Sydney Sherman de Arenas

Co-Founder of Montie & Joie

After earning a Bachelor of Science in Advertising with a Business Foundations Certificate at the University of Texas at Austin, Sydney went on to study Media and Global Change at the Salzburg Academy in Austria and earned an MBA from the Acton School of Business. Her travels through over 40 countries in combination with her upbringing in an entrepreneurial household helped inspire all of the work she does today.

Aside from being a Co-Founder and the CEO of M&J, she is the Co-Founder and CEO of The Etho, an online marketplace connecting conscious consumers with ethical brands and artisans as well as a Co-Founder of Rocket Closet, a sustainable mountain sports storage company. Sydney is also the Co-Founder of Moon & Sun Eco-hostal, a sustainable beach house rental, and Jabel’ Juyu’, an Eco-Resort all located in Guatemala. She also currently invests in female-run businesses, focusing on those who are trying to change the world through The Helm. Sydney’s first business was Admin Boutique, which is still operating and pairs administrative assistants with small businesses and start-ups. Prior to starting her own businesses, Sydney worked for a small advertising company, Narrative Edge.

Sydney has been featured on 5 podcasts, countless articles, and won an award for Mogul — top 1,000 companies with the strongest female leaders. She has volunteered with environmental and wildlife conservation organizations in Cambodia and throughout Texas and Mexico. She also mentored high school students through ChickTech, an Austin non-profit dedicated to retaining women in the technology workforce and increasing the number of women and girls pursuing technology-based careers. She currently mentors human trafficking survivors who want to start businesses through Restore, which exists to end sex trafficking in New York City, where Sydney resides part of the year. The other part of the year she can be found in the same town as the Guatemalan team, with her Guatemalan husband, their children Milán and Marseille, and their numerous pets.

Where did the idea for Montie & Joie come from?

My inspiration for Montie & Joie was one of those ideas that came together through a few seemingly random circumstances. I was studying Spanish in Guatemala and had a Spanish teacher, Ana Maria who I really connected with. One day, she was embroidering something and I noticed how talented she was! I knew that the working conditions at her current role and the pay for this skill were not the best, so I kept thinking about how I could do something to help Ana Maria and those who have similar talents. It so happened that I already worked with artisans through my ethical marketplace The Etho and I was able to start a project with Ana Maria and sell through The Etho’s website. I started bringing second-hand denim to Guatemala and Ana Maria, her friends, and family would sew our designs into them. It has been a really fun project that has now turned into an ethical and sustainable business!

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My typical day includes balancing family, work, and enjoying the beautiful life I have in San Pedra la Laguna, Guatemala. I have a one-and-a-half-year-old son and am seven and a half months pregnant so I am limiting myself to about 4-5 hours of work most weekdays and a few hours on the weekend. This can get quite difficult because I have a few businesses: Montie & Joie, Admin Boutique, Moon & Sun Hostal, Jabe’l Juyu, and Rocket Closet. Balancing all of these priorities can sometimes be tricky, but it is not impossible! I am very structured with my planning but also very flexible with my hours. Every day I wake up and spend family time until about 10 am, then I work and take breaks as needed based on what my family or my body needs that day. The key to being able to balance everything is successfully delegating tasks and knowing which projects and tasks are important in any particular moment. I have been working hard at delegating more and am very much subscribed to the philosophy of working smarter, not harder. In the past, before I had kids, I had terrible work habits and would basically work around the clock at my own expense. Now, I am more strategic about my work so my companies are not taking a hit at all and I have more time for all of the good things in life: my family, meditation, the beautiful lake I live on, and professional success. It feels great to have figured out how to accomplish my career goals without having to give up my personal life for them although I have a long way to go before I feel like I have hit all of my targets!

How do you bring ideas to life?

It is easy to come up with an idea, but can be difficult to bring it to life. Something I do when I have a business idea that is possible to bring to fruition is evaluate my current situation by asking myself questions like “can we spend the amount of time it will take to set up this business?”, “are there real customers that are truly interested in the product or service?” and “is now the best time based on customer interest and other market factors?”. From there, it’s possible to get into the nitty-gritty of it: developing goals, conducting critical research including market analysis, setting the business up legally, creating your product, and securing suppliers. When you bring an idea to life, you also have to be open to the fact that maybe your idea in its original inception is not possible at that moment depending on various factors. For example, when I opened The Etho, I did not have the resources I needed to create it including the money and relationships in place. Despite this, I started anyway and was able to pivot and learn in order to figure out the right model for my skill set. Businesses are always more successful if you’re open to pivoting your vision and also have a backup plan in place to turn to. I have written a more in-depth response to this question that might be useful if you are interested in starting a business.

What’s one trend that excites you?

A trend that really excites me is that I am seeing both ethical production and consumption habits on the rise. Consumers are really starting to think about how they can make ethical purchasing decisions where possible. I’m happy to see this trend because it is my life’s mission to help eradicate extreme poverty, particularly among women. To do this work, I am aware of the fact that how we do business must change and how we, as consumers, engage with businesses must change. Seeing that others care about this on a larger scale is a really great trend to see.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Planning is the thing that makes me most productive as an entrepreneur. I am always looking a week ahead so I can be aware of what is coming up and what I need to prioritize. Before I add something to my to-do list, I always ask myself “is this the most important thing that I should be doing right now?”. Asking this question helps me to prioritize and plan efficiently. Another aspect involved in my planning process is looking at my goals every quarter and being flexible enough to adjust them as needed. This also helps me to break them down into weekly goals, which enhances my overall progress.

What advice would you give your younger self?

There are two pieces of advice I would give my younger self. The first piece of advice would be to slow down! Rome wasn’t built in a day and the same goes for successful entrepreneurial careers. If I had been more strategic when I was younger instead of working harder and moving faster, I would be further in my career and would have avoided making some pretty big mistakes. Something else, which is critically important, is to know and see your worth. Throughout my career, I have spent a lot of time undercharging people for my services when I shouldn’t have. If I had actively worked on having this mindset when I was younger, it would be a trait that is already ingrained in me and not something that I’m still working on.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

My answer to this actually relates to misunderstanding and not disagreeing. I think that when it comes to poverty, often people fundamentally misunderstand the scope of the problem. I live among poverty and have studied it through my various businesses. Something that is often misunderstood about the subject is that at the core of it, people are not paid enough to live in many parts of the world. The United Nations Statistics Division estimates that as many as 95 million people live in extreme poverty. There are many programs that support basic human needs, but the problem is that these programs are rarely sustainable and often do not understand the root of what is causing this systemic problem. To me, the best way to alleviate the challenges that living in poverty brings is to pay people fair wages and give them dignified work. A huge misunderstanding of extreme poverty is that people are lazy or incompetent – this is simply not true. A person cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps if the bootstraps do not even exist in the first place. Something I recommend everyone to do is to watch the documentary “The True Cost” and to travel to countries with extreme poverty to understand how our systems, institutions, and consumption habits contribute to this problem. When you travel to different countries, particularly those that are touched by extreme poverty, you are enriching yourself and expanding your perspective but you also have the opportunity to engage in ethical tourism by directly supporting the community you are visiting. A simple way you can do this is by spending money on authentic handicrafts, like those produced by Ana Maria and her family instead of overproduced mass tourism souvenirs.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Something that is super important to me as an entrepreneur is to treat the people I work with well. I do not believe that any person is inherently more valuable than another – especially based on their role at a job. As a leader, something I do and recommend that other leaders do is to try and encourage their team to be their best selves at work and at home. With this approach, I have found that I have the privilege of working with amazing people who also encourage me to be the best version of myself!

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

One strategy that has helped me to grow my business is knowing what my strengths are. At Montie & Joie, there was a time when we were working on projects that didn’t align with our strengths and that wasted a lot of money. It also gave us the feeling that we were stuck in quicksand – stagnant and never moving forward. Once I started to pay better attention to what was working and what wasn’t, I was able to become really strategic with how my personal strengths mixed with what the company did. Since then, Montie & Joie has encountered one open door after another.
A bonus strategy I would like to tell you is that you should know what kind of customer you want. At Admin Boutique, I have had a wide range of clients, including some famous individuals that would be a dream for an Administrative Assistant company. Plot twist: it was a nightmare, not a dream! We were treated very poorly and I eventually made the decision to fire all of my clients and rebuild with clients that I actually wanted to work with. Since then, there have been a few that have not been amazing, but it is getting easier and easier to sniff out the ones that are not a good fit and to decline working with them before we get started. This mindset is really important because the wrong customer will always complain, find fault in what you do, and generally make your life quite difficult. The right customer will challenge you in a good way and if there are conflicts, they can be worked through, and eventually both parties will be able to move past it to get the job done.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

During the pandemic I had a business partner that left a lot to be desired and the decision to bring her on unfortunately brought on the death of the company. There is a lot I can say from a business or legal perspective on the practicalities of overcoming this failure, but the key takeaway is that it pushed me to become a better businesswoman. I was spinning my wheels, working really hard, and not seeing what felt like anything solid looking back at me. After this incident, I found that I make decisions with much more thought and consideration for the consequences. The business in question had over $1 million invested in it that I raised personally from friends and family so when it went down, I didn’t have very many places to turn to grow my next business. Through this experience, I learned to bootstrap with next to nothing and have grown 3 businesses with a very very small fraction of what I had to grow just one business. Coming out of this, I have learned that being financially savvy is one of the best things we can do for ourselves both professionally and personally. While it was difficult to go through, at the end of the day I am grateful to have learned to both manage money and my decisions with more strategy.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

There are food deserts all across the country. If you don’t know what they are, essentially it is a geographic area, usually in an urban setting where there are limited or no options for accessing healthy, nutritious foods. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges and the USDA, it is estimated that 23.5 million people live in food deserts across the United States, which means that 1 in 6 Americans cannot regularly access healthy foods. Something I would encourage an entrepreneur to do is to figure out what kind of health food store would do well in these areas and create a chain of affordable, healthy food that would provide low-income areas with better options for a healthy life. As an added bonus, this business idea would create jobs for these areas and could turn into a mechanism of community building if done well.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Montie & Joie is transitioning from selling clothing and accessories to home goods, so we just designed our own tiles and I am currently getting samples of them! They are being made by artisans on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala where I have to take a boat to work with the artisans and see their beautiful creations. This has definitely been the most fun $100 I have spent in a while as I love design, adventure, and working with artisans!

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

This isn’t the most exciting, but it is the most helpful. We have implemented a project management tool that has our goals and tasks across all of our clients. This has been a wonderful improvement to how our business functions. We have been able to drastically reduce email by commenting on tasks within this tool as well as assigning and reviewing tasks. I hate spending so much time answering emails so this was a much-needed relief to boost our productivity!

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

A book that I would recommend the IdeaMensch community read is Give Work: Reversing Poverty One Job at a Time by Leila Janah. I think this book is important because as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think most people understand what extreme poverty looks like and how it is created. The first step to being a solution to a problem is to understand how the problem is created and how it affects others. This book gives really good information about the issue of extreme poverty and how we can all create a better world together.

What is your favorite quote?

My favorite quote is ‘you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’. This is a famous saying by Jon Kabat-Zinn. To me, it is a good reminder that in life you can’t control everything and you shouldn’t try. Instead, you can learn to live life on life’s terms by moving with the universe, not against it.

Key Learnings:

  • The best way to give to others while fostering your entrepreneurial spirit is by doing something worthwhile that you are passionate about and that actively helps people. We all have the ability to make our world a better place if we find what resonates with us and go after it!
  • Failure is a part of the journey, but not the end of it. Failure is always a learning opportunity where you can take time to learn from your mistakes and come back stronger, wiser, and more experienced.
  • As an entrepreneur, you need to be able to achieve a healthy work-life balance by having an approach to planning that works for you, prioritizing and delegating tasks, and using tools that help you work smarter not harder.
  • Know yourself! Having a deep understanding of your strengths and skill sets can help you align with projects you are well suited for. If you don’t work on projects you can align with, it will cost time and money in the long run.