Women In Business Q&A: Sharelle Klaus, CEO/Founder, DRY Soda Co.

Sharelle Klaus

As the visionary behind DRY, Sharelle Klaus has always had a passion for the culinary world and celebrating each part of a meal - including the beverage. After having four children, she didn't want to let a lack of wine or cocktails stop her from creating a great pairing. Klaus recognized an absence of exciting and fun, yet sophisticated non-alcoholic options in the market, and became determined to create the first line of sparkling drinks that was worthy of gourmet meal pairing and premium mixology. She believed savory and sweet flavors more commonly used in cuisine could offer exciting compliments to her favorite meals - for example, Lavender with chocolate, Rhubarb with smoked meats, or Juniper Berry with oysters. In 2005, Klaus crafted the first batches of DRY in her home kitchen using real, high-quality culinary ingredients.

Klaus brings nearly two decades of entrepreneurial, financial and technology industry experience to her role as CEO at DRY, and oversees all marketing, strategic planning and innovation for the brand. With guidance from some of the Pacific Northwest's leading chefs and a savvy corporate team, Klaus pioneered a new category of sparkling beverages, fearlessly leading DRY's aggressive growth in a male dominated industry, making it the fastest growing carbonated soft drink in the U.S. (according to Jan. 2015 SPINS data). Prior to founding DRY, Klaus worked as a consultant for Infrastructure Management Group and Price Waterhouse. She also served as president of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, where she drove strategic development of programs, events and fundraising for the organization's 250+ Seattle-area members.

Klaus is an avid supporter of entrepreneurship and frequently speaks at professional conferences, workshops, and the University of Washington Business School, where she also participates as a judge for the Foster School's well-known business plan competitions. She has served as a member of the Executive Committee of the SPU Business School, the Board of Directors at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Board of the Seattle Lung Force. Klaus graduated from Seattle Pacific University with an undergraduate degree in political science, and currently resides in Seattle, Wash. where she lives with her four children and German Shepard, Lennox.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
From an early age I had a strong entrepreneurial curiosity and started several little businesses while still in grade school - I did things like make and sell Christmas wreaths around Christmas and started a community newspaper. I always thought I would create my own company someday. And I have this crazy habit of thinking about how to make "normal" things better or different. So believing that soda could be elevated, while not conventional thinking, was totally natural for me.

The concept for DRY, specifically, was born from personal experience - after avoiding alcohol for years while pregnant and nursing, I realized there was this gap in the market for a beautiful-tasting, non-alcoholic beverage. Everything at that time was either cloyingly sweet or made with artificial ingredients. So I injected my personal experience and passion for the culinary world into my professional life when I started DRY back in 2005.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at DRY?
The funny thing is that I had no experience in the beverage industry before starting my company, and so was blissfully unaware about all the "rules" that come along with being a part of it. Since I didn't know they existed, I didn't follow them, which was mostly a good thing. For example, I'd ask for bigger in-store promotions and displays, and probably wouldn't have if I knew this was something I wasn't necessarily supposed to do.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at DRY?
In terms of highlights, I'm really excited to say that DRY is now the fastest growing carbonated beverage brand in the United States, and we're on a trajectory to continue this growth pattern. That being said there was a significant amount of learning that had to occur in the last 10 years. I can admit I was not prepared for how much work it would take to create a new beverage brand, and truly a whole new elevated category of soda. Being the first comes with many bumps in the road, but being first also allows you to creatively change an industry. We love being innovative at DRY, so while no one may have ever had a Lavender soda before, we knew our target audience would want it. And being innovative allows us to be very creative in our marketing approach, in our distribution model, and even in our company culture.

The highlights are definitely that we are now working with the top retailers in the country - Target, Kroger, Safeway, Loblaws (in Canada), Whole Foods and many others. These companies believe in what DRY is doing and what we have created. I am so proud that DRY is now so widely available to our devoted customers in North America.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
One of my biggest pieces of advice to women who want a career in this industry is to be fearless and creative in their approach because it's such a competitive industry.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Work in an industry that you love and for a company that you are passionate about. If you are truly driven, you will always be one of those "hard workers." Might as well spend your 40+ hours per week doing something you are proud of, creating progress and profit for a company/brand you believe in. And always, always listen to your instincts.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Well, I have four kids, so a true "balance" is impossible. Juggling my calendar is a ridiculously challenging feat -- I'm constantly having to plan months ahead to be sure I'm not missing, say, Aspen Food+Wine festival or my daughter's high school graduation. I take time for real two-week vacations with my family - we just went to Costa Rica for a week for spring break. My kids are also now old enough that I can bring them with me on some of the more "fun" work trips, usually one at a time. This is so great because I get some one-on-one time with them and they get to be part of amazing food and dining experiences, like when I took my son to Cochon555's Chicago event a couple weeks back. And having dinner as a family as much as possible keeps me connected and always puts a big smile on my face.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Inequitable pay for women has always frustrated me. I honestly can't even believe the issue still exists! At DRY, four out of five of our Executive Team Members are women, so we're building a culture where all employees have equal chances for advancement, always based on performance and nothing else.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I am blessed to have so many people in my life who have contributed to my development as a founder and a CEO - from my youngest son to a handful of very seasoned CEOs. A few important people in my journey include: Dan Ginsberg, former CEO of Red Bull, Kathy Levinson former CEO of e-trade, Pete Ashby Fellow at Windsor House, John Repogle CEO of Seventh Generation, and Joth Ricci, President of Stumptown Coffee.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Honestly, I really admire the three women on my executive team. Perhaps I'm biased because I work with them each day, but they are all such leaders in their own right. They are fierce, incredibly creative, competitive, proactive and always one step ahead. I'm inspired by them every day!

What do you want DRY to accomplish in the next year?
Well to start, we are forecasted to double our revenue from 2015-2016. We are also launching Fuji Apple DRY into our core line via Target, highly anticipated Serrano Pepper and Malali Watermelon Summer Seasonal flavors, and a new package and flavor for the holidays. We are always focused on innovation in flavor and design so we can stay one step ahead of what's happening in the industry. As big brands and startups are starting to emulate what DRY is doing, we are 100% committed to being leaders and not followers.