Q&A with Sterling McDavid

Social entrepreneur Sterling McDavid, a part-time Palm Beacher, is changing lives one candle at a time.

When Sterling McDavid’s friends, fellow Texans Jenna Bush Hager and Gloria Moncrief Holmsten, suggested she become involved with UNICEF , she anticipated it would be a great way to meet new people in New York and outside of the financial world. She didn’t realize it would change the entire course of her career.

After a trip to Vietnam with the humanitarian organization and two years working on Wall Street, she decided to switch gears and put her entrepreneurial know-how to use helping impoverished communities. This manifested itself in 2015 when she founded The Starling Project, a line of soy-based candles, all hand-poured in Brooklyn with American glass and a cotton wick, that provides funds for solar energy in areas of the world that need it the most. McDavid, who says she’s always been a candle hoarder, drew inspiration from Paris’ best perfumeries to create four intoxicating scents and an olfactory experience that gives back.

Today, McDavid serves as UNICEF Next Generation’s Chair of National Development and splits her time between New York and Palm Beach along with her fiancée. She spoke with PBI.com about switching career paths, the future of The Starling Project, and her favorite local haunts.

PBI.com: What inspired the concept of The Starling Project?

McDavid: Once I was involved in UNICEF’s Steering Committee, I was asked to go to Vietnam to help in the field, and it was there that I really started thinking that I wanted something more. That trip that solidified it for me. I thought to myself, “You know what, I’m working so hard in banking. What if I was working this hard for the good of others?” And it wasn’t like the whole concept of The Starling Project came to mind at that moment. But, I immediately got back to Goldman [Sachs], put in my two-week’s notice, and started rethinking my path, ultimately deciding to go to Parson’s School of Design to study interior architecture. Then while at Parsons I moved to Paris to work for a firm called Projectiles, and my project was to work on a spa resort. We worked on the construction and all of the ideologies around it, but we got as detailed as the fragrance that would fill the space. So, I started doing research on fragrance. I thought, “What if I apply this to what I’ve become so passionate about with UNICEF?” Which was solar. Being from Texas I’ve always been interested in energy, and particularly sustainable energy, because I think there’s a lot people don’t know about it. Then I just sort of had this idea. “What if I marry these two things? What if I take solar, which I love because I know how much it can really do, and I couple it with this wonderful home product where people can help in small ways on their own?” So it’s light for light essentially. After I got more involved with UNICEF, I had people ask, “how do I really get involved without having to write a $1,000 check?” This is beautiful way to do that. And, it also gives people something in return that can remind them of their involvement in our solar energy projects.

What is it about the project’s mission that makes you feel passionate?

Although my current project is funding Chad in Africa because it’s particularly resourceful there—the sun is bright and shining almost 365 days of the year—the community we’re helping there previously had to walk 5 or 6 miles in one direction for water. This essentially means that the children in the community are not in school because they have to help their family bring water back. Children in the community were getting preventable illnesses like cholera from unclean water sources that were a little closer by. The solar panel—by the way it’s one solar panel—will help this entire community in Chad have clean water at their fingertips. In addition to powering light, the panel also powers pipes for clean water. It’s literally turning this community around. Eighty percent of the children under age 5 were passing away due to unclean water and preventable illnesses, and that’s significantly down, and these kids are getting back in school already. So, it’s absolutely easy to be passionate about making water communal for these people and really changing their lives.

Any update on the amount Starling has raised for UNICEF thus far? Or specific projects that you have in the works?

The project has raised over $100,000. Our current focus is this particular community in Chad due to UNICEF guidance on where the need was greatest when we started funding it last year. I went to Rwanda in May and Jamaica in June. So, I’ll put it this way, we’re certainly looking for other opportunities, because the project in Chad has been fully funded and will be completed mid-2017.

That’s amazing to hear to hear. How else do you foresee the brand’s reach growing?

My goal is to make it a holistic brand eventually. Right now, we are focused on growing the number of our candles. I imagine we will have somewhere around six to eight candles in our final collection. Then, we will most definitely look to do things like soaps or hand cream, potentially diffusers. That’s primarily due to demand. In a lot of ways those weren’t our intentions originally, but our consumers are guiding us, which has been amazing. And UNICEF inspired this [The Starling Project] at the core. A lot of my career has shifted because of all of the wonderful things I’ve seen UNICEF do. I think we’ll continue to work with them on projects, but I will say that we have had other non-profits that are solar related or have solar connections reach out to us as well and we certainly wouldn’t count those out in the future.

Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs looking to make a meaningful difference?

First and foremost, I do really believe that businesses that are starting today should have some social good component. That being said, it’s all about passion and something that speaks to them in a special way. Maybe it’s something they’ve experienced in their life. Because my dream was always to have some sort of product line, and I have two entrepreneurial parents, I don’t think it was a surprise to many people that I ultimately decided to go that direction. But, I can’t tell anyone how much more fulfilled I feel knowing that I’m doing more than just creating a product that people really love. We really, genuinely are moving the needle. And it’s tough by the way. It probably took twice as long to launch my business as it would have if didn’t have the social good component, because I just had to be that much more thoughtful. I would recommend it to anyone though, and I would tell other entrepreneurs to go for it—don’t be scared. People will totally share your passion and want to be involved.

Now, since you do spend half the year in Palm Beach, what are some of your favorite places?

Well let’s start with my favorite restaurants—I’m a big foodie, so I can’t help it. I love Bice. I’m a pasta person and all my meals have been 100 percent perfect there. My other favorite is PB Catch. As for favorite places, even though it’s an obvious choice, I love The Breakers. My favorite way to spend Saturday is at the green market in West Palm Beach. We buy all of our produce for the week and flowers. They have everything from crepes to amazing homemade samosas from Nisha’s, and there’s always live music going on. It just has a wonderful energy. And, the nice thing about Palm beach is that almost every day is a nice day.

Last question: what’s your favorite Starling scent?

That’s difficult! We have made hundreds over the past year, but as you can see we have four scents in our line. I think my favorite is the orange flower and amber. I fill my apartment with it, and I’m lucky it’s my fiancée’s favorite too. But, it’s very mood driven. I’ve found that the vanilla hemlock is ideal on a day where you get home, you’ve had a stressful day, and you just want to chill out. The juniper saffron is the perfect fill-your-home scent when you have guests over. Then I have some female friends who like something a little more feminine and go crazy over the currant and rosewood. Our goal was to make scent combinations that really just don’t exist on the market, which is somewhat hard to do, but we do think that our scents are extremely unique. We kind of viewed it as mixology in a way—creating something totally unique and exciting that people didn’t even realize they needed.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.

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