In 2017, Sheryl O’Loughlin introduced her book, Killing It: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Head Without Losing Your Heart. She is currently the CEO of REBBL, the first super herb adaptogen beverage company. REBBL partners with Not for Sale, a non-profit dedicated to co-creating a future without human trafficking.
Sheryl was the CEO of Clif Bar and Company and co-founded and served as CEO for Plum, Inc. She has held positions in the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Sonoma State University, and she currently serves the boards of Once Upon a Farm, the Harvest Summit, and Conscious Capitalism. She is a member of the Forbes San Francisco Business Council and One Step Closer to a Sustainable Community (OSC2).
Sheryl earned her MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She lives in California with her husband, Patrick, and their two sons.
How did the concept for Rebbl come about?
REBBL is a company that was born from a cause, rather than a company that went out looking for a cause to support. In 2000, ethics professor David Batstone discovered a human trafficking ring at a restaurant in his San Francisco neighborhood. He and photojournalist Mark Wexler went on to start the nonprofit Not For Sale (NFS) to raise money to build housing for children who had survived trafficking in Thailand. Eventually, as the organization’s outreach expanded, they realized that the standard nonprofit loop of fundraising and donating just wasn’t working, and that they needed to find something self-sustaining to solve this complicated social and ecological problem.
REBBL’s organic plant-based super-herb protein drinks and elixirs are that sustainable solution. They are a market-based way to prevent exploitation in vulnerable countries across the globe, by supporting growers to earn a living wage, have access to health care, water, and education, uphold their labor rights, and pursue regenerative agriculture to keep their land healthy. We started with one grower community to develop a line of beverages using local plants and herbs—we now work with growers in 39 countries.
How was the first year in business?
We started in 2012, but it took the founders over a year to create a product that would work. It wasn’t until they hired Palo Hawken as Chief Innovation Officer that the company got its footing. He brought the knowledge of culinary craftsmanship and herbal medicine that REBBL needed to become viable. I joined the company in 2015, after serving on the board and seeing how incredible the team and the product were.
What was your marketing strategy?
Sampling continues to be our most effective marketing strategy. Like any good food or beverage, the proof is in the pudding. Alongside potential consumers getting to try our tasty protein drinks and elixirs, sampling allows us to talk face-to-face about not just the product but also the mission, which they seem to really get behind once they know about it.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
REBBL made $32,000 the first year, which was just enough to survive. In 2013, we began to bring in meaningful revenue, with a jump of almost tenfold to $312,000. The following year we tripled that, to $925,000. Since then, we have continued to steadily grow.
How do you define success?
I define success by whether my actions align with my goals. There’s so much in the day-to-day chaos of running a business that is out of my hands, but the one thing that I can control is how I act—if my behavior is loving and if I am working toward building a more loving world. When I feel daunted by the huge goal of co-creating a world without human trafficking, I remind myself that every moment counts and that every individual act adds up. If all of us tried to be more loving and compassionate, the world would be a more loving and compassionate place. My success is how I contribute to that.
What is the key to success?
Love is the key to success. You have to love what you do, to believe it in fully, so that when times get tough you have something to both anchor and buoy you. And you need to love the people around you, not in the sense that you have to be best friends with everyone, but rather that you have to actively look for ways to empower and encourage your team. I think REBBL’s success hinges on the fact that we love what we do, feel deep satisfaction in the impact of our work, and know that we have one another’s backs.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The greatest lesson I’ve ever learned was how essential it is to define and commit to priorities. As a CEO, I can let myself feel responsible for every little thing, especially when things are going sideways, and if I’m not vigilant, I’ll end up working 24/7, at the expense of my health and my family. I’ve done this enough times to understand that it’s more difficult to get faltering wellbeing and relationships back on track than it is to commit to and invest in them every day. I must remember that relationships and health are everything, and that if I take care of them, I will actually have more energy to give to my work.
What are some quotes that you live by?
I like to repeat to myself, “Have bold humility.” This means to simultaneously approach the world as an expert in some things and as a student of life, to be confident and curious, to express myself while also being open to learn and grow. I also rely on the simple phrase, “I love you,” which is my family’s motto and how we end every conversation. Even if I’m not saying those three little words out loud, I keep them with me and use them to inspire my decisions and actions.
What are some of your favorite books?
My favorite books are Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live Love, Parent, and Lead and Dare to Lead by Brene Brown and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible by Charles Eisenstein.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
The toughest days I’ve had as an entrepreneur were when a company I was involved in went under. Every part of me was so invested in that enterprise, and I equated its success with my own self-worth. So when it went under, I went under too. I stopped eating, stopped sleeping, and couldn’t be there for my family and friends. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But it did teach me a valuable lesson: to keep my sense of self-worth separate from the net worth of my company.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Remembering the mission. In the midst of adversity, it’s easy to become frantic or impulsive and to lose sight of what’s really important. Whenever I or someone at my company starts to flail, we remind one another of our original purpose. That always brings our work in the present moment back into focus. And setting our challenges next to the challenges that victims of human trafficking face creates perspective.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Be daring and experimental but build a strong foundation. Remember what author and entrepreneur Steve Blank said, “A startup is not a company. A startup is an experiment in searching for a sustainable, valuable business model.”
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
Check out our Books page to see the top books recommended by entrepreneurs, professional athletes, and executives.