Women in Business: Q&A with Sarah Bryar, CEO of Rivet & Sway

Sarah Bryar was appointed CEO of Rivet & Sway, a Seattle based online eyewear boutique that caters exclusively for women earlier this year. Bryar is the former Vice President of product at the company, and before that she worked as general manager of ParentMap and at Amazon.com.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
The mantra in our family was "good things come to people who work hard." I was not the person who aced exams with casual confidence. I had to work incredibly hard in high school, college, and grad school to do well. I have also been fortunate at Oracle, Amazon.com and Harvard Business School, to run alongside incredibly smart people in intellectually challenging and fast-paced cultures. As a result, I have very high expectations for myself and for those with whom I work. I do not expect nor want perfection, but value instead one's intention and effort to learn and excel. I also believe that it's important, while working hard, to maintain some perspective -- and a sense of humor.

How has your previous employment experience aided Rivet & Sway?
The best training ground for leading Rivet & Sway was Amazon.com. Not only was it professionally expedient to work for six years in arguably the most influential ecommerce company in the world, but the experience also forever changed how I think about building a successful business. The most important takeaway was the value of a relentless focus on the customer experience. Amazon.com's evolution from online bookstore to ecommerce giant has always been centered on addressing customers' needs for convenience and value. Its innovation didn't come from asking customers if they wanted a specific feature. It came from constantly exploring the broader context of what customers need and the pain points they experience. We let data be our guide. We tested and measured. We reacted swiftly to customer complaints and feedback.

The foundation of Rivet & Sway's value proposition is also the customer experience. As we were building the company, we conducted countless surveys, focus groups, and interviews. We found that women in particular view buying glasses as a chore: it's time consuming, uninspiring, and way too expensive. We saw an opportunity to create a better solution -- specifically for women who want and deserve better.

Women are at the core of every decision we make. We design our frames to fit a woman's face (no unisex please!) and to inspire creative expression. We offer a free home try on service that includes a slip-in-any-mailbox return process. We chose a convenient single price point that includes all the best upgrades: ultra-thin lenses, lens coatings, express shipping, and a 60-day satisfaction guarantee. We launched a free personal stylist based on input from women needing extra hand-holding in finding the right fit and style. And we continue to tweak our solution based on customer surveys, emails, interviews, and data gleaned from how women use our services. I firmly believe that we'll continue to be successful if we maintain our focus on solving the problem for women better than any other company out there.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have to admit - it's challenging! Life in a start-up is not unlike my life with two kids and a husband. Both arenas are demanding: intellectually, physically, and emotionally. I do what a lot of other busy women do: I make a lot of lists and prioritize constantly!

I am also incredibly fortunate to have an amazing husband who carries most of the weight for taking care of our kids right now. He is the one playing chauffeur, chef, and conductor at home, alleviating the schedule pressure for me. However, the emotional pull is really tough. Since I'm not around as much, my kids compete for my attention, and it's hard to get the question, "Why aren't you like the other mommies who drop their kids off at school?"
So I try to maintain a couple of "rules." Even though I'm sometimes running late, I prioritize dinner with my family. I try to stick to a no-work policy on Saturdays: no looking at my email, no turning on my laptop. My husband and I split kids activities: attending soccer games, watching practices, birthday parties. At least once a month, I try to find a time when I can have a mommy-daughter or mommy-son "date" for quality time with each one. My husband and I also enforce an almost religious adherence to a date night each week. We are both motivated to make that one happen!

For me, this balance is a conscious effort. At Rivet & Sway, I love what I do and the opportunity I have to build a company from the ground up. I get a rush each day I go to work. The pace can be exhausting, and I sometimes need a reset on that balance between work and personal life. But I wouldn't trade it for the world.

What have the highlights and challenges been founding Rivet & Sway?
Highlights: There is nothing like building a company from the ground up. I can feel my impact on Rivet & Sway every day - it's very tangible. When we have small successes like exceeding a monthly revenue goal or getting another customer love note, it feels so amazing, like we're fighting Goliath and starting to wear him down. You can't help but feel pride in taking a big audacious idea, bringing it to fruition, and seeing it work! I also love, love my team. They are incredibly talented, passionate about their contribution, and very fun to work with.

Challenges: I'm sure every start-up CEO feels the weight of responsibility to build a sustainable company, while working with too few resources and hours in the day to manage the sheer volume of decision-making and tangible work required. We have a lot of big ideas and want to be moving faster on all of them. We are constantly prioritizing and measuring results to ensure we're working on the most important initiatives to delight our customers, maximize revenue, and stay on the path to profitability.

What advice can you offer individuals who are seeking to establish their own business?
This will read like a platitude but first, follow your passion. You will never survive the pace and the amount of work required to start a business unless you are absolutely committed and obsessed with giving it a go. Second, find a great partner. Whom you choose to bring onto your team will have a direct impact on your success. That first partner-in-crime should be someone you trust and who will complement your skills and strengths. Third, shore up your support system; any combination of friends, family, and advisors will do. You'll need a sounding board outside the company when you need a little perspective or just need to vent!

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I found Lean In insightful, engaging, and surprisingly uncontroversial. The statistics that describe a very real gender leadership gap can hardly be argued. Sandberg's description of cultural factors that impact our perception of what it takes to be successful resonated with my own experiences. I appreciated her candid and personal account of her own challenges in managing a career as a woman.

I also found Sandberg's insights into why more women aren't in leadership positions particularly relevant when I was presented the opportunity to become CEO of Rivet & Sway. Quite frankly, my first reaction was to question whether I was qualified - stepping right into the trap of self-doubt so many women unjustifiably feel. It was helpful to ask myself, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" And my answer was, "Yes, of course! I'm ready and excited for the opportunity to lead."

Another concept I really appreciated is the idea that a career is "more like a jungle gym than a ladder." One of the things I loved about working at Amazon.com was the opportunity to work in all different areas of the company. I wasn't on a single vertical track. I also took some time to be at home with my kids when they were young. I think being a mom has made me a better leader - to be more patient, to maintain a more balanced perspective, and to have a sense of humor. There isn't one path to a "successful" career.

Whether you agree with Sandberg's position or believe in her authenticity, she has undeniably re-energized the discussion of why there aren't more women in leadership positions. Debating the topic raises consciousness, and that is progress in itself.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I seek advice from many people in my life. Professionally, I've been very fortunate to have a network of incredibly smart and talented people to turn to for input. I've also had champions who have helped promote my accomplishments and opened up doors to new opportunities. I also rely on my friends, who know me very well and can help me maintain perspective. My most trusted mentor is my husband who, in addition to being my number one fan, is also an experienced and accomplished leader. He is an excellent sounding board, is skilled in helping me evaluate challenging issues, and also plays devil's advocate when I need to look at something from a different angle.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
While I read about larger-than-life women all over the world accomplishing great feats with courage and determination, I'm impressed, and I wonder how they do it. However, it's the women in my own life, doing amazing things on a daily basis, who truly inspire me. I admire Jane Park, the CEO of Julep, who has been incredibly tenacious in building her company as a woman entrepreneur. She is also very humble, transparent, and generous with people like me seeking her advice. I admire Alayne Sulkin, the Publisher of ParentMap (a parenting-focused media company), who is one of the most passionate, optimistic, and actively involved people I know. Her enthusiasm is infectious. I admire Alex Tibbetts who had an opportunity to attend one of Sheryl Sandberg's networking dinners for women in Silicon Valley and started her own networking group for women leaders here in Seattle. I admire these women who have an idea and go for it. That's what I find most inspiring.

What are your hopes for the future of Rivet & Sway?
My hope for Rivet & Sway is to be the authority in helping women look and feel their most beautiful in glasses. We aim to shift the perception of glasses from a "medical device" to one of a woman's most important fashion accessories. We'll elevate the importance of finding the right fit and style to complement a woman's look. We'll continue to develop high quality frames in colors and styles to meet every fashion need. We'll continue to differentiate with best-in-class customer service and attention to detail. And we'll deliver it all at a disruptive value for our customers.