Welcome to Working On It, marie claire Australia’s series asking CEOs, founders, experts and trail-blazers the big (and not so big) questions about how they work.
Today we’re talking to Steph Claire Smith, one half of the health juggernaut that is Keep It Cleaner. Alongside co-founder Laura Henshaw, Steph used her experiences of disordered eating and negative body image while working in the modelling industry to help others avoid that same fate. KIC, as its known, isn’t about looking a certain way or restricting to a certain diet, but about moving and nourishing your body to help you feel your best.
Fast forward to 2022, and KIC has 11 trainers, tens of thousands of members around the globe, and a 46,000-strong Facebook group to boot. Steph tells marie claire Australia about the importance of the KIC community, her biggest learnings from failure, and how she’s transitioning back to work since becoming a mum.
marie claire Australia: What is your current role and how would you describe a typical day?
Steph Claire Smith: I’m the Co-Founder and COO (Chief Operations Officer) of Keep it Cleaner. I’m currently working 4 days a week, balancing my role at KIC with a very important role of being a mum to Harvey! The word balance is a funny one, because I rarely feel like I’ve got that all worked out… Something’s always got to give! But I feel incredibly fortunate to balance my lifelong dream of being a mum with another passion of mine, helping thousands of women all around the world find their own recipe to a healthy life! Within my role I work very collaboratively with both our product/dev team and our marketing team. I have a lot of passion for immersing myself into the community and making the customer experience in our app the best it can be.
MC: How did you get here?
SCS: After high school I chased my dream career of being a model. I was thriving here in Aussie and decided to make the move to New York, and it was here that I was exposed to the extremely toxic side of the industry, which led to disordered eating, negative body image and an unhealthy relationship with exercise. My now business partner and best friend Laura went through a similar experience, and we shared a passion to help other women get through, or completely avoid falling into the same trap we once had. We drew from our personal experiences to shape our inclusive and supportive KIC program, with the core message that it’s not about how you look, it’s about how you feel! I didn’t go to university, I didn’t even study business in high school. Experience, working with others, learning as I go and not being afraid to fail has all led me to where I am both physically and mentally in my career.
MC: What was your first ever job?
SCS: I had a few modelling gigs as a 7 year old, and worked for brands like Target and Barbie Mag… But as a teenager I worked at Baker’s Delight from 14 years old – 18 years old and loved my experience there! It taught me consequences, how to work with others, that there’s shitty parts to any job, what well earned savings felt like, confidence in speaking to strangers and managing money in a till!
MC: And what was your worst ever job?
SCS: I’ve had many experiences in the modelling industry where I worked with a client and ended the day feeling horrible or had said to myself or my agent, ‘I never want to work with them again’. That might’ve been because of the way I was treated or because I was put in an uncomfortable position, either way it’s not uncommon for models to be treated as an object rather than a person unfortunately!
MC: What’s your career advice to other women?
SCS: Back yourself! Laura and I have made some big business decisions where we have ignored our own instincts and trusted someone purely based on their experience outside of our brand. We’ve learnt that we need to trust our gut because we are the ones who live and breathe KIC. Do what feels right to you, don’t base your decisions on what others believe is right or best for you, tune into your gut and trust it!
MC: You and Laura have built not just a successful business in KIC, but a beautiful community of like-minded women. How important has community been to your success? And how have you nurtured it?
SCS: Community is everything to us. It’s been the heart and soul of KIC since day dot. One of the most important things we’ve learnt is the power of listening. Every new workout drop, challenge or app feature update is based on feedback from our community. KIC may be our app, but it’s for our community. It’s incredible to see the growth of the KIC community over the years, our private Facebook group is now home to over 46K people from across the globe which is just surreal.
Laura and I are regularly jumping in to share our advice, encouragement or responding to the highs and lows people have felt comfortable to share. The most beautiful thing to witness is our members nurturing each other, they’re there to pick each other up, make new friends and just be there to celebrate life’s little wins, together. If I’m ever having a bad day I’ll jump into the community for a guaranteed pick me up.
MC: From the outside it looks like KIC successful journey, but every entrepreneur has setbacks – and it’s a common proverb that we learn our biggest lessons from failures. What have been your biggest learnings in growing KIC?
SCS: My most recent learning is the importance of being patient and kind to myself. I say ‘recent’ because this is a very fresh discovery and in all honesty it’s something I have to remind myself of on the daily. I’m back to working four days a week with KIC, learning to juggle mum/work-life and everything in between. I didn’t take a traditional mat leave, I think when you own your own business it can be hard to step away. I know the business was in incredible hands, but the FOMO was killing me. I started off tuning in to weekly team WIPs to get a quick update of the exciting things going on, and slowly started taking on more responsibilities.
When [my son] Harvey was nine months, I returned to the office in a more permanent way, and as much as I loved being back, I found the adjustment pretty overwhelming. I would compare my current productivity to my pre-Harvey workload – which I know I shouldn’t have done but I couldn’t help it! Everyone was reminding me that I was doing a really good job managing the juggle, but I personally wasn’t convinced. It may sound silly, but I’ve learnt that there are only so many hours in the day, we can only achieve so much. As women we need to be kinder to ourselves when we return to work after mat leave, it’s hard enough as it is without adding the pressure of our own inner critics to the mix.
MC: You were recently a judge for Squarespace’s first ever ‘Make It Awards’ in Australia. What made the winners of the $30,000 grant stand out to you?
SCS: I was honoured to recently work with Squarespace as a judge for the first Australian “Make it Awards” and be part of granting $30k to three emerging businesses. All of the finalists were incredibly inspiring! However, the three winners – Reef Design Lab, Lousy Ink and The Difference – all had clear objectives, awesome plans for the grants they received and an obvious passion for what they did and how they gave back to the community!
MC: How do you deal with your inbox?
SCS: This is something I need to work on haha! I am terrible with my inbox. I either have to reply straight away, or write myself a point on my to-do list to reply at a later stage because I am absolutely guilty of my inbox piling up! I can’t seem to get into the swing of leaving specific time frames aside in my day to bang out emails, I’m not sure that tactic is for me… but one day I’ll figure it out!
MC: And how do you deal with burnout?
SCS: In my return to work from mat leave burnout hit me hard. I was out to prove not only to myself but to my team (who absolutely were not pushing me in any way) to come back and be smarter, quicker and more helpful and productive than ever! Why I pressured myself to take on so much so quickly I do not know, but it took reaching burnout to step back and re-evaluate what I could actually do and what I needed to cut out or delegate to someone else. We do not perform our best when we are burnt out or under a lot of stress, so I now give myself permission to say ‘no’ to things and schedule things in a lot more than I used to. Being a working mum, ‘winging it’ or ‘going with the flow’ are no longer things in my book.
MC: What have you bought that’s made the biggest difference to your productivity?
SCS: A journal. Journaling for me (when I’m in a good habit of it) is soooo helpful for my mental health and mental capacity! To-do lists throughout the day and then journaling thoughts before bed allow me to switch off or use my brain in a much more helpful and productive way in both my home life and work life. Outside of that, prioritizing my physical health and making time in my schedule to fit in my KIC workouts also keeps me energized and productive!
MC: Describe your power outfit.
SCS: I love an oversized blazer, my go-to is a Camilla and Marc dark grey blazer. I dress this down with baggy light blue jeans, chunky sneakers and a white tee… or dress it up with a shirt, suit pants (likely baggy also) and some black leather loafers.
Camilla and Marc Vanstone Blazer in grey, $850, from DAVID JONES
MC: What’s your current work bag?
SCS: I’m currently using a bag by Wandler, it’s beautiful and I do love it, but I’m on the hunt for a new bag for work as it lacks compartments and has a very skinny strap! So if anyone has any suggestions… slide into my DMs haha. I’m eyeing off the Alison Large Hobo bag by Oroton and the black Maxi Shoulder bag by Acne!
MC: WFH or office?
SCS: OFFICE!!!! I get way too distracted at home and it takes me back to being in lockdown in Melbourne and having to work from home.
MC: BYO lunch or takeout?
SCS: Takeout!!! Unless I have yummy leftovers from a KIC dinner I had the night before.
MC: What’s on your desk right now?
SCS: A half drunk soy cappuccino, my KIC journal, AirPods, glass of water.
MC: Email sign off?
SCS: Depends who I’m emailing! But more often than not ‘Thanks’.