Kogod Founders’ Forum Highlights Three Women-Led Businesses Focused on Sustainable Change

Kogod School of Business holds its third Gamechangers in Sustainability discussion in celebration of Earth Day.

Panel discussion at the Gamechangers in Sustainability Founders' Forum.


The Kogod School of Business concluded the spring 2023 portion of a new, innovative speaker series with a panel featuring the women behind some uniquely sustainable businesses founded in the Washington, DC region.

In celebration of Earth Day, AU welcomed three “brilliant changemakers” to campus for a Founders’ Forum hosted as part of the Gamechangers in Sustainability series, which in partnership with the Sine Institute of Politics and Policy, examines how the most innovative leaders work to create a more sustainable world.

Kogod professor and AU Center for Innovation assistant director Danielle Vogel served as moderator while incorporating wisdom gained from her own entrepreneurial experience. Vogel previously founded climate change-motivated grocery store Glen’s Garden Market in DC’s Dupont Circle, which helped launch more than 90 local food businesses before Vogel’s sale of the company in 2021.                                                

Noting that Kogod faculty teach students that entrepreneurs are “curious problem solvers,” Vogel pondered how this has proven true for panelist Nicole McGrew, founder of Threadleaf, a women’s lifestyle boutique that places a premium on the source of its products.

“The challenge for me was finding responsibly made and sustainably-made clothing,” McGrew said of the core problem she set out to solve. “I thought, well, if this is a problem for me, then it’s probably a problem for other women, too.”

Founders' Forum Panelists

Founders' Forum panelists Monica Pearce and Nicole McGrew.

While McGrew’s initial solutions to that challenge took the shape of a brick-and-mortar storefront in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, successive pivots during the COVID-19 pandemic saw Threadleaf’s model evolve from appointment-based shopping to e-commerce and, eventually, wardrobe consultation—a facet of the business aimed at reducing consumption.

McGrew has, along the way, added additional expertise to her company and the local business community more broadly as a master gardener and as the chair of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce board.

“It’s been this whole journey of figuring out what’s working at the moment but still trying to understand the essence of the business,” McGrew told the audience.

“You have to stay true to the mission and values as you navigate difficulties in the marketplace,” Vogel concurred.

It’s a principle embraced by panelist Monica Pearce, who founded Frederick, Maryland-based Tenth Ward Distilling Company in 2016.

Despite repeated pivots that included producing hand sanitizer and surface disinfectants at the height of the pandemic, the company has grown immensely. With just 1,600 square feet and few employees in its infancy, Tenth Ward Distilling spans 20,000-plus square feet today and features a cocktail bar, tasting room, event venue, and production facility.

In bringing more employees on board during that span, Pearce has taken a holistic view of what being a sustainable business leader means.

Sometimes you think about sustainability from an environmental standpoint. But I think it goes beyond that.”

Monica Pearce Round

Monica Pearce

Founder, Tenth Ward Distilling Company

The philosophy has seen Pearce tie employee bonus incentives to career development opportunities, prioritize staff mental health, and foster diversity in the distilling industry.

“I want to provide opportunities to women, to minorities, different types of people that were never seen or valued as an expert in our field because it usually was a man’s world,” she said.

But Tenth Ward has also baked sustainability into its remarkably short supply chains. It supports regional agriculture by sourcing its grain locally and then donating spent grain, its production byproduct, back to an area farm for cattle feed.

Meanwhile, the company’s canned cocktail program seeks to reduce container waste, a key challenge in the beverage industry that’s exacerbated, Pearce said, by liquor regulations.

A push for meaningful change is likewise at the heart of the third panelist’s business model.

For Soupergirl founder Sara Polon, a big part of the mission centers not just around the planet friendliness of the farms from which the company sources its products but how the workforce on those farms is treated.

“I’m a tiny, tiny fish trying to scream from a little mountain that things need to change,” explained Polon, who founded the kosher, plant-based soup company with her mother in 2008.

Founders' Forum panelists

Founders' Forum panelists Nicole McGrew and Sara Polon.

Soupergirl’s crusade against disturbing and often inhumane working conditions on farms earned the company a Fair Food certification in 2022, the first Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) brand to receive such accolades.

“We as consumers have much work to do because our food choices directly impact many people in the supply chain,” Polon told the audience. “It’s up to us as businesspeople to start making different decisions.”

Over the course of the event, which included a question-and-answer session with students, each of the founders offered tangible advice to aspiring entrepreneurs.

McGrew preached unwavering focus in the face of doubt about the larger mission at hand.

Keep thinking about the ‘why,’ because there’s always someone that will tell you, ‘why not,’ why you shouldn’t be, and you don’t need that person in your head.”

Nicole McGrew Round

Nicole McGrew

Founder, Threadleaf

Pearce stressed the importance of networking and mentorship.

“Find the people that want to champion you,” she said. “Find the people you can buy a drink for the free advice instead of paying a consultant a ‘bajillion’ dollars.”

Polon urged proactive and deliberate decision-making, particularly for business leaders in a position of power….and resilience when inevitable missteps happen.

“If you’re in a real desperate situation, don’t make big decisions—especially hiring ones,” she said while adding, If you’re in the through, understand you’re in the through, and you will get there.”

With three Gamechangers in Sustainability events completed this spring, the series will return during the fall 2023 semester.

Future speakers include EY CEO Carmine Di Sibio, ECONET founder, businessman, and philanthropist Strive Masiyiwa, and HappyFamily Brands and HealthyBaby founder Shazi Visram. Registration information will be shared on the Kogod School of Business website in the fall.