Sara Stender Delaney, CEO & Founder at Sarilla, Ted Speaker, Award Winning Beverage Maker, Change Agent & Social Entrepreneur
Sara is the Founder of the international nonprofit Africa Healing Exchange (AHE) and the Founding CEO of 3 Mountains, a social enterprise building an innovative model for driving institutional and social change. 3 Mountains owns two CPG brands, Sarilla Sparkling and Tîma Tea, and partners with women Genocide Survivors in Rwanda. Together they are building Ubuzima Healing Garden farm, where they grow healing and regenerative botanicals that can be used in teas and other products.
Sara is a passionate global activist and social entrepreneur and is building these organizations with the intention of making a great positive impact on all people involved. She has been working with the people of Rwanda for over decade, creating a vehicle that would support total health for marginalized communities, offering resources for women to overcome trauma and opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty.
As a survivor herself, she brings an authentic and inspired message to everyone she meets, and in her recent Ted Talk, Sara emphasizes how community is the number one resource we have to overcome absolutely anything.
Sara has been leading curated tours to East Africa since 2012, and is developing a farm in Rwanda in partnership with a group of 55 women who go by “Umutuzo” which means Resilience. Together they are building an integrated supply chain, growing healing botanicals that can be used in teas, native medicinals, and for export to generate sustainable income and employment.
Sara studied psychology as a university student and graduated with a Bachelors degree in Business Management and French from Simmons College in Boston. Feeling unfulfilled by the corporate finance track, she went on to study responsible business and nonprofit development, with a concentration in Leadership and Change, earning a Masters degree in Organizational Management from the School of International Training (SIT), where the Peace Corps was founded. She completed the Mama Hope Global Executive Fellowship, and holds an international business certification from Grande Ecole du Commerce in Grenoble, France.
Sara is an experienced public speaker, spokesperson, fundraiser and writer.
What You’ll Learn In This Episode
- Their mission is to end violence against women
- How to know if your products have been produced ethically
- The most important values from consumers and employees
Intro: [00:00:04] Broadcasting live from the Business RadioX Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, it’s time for GWBC Radio’s Open for Business. Now, here’s your host.
Stone Payton: [00:00:18] Welcome to another exciting and informative edition of GWBC Open for Business Radio. Stone Payton here with you this afternoon, and you guys are in for a real treat. Please join me in welcoming to the broadcast founder with Sarilla, Miss Sara Delaney. How are you?
Sara Delaney: [00:00:37] Hi, Stone. I’m great. How are you today?
Stone Payton: [00:00:38] I am doing well, delighted to get a chance to visit with you and learn about the work that you’re up to. In fact, that’s probably a good place to start. Could you give us a little primer, mission purpose? What are you out there trying to do for folks?
Sara Delaney: [00:00:55] Sure. Well, we are a proud member of WeBank and we’re based in Asheville, North Carolina. I’m the founder of Sarilla, which is a social enterprise. I’ve been working with people in Rwanda since 2007. So, Rwanda is a small country in East Africa, producing some of the best tea in the world, among many other things, and really served as an inspirational country that I actually used to live in and really changed my life.
Sara Delaney: [00:01:28] I came back to the U.S. and started a nonprofit foundation, which we still operate, to provide services for women who have a history of trauma. We have a resiliency program through that foundation, and we also offer seed funding and emergency relief for different issues specifically related to trauma, poverty, substance abuse, and addiction.
Sara Delaney: [00:01:55] But I started Sarilla as really the economic driver, so we’ve got this amazing sparkling beverage, which is 0% alcohol. The main ingredient I use in that is Rwandan tea. We use the whole tea leaf. So, you’re getting the health benefits, the rich flavor. We don’t use any powders or syrups or refined sugar, so it’s better for you. It’s better for the environment and better for our partners in Rwanda.
Sara Delaney: [00:02:26] So, that’s our primary product line. We’re selling that throughout the U.S. now, mainly on the East Coast. We have it in cans, and we’re getting ready to launch our kegs again, which we started to do right before the pandemic shutdown. But I’m super excited to get our tea on top, back into breweries, bars, and restaurants, and we’re starting to work with college campuses as well. My mission for 2022 is to get into as many bars, especially in college towns, where wherever alcohol is served, we want Sarilla to be served too.
Stone Payton: [00:03:06] Well, you certainly have a lot of irons in the fire as my mother would say. You’re accomplishing a great deal with this vehicle. What drove you toward the beverage industry?
Sara Delaney: [00:03:20] Yeah. Well, I am in recovery myself. I’m sober 15 and a half years. I got sober in my 20s, and alcohol really caused a lot of problems in my life and definitely generationally in my family. And so, I just was really excited to kind of delve into living a sober life that was clean and healthy but also, like, full of fun. And when I quit drinking, I was just kind of – I was concerned, right? That’s really, to put it mildly. But I was concerned about the lack of choices. I was concerned about how I would socialize.
Sara Delaney: [00:04:05] I remember thinking, I was not married at the time, and I just remember thinking, “What am I going to drink on my wedding day if I can’t have champagne?” And so, that was kind of a driver, I would say, to really create like a fun, celebratory beverage that, you know, felt like I was included. And I’m just, I’m excited and heartened to know about how many people are choosing, whether it’s just for health reasons or addiction reasons or, you know, just kind of testing the waters and maybe drinking a little bit less alcohol these days. There’s a lot of people who are going that route and choosing that lifestyle, but still want to be social and have a good time and want something fun to drink besides like chlorinated club soda or sugary sodas or juices, you know.
Sara Delaney: [00:04:58] So that was like a big personal motivator, and I also saw the market opportunity there and kind of where things were trending and then combine that with my passion and love for Rwanda and then the fact that I had, like, this amazing ingredient with me. I started working with the tea to make a beverage, and I went to the Southeast Beverage Institute here, learned how to keg and create a carbonated beverage. And that’s kind of how we got started. So, I just did my proof of concept here locally in Asheville, had a few kegs at a couple of events and a couple of breweries, and then it just went from there.
Stone Payton: [00:05:37] Well, what an exciting time for you, and what an inspiring story. For those of you who are listening to this interview on-demand, we’re actually having this conversation in mid-January of 2022. And as I understand it, Sara, I think I saw this in the notes, you don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions, do you?
Sara Delaney: [00:06:01] Well, no. I mean, it’s not that I don’t believe in it. You know, it’s just not for me.
Stone Payton: [00:06:07] Yeah.
Sara Delaney: [00:06:08] I’d say, you know, if I were going to set like an intention today, it would be – because my son and I were – it’s snowing here today and it was snowy yesterday and so we were outside sledding. And I’m probably just going to take actually tomorrow off. We’re going to go snowboarding for the first time this season. And I think, if anything, that’s one of my big intentions is just to, like, play more and carve out time just to have fun or just to do nothing and just be unscheduled.
Sara Delaney: [00:06:37] But, I kind of like, I think, you know, having, you know, being an ex-drinker and someone who just kind of woke up every day and said that I was going to not drink today, and then by 5 o’clock, I’d be drinking again. That was my past, and I just really saw, like, New Year’s resolutions as a setup for failure.
Sara Delaney: [00:06:56] But, like, I think setting intentions and goals is certainly important. I think it’s been real tough these past two years for us to really make a plan and, like, stay with it just because every day, I don’t know about you, but my plans and my schedules and meetings getting canceled and people getting sick, like tradeshows getting canceled, it’s just you never know what the next day is going to bring. So, I’m all about one day at a time and living life in the present. At the same time, I’m the business owner, so of course, I need a plan and set projections and goals and do the metrics and all that. So, I think there’s a real balance there.
Sara Delaney: [00:07:40] But if we are going to set resolutions or goals, I think it’s really important that they are somehow measurable and that we’re, you know, kind of, like, checking in, like that we have a specific technique, you know, that’s going to help us get to that place.
Sara Delaney: [00:07:59] I was just on a meeting this morning with Daniel in Rwanda. He’s an employee there and he’s on the ground at our farm there. And we were talking about smart goals and like how to make sure that every goal we have has some kind of metrics attached to it so we know we’re making progress, but also so we’re setting ourselves up for success rather than just keep it kind of open ended. Like, I’m going to try better. I’m going to, you know, improve in this way. But it’s like, well, how? You know, how?
Sara Delaney: [00:08:31] So, going back to what I said about, you know, for anyone who’s like “I’m going to quit drinking today,” or “I’m going to quit eating sugar,” or whatever, that, you know, I’m going to lose 10 pounds resolution is like, well, what’s one specific step that you can take today to get closer to that idea and then kind of keep circling back to what’s the reason behind it? Like, do you think it’s going to make you feel better or look better or be happier and, like, what’s behind that and kind of keep pulling the curtain back?
Stone Payton: [00:09:00] Well, I think I hear in your description that the key really is getting very clear about the why, those small steps, and establishing the habits that lead to those outcomes. Huh?
Sara Delaney: [00:09:15] Yeah, good point, the habits. It’s super important.
Stone Payton: [00:09:18] So, as I understand it, one very critical mission for you, and it’s a broad one, is to end violence against women. Can you speak more to that?
Sara Delaney: [00:09:29] Sure. I’ve been doing a lot of research lately looking at the statistics, which are pretty horrific about the percentage of sexual crimes and specifically rape that have alcohol or drugs somehow involved. And there’s just, you know, some really crazy stats that I’d be happy to share. But, like, one of them is over half of rapes in this country happen when alcohol is involved. And, again, over half of the women who experience rape the first time are in college or under the age of 18. And when a woman or young woman or girl is raped under the age of 18, she’s twice as likely to be raped again. And, I myself experienced rape once in high school and once in college, and both times alcohol was involved on one side or the other or both.
Sara Delaney: [00:10:36] So, for me, it’s very personal. I want to do everything I can to get these numbers down. And I do believe that, again, back to my goal of having Sarilla wherever alcohol is served, you know, that’s just one thing we can do but also partnering with community organizations and nonprofits to make sure the tools are in place for the venues, for example, that are serving alcohol. Like, what are the resources they have to help in the preventative measures? And then, what are the resources, let’s say, on college campuses? What are the resources for women who are recovering from this kind of a trauma? So, wherever possible, I want to be involved in the communities where we’re working in order to help this from happening to other young women.
Stone Payton: [00:11:33] You use the moniker or the phrase early in the conversations I think, social enterprise. Is that a formal designation? Is it just reflective of some disciplines that you try to exercise? Say a little bit more about that.
Sara Delaney: [00:11:50] Oh, that’s a great question. Social enterprise to me is really – it’s not necessarily a third-party audit or a certification, but we are pursuing benefit corporation status, which is a pretty rigorous program to go through with a lot of metrics that you have to hit to show the commitment to more than just a profit-making organization. So, social enterprise to me really means that we’re committed to the triple bottom line.
Sara Delaney: [00:12:21] So, yes, we’re a for-profit organization, but we also are very involved in social initiatives. We have a social mission that goes along with our profit-making mission. Of course, we are accountable to investors. At the same time, we do have a nonprofit foundation attached to our business and we want to do everything we can to do good in the world, with the money that we do make.
Stone Payton: [00:12:50] So, as part of that, I think many organizations, and I think I saw in the notes where this is the case with yours, that you make a real effort to make sure that your products are produced ethically. I’d love to hear a little bit more about what that means, produced ethically and in a more technical, tactical kind of level. I mean, how do you know? How do you make sure that that’s what’s happening?
Sara Delaney: [00:13:17] Right. So, in my 20s, I worked on the fair trade side of things, so I worked with the agencies that certified brands and producers as being fair trade. I also worked with some other community organizations that really tried to make sure that businesses were operating in an ethical way. So, it depends on what the industry is. But there’s ethics related to, of course, treatment of people, treatment of the environment, animals, the whole nine yards.
Sara Delaney: [00:13:58] The fair trade certification system, I think, is a great starting point for businesses that are sourcing certain ingredients that are fair trade certifiable, but it’s not enough. It’s kind of scratching the surface there of, like, really basic elements that need to be in place to be sure your business partnerships are ethical on a global level when you’re sourcing ingredients from developing countries specifically. So, we do participate in that system.
Sara Delaney: [00:14:32] We also are building our own farm to grow our own ingredients and partnering with 55 women in Rwanda who are part owners in this business there where we’re growing botanicals that can be blended into an herbal tea product that we sell in Rwanda. And then, we’re also going to be importing the herbals to use in future Sarilla flavors.
Sara Delaney: [00:14:56] And so, that I feel like is a model that goes beyond fair trade, where we’re truly partnering with the people growing, the ingredients that we’re using in this manufactured product, making sure that there’s upward mobility, that there’s seed funding if they want to start their own business, that they have access to resources that any employee in the U.S. should have access to, that they have access to information, that they’re empowered with the information that we have on this side as well.
Sara Delaney: [00:15:30] And, we’re also using regenerative agriculture processes and are growing, so anything we can do to really help the climate change crisis. I do believe that that’s the primary farming method that we all need to really start using in order to not only – not only stop the climate change crisis but also to potentially turn around the damage that’s already been done to the planet.
Stone Payton: [00:16:06] This must be, and I don’t mean to suggest for one minute that your work doesn’t have its own set of challenges. I’m sure it does, but this must be incredibly rewarding work.
Sara Delaney: [00:16:20] Yeah. It really is, Stone. I mean, you know, I made a lot of entrepreneur groups and I hear, you know, the fatigue in a lot of voices trying to build your own business and it can be exhausting and, like, it can be discouraging. And I just I know a lot of people who kind of give up or, you know, just maybe don’t find the same kind of rewarding, I guess. I don’t know. I don’t know what it is, but you’re so right. I’m definitely, I feel like I’m on my path and I’ve been on the other side, though. Like, I’ve worked for – and I’ve had jobs that did I just kind of dread going to or work for big corporations that I just, I get to that point where I’m like, “What, what is my purpose here? Like, how am I making a difference really in the world?”
Sara Delaney: [00:17:16] And so, I’m glad that I had those experiences too because now I know what it can feel like to be on the other side. So, yes, it is. It’s a lot of work, but I’m grateful to have an awesome support network and to be part of some really great mentoring communities and peer support groups that I don’t, you know, as much as I’m working from home right now, I usually don’t feel too alone in this. So, I’m excited for the next chapter in building this business.
Stone Payton: [00:17:49] So, you’ve had an opportunity to share your insights, your experience, your perspective in a TED Talk. What was that like?
Sara Delaney: [00:17:59] Oh, my gosh. It was a lot of work. It was, I would say it took me about six months to get ready for that, and I had a great coach here in Asheville who really worked with me on my speech. But I would say more than like – more than even the speech itself, he helped me almost like a therapist. He helped me tap into the feeling that I really wanted to convey with my message. And, it required me to get really, like really deep and personal into my own healing journey, and so it was really intense at that level more than I could have expected because I chose a very personal topic too.
Sara Delaney: [00:18:54] And then, you know, to actually get up there, I mean, this was before when everything was still in person. Luckily, I think I hit like the last in-person event. I think there were 500 people in the theater. And the actual day was just – I mean, I used to have kind of stage fright. And so, to get over that was also a big challenge. But luckily, I had a lot of time and support and practice but no one prepared me for what it would actually be like to step on to stage.
Sara Delaney: [00:19:30] It was pitch dark in the auditorium and I couldn’t see anyone. And then, there were some really strange sounds coming from the audience. And so, even though we had, you know, we had practiced a lot on this stage, just in our small group without an audience, it was super nerve-wracking to be up there and have all these different challenges that I hadn’t prepared for. So, you know, and then just to really, really let my guard down and open up was a huge step for me. It was a huge step in just my personal journey, but also to get to where I am right now with my business.
Stone Payton: [00:20:10] Well, I have no doubt that you absolutely knocked it out of the park and that you reached more than a few people with your message, and that’s just based on having a really delightful, you know, 15, 20-minute conversation here on on the air. I love to listen to TED Talks. I must confess I haven’t heard yours, but I’m going to go find it and I’m going to listen to it.
Stone Payton: [00:20:33] Now, one of the decisions that you made at some point was to become part of the Greater Women’s Business Council, and I think you mentioned you’re WeBank certified. What compelled you to make that decision and how has that served you if it has?
Sara Delaney: [00:20:51] Yeah, definitely. You know, I think it’s really important – you know, I went to my – I did my undergrad at Simmons College, which is an all-women school in Boston, and I think it’s really important to stay connected with these communities that really celebrate women and also to just stay connected with programs like this that continuously show us role models because it’s important to have something to strive to. And, I feel like we’re not alone. And, there just aren’t that many female founders and leaders that I interact with on a daily basis in my everyday life. So, this really expanded my network and I would say, you know, even on a bottom-line impact, we get customers who have found us specifically because we are women-owned, certified.
Sara Delaney: [00:21:50] So, I think it’s helped us on that level as well. I definitely recommend the program to other female founders and I’m in the CPG space. So, there’s some benefits associated there too, with certain grocery store chains that are actively seeking out women-owned brands.
Stone Payton: [00:22:13] So, it strikes me that it’s one thing to have a leader as passionate and committed as you are to these topics that we’ve been describing. Clearly another, I would think, in the recruiting and selecting and developing and nurturing and building that culture, you must seek out people with overlapping value system. And, I suspect many of your customers share a lot of these values. Yeah?
Sara Delaney: [00:22:49] Yeah, that’s true. I mean, it’s hard to always, always know even who our customers are. For example, our products are in grocery stores, you know, and we don’t always know who’s buying our products, but it’s awesome to be able to do demos and interact directly with folks in stores when we’re able to. And, of course, on social media and engaging there.
Sara Delaney: [00:23:13] We’re also on this platform called faire.com. It’s an online wholesale platform where we can actually see retail because we sell wholesale as well as direct-to-consumer, but most of our business is wholesale. So, we can see the retailers who are actively searching for values because they have a checklist of values that folks can tick off to get to the type of business they’re looking for.
Sara Delaney: [00:23:43] So, that’s really cool, you know, and we do see a lot of people coming to us who are selling other Fair Trade certified and organic certified and women-owned brands. So, yeah, it’s always – it’s one of my favorite things to do is to walk into a store and see our products, you know, on the shelf or in the fridge next to other products that share some of the same values. It’s really exciting.
Sara Delaney: [00:24:11] So, yeah, I think it’s becoming very, very important to our consumers to stand for something important in the world, you know, to really be committed to making a positive impact environmentally, socially, and to really walk the talk.
Stone Payton: [00:24:32] Well, and how marvelous it must be to know that you’ve created an environment and a machine that will allow your employees and your market partners to live into their values.
Sara Delaney: [00:24:46] Yeah. I recently saw a report that showed employees today the salary, and, of course, this is very general, but their salary falls something like number four or five on the list of reasons they choose to work for companies. And typically, the first three items are very much values based decisions, which I think is pretty exciting.
Stone Payton: [00:25:14] Oh, man. Again, it must be incredibly rewarding. Okay. So, what’s next and how can we help not just the Business RadioX network, but those of us who are listening to this, who resonate with what you’re doing and why you’re doing it? What can we be doing in our daily lives to help and what are your near-term plans?
Sara Delaney: [00:25:36] Well, we really want to engage with the people who care about our products, but the values, as I mentioned, so you can find us on social media. Our handle is @drinksarilla, S-A-R-I-L-L-A. So, we’ve got Tiktok, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn, drinksarilla. Our website is also drinksarilla.com. I’m actually the one who does our emails. I rarely send them out, but when I do, it’s really important, an important message. So, I love getting new subscribers to our email. And then it’s my favorite thing is when someone actually responds to one of my emails and we have a conversation that way. So, I’m very much involved in the day-to-day business and any of those handles. Like, I will also see those messages.
Sara Delaney: [00:26:32] But even if folks are not choosing my products, I just encourage you always to kind of look behind the label of what you are buying. I mean, every time we spend money at the store, we’re casting a vote. And on the other side of that vote are people growing the ingredients, you know making the products, working so hard with so much care to make sure that we get what we want in our homes. So, as much as you can, you know, choose brands that you really care about and check them out. Like, see what they’re doing, see who they’re sourcing from.
Sara Delaney: [00:27:12] It’s really easy these days. We’ve got QR codes on our packages, we’ve got videos, we’ve got a crop-to-cup trip so we do travel to origin, and just, you know, take a look at your favorite brands and see what they’re up to. And then, there’s nothing better than word of mouth. So, if you like something you know, please shut it out on social media. If you don’t use social media, let your friends know because that’s how we grow and that’s how we continue to encourage other companies to try to do the right thing as well.
Stone Payton: [00:27:46] All right. One last time, let’s make sure that we leave our listeners with some points of contact. So, the LinkedIn, the website, whatever is appropriate, I want to make sure that they can reach out and learn more and maybe even have a conversation with you or someone on your team. So, if you would share again some key points of contact.
Sara Delaney: [00:28:03] Yeah. And, Stone, one other thing, we’re getting ready to do a big fundraise. We’re doing a seed round with IFundWomen. And so, over the next month, if folks do connect with us by email or social media, which is @drinksarilla, S-A-R-I-L-L-A, like gorilla, or drinkssarilla.com, then they’ll get an update on when we launch our IFundWomen campaign, and so people have an opportunity to contribute towards that campaign to help us launch this safety Sarilla in bars program this year that I mentioned before. So, that’s a really important way that people can get involved. And if you have questions about that social campaign, the community building part of it, we’re also looking for ambassadors and activists in the different cities where we’re launching this year.
Stone Payton: [00:29:01] Well, Sara Delaney, founder with Sarilla, it has been an absolute delight having you on the show this afternoon. You’re doing such important work and I have found the conversation and the information absolutely inspiring. Thank you so much for investing the time to visit with us.
Sara Delaney: [00:29:20] I appreciate it. Thank you, Stone. It’s been a great conversation.
Stone Payton: [00:29:25] All right. This is Stone Payton for our guest today, founder with Sarilla, Miss Sara Delaney, and everyone here at the Business RadioX family saying we’ll see you next time on GWBC’s Open for Business.
The Greater Women’s Business Council (GWBC®) is at the forefront of redefining women business enterprises (WBEs). An increasing focus on supplier diversity means major corporations are viewing our WBEs as innovative, flexible and competitive solutions. The number of women-owned businesses is rising to reflect an increasingly diverse consumer base of women making a majority of buying decision for herself, her family and her business.
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