Growing up under the shadow of Celestial Seasonings, Sarah Siegel-Magness discovers her own cup of tea is in film production and fashion.
Talk to just about anyone who knows Sarah Siegel-Magness (Bus’95) and it won’t take long before the “e” word comes up.
“She grew up with entrepreneurs,” says her father, Mo Siegel, who scrimped and scraped for years before Celestial Seasonings — the herbal-tea giant he launched in Boulder in 1969 — took off. “I’m not surprised, but it’s very gratifying that is who she has turned out to be.”
Sarah is high-octane... Like a drop of oil, if you’d put her at the bottom of the ocean she would rise to the top.
But hang on. Merriam-Webster defines an entrepreneur as “a person who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money.”
Sure, that describes Siegel-Magness whose startup apparel company, Solow, is still going strong more than a decade after its founding.
But calling her an entrepreneur doesn’t cover it. She is a film director and producer with her husband, Gary Magness, mother, wife and philanthropist. She refers to herself as the “idea woman.”
“I tell people what to do to get started, give them 100,000 ideas,” she says.
Her father agrees with a laugh.
“Sarah is high-octane,” he says. “I think you could have dropped her in Delhi, India, or Veracruz, Mexico, and she would have turned out very similar to who she is now. Like a drop of oil, if you’d put her at the bottom of the ocean she would rise to the top.”
She’s been rising ever since growing up near The Hill in Boulder but didn’t hit her stride at CU until entering the business school.
“The first couple of years I was so uninterested in everything,” she says. “But when I went to business school I thought, ‘This makes sense. This is what I should be doing.’ ”
She interned for then music-industry giant EMI in New York and worked for the company after graduation but was drawn back to Colorado where she met her husband and started a family.
Along the way, the couple has produced films through its company Smokewood Entertainment. They have worked with Lee Daniels, producer of the 2001 film Monster’s Ball, a romantic drama about a Southern woman who falls for a widowed prison guard after her husband is executed. The duo also has worked with actress Virginia Madsen, known for her role in the 2004 movie Sideways that takes place in California’s wine country.
In 2009 Siegel-Magness and her husband produced the Oscar-winning film Precious, which harrowingly detailed the life of a poor, obese African-American girl in New York City. Daniels directed it.
“The story tugged on our hearts,” says Siegel-Magness whose husband’s Denver family has long-standing connections to the cable entertainment industry. “We just knew making the film would be a smart business move, and it would touch people.”
Following her 2013 directing debut with the romantic comedy, Crazy Kind of Love, she is filming Castro’s Daughter, a biopic about the Cuban dictator’s exiled daughter, Alina Fernandez, scheduled for release in 2015.
“It’s Argo meets Evita,” she says. “It’s an incredible story of life in Cuba as told by Fidel’s daughter. It’s about what she witnessed, what created the impetus for her wanting to leave.”
The screenplay is written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz and Robert Moresco who wrote scripts for Crash and Million Dollar Baby. It is based on Fernandez’ memoir.
“It’s very timely right now with President Obama setting the tone to change policy toward Cuba and shaking Raul Castro’s hand … Cuba is opening up.”
She also serves as CEO for Solow, doing everything from creative design to marketing strategy.
She started Solow in 2002 after realizing that traditional undergarments weren’t meshing with the newly hip, low-rise jeans. The company burst into the marketplace with slim, sleek underwear that wouldn’t peek over a waistband, but the idea was so good that competition swooped in. She quickly steered the company away from intimate apparel and toward versatile casual wear made in America for women.
“We coined the term ‘street-to-gym,’ ” says Siegel-Magness, who divides her time between Los Angeles and Denver. “It’s for all of us moms who have an active lifestyle, who need to go from taking the kids to school, to the grocery store and want a hip, cool outfit that can transition to something you wear at the gym.”
She unabashedly says the company — “like everyone” — is chasing current big dog Lululemon, the yoga-inspired athletic apparel company.
“We want to compete with them, with Nike and everyone else with that element of fashion,” she says.
But you know what else really gets her going these days? Salad.
In 2010, while touring with her teenaged daughter, a singer, they visited a public school in New Haven, Conn., that had a full salad bar stocked with fresh produce and high-quality deli meat. Sharing First Lady Michelle Obama’s concerns about childhood obesity, she was surprised to find healthy choices available. The school’s principal pointed her to the Austin, Texas-based Whole Kids Foundation, which funds salad bars in schools.
“I’m a huge proponent of organic and healthy eating and obesity in children is worrisome to me,” Siegel-Magness says.
She initially became interested in childhood obesity, in part, through her experience with Precious, and the subsequent creation of Camp Precious for disadvantaged girls that she started with actress Mariah Carey who starred in the film. With an introduction from her father who serves on the board of Whole Foods Market, Siegel-Magness joined the board of directors of Whole Kids. She and her husband have since helped fund sustainable salad bars in more than 400 schools from Tennessee to Alaska.
“She provides not just strategic guidance but her own unique and amazing brand of creativity,” says Nona Evans, the foundation’s president and executive director. “She sees opportunity at every turn. We are so fortunate to have met her, as is anybody who crosses her path.”
In the next 20 years, Siegel-Magness wants to spend time discovering creative ways to bring green technologies to the marketplace.
“We are looking all the time to be a part of technologies and partnering with people creating products that will help change the world and the environment in a positive way,” she says, citing the example of an apartment complex in Santa Monica, Calif., that converts residents’ waste into energy.
So no, “entrepreneur” doesn’t quite cover it. That thread of being willing to take risks has run through Siegel-Magness’ life.
“I’m attracted to the worst businesses, the ones hardest to make it in — film, fashion, music,” she says. “But I have to enjoy myself. I’d much rather be a loser at a really fun game than a winner in a boring game.”
Illustration by Nigel Buchanan; Photography courtesy Sarah Siegel-Magness (on the set); Kymberly Marciano (office)