Sofia de Meyer and Sofi Khwaja are two female entrepreneurs who have separately built successful businesses that positively impact people and the planet at every stage of its value chain.
The following episode was recorded during the 2023 Villars Symposium held by the Villars Institute, where we recorded several short interviews over a period of three days. The Founder Spirit Podcast is proud to be a partner of the Villars Institute, a nonprofit foundation focused on accelerating the transition to a net-zero economy and restoring planetary health.
In this episode of The Founder Spirit, we explore inspiring journeys of Sofia de Meyer, Founder of Whitepod Eco-Luxury Hotel and Opaline, and Sofi Khwaja, Founder and CEO of Thesus, unraveling the systemic approach they've embraced in cultivating a regenerative economy. Discover the insights, challenges, and transformative strategies that have fueled their endeavors, paving the way for sustainable and impactful ventures.
How did two former lawyers create businesses to challenge the status quo and disrupt industries characterized by systemic inequalities?
TUNE IN to this intimate conversation with two incredible female entrepreneurs as they share their experiences in shaping businesses that go beyond profit, contributing to a future where regeneration and resilience are at the forefront of economic innovation.
Sofia de Meyer
Having graduated with a Law degree from Bristol University, Sofia de Meyer started her career as a corporate lawyer, working for an international law firm in London. For 7 years, she advised multinational companies on mergers and acquisitions. In 2004, she left London to come back home in Switzerland and has since, committed herself to social entrepreneurship. She founded her first company, Whitepod, an eco-tourism camp in the alps and received the Times Eco Tourism Award, as a recognition for its positive impact on the environment and local communities.
Sofia is also the founder of Opaline SA, a Swiss beverage company focused on circular and regenerative economy. Founded in her kitchen 2009, Opaline is certified B-Corp and has, since its first trials, scaled up to reach 1 million bottles produced and sold in Switzerland. Sofia has been invited to present and share her experience at leading economic forums, including the World Economic Forum and the Forum des 100.
Sofia is a member the board of the FiBL, the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, employing over 200 scientists and project managers, running programs around the world. She is also a member of the board of the Riviera Chablais Hospital, a hospital based in the Chablais run by a dedicated team of more than 2,000 members. Recently, she joined the leadership circle of Daughters for Earth, a fund and movement of women rising up to mobilize $100 million in support of women’s ground efforts to protect and regenerate the Earth.
Sofi is the CEO and Co-Founder of Thesus. Thesus is leading the way in building a regenerative footwear business, one that positively impacts People and the Planet at every stage of its value chain. For Thesus, this means moving beyond supply chain & sustainability, toward a systems-based thinking of impact and most importantly inspiring millions of people living in growing cities around the world to be outside, connecting with themselves, their community and the Planet.
[00:04] Jennifer Wu: Hi everyone, thanks for listening to The Founder Spirit podcast. I'm your host, Jennifer Wu. In this podcast series, I interview exceptional individuals from all over the world with the Founder Spirit, ranging from social entrepreneurs, tech founders, to philanthropists, elite athletes, and more. Together, we'll uncover not only how they manage to succeed in face of multiple challenges, but also who they are as people and their human story.
If this podcast has been beneficial or valuable to you, feel free to become a patron and support us on Patreon.com, that is P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/TheFounderSpirit. As always, you can find us on Apple, Google, Amazon and Spotify, as well as social media and our website at TheFounderSpirit.com.
The following episode was recorded during the 2023 Villars Symposium held by the Villars Institute, where I recorded several short interviews over a period of 3 days. The Founder Spirit Podcast is proud to be a partner of the Villars Institute, a nonprofit foundation focused on accelerating the transition to a net-zero economy and restoring planetary health.
“In fact, we didn't set out to make a pair of footwear. We don't have a background in footwear or design or fashion, none of it at all. We set out as a bit of an academic experiment or experience to understand an industry and how that industry breeds a system of inequity. And garments being a trillion dollar industry that operates with almost complete impunity around the world in some of the most unregulated regions of the world. So the notion of going in and finding, or at least attempting to make small incremental changes, there was a belief that you could have a big impact at the end of the day.”
“That triple bottom line is really integrated into every stage of our value chain and every actor, every partner that comes into being with us… So it's a lot about creating the value chains and linking the community to those value chains so that they see the larger benefit of the company.”
“I found it fascinating to accompany CEOs of large corporations in their thinking, in their strategies, in their ambitions. But at the same time, there was one question that kept on popping up in my mind, and the question was imagine if all that intelligence was or could be put at the service of regenerative economy.”
“And regenerative agriculture requires all of us on the value chain to think systemically. So we don't see the farm as just a producer of cheap food, can’t do that anymore. We need to have the lens that allows us to see the farm as nature, nature that nourishes us, and farmers as the guardian of the balance of what nature can feed and what it needs to regenerate.”
Joining us today are two female entrepreneurs, Sofia de Meyer and Sofi Khwaja, who have separately built successful businesses that (positively) impact people and the planet at every stage of its value chain.
Moving beyond supply chain and sustainability toward a systems-based thinking, the two are now teaming up on a new venture in regenerative agriculture to re-think and re-design the full ecosystem in connecting with communities as we face enormous climate challenges.
How did two former lawyers create businesses to challenge the status quo and disrupt industries characterized by systemic inequalities? Well, let’s talk to them & find out.
Welcome to the Founder Spirit podcast! We're recording live today from the Villars Symposium 2023, and I'm very happy that we have Sofia de Meyer, who is the Founder of Whitepod Eco-Luxury Hotel and the Founder of Opaline, a company that produces local eco-responsible beverages.
And we also have Sofi Khwaja, who is the Founder and CEO of Thesus, formerly known as Alice & Whittles, a footwear business that is thoughtfully designed from natural and recycled materials. So welcome, thank you for being here!
[04:28] Sofia de Meyer: Thank you for having us.
[04:29] Sofi Khwaja: Yes, thank you.
[04:30] Jennifer: So before we dive into how you each started your socially responsible companies.I think the audience would love to hear about some of your formative experiences growing up that may have shaped your life trajectory.
[04:48] Sofi: (chuckles) Well, gosh, that's a great question. I often start conversations around education, where my formal education started. In fact, I suppose my upbringing really from birth lends itself to where I am today.
I'm born to quite an entrepreneurial family. My father worked for many years in finance, he comes from a large family of eleven children. He was the eldest boy and his father passed away when he was eleven years old. So he sort of took on this large role in this big family shortly after partition of India and Pakistan. So there was a big migration from India to Pakistan and all the struggle and turmoil that comes with it.
But my father, who recently passed away, actually has been a massive, big driver in my entrepreneurial ambitions. He ended up getting a law degree in Pakistan (in) the early days of Pakistan and then a full scholarship to NYU to study business and onward to Canada after that, as he migrated. And he did multiple things, stayed in finance but in his last years he was an entrepreneur and brought forth a line of cosmetic businesses across the country, knowing nothing about cosmetics.
So there you go, I think this is where a lot of bravery starts in a country that he was one of the first immigrants to. So absolutely that mindset, the mindset of being able to create from very little was instilled in me from a very young age. Also, I was born in Canada, so having an education system that allowed me to think creatively and to have high aspirations.
And also coming from an immigrant family where I felt community, strong sense of community, both in Canada but also overseas. And so when we built our business, it was very much recognizing that and not understanding why economic frameworks didn't fairly include people all around the world, regardless of where they lived. So I think that's early foundations of maybe where I come from.
[07:04] Sofia: Beautiful story, thank you, Sofi. Yes, and thank you for asking the question because I really do feel that your first years and where you're born and how you're raised definitely has an influence on who you become.
So I also come from a big family, we're a family of nine children. My father was a self-made man. So he really, I think, taught me, and still to this day, even though he passed away many years ago, the notion of perseverance. If you have an idea and a project, it's going to be tough, but if you persevere, then you will go a long way to achieving this project.
My mother was born in China in the 1940s. So she experienced a country in war, she experienced migration, and she experienced arriving in Switzerland as a Chinese, half-Chinese, half-Italian, but Chinese kind of features in a whole new culture.
And I was raised in their own school because they took over the school (Beau Soleil, a Swiss boarding school) here in Villars. So we're in Villars, and I was lucky to be born and raised here, but the school was multicultural school. So right from the start, it was such a gift to evolve with friends from different parts of the world and how we actually communicated with each other, learned from each other. So that was one strong element that still inspires me today in everything I do - just the richness in different cultures and what we can achieve together.
The third element is, of course, being raised in nature. That closeness to nature from a very young age has pursued me up till this day, and in everything I build as a business, nature always has a very important place. So humans and nature, yeah.
[09:00] Jennifer: Just following that thought, Sofia, because you initially worked as an international M&A lawyer, what inspired you to start your own business? First in the eco- tourism and then in the beverage, essentially taking on the giants of Coke and Pepsi?
[09:21] Sofia: (chuckles) Yes. Well, law was kind of a natural trajectory for my father because he had five daughters and four sons, and he wanted us to be safe in the kind of profession we would lead. And safe to him meant established professions like medicine, law. And so that's really what brought me there.
But why did I leave? I left because I had practiced for seven years, and I found it fascinating to accompany CEOs of large corporations in their thinking, in their strategies, in their ambitions. But at the same time, there was one question that kept on popping up in my mind, and the question was imagine if all that intelligence was or could be put at the service of regenerative economy. Which means, okay, profit is an element, but including a community, the human side of things. And of course, nature - nature preservation, but (also) nature regeneration.
And when you're that far into your M&A career, you're not going to change large corporations. That's not your role, your role is to advise them. So really the right space for me to be in or felt natural for me to be in was creating my own business and that's what got me to establishing this first business.
[10:53] Jennifer: You know, that's very interesting because you said your father is a self-made man and he wanted you guys, all nine children, to have very safe careers.
[11:02] Sofia: Wonder what he'd say from up there. (chuckles)
[11:06] Jennifer: (I) find that really interesting. Sofi, what about you? I know you also worked as a lawyer and you eventually ended up working at UNHCR, which is the UN refugee agency. So what inspired you to want to create a footwear company that is essentially transforming the whole supply chain of how we make shoes today?
[11:31] Sofi: Yes well, I will say that just based in my years, it was really a detour into the corporate world versus an ambition or even an aspiration. I was recruited in - and I needed to pay student loans, so that's where the corporate world went.
And coming back into the UN system was, I think, where I had always wanted to at least experience. Mind you, both realms gave me incredible foundations for running a company, incredible. I mean, a work ethic in a law firm is like none other and certainly with UNHCR, which is very much a field based organization, the human element of that and rebuilding and helping, at least lending a hand to rebuild, and find durable solutions for swaths of people during times of crisis really brings in the human element there.
But the choice to leave again felt initially it didn't feel like a long-term decision. It also felt like a bit of a detour to explore what working outside these larger systems could look like, to find creative solutions for some of the inequities that we were seeing at a grassroots or at a field level.
And in fact, we didn't set out to make a pair of footwear. We don't have a background in footwear or design or fashion, none of it at all. We set out as a bit of an academic experiment or experience to understand an industry and how that industry breeds a system of inequity. And garments being a trillion dollar industry that operates with almost complete impunity around the world in some of the most unregulated regions of the world. So the notion of going in and finding, or at least attempting to make small incremental changes, there was a belief that you could have a big impact at the end of the day.
And so that's the idea and that's the impetus that moved my husband and I, we were the ones that started the company and we did it together. So that's what led us away initially, for what we believe to be a short fragment of time into the world of fashion and ten years later we're still here, so (chuckles)...
[13:48] Jennifer: So you must be doing something right.
[13:52] Sofi: Or lots of things very wrong (chuckles) which keep forcing us to rebuild, so yes.
[13:57] Jennifer: So in your earlier panel today, it’s called “Protecting the Planet through Entrepreneurship” around systemic shift. So for those people who weren't able to participate in the Villars Symposium, we all know that the systemic shift is often very difficult, it’s a very hard thing to do.
What were some of the challenges that you had encountered in the early days of creating your ventures?
[14:28] Sofia: How long do we have to talk about the challenges? (chuckles) Well, I think systemic change, at least in my experience, and I can speak of this first project I created with the hindsight, of course, that I have today.
But when I started this first project, I didn't have a clear idea of what I was going to create and where I was going to go with it. What I did know was that I wanted to create something from my gut feeling. So step away from the mind, the brain that had been trained to draw business plans or strategy plans, and that aspect was going to come later. I knew it was going to come but later to help me implement what was my instinct, my deep gut feeling, my deep needs.
So that's what I toyed with was giving me that space to experiment. What is it that I want to do? Believing that if I like what I do, then it might be contagious. This is away from a marketing and strategic plan, but it might be contagious with the people that would come and share this experience with me.
So that's how this first project led to this eco-tourism camp. Because what I felt as a need back then was to connect to this nature that I spoke of before - that was my need and nature inspired my first business. So it guided me in the choice of the modules that were going to sleep in, the activities were going to develop, the food were going to eat, and how we would interact with each other. So what I'd say is systemic to me starts with that posture and then everything flows from there.
With my second business and a few years experience in all those challenges of being an entrepreneur and being innovative, which means you have difficulty finding funders, you have difficulty getting known out there in the world because you don't have big means and big marketing means to do that.
But in the second project with the juice business, that started from probably bit more experience and a higher ambition, which was to actually change the system, the food system, particularly the drinks industry system, to bring it back to something that was more local, more regenerative, more in connection. So here's the systemic full-blown, but that was the second project, second step.
[16:55] Jennifer: Sofi, and how do you integrate triple bottom line, so people, planet and profit, into your business?
[17:04] Sofi: I think as we talked about today, moving away from this hierarchical structure and more to one of systemic thinking, that triple bottom line is really integrated into every stage of our value chain and every actor, every partner that comes into being with us.
So people and planet are what we look for in terms of our partnerships. And profit as well, in that how profits are shared, not just at our company level, but at our partnership level is extremely important. It's not easy to do and the measurement of that is extremely difficult. But this is why and we talk a little bit about it in the workshop is taking the time to lay foundations to build those partnerships up not quickly, but through meaningful relationships and understanding and shared value sets, allows the business to bloom into something where you can at least attempt to measure that along the way and regularly.
We're fortunate enough right now to have part of our ecosystem, investors who care about that. I think that's always a challenge, certainly a challenge at the public company level, but even as a private company to constantly to stay alive in this current system without the recognition of the planet and people, really. Because really what we're being valued on is how many products we're selling and what our revenue is at the end of the day.
And without the monetization of that, we're really required to bring our community into that ecosystem and share all the work that we're doing and not just share, but create a sense of belonging for that ecosystem, so that even if it's not part of the larger system, our community builds that into their process of thinking when they're making transactions and when they're speaking about companies like ours.
So it's a lot about creating the value chains and linking the community to those value chains so that they see the larger benefit of the company.
[19:27] Jennifer: And I know there's some new joint projects that you guys are working on. So Sofia, do you want to tell us a little bit about that? (chuckles)
[19:38] Sofia: I'll try, bearing in mind that and it's probably what I love about it. It's in gestation, it's about co-creation and it's about dropping a few seeds and see where they take us so what I'm going to share probably is not as clear as it could be, but it's part of the process.
First of all, what I'd like to say, and it's coming back to systemic thinking, is the fact that Sofi and I met twice, I think, before this kind of idea came. But because of what Sofi just mentioned, that sense of community and sharing stories allowed us to suddenly see that between our two stories, even if we're operating in two different markets, there's a common space, which is agriculture. Everything comes from agriculture, whether it's to make a shoe, even if we use recycling product, of course, as Sofi said she does and then in the juice industry, obviously, they're the fruit that we use.
And in our drive to, you mentioned the title “Protecting Nature, I think it's about regenerating our ecosystem would be more appropriate. With our drive to regenerate ecosystem, we started exchanging on what is regenerative agriculture, how can we help with our experience in projects to accelerate that move to regenerative agriculture?
And regenerative agriculture requires all of us on the value chain to think systemically. So we don't see the farm as just a producer of cheap food, can’t do that anymore. We need to have the lens that allows us to see the farm as nature, nature that nourishes us, and farmers as the guardian of the balance of what nature can feed and what it needs to regenerate.
So within that concept and our exchanges, the idea of wool came into our mind because sheep are an essential part of regenerative agriculture, they are multifunctional, if we might say so. So we started there, and we're hoping to build from there and to say, okay, how can our joint intelligences, missions, drives, experiences can actually allow us to create a whole new project starting from the source, which is, in this case, the sheep as a nature-based solution and I'm looking at Sofi to add something, because I may have both clarity and focus but…
[22:00] Sofi: I think that was wonderful. I think that really summed it up nicely. And surrounding the farm, and I think work that my partner and I had done in India lends itself to this dialogue today is recognizing that there's a full human ecosystem surrounding farms and families and education and health and all sorts of things that are central food security, of course, and textiles.
And to be able to lend support to entire communities, many of the foundations of what we create need to come straight back to those raw materials. And the foundations of creation, of course, are food and textiles. And in our two cases. And so being able to sort of bring that back and link these systems together is something I'm really excited about, something I think will be a real gap and a real solution to maybe the alternatives in what industrialized and mono-cropping can give us today.
[22:57] Jennifer: So we're in the second day of the Villars Symposium, can you share with us some of your key takeaways, or at least learnings from the Villars Fellows, a group of super impressive teenagers that are here?
[23:14] Sofia: Well, I think the future is in good hands, certainly when I hear their questions and their thoughts on building new systems, new ways of thinking about entrepreneurship - my key takeaway is probably that one.
The Villars Institute and this Villars Symposium is phenomenal in how it can connect experts, and we've heard some real experts in these past few hours, and the younger generation to inspire them to see that there are solutions being thought through.
The bridge that Sofi and I came and try and contribute with is to actually give and propose to the students a real project where they can apply what they've heard in the science plenary to real thoughts. Now we're on the ground, we have to create, how do we start, bring out all the challenges that we face.
So that's my key takeaway is that all of us can contribute to that shift. We need the next generation, we need the experts, but we also need those who are on the grounds as living labs, running living labs to try those ideas within the community.
[24:30] Sofi Yes, absolutely, thank you for that - that makes felt the same.
I've also felt that speaking to these students, which is so refreshing, is the fellows are unapologetic and unafraid to challenge both norms and alternatives to norms. And I genuinely believe that's the way forward, if we take status quo for granted, innovation is stifled.
And so having a safe platform to learn, but also to provide feedback and question and move those conversations forward is brilliant. And really some of my conversations I've had with students have helped challenge me on ideas that I believe have held to be hard and fast. And it's a good reminder that very little is hard and fast, actually there's series of trade-offs, and we might not all have the right answers, but if we're moving in the right direction, the critical thinking minds, I think we're on a good path.
[25:33] Jennifer: Last but not least, what does the Founder Spirit mean to you?
[25:38] Sofia: Well, it's a great name that you found for your podcast. Well, to me, what I'd like to say is that founding has been a creative experience for me, deep within me, creative and then collective creativity, so at both levels. And that's a question of spirit and posture before anything else, so that's what it means for me. It's the right energy, the spirit energy drives the individual and collective creativity.
[26:12] Jennifer: Sofi, your turn.
[26:14] Sofi: Yes, the Founder Spirit. Well, I think almost all founders I know have wonderful ability to create some sort of order in the midst of seeming chaos. And I think, Sofia, you said this once, the ability to dance with chaos. So that probably a joyful approach to hard situations, is that when I look at that word, spirit is what comes to mind.
And I also think of humanity, I think a lot of building bridges and connections, which at the root come from a sense of shared humanity and at least when I've approached, I think to bring something together out of nothing requires a sense of shared humanity.
[27:04] Jennifer: Great I want to thank you both, Sofia and Sofi, for joining us today. We managed to make it a three-way female podcast today, which I've never done before.
[27:15] Sofi: That is sad, it is really sad. Oh, no, it’s really sad. (chuckles)
[27:22] Sofia: It's a great start, we can pursue on that.
[27:26] Jennifer: That's exactly right. So, thank you for joining us today and I wish you best of luck in your new business venture.
[27:32] Sofia & Sofi: Thank you.
[27:36] Jennifer: If this podcast has been beneficial or valuable to you, feel free to become a patron and support us on Patreon.com, that is P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/TheFounderSpirit. As always, you can find us on Apple, Google, Amazon and Spotify, as well as social media and our website at TheFounderSpirit.com.
The Founder Spirit Podcast is proud to be a partner of the Villars Institute, a nonprofit foundation focused on accelerating the transition to a net zero economy and restoring planetary health.
[28:17] END OF AUDIO
(04:30) Importance of Culture and Family
(09:00) Inspiration for Entrepreneurship - Sofia de Meyer
(11:06) Leaving UNHCR to Set Up a Sustainable Footwear Company - Sofi Khwaja
(13:57) Challenges in the Early Days - Sofia de Meyer
(16:55) Integrating Triple Bottom Line (People, Planet and Profit) Into the Business - Sofi Khwaja
(19:27) A New Venture in Regenerative Agriculture
(22:57) Key Takeaways from the Villars Symposium 2023
(25:33) What the Founder Spirit Means to Sofia and Sofi
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