. I probably knew from the second year that it couldn’t make money, but I kept making excuses until I finally closed it after year 4. We lost a lot of money that I could have saved if I had just pulled off the bandaid earlier.
On the other hand, when this pandemic caused a shelter in place in the Bay Area before anywhere else in the country, I acted quickly. The next morning I laid off or drastically cut back hours of all of my employees. I think it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I knew though, that this was not going to turn around quickly, and we could not bleed money while paying people with no revenue coming in the door. I also knew it would be bad for lots of businesses and wanted my employees to be able to file for unemployment right away. I felt like I had done something terrible. However, now seeing that 30 million people have filed for unemployment in the last month, and that in some states people filing cannot get through on the phone, I am so glad that I made that decision quickly. Hopefully, my employees were at least able to file before all the logjams began.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We should all refuse to buy any product with a fragrance that does not list the ingredients in the fragrance. Many people do not realize this, but fragrances are a loophole in ingredient disclosure laws. Since fragrances are considered a trade secret, companies do not have to disclose what is in them. This includes even chemicals that are already known to be carcinogenic or are on vetted lists of toxic chemicals like California’s Prop 65 list. When Breast Cancer Prevention Partners tested hundreds of personal care products, they found that many contained known toxic chemicals hiding in the fragrance. We should demand the right to know what we are putting on our bodies.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
― The Dalai Lama
I heard this quote years ago, and I try to come back to it in times of major stress. It reminds me to be pragmatic. If there is a way to fix the problem, then just stop stressing and do what you need to do to fix it, or at least try. If the problem is unfixable, then accept it and figure out how you are going to live with it. I cannot claim that I am always, or even mostly, successful in implementing this philosophy, but it is a guide post that I try to find my way back to.
Some of the biggest 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 🙂
Yes, I have always wanted to meet John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods. He created a business to sell products he believed in, and in doing so, he changed the way people understand the whole system of food in our country. By creating demand for better products, he not only made consumers healthier but has helped heal the earth through expanding organic agriculture. I hope to do something similar in a small way by helping to grow the demand for safer products. When parents insist that the products they buy are free from toxic chemicals, then maybe those chemicals will start to finally fade away from our marketplace.