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The startup ecosystem is not known to be particularly friendly toward women. Earlier this year, TechCrunch reported that only 17% of the 43,008 venture-funded companies in its directory CrunchBase have at least one female founder. It’s a disappointing figure, but it reminds us that the only way to go from here is up.
A growing number of women are successfully breaking through barriers to bring innovative ideas and quality products to the market. As I learned about their stories, I was struck by how different and perhaps, even more compelling, how similar they were.
Many of these founders left their jobs at large and established corporations to pursue the rigorous, but rewarding journey of entrepreneurship. They faced countless struggles and experienced satisfying triumphs in the process of bringing innovation to their respective industries. They are mothers, wives, friends, colleagues, and classmates who are driven by the problems experienced by themselves, their peers, and their loved ones to create better solutions.
We’ve highlighted 30 female-founded companies below that inspire us to solve problems, create, and support other women.
Luggage is the last thing you'd expect people to get excited about, but cofounders Jen Rubio and Steph Korey made it happen with their luggage company Away. Both Rubio and Korey are former Warby Parker heads, and Korey was a consultant for mattress startup Casper, and they sought to bring the same direct-to-consumer excitement and success to the luggage space.
Their passion for travel and e-commerce is evident: In the beginning, they dug deep and interviewed hundreds of travellers to learn everything about how and why they travel, and ultimately translated their insights into lightweight, yet durable pieces of luggage that are much more affordable than high-end brands.
Though it only launched in 2016, Away is already a celebrity staple and has landed partnerships with big names like West Elm.
Dagne Dover is the women's handbag company we can't stop talking about -- they just get work bags, weekend bags, and backpacks so right. Cofounders Melissa Mash, Deepa Gandhi, and Jessy Dover are now the CEO, COO, and creative director, respectively, of the company that is holding its own against Coach, Michael Kors, Kate Spade, and Tory Burch for the attentions of workingwomen.
The founders come from UPenn's Wharton School and the Parsons School of Design and have retail experience from Coach and Club Monaco, backgrounds that certainly translated into their stylish and functional bag business.
While working in the UN community in Geneva, founder Cynthia Salim noticed it was difficult to find high-quality women's workwear. Her socially responsible clothing brand Citizen's Mark makes tailored Italian wool blazers for the modern professional woman and strives to change the way the fashion industry views workingwomen.
Salim was named to Forbes' 30 Under 30 list earlier this year and has received recognition from the World Policy Institute for her work in sustainability.
After working as a director and senior merchant at Victoria's Secret, Michelle Cordeiro Grant wanted to create a new experience and point of view in the lingerie category, one that delivers simple, quality products and reflects the healthy, confident, and beautiful women wearing them. In 2015, she founded LIVELY, a brand that blurs the lines of lingerie, active, and swim.
Its comfortable bra, swim, and activewear products are tackling the $US13 billion lingerie category largely dominated by Grant's former employer.
Linda Avey and Anne Wojcicki are two of the three founders of genetic testing company 23andMe. The direct-to-consumer company uses small spit samples to create over 70 reports about your health, bodily traits, and ancestry. A former health care investment analyst with a degree in biology from Yale University and current CEO of the company, Wojcicki is fascinated by the mysteries of the genome and what it can reveal about the human body.
She wants to help solve a bottleneck in healthcare, which is not knowing enough about predispositions to diseases, with the huge data set that results from over 2 million genotyped 23andMe customers.
Harvard Business School classmates Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss started Rent the Runway after noticing Hyman's sister didn't want to spend a lot of money for a dress she would wear only once to a wedding. The company rents out designer clothing for a fraction of the retail price and aims to change the meaning of the ownership of luxury experiences.
Founded in 2009, the company now has more than 6 million members, 12,000 employees, 450 designer partners, and brick-and-mortar locations in five major cities.
Katrina Lake is the founder and CEO of Stitch Fix, an online personal styling service for men and women. As an associate at The Parthenon Group, Lake was inspired by a department store client she worked with and later joined a venture capital firm in hopes of finding the future of retail. When she didn't find that company, she applied to Harvard Business School and started working on the idea for Stitch Fix during her second year there.
The first Stitch Fix order was shipped out of Lake's apartment in 2011. In the 2016 fiscal year, the company reported $US730 million in revenue and currently has $US42.5 million in venture capital funding.
Founder and CEO Ariel Kaye made it her mission to offer high-quality, affordable sheets and inspire a community around sleep, wellness, and a comfortable home after returning from a trip to Italy. She was unsatisfied with bedding products that couldn't compare with those she experienced in her hotel in Italy and launched Parachute in 2014 with an assortment of bedding essentials.
Her career in brand development and advertising gave her the insights into purchase behaviour and consumer trends necessary to now boast a 4x year-to-year growth rate and 40% repeat customer rate. The company also recently developed a collection exclusive to hotels and a penthouse hotel room where you can book a stay and see Parachute products (like towels and bathrobes) in action.
In starting Pinrose, Stanford Graduate School of Business classmates Erika Shumate and Christine Luby had a vision to make high-quality fragrance a playful, effortless, everyday experience for the modern millennial. Shumate's research on synesthesia and the psychology of smell helped inform the brand's Scent Personality Quiz, which gives you personalised perfume recommendations.
Lead investors in Pinrose include Bonobos cofounder and former Trunk Club CEO Brian Spaly, and the brand is now available at top retailers like QVC, Birchbox, Sephora, and ipsy.
Another Stanford Graduate School of Business alumna is Mariam Naficy, founder and CEO of Minted, a design marketplace that sells crowdsourced creations (such as greeting cards) from independent artists. In 2007, Naficy saw parallels between the rise of Internet bloggers creating good content and the potential for designers to do the same.
Though the company initially struggled, it has since raised $US90 million in capital and is home to an international community of designers from over 60 countries.
In 2011, Carly Strife helped found the popular monthly dog treat subscription box service that has since expanded into original content creation, an online marketplace, and mobile apps under the brand Bark & Co. Strife utilised her experience from her time as a New York City operations manager at Uber to get new vendors on board with BarkBox, and is now COO of the company.
Strife and her cofounders recognised the connection between a owner's desire to please their pets and a dog's need for variety in play and food. They succeeded in capturing that connection and business exploded in 2012.
Lynda is an online learning platform that offers almost 6,000 courses in photography, development, business, web design, and video, and is part of the movement toward democratized education. Lynda Weinman, a self-taught web and motion graphics designer, originally started the site at the age of 40 with her husband Bruce as a way to communicate to the students in her very successful web design class.
The site's courses now serve students and employees from over 10,000 organisations. In 2015, Weinman sold Lynda to LinkedIn for $US1.5 billion and currently ranks as No. 55 on Forbes' list of America's Richest Self-Made Women.
Before becoming a cofounder and the CEO of Zola, a startup that is reinventing the wedding registry and planning experience, Ma was the chief product officer of Chloe + Isabel and general manager of Gilt Taste. Her extensive experience in product management has helped guide the success of Zola's retail business as well as its iOS and Android apps.
Ma told the Stanford Graduate School of Business (where she received her MBA in 2006) in an interview that her goal is to become a builder of great tech companies. With over 300,000 registered users and $US40 million in venture capital funding, Zola looks like it will be one of those companies.
Cofounders Karla Gallardo and Shilpa Shah met while touring prospective business schools, and while they ultimately did not attend the same school, they reconnected over their shared vision to create a lifestyle brand with a 'fewer, better' philosophy. Cuyana is that minimalist fashion brand and focuses on women's essentials, like dresses, outerwear, and leather goods.
The company has opened brick-and-mortar locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as popup shops around the country.
Amanda Zuckerman's frustrating dorm room shopping experience before she entered her freshman year at Washington University in St. Louis inspired her and her mum Karen to start Dormify, the one-stop shop for affordable and stylish small space decor.
Amanda's understanding of and proximity to college students, combined with Karen's creative and strategic advertising skills, makes for a business that college students with an eye for design can't resist. Dormify has also partnered with large retailers like Macy's and American Eagle to offer exclusive collections and has licensing agreements with national sororities to produce additional merchandise.
Noura Sakkijha is a third generation jeweller who comes from an industrial engineering background and later earned her MBA from Ryerson University. Sakkijha always wanted to work in jewellery and brought her own twist to jewellery product design in 2013 with Mejuri, a brand that offers contemporary and everyday fine jewellery at accessible prices.
Sakkijha aims to create a trend of women buying jewellery for themselves rather than waiting for it to be gifted by someone else. The designs are simple and pretty, but the company stays fresh through limited-edition collaborations. It has also thrived thanks to more authentic and organic exposure like word-of-mouth.
This Dartmouth grad is a cofounder of design studio Linjer, which makes minimalist Italian and Turkish leather goods and watches. After her boyfriend and cofounder Roman Khan had trouble finding a high-quality, affordable, and no-logo leather briefcase for work, Chong stepped in to design one instead.
Chong knew they were onto something when their initial Indiegogo campaign raised $US185,000 in 2014. Her response to the rise of trendy, but wasteful fast fashion is paying off: In 2016, sales were projected to be $US5 million and patient customers sat in six-month-long wait lists for their bags.
After founder and CEO Kat Schneider became pregnant and had difficulty finding vitamins that didn't contain questionable ingredients, she decided to build her own: vitamin subscription startup Ritual. She says she's not only selling the vitamins themselves, but also the important habit of taking them. It certainly helps that she purposefully designed the pills and packaging to be visually appealing.
Schneider's vision to make women's health more transparent has attracted $US15.5 million in venture capital funding and a cult-like following most vitamin companies can't boast.
Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo met as undergrads at the University of Chicago. They married Mazur's experience in arts management and fashion and Cerulo's love of telling stories in the print publishing world to bring the creations and stories of new designers to the forefront on their site Of a Kind.
Mazur and Cerulo are motivated by the desire to support new designers, create an engaged community of both designers and shoppers, and foster an environment for people who shop as much for the experience as they do for the product. Since Of a Kind's launch in 2010, they have featured over 350 up-and-coming designers.
Hailing from backgrounds in investment banking, venture capital, and fashion e-commerce, Nina Faulhaber and Meg He noticed there was little innovation in everyday fashion. Faulhaber is a former competitive gymnast and He is a certified yoga teacher, and both wanted that comfort from activewear in the clothing they wore every day.
ADAY's simple 'wardrobe of the future' uses technical fabrics (e.g. breathable, thermoregulated, cooling, stretchy, offers UV protection), aims to be seasonless and versatile, and is sustainable so you can cut down on the wasteful pieces in your closet.
The beginning of Heidi Zak's journey with ThirdLove is one many women can relate to: she was frustrated by everything about bras, from the shopping process to the fit and poor quality. She created ThirdLove, which prioritises fit and comfort through its Fit Finder Quiz, Breast Shape Dictionary, and half-cup size solutions.
The go-getter attitude that landed her positions at McKinsey, Aeropostale, and Google is evident in her approach to grow the brand, which has partnered with department store giant Bloomingdale's and raised $US13.6 million in venture capital funding.
Oars + Alps founders Mia Saini Duchnowski and Laura Lisowski Cox realised they were onto something when they exchanged stories about their husbands relying on their wives' expensive creams and cleansers or chemical-packed men's products to treat their skin after a day of outdoor activities like rowing and cycling.
Their combined resumes are impressive, with education from MIT, Harvard Business School, and Brandeis, and jobs at NASA, Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg TV, Digitas, AOL, and Facebook. Such versatile expertise has lent itself to creating the best all-natural skin products for men. The company recently raised $US1.3 million in a seed round of financing.
Founder and CEO Christina d'Avignon majored in Fine Art and Human Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. She brought art and technology together into a tangible product with her smart jewellery startup Ringly. Ringly is a wearable device and app that track your steps, send vibration alerts when you receive an important call or text, and guide you through meditation exercises.
d'Avignon says that when the idea for Ringly came to her, she couldn't shake it, and she encourages other women to persevere in pursuing a vision. In 2015, Ringly raised $US5.1 million in a round of funding led by prominent VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.
AYR, which stands for All Year Round, originated as a part of Bonobos and spun off in 2015 as an independent company led by Jac Cameron, Maggie Winter, and Max Bonbrest.
Cameron was a senior denim designer at Madewell and global denim director at Calvin Klein, while Winter had worked in merchandising at J.Crew for seven years, and together they brought this fashion expertise to create focused collections of high-quality pieces like jeans.
As its name suggests, the brand makes clothing essentials made for any season of the year, and consumers are responding. When they first launched the brand in 2014, their jeans sold out in two days. AYR currently has a retail location in New York City and has plans to roll out international shipping.
Hyper-popular beauty brand Glossier was born out of founder and CEO Emily Weiss' blog 'Into the Gloss,' where she profiled the beauty routines of women like Bobbi Brown and Karlie Kloss. As the site fostered a large and engaged community of readers, it made sense to utilise the knowledge and opinions of these readers to craft products they would actually buy.
Weiss understands the importance of staying connected with the brand's dedicated fan base and the customer-centric approach has translated into extraordinary demand (read: 10,000-person wait lists) for Glossier products.
The average American woman wears a size 16. One-third of US women wear plus-size clothing, yet it remains difficult to find stylish plus-size options. Founder and CEO Christine Hunsicker sought to help this underserved market with Gwynnie Bee, an online women's clothing subscription service for sizes 10 through 32.
The company works with more than 190 brands and has shipped out more than 3 million boxes of clothing. Hunsicker says she is increasingly looking at boutique brands that align with Gwynnie Bee's business of making women look good and feel confident.
At first glance, Catbird looks like your typical indie jewellery boutique in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Unlike any old neighbourhood shop, however, it made more than $US10 million in revenue in 2016. Founder Rony Vardi is a former graphic designer who loves creating and selecting jewellery, and helping customers find that special piece, be it the brand's popular stacking ring or a wedding ring.
Catbird maintains its timeless vibe because Vardi doesn't pay attention to trends. Instead, she thinks long term and focuses on creating high-quality pieces with intrinsic value.
Birchbox was launched in 2010 by Harvard Business School classmates Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp, who envisioned a better way to shop for beauty products. The company sends monthly boxes with samples of beauty products to its subscribers, and the full-size versions of those products are available to purchase in its shop.
Barna and Beauchamp began by sending cold emails to the presidents and CEOs of well-known beauty brands to seek partnerships, only to be met with resistance about Birchbox's unprecedented concept. Today, the company has an additional BirchboxMan brand, more than 1 million subscribers, 800 brands in its shop, and an $US86.9 million valuation.
Founder, CEO, and chief creative officer Carolyn Rafaelian is from Rhode Island, once the costume jewellery capital of the world and where her family began its foray into jewellery manufacturing. Her company Alex and Ani, named after her two eldest daughters, doesn't only sell bangles and charms. Through Rafaelian's leadership and artistic vision, it sells positive energy for consumers who want to share their personality through what they wear.
The Paper Store, Harvey Nichols, and Saks Fifth Avenue have all carried Alex and Ani bangles, and in 2012 the company also began licensing deals with Walt Disney, NFL, national sororities, and the US military. Rafaelian has a net worth of $US1 billion and is No. 18 on Forbes' list of America's Richest Self-Made Women.
Founder Urska Srsen's passion for and expertise in sculpting brings a unique perspective to the world of product design. She leads design, production, and manufacturing at her Y-Combinator backed startup Bellabeat, a wearable and app that helps you track your steps, sleep, and period. It can also predict and manage your stress.
In an interview with Nordic Startup Bits, Srsen said being an entrepreneur is 'a very creative process that demands everything you've got to give; knowledge, ideas, time, sweat and love. Much like creating art does.' The process is paying off: The company has sold 700,000 Bellabeat Leaf devices and opened four offices worldwide.
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Disclosure: This post is brought to you by Business Insider’s Insider Picks team. We aim to highlight products and services you might find interesting, and if you buy them, we get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our commerce partners. We frequently receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We operate independently from our advertising sales team. We welcome your feedback.Have something you think we should know about? Email us at [email protected]
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