There may be no finer example of a Williams alum creating her own path than Sarah Jenks. Less than ten years removed from her college graduation, Jenks is the founder and CEO of Live More Weigh Less, an online lifestyle program that helps women who struggle with weight anxiety live healthier, happier lives. In addition to one-on-one coaching, Jenks works with thousands of women online, writes weekly blog posts, speaks regularly on issues of women’s health, and is contemplating writing a book.
Jenks’ ultimate goal is simple: to become as big as Weight Watchers. But her approach is unique. As someone who has dealt with body image issues her entire life, Jenks challenges the conventional notion that the key to happiness is looking good in a bikini. Instead of focusing exclusively on losing weight, Jenks takes a holistic approach, striving to identify the root causes of unhappiness. “If you can live a great life and find your happiness through your career, relationships, and friends, you don’t need food for entertainment. 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 for that to happen… 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.’”
Looking at Jenks now, it’s easy to see her life as perfect. She makes good money, dictates her own hours, and is able to help thousands of women overcome the same challenges she deals with. But Jenks’ journey was filled with struggle and doubt. Far from a fairy tale path that current students can only dream of following, Jenks’ story provides deep insight into the difficulty and promise of forging your own professional identity.
If you went to Williams between 2005 and 2007, you undoubtedly knew of Sarah Jenks. Instead of focusing her attention on academic or athletic pursuits, Jenks spent most of her time planning parties. She was an active member of All Campus Entertainment (ACE), serving as the group’s president for her final two years. During her tenure, Jenks was responsible for doubling ACE’s budget and starting the tradition of bringing big name artists to campus. On a given weekend, Jenks could be found hosting three or four parties. “A lot of people questioned that priority, but, for me, getting the practical experience of planning events, dealing with people, and managing budgets was great.”
Enthused by her work with ACE, Jenks searched for ways to transfer her passion for event planning to real world employment. She interned with event planners the summers before her junior and senior years but was turned off by the ceaseless back office computer work. After graduation, Jenks took a PR job in New York, but the starting salary of $24,000 barely allowed her to pay rent, and so, after just a few months, she moved on to a job in advertising. Jenks worked with the ad agency for two years but hated it. “There was so much stress about things that I felt didn’t really matter in the long run.”
At that point, Jenks was at a crossroads. She was 24, had virtually no savings, and had no idea what sort of job would make her happy. “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. My weight fluctuated 40-50 pounds every six months.”
After a series of Internet searches, Jenks stumbled upon a program that trained people to become nutrition coaches. She attended the school and, empowered by her knowledge, decided to take the leap towards entrepreneurship. “I had no idea what I was doing. 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.’”
Jenks’ first attempt at breaking into the coaching world focused exclusively on corporate customers. Then, she pivoted to start “The Breathtaking Bride” to help brides prepare for their weddings. Despite some positive publicity, both of her early companies struggled. “I cried everyday… 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.”
Three years after starting out on her own, Jenks followed her husband from New York to San Francisco. When she made the move, Jenks decided to stop working exclusively with brides and instead launched the online version of Live More Weigh Less. That’s when things started to change. Instead of having her time limited by working with women one-on-one, the online course allowed Jenks access to a nearly limitless market. 28 women signed up for the first course. “Everyone was saying how well the program went and how great my website looked. They all had positive experiences, and I could sense the excitement around the model.” The third time around, enrollment was up to 140 – now it’s over 500. The program costs $1,500.
As Jenks’ business has grown, so have her ambitions. “I want women to understand that dieting and hating your body is not the answer. 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 ‘10 ways to lose 10 pounds next week’ and be able to tell women what’s really going on.”
Looking back at her journey, Jenks views many of her early career struggles as pivotal for her current success. When asked about her advice to Williams students, she focused more on self-exploration than professional attainment: “Your main work after college is figuring out how to get by: understanding relationships with lovers and friends, learning how to pay rent, and determining what kind of lifestyle you want. That stuff is more important than whether you’re in your dream job right away.”
For those looking to start their own business, Jenks has three suggestions: keep a part-time job if finances are an issue, learn marketing backwards and forwards, and focus on your own performance rather than constantly measuring yourself against others.