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Our Movers and Shakers series features Q&As with women trail blazers in the sport and industry of cycling. These are women who often go unnoticed but make the world of (women’s) cycling go round.
The women we write about in this series include team owners, key industry players, race organisers, cycling advocates, journalists, inventors, designers, business owners and the professional athletes that often play a huge role in advancing their sport. Is there someone you want to hear form? We happily accept your nominations for Movers and Shakers in the comment sections of these articles.
In January 2010, things were looking pretty grim for Edge Composites. The high-end carbon fiber wheel and component company nowadays known as Enve Composites was nearly bankrupt, and 78 jobs were on the line as was the company’s reputation as they battled a trademark dispute in Europe. The newly hired CEO turned in his resignation after just 24 hours on the job, due to personal reasons, and Paul Lehman and his two fellow investors in the company were at a loss. And so Lehman turned to the one person he thought could turn the company back around: his wife, Sarah.
A graduate of Harvard Business School, Sarah Lehman has had a successful career spanning pharmaceutical and automotive industries, and somehow managed to find time to have and raise three children as well. Joining Enve was only ever going to be a short-term solution –30 to 60 days max– but this month she’s celebrating her seven-year anniversary as CEO at the company that she “instantly fell in love with” and successfully managed to not only turn around, but to grow to where it now employs more than 150 people and makes over 30 million in revenue.
When we catch up with Sarah she is the epitome of a highly successful business woman slash mother of three slash outdoors enthusiast. She’s taking one last business call –mine– while getting herself and her three tweenage children (9, 11 and 13) ready for a day out on the ski slopes. Yet she doesn’t rush the call and for the next hour she talks openly and relaxed about her remarkable career, her work- and family-life balance, the lessons she’s learned as a woman in business and even her doubts and failures.
Have I failed? Oh a bizillion times! If you are not failing, you are not trying hard enough.
– Sarah Lehman, CEO of Enve Composites. Business woman. Mother of Three.
Anne-Marije Rook for Ella CyclingTips: You have had a highly successful and quite diverse career, how did you end up in the bicycle industry?
Sarah Lehman: Well, it was really rather serendipitous and little bit of circumstance that I got involved with the bike industry. My husband had invested in Enve alongside the founder and two other investors in 2008 or so. At the time, I had taken some time off to raise my kids, and thinking about what I wanted to do next.
At the end of December 2009, my husband called me and said Enve (which was Edge at the time) really isn’t doing well. And then, in the first week of January the newly hired CEO had to quit within 24 hours for personal reasons –not at all related to the business– and my husband called to let me know what had happened, and I knew what that meant because the business was running out of money, it really needed a CEO, it needed someone to be there each and every day, and I knew what we had riding on it –what we and the other partners had invested in the company. And so I said to my husband, “Tell the team I will be there on Monday at 8 o’clock.”
And so I showed up and said “Hi, I’m your new boss. Let’s get started!”
Ella: You know it says something about your husband that he was like ‘crap, we’re not doing well. I’m going to bring in my wife.’
Sarah: My husband says I am the best hire he’s ever made! And upon bringing me in, he took a backseat. I mean, he has a very successful career of his own and he rearranged his career to support mine and has done so since that day. That’s pretty awesome. I’m incredibly lucky.
Ella: So for our readers who haven’t Googled your entire professional career as I have, tell us about your career before Enve that allowed you to come in with such confidence. Take us way back.
Sarah: What’s overarching about my career is that when I was in college or even growing up, I thought I was going to have a very linear career. You know, I thought I was going to go from A to B, B to C, C to D. I was going to go to college, become a lawyer and then become a politician because that is what you do if you want to have positive impact on good. At least, that is what I was thinking.
But my life has been anything but that. I have gone from A to L, L to B, B to Z –it’s just all over the map. And so, what I have learned is that if you’re open to the universe and put yourself out there, good things come your way.
In college, to make ends meet and pay for room and board, I started working for this woman who was a graduate of Harvard Business School and who was starting her own business of collecting and storing umbilical cord blood to be used as an alternative to bone marrow – awesome, right?!
I was the second employee hired and worked part-time for her through college and then full-time for two years after college. And she introduced me to this whole new world. I remember she brought me to this business panel at Harvard of all these females, and it just opened my eyes. You can make such a huge difference as a woman in business! I was absolutely taken by it, and went to business school.
At Harvard Business School, Sarah met her husband who had plenty of ambitions of his own. Upon graduating, he started working on Wall Street in New York City and Sarah, with an“I’ll be damned if I give up my own career” attitude, moved to California to work at Amgen. But after her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Sarah decided to reprioritize her life and move to New York City to be with her husband.
“I was worried I wouldn’t find a job, and so I walked into Pfizer and begged for a job. I went in and told them ‘Trust me, I’ll be a good investment’,” Sarah said. Sarah was doing well in New York so when her husband took a job in Utah, she again decided to stay put and focus on her own career. But then 9-11 happened and Sarah was reminded her that life is precious and short, and decided she wanted to start having a family. And so they did. For a while Sarah continued her career in New York City, now with a young daughter in tow, while her husband worked in Utah. Cross-country commuting isn’t great for any family and so, opting for what’s best for the family, Sarah decided to move out to Utah and join her husband.
Sarah: In Ogden Utah of all places! I thought this was hell on earth. Luckily, my husband is very wise, and said I needed to take a part-time job at the [automotive] company he just bought. And that was great. I went from pharmaceuticals –which is something that is a necessity – to consumer goods. And I fell in love with the passion that comes with creating something people want.
The call to help out with “this bike company” came while I was taking time off after my third child.
I told my husband I’d be there for 30 to 60 days, just to help them turn it around but it’s my seven year anniversary this January!
Prior to that day, I had done a couple of triathlons, but I didn’t keep up on the bike industry. Didn’t read anything about it. But one thing for sure about Enve –or Edge at the time –was that I, despite dealing with a bankruptcy, instantly fell in love with it. I loved the people, I loved the product and I loved the industry. I mean what better industry than making products for people to ride their bike!
I had been searching for my next thing but instead it found me, and it was an easy place to fall in love with.
Ella: And clearly, whatever you’re doing at Enve, you’re doing something right.
Sarah: You know, I am a really good talent finder. I think that is my gift. I can see talent in others that maybe they can’t see themselves or even in people who are simply in the wrong positions. I really believe in finding the right people. If you have the right team on the bus, you can figure out what the strategy is from there.”
Ella: Is that your professional motto?
Sarah: My professional motto is to surround yourself by people smarter than you! It really is all about the team. I think with the right team you can accomplish anything. And with the wrong team you’re doomed for failure regardless of how good your strategy is.
You know, for my first two years there I interviewed every single person we hired, because that one person can make or break a culture.
Ella: What keeps you in the bike industry? By the sounds of it, you could move on to just about any other industry and find something to love and to contribute.
Sarah: What keeps me at Enve in particular is the feeling of creating something that is bigger than yourself. And just the joy of working alongside others to create this place that employs families and that does good things in our communities, and that’s super motivating.
What keeps me in the industry is that it’s fascinating. It’s complicated. It’s familiar, it’s small, it’s competitive. But at the end of the day, it puts people on bikes! What can be better than giving people the freedom and joy of being a bike?! You’re doing something for someone’s health and psychological well-being….I don’t know, I think the outdoor industry is the best and bicycling is part of that.
Ella: Where does your drive come from? Those assertive qualities and confidence that make you so successful?
Sarah: Hmmm…a lot of times it comes from people telling me I can’t do it!
I always joke at Enve that if you really want me to do something, just tell me I can’t do it.
Like when I started at Enve, they told us we couldn’t make product in the U.S. and we were really close to moving everything offshore but I just couldn’t bring myself to endorse that strategy.
Now that I have proven that I can do it, I am very motivated to be part of something bigger than myself, of something that is everlasting.
Ella: It’s exactly those assertive qualities and that confidence that keeps so many women from reaching CEO and top management positions. Do you have any tips for women reading this?
Sarah: I’d say the biggest curse for women, and for me too, is self-doubt. I definitely have had it over the course of my career. And when I feel it coming on, I say “come on in. I know you’re there. I’ll allow a little pity-party, and then I’m going to show you to the door.”
There are plenty of times where I am thinking, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing” or “am I doing the right thing?” The self-doubt is there and I think the best thing to do is to acknowledge it, welcome it in for a little while and then say, “enough!”
It’s not a woman’s thing to have self-doubt but I do think that a lot of women get consumed by it, probably because we are constantly being told we can’t do something. But I’d say, let that “you can’t” be motivating to you. What’s the worst thing that can happen?
Ella: Have you failed?
Sarah: Have I failed? Oh a bizillion times! If you are not failing, you are not trying hard enough.
I truly believe that. Even as a company. If we don’t have products that we launched, or almost launched, that are total duds than you’re not trying hard enough, you’re playing it too safe.
What I try to do is to be the first to announce my own failure because then I create an environment where it’s OK for others to fail. And the trick to innovation is “fail fast, fail often and you’ll achieve”, right?
Ella: What are some of Enve’s biggest challenges?
Sarah: Maintaining its culture while growing, I think that’s any company’s challenge when they grow from a 30-person company to a 150-200 person company.
We are also now part of Amer, and so we’re figuring out how to work within the bigger umbrella.
Ella: What do you consider your biggest success at Enve?
Sarah: I’d say my most proud moment at Enve is the fact that we continue to make our products in the United States, and to do so cost-effectively.
Ella: When you look back on your career and life in general, how do you define success?
Sarah: When my kids are proud of me, and that my kids are involved in an industry that I love. Success is a happy family, a happy husband – that above everything!
Ella: It’s impressive that you have been able to balance a highly successful career and a big family at the same time.
Sarah: Sacrificing a family wasn’t even a consideration. But I believe I am able to do both because I have the right partner. I have a husband who supports me without fail. I started at Enve when my son was two years old. My husband restructured his entire career so I could accomplish what I needed to.
So another piece of advice I have for women is to make sure you pick the right partner. It has made a huge difference. And I won’t lie, there were times –months, years even—that I was out of balance. But my goals is that at the end of the book, it will reads like a good, balanced story. But there certainly were chapters throughout my career where I am not balanced at all.
Ella: What role do bikes and exercise play in all this? And where do you fit it in?
Sarah: I could not do what I do without having some physical outlet. I find that most of my major, big decisions are made on a run when I’m alone. Exercise, for me, is one of the most important things, from both a mental and physical standpoint. Just to stay sane! This world is so chaotic and exercise is freedom. It’s just you working on you, and that’s such an important part of my day.
Ella: Do you ride with your family?
Sarah: They all ride mountain bikes. We try to ride bikes together and, in fact, my daughter and I took lessons together this summer because my goal is to get her into the Utah mountain biking league, which for her would start next year. Given my profession as well, it would be criminal for my kids not to know how to ride a bike!
Ella: What kind of bikes do you have in your stable:
Sarah: My road bike is a Cannondale Foil. I also have a custom Alchemy cross bike –although I have only raced in one cross race –that’s a lot of fun to ride, and it’s beautiful. It’s the only pink and blue bike in the office. Then I have an Ibis mountain bike, and I think my next bikes –yes, I have two bikes on my list right now –will be a Cannondale Scalpel and a Stromer e-bike. I live in Salt Lake City and I go to Ogden everyday so my goal is to commute and an e-bike would help tremendously with that. I don’t have the luxury of a lot of time to commute but I thought if I could get a little bit more exercise, bike and commute all at the same time it would be a win. Plus, I’d be taking another car off the road.
Ella: Is that something you feel strongly about – commuting by bike?
Sarah: I hate the fact that I commute by car and that it’s so unsafe to ride your bike. We had bike to work days and I commuted from Salt Lake and it was hard to find a stretch of road where you’re not being passed by cars and semis. Utah is getting better but yeah, I feel strongly that if we’re going to keep getting people entering the sport, it has to feel safe to be on the roads, and I don’t think it does yet. Have I done anything about that? No. So my step forward is to try and be more of an example of what I believe in, get an e-bike and start commuting on it. We’ll see where that goes in terms of my advocacy.