Sarah Shewey, CEO & Founder of Happily
Sarah Shewey in conversation with Natasha Samtani in Los Angeles, CA | April 2018
I'm Sarah Shewey and I'm the CEO and founder of Happily, and I'm an enabler of ideas that bring really cool communities together.
Walk me through your upbringing. Where are you from? How did you end up on this path?
I grew up in Orange County. I was a child of the eighties and my mom is Korean and my dad is West Virginian, so I like to tell people that I will watch K-Dramas while eating biscuits and gravy, or I'll listen to bluegrass while eating Kimchi. I'm very much from two totally different worlds. My parents actually met in college, in Long Beach. They had me when they were 23, 24, super young. Then they had my brother right after me. We were both pretty precocious children, so we were sent to a private school. My mom, when she had me in her womb, said, “let my child be ugly but let her not be stupid.” And pretty much the day that I sprung into planet earth, she started teaching me. When I got into school I was pretty advanced, so they skipped me in first grade and then they wanted to skip me again in fourth grade. So, I'm this weird child that was actually homeschooled from fourth to eighth grade. And then I begged my mom to let me go to high school. I started in public school in ninth grade and was so strange and socially awkward, I knew nobody when I went into school. I had two friends my first year but I watched a lot of TV, so all of my ideas about school and relating to people were based off of Saved By The Bell. I was super excited but nobody really wanted to be my friend. I had to learn pretty quickly how to get people to be interested in you, and I didn't understand that there are all these new cliques and scenes that weren't things that you saw on TV.
I have this outsider perspective on the way people make friendships, and do things together and celebrate together.
From there I wound up becoming homecoming princess my senior year, which is crazy. When my name was up there, I thought it was a prank, I just did not get it. But over time, I think because I wasn't a part of any clique,I guess my openness to making friends with other people allowed me to move through lots of different circles. Then I went to college at USC in Los Angeles, and I was 16 at the time because I accelerated and skipped those grades. I was like, oh my God, everyone is really adult here.
In order to support us and homeschool us as kids - my mom worked days and my dad worked nights, and so he worked as a janitor and my mom worked as a clerk in a doctor's office, whatever they could get when they were in their early twenties with two kids trying to hustle. Meanwhile, USC is famous for celebrity kids. I got into a sorority and I hated it because it was this really inauthentic way of making friendships and community. I found out pretty quickly that that wasn't for me. But that was a really great experience to see that relationships can be manufactured.
I guess I kind of did that a little bit on my own, in high school. When I decided to leave the sorority I just became a nerd again. And I wrote this paper about the structure of symbols about how people's visual symbols can turn into cultural and even cult movements. In the process of doing that I realized that to go from a logo, like the Nike Swoosh, into a visual symbol that would change group behavior. All that kind of led to me realizing that I was going to have some type of career and dedication of my life's work to social interactions that were meaningful, and hopefully more authentic. My goal with events is to make them more authentic and to actually let people see and celebrate their unique role within this world, rather than being mindless zombies, following some sort of scene or trend.
Talk to me about the moment you realized what you wanted to do as a career?
I actually wanted to be a TV producer when I was a kid because when I was homeschooled, I learned everything off of TV, and I was working at Miramax as an intern back in the day. I was there during the Harvey Weinstein days, and I actually remember being onboarded and somebody in staff saying, "oh, you're young and you're cute. If you hear Harvey walking down the aisles, you should go the other way." And so when all this Weinstein stuff came out, I remembered all of that. Even though I wanted to be this TV producer and I was positioned in the right place to do that, I realized that I care more about working with people I love than doing what I love. I decided after I graduated that I wasn't going to stay as a producer.
My cousin was living in Boston and she said I should just come out and live with her for a little bit. I wanted to live on the East Coast, but I had to go to school in LA because I was young and my parents said no, you can't go to the East Coast. I moved to Boston, and I fell into this job as a freelance event coordinator for Harvard's American repertory theater. They were throwing this huge gala with Meryl Streep as the co-chair with Ann Reinking and Steve Martin, and they told me, we need somebody to pull this together. You know how to talk to celebrities and you have this production background, you should do it. I was also kind of cheap because I had never done anything like that before. I just needed a job. All of a sudden, I was in charge of this huge nonprofit, gala fundraiser, very glitzy. I just worked really hard and pulled it together. It became Boston's best party of the year. I realized, maybe I can do this for a living. So, then the guy who was on the board owned a cool catering company, Max Ultimate Food in Boston, and he offered me a job and that's how I started in the events space.
So you got your first permanent job.
Yeah. They said, we want to hire you. You're so cool. You did such a great job on that event. And I said I would love to work for you because I really need a job.
So after Boston's best party of the year, I realized I'm good at this! I thought, okay, I'm not going back to school for event planning and I don't really think that there is a good school for event planning anyways. I thought, what can I do to have my own event planning business someday? I'll start working for other people. I thought about, what does every event need? It needs a venue, it needs food, it needs power and lights. I worked for a catering company. I worked for The Museum of Latin American Art, helped them with their public and their private events departments. I even had a short stint for an AV (audio-video) company, and I was in the basement of a hotel selling AV. So, I know how to wire a plug and stuff like that. It was really useful because a lot of the planners that I had met over the years of working for these different companies were good at design and they were good at timelines, but they had no idea how to run a computer. But I always did this knowing that I wanted to start my own business and I finally said, I'm going to do this.
I started a company called Pink Cloud and some lady asked, what makes you so different? Why should anybody hire Pink Cloud over these other companies? And I thought, well what makes me different than everybody else? Whatever people make fun of you for is clearly what other people see, why you're different. I used to get made fun of in Boston for recycling because I'm from California, so I grew up like that. But when I was at the catering company I couldn't understand all the waste and I would cut up my paper and reuse them into little notepads. And they just thought it was really funny. Around that same time, Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth came out. And I was learning about climate change because this was in 2007. So, I was on Blogger and I wrote a blog post about my New Year's resolution being that all of my events would be as waste free as possible and somehow the producers of Oprah saw that, the head of special events at Conde Nast found out about Pink Cloud, and NPR also called asking to help make a story about sustainable events and this sustainable lifestyle? I didn't get on Oprah. Which is actually good because I literally was a girl in a basement. I had no idea how to handle that kind of demand. I did light consulting for Conde Nast and I broke the story with NPR about how wedding couples for going green and using their weddings as a statement of their sustainable lifestyle. And that was really awesome. From there I made myself the girl that you needed to know if you wanted to throw a cool, sustainable event.
Then along the way I'd heard about this thing called TED, really randomly through a blogger friend, and I was like, that is amazing and I need to be working with those people!
So cut to a year or so later and I was speaking at this power breakfast, and all these people are really impressive. I was talking to them about sustainable events. Afterwards, nobody wanted to talk to me. I was the weird, "well let's be green, guys.” So I made a point to introduce myself to the women in the room. And this one woman, Rhonda Carnegie, I owe my whole entire adult career to her. She was the head of publishing at Conde Nast, she was the head of advertising for the New Yorker for 20 years and she said, “the publishing world is dying and I'm moving. I'm either going to go to Good Magazine or to the TED Conferences and I think you're really interesting.” I told her, that TED thing is going to blow up and you should go there, and hire me, and I'll help you build this next generation of TEDsters. And a year later she made me a TED ambassador, then hired me.
I helped to build the TEDx community. I had raised the money, commissioned artists and technologists and helped all these people get there, and a production company underneath me. I show up on the day to meet all the staff that was going to be working all of the activations and be with us for the week. And I was bummed out because it was a temp staffing agency which was full of little blue haired old ladies and people who are kind of unemployable. I worked lots of jobs at temp staffing agencies, but I was like, dude, we're TED. I don't understand why can't we get people who have their own companies to just show up for the day. Form a special ops team of people who work in the events department of big companies - that didn't exist
And so that was my a-ha moment where I realized I can build some company that would be this community of freelance event planners together to sort of show up, work on the coolest projects, and leave. And there's something about working on the same project year after year after year, which is really beautiful because it just continues, like a relationship, to unfold. But it gets a little monotonous too. So I was ready to actually take a pause from TED and start doing something where I was working on lots of other people's events and not just my own and Happily became that vehicle to do it.
So you started Happily.
Yes, Happily! I actually started it first as Pink Cloud Nine. It was a division of Pink Cloud. And we started first in the wedding space because I just needed to make sure that people would actually like that idea. Event planners and small businesses generally are all competing for the same business. And this is a new idea, to team up. It was, "no, this is my client and I'll maybe hire you if I need extra help." So I wasn't 100 percent sure that it would work. And also I wasn't ready - I didn't feel confident yet to go out and say that we do conferences, or things that would have repeat business, or that had lots of variables. So weddings seemed to be a good place to start. We started with Pink Cloud Nine and the first time I put a job ad up for freelance event planner, 100 people applied. And I realized there's something here. And then 100 became a thousand. After a couple of years, I was ready to open it up into all types of events. We rebranded the company to Happily, and it references both weddings and events. So "ever after" starts with happily and then "happily at your service." I was the first producer that was hired again as a freelancer, for an agency here in Los Angeles that put me on this YouTube project for their Summit in 30 days. I pulled it together and along the way I said, "Hey, I think you need more team, can I use Happily to bring more people on board?" And they said, "sure, I don't see why not." And then I started adding people to the crew. After we had that one project, we started to have more and more. I'm really proud that we've had over 50,000 people apply to work with us over the past few years. We are nationwide and we're servicing all different types of customers from really creative independent organizers who are throwing their own experiential festivals, or pop-ups, or their own little summits, retreats, and conferences, to huge brands doing big product launches like at Coachella or South By. And we still are helping couples who are getting married. The clients that we work with are people who have really great ideas and enthusiasm for their project. They want to see this to be the best project ever. And we come in right at that point when they just need to multiply themselves into awesome people to execute that idea.
That's awesome. You created that.
Yeah, I mean I feel like we all created it, my clients, the planners, the administrative team that I'm a part of at Happily. We are still creating it.
You had an idea based off an experience, where there was a void you felt needed to be filled. There's kind of a lesson there.
Yeah, I think that the lesson overall, and it's a theme that runs through everything that I've done is, really work with people that you love to work with and everything's gonna be fine.
"I just feel powerful because I have so many wonderful people around me and I am constantly listening to problems and reading or thinking about solutions. I think there just comes a point where you get into this mode of being powerful."
What would you tell young women who are looking to launch an idea they have?
For somebody who has just come across a really great idea, congratulations. That's really cool. I come up with 100 great ideas every day. If you really want to make that idea into something that's a business and a really successful business, good luck. You have to work so, so hard. I knew that Happily was a great idea from the beginning. I didn't know that there was gonna be so many challenges and sleepless nights, from then until now, years later, I still am in that phase and I know that every other CEO or founder that I've met are all like that. I think we don't talk about that a lot because we want people to come onto our team and we want it to look like we've got it all under control. And it's just impossible, especially if the idea is super great, for one person to actually live up to that idea. So, I still feel that I'm trying to live up to this great idea even though I've had some traction with it. I think being powerful is being connected to reality, to lots of people, to solutions, and to problems. So if you don't have that connection with all those four things and God knows how many other more, really you're powerless.
Can you recall a moment when you felt powerful?
I don't really think about being powerful. I just feel powerful because I have so many wonderful people around me and I am constantly listening to problems and reading or thinking about solutions. So I think there just comes a point where you get into this mode of being powerful.
Do you have any mantras?
I think I said it a million times, but it's really work with people you love. It's way more important than doing what you love.