Influencers & Profiles

Why women leave (the corporate world): Sarah Wills

Zoe Dattner /

Sarah Wills was enjoying all the trimmings of a well-established, well-paid senior position in a large organisation when her life was thrown into turmoil. Pausing to reflect on her purpose and values, she did that one thing that many people dream of, but only few have the courage to do.

She left the corporate world to start her own business.

Who: Sarah Wills

What: W Health and Fitness, #WTribe Program

Elevator pitch: I’m Sarah W. I run women’s wellness programs that are designed to teach women to value themselves and create sustainable wellness habits.

Only mildly crazy people start their own businesses. How’d you get here? What led you to starting this business?

I had a 15-year career in a large global company and for 15 years I was happy doing that. I was climbing the corporate ladder, I had three university degrees, cruising along … I got to a point in my life where I was quite senior in the company and I had a good life. I had a marriage, I had children, a good career. But there was something missing for me; I didn’t quite feel fulfilled or happy.

Then I did a leadership course for women called ‘Compass’. It started to teach me who I was; to give me some self awareness around, “Who is Sarah and what does Sarah stand for?” And what I realised was that I wasn’t living a life around my true values, I was living a life around what others expected of me.

When I sat back I thought, well, I’m in a position where I can be true to my values and continue my career and be more authentic. To embrace my feminine characteristics and be more empathetic, be more kind, be more vulnerable, be more collaborative.

In doing that I started to enjoy my job a lot more. But it also ignited a passion in me around inspiring and empowering women. It made me look around and see that when women support women it’s the most magical thing, and I looked around and I saw women who were acting in a very destructive way. And a big ‘A-ha’ for me was when I realised I’d probably been doing that a lot myself — judging other women, making them jump through hoops like I had. 

Then I went through a couple of real life-changing situations. I went through a separation, became a single mum, then my own mother became really sick and passed away. And through that moment of hitting rock bottom, I asked myself, “What is the legacy you want to leave? What are you here for?”

That’s when I decided to take the leap of leaving the corporate world, which was too restrictive for me to go and pursue my passion, and to go and start something on my own.

You were obviously already interested in health and fitness, so how did you bring your aspirations for women in business into your small business?

When my mother died and I was still working full time I went a little off the rails. I spent a few months self indulging and feeling sorry for myself and drinking and moping and being unhappy.

But then I got to a point where I threw myself into fitness. I joined a group, called BattleFit Australia, that had a really good community around it and very quickly, when I came out of that — having hit rock bottom — I thought, if this worked for me, combining self awareness and fitness, then imagine how it could feel for other people.

I was getting a lot of counselling too, so that was where I was getting the mindfulness from. But I found fitness was a saviour for me. It helped me prioritise and put me first. I was starting to feel like I was losing myself in the roles that defined me. I was a single mum, I was a career woman, I was a homeowner, and fitness was my vehicle to get me back to discovering “who is Sarah”.

Combined with the mindfulness component, that’s how I became a healthier happier version of me.

Then I thought, wow, if more women could go through some element of this, I could be making a difference.

So when did you officially start the business?

I left my job in July last year, and what I needed to do was go and get my Certificate 3 and 4 in fitness. While I did that I piloted the program. I had a lot of friends and family contributing to designing what a 10-week program would look like and as soon as I finished my studies in September I launched my first program.

And how’d it go?

Amazing. To be honest, the success of the program blew my mind, and the success of it is what’s reignited my energy to keep going. The changes I saw in some women in 10 weeks, because they were learning to be more mindful and to do fitness for the right reasons …

I believe 95% of the fitness industry is preying on women’s insecurities, preying on the fact that women don’t love themselves and want to look a certain way or fit in with other people. I want women to do fitness and eat healthy and connect with like-minded women because they love themselves, not because they hate themselves.

What are some of the toughest lessons you’ve learned in launching your own business?

The toughest has been the self doubt. Leaving a highly paid job with an amazing company that I’d been with for 15 years, then taking it all on myself. The income became non-existent and then there are times when the doubt comes in and you think, “Holy shit this is too hard, what am I doing?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “What am I doing”.

It’s in those times I practice vulnerability. So when I feel like it’s all uphill and like “I can’t do this”, I practice vulnerability and I go to people I’ve worked with and I let them tell me how much I’ve helped them.

Is there anything you miss about the corporate world?

Ah, the paycheck? Look, it is that security. The corporate world provided a security net. As a young single mum, it is quite daunting. I have to create everything for my children and it is bloody scary sometimes. I’ve got to pay the bills, the mortgage and create a future, but what I keep saying to myself is that it is there, as a fallback, if I ever get desperate.

But what I’m doing now is taking everything I learned in the corporate world and following my passion. I believe three years from now, if I can really make this work then I’m doing something that’s even more incredible. Because my work has even more meaning for me.

What advice would you give to women who are considering doing what you’ve done — leaving the fast lane to start their own thing away from that security?

First of all, believe in yourself. I’ve got a piece of paper on the wall that tells me to remind myself of my purpose. Remind yourself of why you’re doing it and who it will impact.

The other piece of advice is be vulnerable and reach out for help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I’ve joined all these women’s business groups and there is a huge amount of women — and men — out there who do want to support women. Over half the stuff I’ve done has come from ideas from other people and it’s because I’ve been prepared to stand out there and say, “This is what I’m trying to do, can anybody help me?”

Reach out for help, and accept help.

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Zoe Dattner

Zoe Dattner is the publisher of SmartCompany and StartupSmart.

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