In the world of “Shark Tank,” Gary Vee, and entrepreneur culture, nothing gets glamorized more than the hardships that go into developing a business. The grind is the place where entrepreneurs earn their place at the table.
Sharon Rowe ’79 insists that shouldn’t be the case. In 1989, she founded Eco-Bags Products, which is dedicated “to produce responsibly made and sourced bags at great prices, so that reusable becomes a way of life.” For nearly 30 years, Rowe has run her company without sacrificing personal or professional goals. Last spring, she published “The Magic of Tiny Business,” a book inspired by her lifestyle.
In her book, Rowe takes budding go-getters into the story behind her game-changing company, sharing personal anecdotes that show how they, too, can build a focused business that turns a profit without ever conceding personal or social values for the sake of the bottom line.
“You can work long and hard to do things you don’t really want to do, or you can use your energy to work long and hard on things you want to put your energy into,” Rowe says.
It’s an ethos she has held since her days at Clark. Rowe “lived in the humanities,” and created most of her own curriculum. She was an active member of the arts scene and even wrote and choreographed her own play, “Transitions.”
Soon after graduating with a degree in theatre arts, Rowe moved to Washington to pursue acting full time. There, she joined the Living Stage Theatre Company, a traveling improv group that performed for children and at area prisons. Rowe wanted more, though, and moved to New York.
“I was filling seats [acting], but I wasn’t filling my wallet,” she says. By this point, she also was working and had become a new mother. It was exhausting. “And then I saw an opportunity to change behavior and to make a living,” she recalls.
That’s when she launched the ECOBAGS brand. The company’s mission is to create and promote reusable bags for shopping, leisure, and other daily activities, thereby reducing the use of plastic bags, which are wasteful and costly to the environment. The company’s motto is, “Cleaning up the planet one bag at a time.”
“There was no framework for a socially conscious business when I started,” she laments. “I couldn’t even get recycled paper.” As the ECOBAGS brand has grown, “I’ve been told to cut this corner, or that corner. I’m saying, I don’t have to do that.”
She pressed on because she felt strongly about her product, and the problem it was solving. “I wanted this to be a first step toward a conversation about plastic waste in our lives,” she says. “But I was probably running things a little emotionally, and stumbled at times.”
Rowe is proud to see her company hold true to its mission. Every year since 2013, ECOBAGS brand has been certified as a BCORP “Best Business in the World,” an honor awarded to companies who use their platform to benefit society and the environment.
Rowe credits her Clark experience with influencing her views, with a particular nod to a class taught by Richard Peet, professor of geography. “I studied Geography of American Poverty under him and it opened my eyes to the imbalances of our society,” she recalls. “People come from different incomes and different backgrounds, so their situations aren’t always a natural occurrence. Some of it is baked-in.”
Through “The Magic of Tiny Business,” Rowe is now helping entrepreneurs understand how that they can launch and operate an enterprise that’s consistent with their values, but also doesn’t consume them. “You can be an entrepreneur,” she says, “and have a life at the same time.”