Women in Business Q&A: Heather Kauffman, Co-Founder and COO, Full Circle Home

Heather T. Kauffman is Co-Founder and COO of Full Circle Home, a company focused on beautifully designed and responsibly produced home goods that inspire better choices for you, your home and the planet. She started her career as a China Trade Specialist at the U.S. Department of Commerce, followed by a relocation to Shanghai in 2007. While living in China, Heather's passion for and commitment to sustainability joined forces with her co-founders' manufacturing expertise and design talent in the creation of the Full Circle brand. Her passion for clean living and responsibility to the planet were instrumental in the growth of Full Circle and since starting the company in 2009, Heather has continued that commitment proving a more responsible lifestyle benefits everyone and everything. With her leadership at the forefront, the Full Circle team has taken innovation to new heights with the 2014 launch of sister brand Creo, a line of food prep, storage and bakeware built on elevating the food experience. Heather graduated from Lehigh University in 2003 with a degree in Economics.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My parents instilled in me a strong work ethic and it has always served me well. They were hard working entrepreneurs who didn't wait for opportunities to come to them but rather created their own. I think what I took away is a confidence in my ability to do anything I set my mind to. I've always set ambitious goals and did what was required to achieve them. Whether it was working three jobs to buy a condo at age 23, quitting my job and moving to Shanghai to learn Mandarin, or pivoting away from my career in public policy to create a start-up with friends, I am not known to shy away from a challenge. Each time you reach a goal you see a new, more exciting horizon ahead of you, which continues to build leadership confidence over time. I think getting to that point is all about confronting the uncomfortable and unknown, and believing in your passions and yourself.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Full Circle?
I've had so many jobs in my life (from wedding planner to lifeguard to bartender) that I've honed my skills in problem-solving, time management and interpersonal relations, which I think are three key abilities for an entrepreneur. In some ways, my previous experience has showed me what not to do! I worked for the Federal Government prior to starting Full Circle, which due to the nature of politics, has ever changing goals. Working toward a goal you believe in only to have priorities constantly change, often led to a jaded workforce. Priorities may shift but I don't want someone on my team to ever feel their efforts are wasted. I aim to create an environment where everyone is working towards clear goals and their efforts toward those goals are celebrated.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your career as a co-founder and COO?
As a fast growing company we regularly have wins to celebrate and fires to put out. One of the highlights for me will always be our very first trade show. It was the first time we showed the world what we had been privately working on for over a year and the response was more than we could have hoped for. We had this idea for a product line that could be beautifully designed, affordable and responsibly produced, in a market where those three features don't often live together. We believed so strongly in our idea but didn't know if anyone else would respond, or if we'd be laughed out of the industry. It was validating, exciting, rewarding and helped set our expectations high for the future. One of the most challenging areas for me is a change in staff. On a small team each person plays a very important role and when it doesn't work out, it impacts everyone. We think of our team as family, as I think is the case in many small companies.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in the housewares/cleaning space?
Our industry offers the opportunity to put beautiful and innovative products in peoples' homes that touch their lives every day. Choose a company that creates products you relate to and believe in, and most importantly, go for companies with missions beyond the bottom line.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
This has probably been my biggest challenge over the years but having my daughter a year and a half ago forced the issue. Some weeks the business requires more of my time and attention, so I just have to make sure that afterwards I allow some time to focus on family, or occasionally on myself. I think having a life outside the office including social time, other interests and exercise, revive you for the week ahead and provide more experiences to bring to your work. I'm constantly encouraging the hardest workers on our team to take a real lunch break, enjoy their weekends and be present when they are on vacation. You can't achieve balance at work when there is no balance in life.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think the issues for women in a very corporate setting are different from women in smaller companies, but overall I think women put a lot of pressure on themselves to be every woman. The rock star leader. The always there best friend. The ideal girlfriend/wife. Women often feel they have to work harder and do more to prove their worth. We have to learn to be proud and confident without being the best at everything all the time.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My first boss out of college was a very smart and successful woman who had a great attitude towards work. Success mattered to her but she didn't take herself too seriously. I'm forever grateful that was my first experience as a professional. I've never taken on a formal mentor but I do think it's important to have someone in your life that helps you take a step back and get perspective when your head is clouded by details. I have several people in my life I go to when I need guidance. If you haven't sought out a mentor, building a team of peers to call on is a great option.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
For me, admiration often comes after I know someone so I don't have a typical answer of a prominent female leader. I've created a circle of friends who are all great examples of female leaders and have influenced and inspired me in different ways. Each provides me with gems of advice or experience when I need them most. They say you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, and if I look at the 5 females I spend my time with I'd be very proud to be the average of that group.

What do you want to accomplish in the next year?
Professionally, I would like our brands to have more of a direct relationship with our consumers. Also as our team is growing and we're considering moving into a new office, I want to make sure our core values are reflected in our physical space and in our culture. Personally, I'd really like to find more time to exercise. I registered for a half marathon in a few months so now I have a goal to work towards.