Have you ever looked at a societal problem and wished you could create the solution? Meet Sterling McDavid. She is the CEO and founder of The Starling Project, a charitable home product line with the mission of providing solar energy to communities in need around the world. She started her career on Wall Street, but it was thanks to UNICEF that she became a social entrepreneur, going on to transform the quality of living for though supporting solar energy efforts in Chad.
How did she go from an analyst at one of the most prestigious banks on Wall Street to creating a product line that is empowering others both locally and globally? “I remember thinking that if I didn’t start to work towards my mission sooner rather than later, lives would be lost.” And that’s just the beginning of her inspiring story.
Can you give us a glimpse into your story? How did The Starling Project become a part of it?
I started my career at Goldman Sachs after years of dreaming to live and work in New York. Part of the reason New York was so appealing to me was because of the endless opportunities and constant exposure to new things. Although I am from Texas, my father did quite a bit of work in New York, so I was fortunate to have spent a good amount of my childhood in the city and I knew it was really the place I wanted to end up.
When I officially moved to New York, my friend Jenna Bush Hager encouraged me to join UNICEF Next Generation, a group of young professionals 21 to 40 years old working to save lives. It seemed like the perfect side passion because I knew with the long hours I would be working in banking that I would most certainly want to be involved with something outside of work.
What I didn’t realize was that getting involved with UNICEF would literally change my life in every way. While I was still at Goldman, the UNICEF team in New York encouraged me to join a field visit to Vietnam. While in Vietnam, I got to witness so many special moments and see UNICEF literally save lives. To be a part of that was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I came back to the states so inspired and I just knew I had to leave Wall Street and embark on a new journey to start some type of social good company that could benefit communities in need.
After two years at Goldman, I went back to school to study Architecture and Design at Parsons School of Design in New York. My goal was to fire up the creative side of my brain. I ended up taking a job in Paris working for the architecture firm Projectiles on a spa resort.
It was in Paris that I got exposed to the magical world of fragrance on a deeper level. I have always been a candle junkie, but being introduced to fragrance connoisseurs in Paris literally sparked a simple, but original idea: light for light. I thought about how much I love candles, but how it can be hard to justify buying them since they are really a luxury. My passion and focus with UNICEF was already solar energy, so I thought why not start a candle brand that helps provide solar energy to rural communities in need? Then people could purchase a candle that really has a deeper meaning and be a part of collective action–our community coming together to help another community in need. I immediately called UNICEF to see what they thought about the idea and they loved it, so we hit the ground running searching for the perfect first solar project to fund and I began the process of sourcing materials for the Starling brand.
Starling Project candles are US-made and sustainable. We use handmade recycled glass, cotton wicks, and soy wax all sourced in the US and the candles are hand poured in Brooklyn. We also use natural essential oils to create our unique scents. Our packaging is also includes recycled paper. I knew I wanted a brand that gave back, but that also supported US small businesses and was sustainable in the manufacturing process. We are proud to say the first project we committed to with UNICEF has been fully funded. The Starling Project gave over $100,000 to support solar systems in Chad.
Did you always know that this would be the path you wanted to take?
At my core, I have probably always had the entrepreneurial spirit because both of my parents were entrepreneurs, so I wanted to combine that drive with my passion to help others to create something original and inspiring.
What do you think are the top three factors that have enabled your company to be successful?
- Our customers/followers really do understand that we are all about collective action, a community coming together locally to help another community that is in need.
- Our candles are sustainably made in the US and all-natural. We use soy wax, a cotton wick, all natural essential oils, hand-made glass and the candles are hand poured in Brooklyn.
- Our candles are the best on the market. We craft entirely unique fragrances based off of tremendous market research. We also made sure our candles burn evenly and have a long burn time. Each candle burns 60+ hours!
What motivates you when you wake up in the morning? What inspires you to keep the momentum going?
All of the people I have met while working in the field with UNICEF who are doing the best they can every day with the little they have. They are some of the most happy and hard working people I have ever met, and it is my obligation to be sure they are able to have access to basic human rights.
What advice do you have for young women who want to build their own brand or start a project but are scared or hesitant? What is the first thing people can do to get started?
It is key to first identify your passion and determine if your heart is fully invested in it. Then, if you are thoughtful with your process and take risks that are carefully calculated, you will succeed. It may take some time and diligent work, but keep pushing your vision. I started by contacting people who inspire me to chat about my vision. Their thoughts and guidance really helped me solidify the Starling Project concept.
Can you talk about some challenges you faced and how you overcame them?
First and foremost, it was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made leaving a stable job on Wall Street to pursue a dream that seemed in some ways like it would never work. I wondered if I would regret leaving, but I remember thinking that if I didn’t start to work towards my mission sooner rather than later, lives would be lost. That sounds dramatic, but it is true!
I am a believer that we are each put in this world with a specific purpose and I knew I would be doing society an injustice if I didn’t follow my passion. Ever since the day I left Goldman, I have never once looked back with any regret. It is all about reminding yourself that you are doing this for the greater good and that with hard work you can do anything.
What habits have you built that have helped you to be successful?
Thanks to my time spent as an analyst at Goldman Sachs, I developed great working habits from the start of my career. I would say some of the most helpful habits include being extremely thorough, always reading through every little detail, and asking many questions. I am also known to take an absurd amount of notes. I acquired a habit of responding to any email I receive within five hours. I call it my five hour rule and truthfully, I typically respond to emails within an hour unless I am in meetings. This mitigates having emails pile up and forces me to stay on top of things. Finally, I would say that I am not fearful to ask someone for something that may be beneficial for the business. The worst thing that could happen is they say “no” and no really isn’t as painful as one would think.
Do you have any sources of knowledge and empowerment that you recommend?
Absolutely! I am all about getting extra knowledge and empowerment anytime I can.
For books, I recommend Originals by Adam Grant and #Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso. Originals highlights entrepreneurs who are nonconformists and have gone against the grain in the way they have built their businesses while #Girlboss is about how Sophia built the Nasty Gal empire. Both books are immensely informative on how to build a business, but are also inspiring because they show that really anyone can do it if they put their mind to it.
I also recommend listening to the “How I Built This” podcast which features 30 minute interviews with entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Sara Blakely. It is absolutely fascinating and inspiring to hear how they built their companies.
Finally, I always rely on my mentor for encouragement and guidance. I believe everyone should have at least one mentor. I was fortunate to find my strongest mentor when I was on Wall Street. He is one of the most thoughtful people I know and is constantly helping me strategize. Some of the most inventive ideas I have had began with a conversation with him, and I find that having another person invested in what I am trying to accomplish is a lot of what keeps me going on a daily basis.
What do you see as one of the biggest challenges our generation faces? What gives you hope about that?
I think our generation struggles a bit with finding the right career path. I think it is a beautiful thing that we have more optionality than ever and that we can more easily pursue our dreams, but narrowing down to the perfect path is a constant challenge for many millennials. However, we have such an abundance of great examples of people who have had non-traditional paths to success that it excites me for our generation to have freedom with choosing our destiny.
Behind the Scenes
Do you have a morning routine?
Every morning I get up at 7am, read The Skimm, go through emails, drink 4 glasses of water and a cup of green tea and do a little stretching. I find drinking water and green tea to be calming and cleansing, which I love! Then I am typically off to my first meeting by 8:30am.
What is your favorite thing to do in your free time?
Hosting dinner parties!
How do you refuel during the day?
Yoga. If I am fortunate enough to have a day with a break in the afternoon or evening, you will find me at Y7.
Who is on your power playlist? Jay Z and Beyoncé.
Do you have a personal mantra? Live an inspiring story.
Facebook: The Starling Project