From lawyer to KeepCup founder: How Abigail Forsyth made her passion her career - Women's Agenda

From lawyer to KeepCup founder: How Abigail Forsyth made her passion her career

Abigail Forsyth, a self-described “big picture, crazy ideas person”, says self-belief and resilience are pivotal for anyone wanting to make their passion their career.

Describing her underlying grit and resolve to follow her dream and make it a reality, the co-founder and CEO of KeepCup says that no matter what other people say, you have to follow your passion if you know deep down that it’s what you want to do.

“Talk to people. Don’t be scared about people copying your idea – that rarely happens. You should listen to advice but don’t take a poll on whether you should be doing it or not,” says Forsyth. “You know if you want to do it, so ask about the pitfalls and how you’re going to get around them. You need that thing in you that says, ‘I’m doing it anyway!'”

It was Forsyth’s experience in the café business with her younger brother Jamie that originally sparked the idea for KeepCup – the first barista standard reusable cup for takeaway coffee – and their passion for changing behaviour and reducing the use of disposable cups around the world.

Starting a café called Bluebag in Melbourne in 1998, Forsyth and her brother became increasingly concerned about the amount of packaging waste generated by their business and the industry. After looking at bringing in reusable salad containers and alternatives to disposable cups to reduce waste, Forsyth describes the moment when she was serving warm milk to her daughter in a plastic cup one morning, which finally provided the catalyst for change and the creation of the KeepCup.

“That provided that sense of ‘We’ve got to do it’,” says Forsyth. “We had to create the behaviour change.”

That drive for creating behavioural change culminated in the launch of KeepCup in 2009, and four years later the company is going strong with an annual turnover of more than $5 million. Since its launch, KeepCup has sold over three million cups, with products now available in 32 countries.

But while Forsyth loves what she does and “always knew” she’d start her own business one day, she didn’t follow that path initially. It was her brother Jamie, who was always calling Forsyth with “crazy ideas”, who plucked her from her job as a lawyer to finally feed that entrepreneurial drive and start Bluebag together.

“At school my passion was fine arts, writing, creating, but I got the marks to get into law and my family convinced me to do that,” she says.

Although she didn’t enjoy being a lawyer, Forsyth says she learned a lot during her time working at a small legal practice, giving her the tools she would later need as a business owner.

“I’m a big picture, crazy ideas person and [the owner/partner of the practice] was very detail-focused. He taught me a lot,” she says. “I knew from that experience that I had a good, commercial mind.”

Based in the UK and working for food company Pret A Manger at the time, Forsyth’s brother then called her with the idea for Bluebag.

“And off we went! My parents were horrified!” Forsyth says of her easy decision to leave the law and pursue their idea for a healthy takeaway sandwich company.

Aged just 28, Forsyth and her brother established Bluebag which, during its highest point, had six stores across Melbourne and still exists today. Then, more than a decade after Bluebag’s inception, Forsyth had her daughter – a time she says she used to figure out where she wanted to go from there.

“In 2010 I had my daughter. I thought there’s got to be a better way. Bluebag was very time intensive. I had never taken time out to think about what I wanted to do. Having a baby helped me to do that,” she says.

Now as the CEO of KeepCup, Forsyth feels lucky to admit her work doesn’t feel like a job, but she does have those moments when she feels the guilt many working mothers experience juggling a career with family.

“I love what I do, except when my kids say, ‘Where are you mum?'” she says.

Asked whether she has any advice for working mothers, Forsyth says she’d like to think it’s the same message for men and women, but adds: “Kids have that innate sense that their mother should be at home looking after them. They’re more outraged when mum leaves than when they’re dad does.

“Like the working dads, I have an army of support in lots of ways. I have a cleaner, childcare and family – I work with my brother.”

While working with her family has its benefits (her other brother is also involved in the business from the UK), Forsyth says it has also been one of her biggest challenges over the years.

“We don’t always agree on things!” she laughs.

Additionally, individual growth has also been a learning curve for Forsyth, who emphasises the importance of having the right personalities around you to help transform ideas into reality.

“It’s that entrepreneurial spirit. I’m not a loner, but you need staff around you to cope and support you when you have these ideas or you change your mind,” she explains. “We grew very quickly, so it’s been challenging. It’s like a tank rolling towards you.”

While it’s proved a challenge, the instant success and speedy growth of KeepCup managed to stamp out any doubts Forsyth might have had about her and her brother’s idea for KeepCup.

“Constantly,” she says of whether she questioned the success of KeepCup in the early days. “But it took off like a rocket so the question was: can we sustain this or is this a fad?”

The success of KeepCup is proving to be far from a fad, continuing its global expansion with the opening of its first US office in March this year.

“The US is probably the biggest market but the most challenging,” she says. “Their take on sustainability is different, it’s less engaged.”


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