Following stints in advertising, event planning, and PR, Sarah Jenks was lost and nearly broke. Sitting in a New York coffee shop, she came up with an idea. She’d been struggling with body image issues her whole life – what if she could develop a program to help women overcome those same challenges in a way that didn’t focus exclusively on weight loss and looking good in a bikini? Five years later, Jenks’ Live More Weigh Less program is quickly becoming a mainstay in the industry.
I caught up with her San Francisco to learn more about her journey.
What has your journey after Williams looked like?
When I was at Williams, I was really involved in All Campus Entertainment (ACE). I spent a lot more of my energy doing that than I did on academics.
I thought I wanted to be an event planner so for two summers at Williams, I went and worked for event planners. It just wasn’t for me. It was a lot of excel documents. When I first graduated, I went into PR. The starting salary was $24,000 a year, so eventually I got a job with an advertiser. I worked in advertising for two years and hated it. There was so much stress about things that I felt like didn’t really matter in the long run.
I remember sitting in a café thinking, “wouldn’t it be cool if I could be a therapist who focused exclusively on eating problems.” I had dealt with emotional eating my whole life, and it was really bad when I was at Williams. I’d go from not eating at all to eating a ton. My weight fluctuated 40-50 pounds every six months.
I went to school to school to learn how to be a nutrition coach and got empowered to start my own company. I was 24 at the time, and I had low overhead, so I figured, “I’ll quit my advertising job with no clients and just see if I can make this health coaching thing work.”
I started a couple companies focused on corporate customers, and then when I got engaged, I launched “The Breathtaking Bride” to help brides lose weight for their weddings in a way that’s more meaningful and holistic. When I did that, I started getting more publicity.
Then we moved to San Francisco, and I got burned out. I decided that I wanted everything to be on the phone or internet and that I didn’t want to work with brides anymore. That’s when I came up with Live More, Weigh Less. The idea is that if you can live a great life and find your happiness through your career and relationships and friends, you don’t need food for entertainment anymore. A lot of women feel like you need to lose weight first and then you can date and buy clothes and feel good, but then you’re miserable waiting around for that to happen.
I launched the online program and had 28 people sign up. The last time I did it, I had 250 people sign up.
Now my goal is to grow the program to be as big as Weight Watchers but have it be a real non-diet solution for women who need to get to the core of what’s going on with their food.
How does the class work?
I have written and recorded a six-week curriculum. Each week they get about 3 hours of audios in short chunks that focus on a certain topic. They listen to those on their own time, and then once a week, everybody gets on a call, and I do laser coaching. People can call in and tell me what’s going on, and I give them a quick 5-10 minute solution. So often with weight issues people feel like they’re alone. To hear someone else talk can be really cathartic.
What sorts of feedback to you get from your clients?
What a lot of them say is, “I thought I needed to lose 30 pounds. I lost 5, and I feel the sexiest I’ve ever been.” We talk about their relationships with their parents and things that happened in childhood, whatever’s happening with their partnership. A lot of women come out of it saying that they had no idea that all these other aspects of their life were actually contributing to what was making them feel overweight. Once you work out all those things, the weight just sort of gradually comes off in its own time.
It’s not about people being like, “I lost 20 pounds and now I can fit in a bathing suit!” It’s people saying, “I got my shit together and now I can be happy for the first time in a while.”
How have you been able to develop the course over time?
A lot of what I teach is based on my own experience with food, which is still a work in progress. Anyone who says they have their shit totally figured out is lying. That’s an epidemic in coaching these days. People say, “oh I had this problem but now I’m totally ok!” and that’s just not true.
The one-on-one coaching was also huge. You can’t skip right ahead to an online program because you don’t know what people really need until you spend the time doing one-on-one coaching.
What have you found to be the most effective methods?
To identify their behavior and think about why they’re doing it. It’s amazing how unconscious we can be. If someone’s eating ice cream in the middle of the night, I’ll ask what the benefit of eating the ice cream is. The person will say, “I don’t have to spend time with my husband who’s snoring.” I’ll say, “what’s something else you could do to get all of those feelings without then feeling guilty the next morning?” When you can replace the behavior with something that gives you the same satisfaction, it’s really effective.
You do a lot of writing for the curriculum. Is that something you always enjoyed?
I always hated writing. The style of writing I was expected to do in school wasn’t my thing. When I figured out how to write stories about my life that have a lesson for people, I fell in love with it.
When you were working in advertising, were you in a rush to get out?
The thing that most got to me was that there were people who could tell me when I could take vacation and when I couldn’t. The idea that other people were in charge of my time really pissed me off. I don’t think everyone feels that way. But for me, the only option really felt like doing my own thing.
Both my parents were entrepreneurs so I was lucky in that sense. A lot of people are raised to believe that if you want financial security, you should work for someone else. I was raised to believe that if you want financial security, you should work for yourself.
Was that entrepreneurial spirit with you at Williams?
Not in a business sense. But some of the things we did with ACE were really cool. We started bringing big names in music. We doubled are budget so we could throw bigger parties. I was coordinating four parties a weekend and helping lead an amazing team. We took action on something that we felt like the campus really wanted and needed – so that has some seeds of entrepreneurship.
Would you have felt the same sense of satisfaction if you started a company dedicated to an issue you didn’t care as much about?
I don’t think so. The big thing for me was: “how can I take the greatest challenge in my life and help other people overcome it?” A lot of nutritionists think they’re good nutritionists because they’ve been naturally skinny their whole life. But a lot of their clients are not naturally skinny so it’s hard for them to really understand what’s going on with them. But I really get it because I’m in it all the time.
In the early days, were you afraid that you wouldn’t be able to get the company off the ground?
It was really hard. I cried everyday. You really put yourself out there. My husband took out $10,000 in medical school loans so that I could start my company. That didn’t last that long and that’s all I had.
I did quit advertising cold-turkey but it can be better to have a side job while you’re building your business so that you’re not as panicked.
Was there any moment where you thought about giving up and going back to a more traditional job?
Nope. I don’t know if it was pride or stupidity, but I never thought about going back. You have to go into worst scenario situations and luckily my parents were going to be able to keep me from being homeless.
What are your goals for the company?
Thing spring, I’m starting a more affordable version of the program that is just the curriculum with no support added with it. I’m hoping that having a more affordable option will encourage more people to use the program. I really want women to understand that dieting and hating your body is not the answer. We have this whole population of women who feel like they can’t find love in their lives, can’t get the work they want because they’re waiting to lose 20 pounds. There are millions of women who aren’t doing anything because they’re on a juice cleanse.
I want to start speaking more, and I would like to be in more magazines where they’re talking about dieting. I’d love to be right next to an article about “Ten ways to lose 10 pounds next week” and be able to tell women what’s really going on.
How have you come to define success?
Before I had my son, I defined success as how many people know who I am, how much money am I making, and how much time do I have on my hands – how glamorous my life is. Now, I still like those things, but my real definition of success is how much fun I’m having and how happy I am on a daily basis.
Right before I got pregnant I realized that I had everything I said I wanted six months ago, but I was miserable. The issue was that I was spending too much time working. So I realized that I need to have lunch with my girlfriends and talk to my mom on the phone and go on great dates with my husband. When you can make the shift to how is today going to be great as opposed to what is life going to look like in ten years, that’s huge.
How did Williams help your journey?
I developed so much confidence at Williams. Williams does a great job making their students feel that they’re smart and worthwhile. They teach you how to speak up and stand up for themselves.
The things that we put ourselves through at Williams – writing a paper in 24 hours – prepare you for life after college. If I can do that, I can get a website up in 3 days. The hardworking mentality is really beneficial when you’re starting a business.
What advice would you give to a Williams student preparing for life after college?
I’m actually really glad I had a corporate job before I started my own business because you’re more motivated to work for yourself when you know what it’s like to work for other people.
Get a job with good people when you graduate and learn about yourself. I was a much different person three years after college than I was when I graduated. It’s also important to think long and hard about what you really care about and what you can teach people. You’re main work after college is figuring out how to get by: understanding relationships with lovers and friends, learning how to pay rent, and what kind of lifestyle you want. That stuff is more important than whether you’re in your dream job right away.
What advice do you have for people starting a business?
The best advice I got when I started the company was to spend more time learning marketing than your craft. I realized that I knew enough to start with the therapy side, but when you run your own company, you spend 99% of your time doing marketing.
The other thing is that it’s really easy to get caught up in how you stack up with people in your industry. It’s important to focus on your relationship with your clients and how people are receiving your work and don’t worry as much about constantly measuring up.