Shari Hughson: Bootstrapping Life, Business, and Earthships

|| Jenny Kim

Shari Hughson is a serial entrepreneur, environmentalist, adventurer, and currently serves as the director of Queen’s Master of Management Innovation & Entrepreneurship program. I first heard her story when she presented at Innovate Queen’s and I was floored. I have never met anyone who has lived a life that is as exhilarating and whimsical as hers.

Shari graduated from Queen’s nursing but knew that she didn’t want a lifelong career as a nurse. She moved to Calgary not knowing anyone with only $200 to her name and ended up living in a shelter for the first three months. This is when she started bootstrapping her life. In order to make ends meet, she waitressed and to afford housing, she rented out every room, garage, and backyard in the house she bought with a credit card. She had always dreamed of having her own business so she went to a bank to get funding, where she was told to “cut her hair, put on makeup, and find herself a husband with money”. She eventually received funding for her first business which was wildly successful and scaled as a national franchise. Her next two businesses were massive failures. After her third business, she took on a corporate job with the Canadian Back Institute, in which she ended up becoming a shareholder and Director as the company went private. The business skyrocketed and today, it’s the largest private health services company in Canada. But here’s the plot twist. In 2007, Shari decided to sell her shares and everything she owned in order to go live off the land as hunter/gatherers with her husband. For SEVEN years, she built and lived in an earthship in the middle of British Columbia which ended up being completely automated and self-sustaining, living far more futuristic than our current society.

Her story doesn’t end there. In our conversation, we delved more into her life as we talked about experiencing the evolution of human civilization, how to problem-solve, travelling to Mars as a final hurrah, and other exciting topics. Also, find her favourite book/blog recommendations at the bottom!


Highlights from Living on an Earthship

My husband and I essentially experienced the evolution of civilization as we lived in the wilderness.

We lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle for 2 years. We were constantly thinking about food and almost starved many, many times. Every second, we were thinking about finding food, getting food, preserving food, prepping food, re-storing the food, whether we had enough food for the winter… and then, we underwent an Agricultural Revolution. As we completed our earthship, we started farming. We bought soil and seeds and started growing our food. We installed a gray water system where we captured rainwater to use in our house and water our plants. Then we turned to trading - we walked over to neighbouring communities (which were 5 hours away) and bartered with them. After that, we entered the Industrial Revolution by installing a green house as well as harnessing solar and wind power. We completely automated our house so we could travel for months and we would come back and all of our food would be ready for us. We actually built a system where the waste from our chickens would feed into our aquarium and the waste from our fish would drop down and fertilize our plants. Our entire house was built around a living and breathing ecosystem that took care of itself, and we never bought a single thing the entire time.

At one point, we had to do a 15-day hike across a mountain range to find salt.

There was a point when our bodies started to cramp and as a nurse, I knew that meant we were low on sodium intake. In order to find salt, we had to hike through the BC coastal mountain range to access the ocean which took 15 days. I made sure to dry all of our food and ensured that we had enough calories to last us throughout the trek. But by the end, we had to start rationing our food. When you’re out in the complete wilderness with not a single soul within thousands of kilometers, you feel completely alone. Your senses are also heightened and you’re completely aware of your surroundings at all times. We eventually got to the ocean and gathered seaweed and fished and packed up our food and headed home.

An Earthship!

Shari's Earthship!

Shari’s Thought Process for Problem-solving & Learning How to Be Resourceful

I look at everything from the perspective of “how can this be improved?” I feel like I’ve been exercising this perspective for so long that it’s automatic for me now. Before I built my first business, I had to figure out how to support myself so I asked myself, “What options do I have?” The most sensible option for me was waitressing so I went ahead with that without thinking too much into it. One of the things I’ve noticed with entrepreneurs my age is that a lot of them had very challenging childhoods. All of them had overcome obstacles of some sort in their younger years, so maybe that was a key factor in building my resiliency. If you’re given challenges as a kid, you’re forced to think in a problem-solving mindset from an early age. I do sometimes worry about younger people when their lives have just been too well taken care of, I don’t know if it builds problem-solving/resiliency skills.

For people my age who haven’t had difficult childhoods or had to overcome many barriers, what are some ways to build that resiliency?

I think partaking in competitive activities like sports or music competitions or the like, are great ways to find your own challenges. Also, solo travelling or even travelling in small groups really helps you build your problem-solving abilities. If you come across an opportunity and you’re about to say no to it, ask yourself why you’re rejecting it. If you acknowledge that it’s outside of your comfort zone, don’t think twice and just go do it.

Shari and her husband travelling

Why do you think your past two businesses failed?

There are two reasons why they failed:

  1. I thought too much because I knew too much. My MBA screwed everything up - I had learned all of this information and I would over-analyze all of my business decisions. If you want to succeed with our own business, don’t think about it… just start!
  2. I had too much money. After the success of my first business, I got into the habit of throwing money at problems instead of solving the root problem.

Why do you think your last business succeeded?

During my fourth business, I finally clued in that I didn’t have to be the CEO. I recognized that I was great at scaling things: taking something that works and replicating it. That’s the curse with founders – everyone wants control and to become the CEO. But entrepreneurs need to learn to let their ego go. We divided up roles based on people’s fortes and we trusted people to make sound decisions. We ended up growing that business so rapidly, we started off with 800 employees and had 12,000 employees when we sold it in 2007.

In the last five years, what new belief or behaviour has changed your life?

The phrase “have no regrets” has taken on a new meaning for me. Everyone thinks that having no regrets means that you’re going out and doing all the fun and exciting things. This especially speaks to me because a substantial part of my life has been my adventures. But coming back to Kingston and taking care of my aging parents, I’ve learned that not having regrets also means just doing the things you have to do because otherwise, you’ll regret it. If I wasn’t here taking care of my parents, that would be a bigger regret than anything else.

So then how do we do the things that we don’t want to do?

When you’re facing that mental block as an entrepreneur, you need to exercise patience. Nothing happens as quickly as you want it to happen. You have to be really stubborn and really believe that whatever it is you’re working on will get you where you want to. You’ve just got to deeply believe and envision the end result and it’ll come.

But when your vision sways, how do you get back on track?

You need to mentally prime yourself so that your vision never sways. When I was building my first business, I never wavered from considering it as a job. I told myself that I am getting up everyday and working 12-15 hours everyday. When I quit my paid job to start my business, I treated my business like a job and as if I had a boss. I knew that I couldn’t slack off. You need to set it up so it feels like you’re working at a job – physically go somewhere else. I knew if I sat at home, I would get distracted. I also never did personal stuff within the 10 hours while I was working.

What does your future look like?

I really don’t know right now because I don’t know when my obligation to my parents will end. I’m in this weird holding period that I’ve never been in before in my life. I’m used to always having a next mission - I have to go on another adventure. My husband and I are currently researching oceans and taking sailing and diving lessons to sail around the world.

Trish as a helicopter pilot

We used to joke that we started off with an earthship, now we’re planning on getting on a real ship and our final adventure will be a spaceship. We would love to be some of the first people to go to Mars. We would do it as our final goodbye rather than staying here on Earth to die.

Shari’s Favourite Books:

I love feedback! Please let me know how I can make my posts more interesting or if you know any awesome people I can talk to. Email me at jennytkim@gmail.com