02/23/2015 05:21 am ET Updated Apr 25, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Sherri French, Founder, spbang

Working in the automotive industry for the past 17 years, Sherri French with her family has had the opportunity for 11 years to live between Asia and Europe. While living in China, she would daily pack lunches for her kids, husband and herself. She was tired of throwing out plastic bags nightly that were returned home in lunch boxes. She then moved onto fabric reusable snack bags that had the cutest patterns but were a nightmare to clean. They would be smelly over time and she couldn't imagine throwing them in the laundry with other clothing items!

With an idea, she went to one of her closest friends who is automotive plastics expert. Working in quality in the automotive industry, she wanted to create a product that was made of food safe material but in a bag form. Using automotive processes and systems over and eight month period of trial and error and testing, spbang was born! While production originally started in China, they have already moved production to a factory in Michigan for a Made In USA product!

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I have worked in automotive industry around the world and have been afforded experiences that I never expected while growing up in Canada. Working in different countries, you quickly learn that 'the same' does not always apply. You learn how to manage people and work with them in so many different ways. I had a position in quality, so while I was not responsible for manufacturing products, I had to make sure systems and procedures were in place to protect the product's integrity. There were always obstacles; whether it was culture or manufacturing issues, I needed to have problem solving skills to overcome any problems. I'm also a mother of 2 girls (13 and 7) so there is always negotiation going on in our home and as a parent, I need to make sure I am a positive leader for my children to ensure they make the right choices in life.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at spbang?
I certainly have had both highlights and challenges in my first year of business at spbang. When we were first testing our bags, I had my youngest daughter come home after trying our reusable snack bags in her lunch and she asked to bring them for her entire class as everyone was begging for them! It's also amazing to me to see my bags on the shelves of over 60 retailers around the world which is a huge highlight for me. It still amazes both my husband and I that our bags have received national press without the aid of any PR firm. What was a struggle was transitioning the company from China to the USA in the first six months of business. This included moving our entire production process that I expected to be much easier than reality. While I get a lot of support from my family, there is so much demand on my time as the marketing, PR, shipping and sales person. Essentially the company is a one person show and it requires me to wear many hats. Some days I'm shipping bags, some days I'm meeting with retailers. Balancing all of those demands as well as taking care of my family isn't always easy.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Anyone can do it! Leverage your relationships and build a network of people who can help support you on things you are not strong with and utilize their expertise.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I never have balance and I think if you actually admit that then you are in a good place. Organization is the most important thing in our home as I struggle to maintain peace. Every night I have lunches packed and clothes laid out for everyone so there is nothing to think about in the morning. The swings in work and life ultimately balance out at some point, but there are huge swings that require a great deal of patience and organization.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Finding your voice and using it, especially in a male dominated industry such as automotive. In many cases I think it's an advantage being a woman as there are so many business advantages and groups that support women.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have been very fortunate to have interacted with wonderful people in both my work and personal life. I believe the opportunities to observe people in action and to discuss various situations with them have been priceless. Although I have not had 'formal' mentors, I have definitely been mentored throughout my life. Through observing and talking with my unofficial mentors, I have learned a great deal about perception versus reality, communication and managing people and crisis situations. I have been able to use the lessons in both my personal and professional lives, which I believe ultimately makes me a better businesswoman and parent.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Sara Blakely - Spanx. She took an idea that no one believed in and now runs a business that is known internationally and more importantly, helps women of all shapes and sizes look and feel amazing in their clothes! I love her products! Even with all of the rejection she faced when prototyping and trying to find someone to manufacture her products, she fought for a product she believed it and didn't take no for an answer. She met with buyers and actually demonstrated the product on her own body to show them how great the product was. I think she is amazing for so many different reasons. She is living the American dream because of her great idea, ingenuity, perseverance and her 'never give up' attitude.

What do you want spbang to accomplish in the next year?
I volunteered for lunch duty at my daughters' school this year and was shocked at the amount of waste thrown out at lunch hour. Plastic bags everywhere, right into the garbage cans. Seeing the amount of waste each time I volunteered and knowing that a focus of our company's product is reducing it, I have some tangible goals that I would like to see in the next twelve months. These goals include working with local schools (including my daughters') to eliminate the lunch hour waste, continue to grow my retailers globally and create new eco-friendly products that help families save money and save the environment. Ultimately, meeting these goals and growing the company, this will enable spbang to continue to have the ability to make a difference to the environment and reduce the waste. Our bags allow customers to use them again and again and never have to throw out a plastic baggie that will go right to a dump and stay there forever.