Alumna Cleans Up with Sponge Company

May 22, 2020

After soaring to success on Madison Avenue, Linda Sawyer, GWSB BBA ’83, made the jump to entrepreneurship and co-founded Skura Style in partnership with her childhood best friend. Sawyer, CEO of the venture, describes it as “a lifestyle brand that wants to enhance the experience around the kitchen sink.”

The company launched in 2017 with a “smart sponge.” Sawyer calls herself “a complete clean freak” who is obsessively neat. “I had commented to [co-founder] Alison [Matz], ‘How is it possible that every inch of the kitchen has experienced design innovation while the kitchen sponge, this horrible object of disgust, is front and center?’” says Sawyer. “Sponges were so ugly and revolting and dirty and terrible!”

Sawyer notes that research has found that cellulose, the most common material for household sponges, is a breeding ground for bacteria. “The average kitchen sponge is 200,000 times dirtier than a toilet seat,” she says. “This is one of the major reasons we searched for completely different materials.”

After years of research, the women revolutionized this everyday household object. “The foam and the scouring surface are treated with an anti-microbial agent so the sponges never smell and our scouring surface rinses clean,” explains Sawyer. “But the biggest innovation is that the pattern on the top of the sponge is designed to fade with use within one to two weeks as a visual indicator that it’s time to replace the sponge.”

Sawyer says that since leading microbiologists recommend that sponges be tossed out every one to two weeks, Skura Style offers subscription plans so consumers know when it’s time to break out a new sponge.

Skura, which is Swedish for “scour” and “scrub,” draws its esthetic from Scandinavian design. A designer who formerly worked with IKEA—a key account during Sawyer’s advertising career—developed a look the company describes as “clean, fresh, happy, and simple.”

“We have elevated the entire dishwashing experience by creating a sponge that comes in four happy colors, is beautiful, and has innovative performance benefits,” says Sawyer.

The media resoundingly agree. “We have been a press darling,” says Sawyer. “It’s not just the quality of the media outlets—which include Architectural Digest, Bon Appétit, and New York Magazine—it’s how they gush about the product. Even the Today Show referred to the sponges as ‘life-changing.’” Sawyer says that she often hears, “I can’t believe I am using the word ‘love’ in the same sentence as ‘sponge.’”

Starting off strictly as an e-commerce site, Skura Style launched on Amazon a year later, is sold on Food52, and recently began selling on QVC. The company will soon be adding dish towels, microfiber wipes, and a heavy-duty scouring pad to its offerings and also has plans to launch in national brick and mortar retail stores later this year. “The common thread in all of our products is that they are beautiful and bring some superior efficacy in terms of performance benefits,” says Sawyer.

The company is seeing a huge surge due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “People are cooking at home much more than they usually do and are doing a lot of cleaning,” says Sawyer. “There is such a heightened sensitivity to bacteria and germs. Since our sponges are antibacterial, people are loving our product.”

Helping consumers love a product comes easily to Sawyer, who entered GW School of Business knowing she would major in marketing. “My dad was a package designer who had his studio at home,” she says. “Literally every night, I would go into the studio and read the marketing briefs.”

After graduating from GW, Sawyer worked at a midsize advertising agency as the marketing interface between clients and all facets of the agency. It was the first step in her rise through the ranks of advertising, culminating in 10 years as North American CEO of ad agency giant Deutsch followed by two years as the company’s chair.

“I am grateful to have had a remarkable run. When I joined the agency, there were only 40 employees. I was at Deutsch for 27 years, which is remarkable in the advertising business,” says Sawyer, who was responsible for just over 1,000 employees at the agency’s peak.

“I’m not sure that everyone can say this coming out of GW, but I had such a clear idea of where I wanted to end up,” says Sawyer. “When people ask me if I’m surprised that I became CEO, I humbly say no, because I had that aspiration.”

Sawyer was methodical about her career. “I built a portfolio of experiences that would build on each other,” she says. “I was very pragmatic and deliberate about what I would gain from each step, whether it was a skill set or the experience of working with a particular person. I see GW as one of the first steps in that path.”

Professor of marketing Lynda Maddox taught courses that Sawyer still remembers today. “Consumer Behavior was such a fantastic course that helped me understand consumer insights and the impacts that has on marketing,” she says.

“In another GW marketing class, we were broken into teams that each had to develop a marketing plan for a real client,” recalls Sawyer. “It was such a great way to take the learning that we were doing and apply it in a pragmatic way. It shaped and informed the way I think and approach things.”

The CEO sees a lot of similarities between running a fully integrated advertising, design, and digital agency and an entrepreneurial venture.  “At the end of the day, no matter the size of the company, you’re dealing with a lot of the same issues,” she says. “And getting to do this with my best friend from second grade—when we were the two finalists in the spelling bee, which Alison won—is fun and exciting.”

-Michele Lynn