33 Female Founders Forging Their Own Path
The rise of women’s entrepreneurship is making a significant impact on the U.S. economy across a wide range of industries. There are now more than 9.1 million women-owned businesses in the United States, accounting for more than 30 percent of all enterprises. This generates more than $1.4 trillion in revenue and provides employment to 7.9 million people, according to the 2014 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express OPEN.
The March 2014 report, which analyzes U.S. Census Bureau data, also reveals that women start 1,288 new businesses a day, which is twice the rate of 2011. In addition, Pitchbook reports that companies with at least one female founder have more than tripled their share of U.S. venture rounds in the past 10 years.
Many of these women have an MBA, and recent data demonstrates the positive return on investment of an MBA. An MBA provides personal, professional and financial rewards by developing students’ business knowledge and leadership skills and offering valuable networking opportunities. Women across the career spectrum note that an MBA helps them gain salary increases and promotions.
Moreover, completion of an MBA program—whether it is an online MBA or a traditional MBA—shows investors, partners and other individuals who are critical in the initial stages of a start-up company that the entrepreneur has gained the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful.
- Hayley Barna, Co-founder and Co-CEO, Birchbox
- Ruzwana Bashir, Co-founder and Co-CEO, Peek
- Katia Beauchamp, Co-founder and Co-CEO, Birchbox
- Stacy Blackman, Founder and President, Stacy Blackman Consulting
- Robin Chase, Founder and CEO, Zipcar and Buzzcar
- Claire Cunningham, Co-founder, Lessonface
- Elisabet de los Pinos, Founder and CEO, Aura Biosciences
- Jennifer Dulski, Founder, The Dealmap, President and COO, Change.org
- Susan Feldman, Co-founder and Chief Merchandising Officer, One Kings Lane
- Jennifer Fleiss, Co-founder and Head of Business Development, Rent the Runway
- Michelle Greenwald, Founder and Co-CEO, Inventours
- Kit Hickey, Co-founder, Ministry of Supply
- Angie Hicks, Founder and Chief Marketing Officer, Angie's List
- Allison Hughes, Co-founder, Heels on the Ground
- Jennifer Hyman, Co-founder and CEO, Rent the Runway
- Amy Jain, Co-founder, BaubleBar
- Meera Kaul, Founder, Momenta and Chairperson, The Meera Kaul Foundation
- Yuki Kotani, Co-founder, Harboring Hearts Housing
- Katrina Lake, Founder and CEO, Stitch Fix
- Nicole McKinney Lindsay, Founder, DiversityMBAPrep.com
- Vera Makarov, Founder and CEO for Latin America, Lamudi
- Alexis Maybank, Founder and Strategic Advisor, Gilt Groupe
- Allison Karl O’Kelly, Founder and CEO, Mom Corps
- Monisha Perkash, Co-founder and CEO, Lumo BodyTech, Inc.
- Martine Rothblatt, Founder and CEO, Sirius XM Satellite Radio and United Therapeutics
- Pooja Sankar, Founder and CEO, Piazza and Piazza Careers
- Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO, Girls Who Code
- Amy Sheng, Co-founder and Co-CEO, CellScope, Inc.
- Prita Uppal, Founder and CEO, Hooked Media
- Christine Wheeler, Founder and CEO, Drazil Foods, LLC.
- Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, Co-founder and Strategic Advisor, Gilt Groupe
- Daniella Yacobovsky, Co-founder, BaubleBar
- Michelle Zatlyn, Co-founder, CloudFlare
Hayley Barna met Katia Beauchamp while both were earning their MBA degrees. Interestingly, Barna did not have much experience in the beauty industry as either a consumer or working behind the scenes, and she thinks this lack of knowledge provided a fresh perspective when the duo formed Birchbox in 2010. The New York-based e-commerce company sends subscribers monthly cosmetic samples for $10, and then the subscribers can choose to purchase full-size versions of these products. For consumers who don’t want to—or don’t have the time to—visit brick-and-mortar beauty stores, Birchbox allows them to sample name-brand beauty products in the convenience of their homes. This approach seems to be paying off, since Birchbox now has over 800,000 subscribers.
Ruzwana Bashir took a decidedly different path to entrepreneurship. She studied politics, philosophy and economics while at Oxford and was president of the debating society. From there, Bashir worked in investment banking for such companies as Goldman Sachs. After obtaining her MBA, she worked for Gilt Groupe and Artsy. One day, while trying to plan her birthday celebration weekend in Istanbul, Bashir became frustrated that after she assembled the list of activities, she then needed to locate guides and book each separate event. In 2012, Peek.com was born out of this frustration and a desire to simplify the planning experience. The New York-based travel website compiles the best restaurants, events and activities from around the world.
Katia Beauchamp, the other half of Birchbox, admits that Birchbox has grown quickly and does not follow the traditional business model. In just three years, the e-commerce company, which ships a box of beauty samples to subscribers for $10 monthly, has over $96 million in sales. In addition, Birchbox has over 250 employees and works with more than 800 brands. Since the company grew so quickly, it did not have to raise significant funds initially, but it recently closed a deal for $60 million in funding. So why obtain funding now? Beauchamp says Birchbox plans to increase its marketing efforts, expand into other countries and develop its own products. In addition, the company also plans to open a brick-and-mortar store in Lower Manhattan so it can observe consumer buying habits.
Stacy Blackman combined her passion for higher education and marketing to create Stacy Blackman Consulting in 2001. SBC is a world-renowned MBA admissions consulting company that provides services to applicants to help them get into their dream school. Blackman began her career in finance and marketing at companies including the Prudential Capital Group, Charles Schwab and Haagen Dazs, until her MBA program ignited her entrepreneurial side. Shortly after graduating with her MBA, Blackman launched SBC. Blackman is the writer of the Strictly Business MBA blog for U.S. News and has been profiled in publications including Fortune Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.
Going through an MBA program helped me to think outside of the box. It completely opened my mind with regards to what I believed I was able to accomplish. I gained the broad range of skills needed to work on strategy, marketing, management and accounting issues, and I developed a network that I have tapped into and relied on every step of the way. Most importantly, the MBA brought about a mind-shift which allowed me to come up with an idea and believe that I could be the one to make it happen...and then actually go for it and make it a reality.
Robin Chase founded Zipcar to provide on-demand access to cars by the hour. The requestor makes an online or phone reservation, the information is sent wirelessly to the car (within 30 seconds) and the Zipcar requestor has a card that is used to open the car. When the requestor has finished using the car, they return it and lock the doors. Zipcar broke even its first year and its annual revenue is now upward of $242 million. In 2003, Chase stepped down as CEO and in 2011 she started Buzzcar in France. Buzzcar allows people to rent out their own cars to neighbors and friends. Currently, the company has 12,000 members and 1,500 cars throughout the country.
An avid instrumentalist and lifelong learner, Claire Cunningham merged these two interests to create Lessonface, a resource for students interested in learning a musical instrument. By pairing high-quality teachers with aspiring musicians around the world via webcam, Cunningham gives people the opportunity to learn guitar, string, percussion, woodwind, voice and brass instruments, among others. Lessonface vets all instructors before they are allowed on the platform to teach in order to ensure a positive experience for children and adults alike.
Leading the fight against cancer, Elisabet de los Pinos is a molecular biologist who founded and is the president of Aura Biosciences, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup. Knowing that chemotherapy kills both healthy and cancerous cells, she has labored to find a way to deliver drugs that can more specifically target just the cancerous ones. Aura Biosciences has developed a trademarked technology called Nanosmart particles, by modifying the nanoparticle and adding a targeting peptide to it. As a result of being able to target the medication’s location, doctors are able to increase the dosage without damaging the surrounding cells.
Jennifer Dulski was a former vice president and general manager of local and commerce at Yahoo and was also one of the company’s first 500 employees. In 2007, Dulski became the co-founder and CEO of The Dealmap, a Menlo Park, California, company that collects information about local deals from almost 500 sources and then organizes these deals by location on its website and mobile app. In 2011, Dulski became the first woman to sell her company to Google. In 2013, she became the president and COO of Change.org, a website where people can start petitions for social change. The website makes money by allowing advertisers to sponsor petitions. It averages 300 paying clients and $15 million in revenue.
When Susan Feldman and her husband purchased a West Hollywood home, she couldn’t find an online store that sold home furnishes to her liking, which led her and her co-founder to launch One Kings Lane in 2009. The flash-sale business—that only sells items for a limited period of time—offers products at 70 percent off retail. Feldman said that they soon discovered there was not a price resistance as long as they had the right product and it was well presented. For example, during the company’s first month, handcrafted rugs that retailed from between $5,000 and $7,000 sold out in less than 30 minutes. Today, the company offers vintage and designer home items and has more than 6 million registered users, 350 employees and revenue in the $200 to $300 million range.
In 2009, Jennifer Fleiss helped to found New York City-based Rent the Runway to address the major problem of women purchasing special occasion dresses for one night and then returning them the next day, which is a violation of most store return policies. The prevalence of this practice inspired Fleiss to come up with the idea to provide a warehouse full of the latest designer dresses that could be rented at affordable prices and also provide attentive customer service. Rent the Runway is now so successful that it is backed by $55.4 million in venture capital funding and employs 200 people. It also has one of the largest dry-cleaning operations in the nation.
A former marketing executive at Fortune 100 companies, Michelle Greenwald is an expert consultant who helps corporations create breakthrough innovation strategies. Greenwald founded Inventours to provide immersive learning opportunities for executives in a range of dynamic industries. In five-day sessions, Inventours offers attendees the opportunity to gain actionable insights from top global practitioners in order to improve new product development and enhance creativity. In addition to acting as CEO of Inventours, Greenwald also contributes to Inc.com and serves as a professor and guest lecturer at MBA programs in the U.S. and around the world.
Kit Hickey, a former investment banker, is one of the co-founders of Ministry of Supply, a Boston-based e-commerce company that sells wearable technology for men. The company, founded in 2011, makes functional garments that may be waterproof, wrinkle proof or stain proof, or the clothing items may be moisture wicking, regulate body temperature or absorb odors. Within the first month of publicly launching Ministry of Supply, the company sold over 6,000 shirts and had over 4,000 customers.
Probably the most visible and well-known entrepreneur on the list, Angie Hicks founded Columbus, Ohio-based Angie’s List in 1995 as a way to connect consumers with reliable, quality service providers. The idea was a result of her co-founder’s frustration in trying to find reliable help to renovate a home. Hicks started the company by going door-to-door soliciting subscriptions and collecting service reviews from her friends and neighbors. Now the company has over 2 million subscribers and receives roughly 40,000 reviews each month covering 720 categories that range from plumbing to dentistry. As a national consumer advocate, Hicks has alerted consumers to dangers with lead paint, mold and radon.
Along with co-founder Jennifer Fleiss, Jennifer Hyman founded Rent the Runway in 2009 for women who would otherwise not be able to purchase high-end dresses for special occasions. As a result, many of them would purchase a dress and then return it the next day, claiming it had not been worn. Initially, high-end designers were apprehensive and thought this practice would be bad for business, but Hyman and Fleiss were able to convince them that once the women had the experience of wearing designer dresses, they would become loyal brand customers. Now, Lela Rose and Badgley Mischka are partners with Rent the Runway, along with 175 other brands, and the company has more than 3 million members.
Amy Jain came up with the idea for BaubleBar after identifying a gap in the market for well-designed, but affordable jewelry. Utilizing her business school classes, she investigated the market, talked to hundreds of designers and along with Danielle Yacobovsky, created a business model for reaching costume jewelry consumers in 2010. BaubleBar has grown from the two founders to over 25 employees. The New York City-based company has over $5.6 million in funding and $11 million in revenue.
Co-founder, Heels on the Ground* One month after enrolling in an MBA program, Allison Hughes received news that her husband had been critically wounded while serving in Afghanistan. She spent the next year caring for her husband and two children full time and experienced the enormous stress and pressure that caregivers often face. In order to help others in similar circumstances, Hughes started Heels on the Ground (HOTG), an innovative organization that provides support networks, weekend workshops, webinars and wellness plans to support caregivers of wounded soldiers. During her MBA program, Hughes developed a business model for HOTG with input and advice from her professors and classmates. As a result, HOTG helps give back to a community that sacrifices so much. *Update, November 16th: Heels on the Ground was offered fiduciary and business support by the Green Beret Foundation and now operates under the moniker, "Steel Mags"; a pre-established group of caregivers and spouses of wounded Green Beret soldiers.
After founding Momenta, a technology, media and telecommunications company, Meera Kaul became the managing director at Optimus Technology and Telecommunications, which is headquartered in Dubai. Optimus exists to promote growth and entrepreneurship and to fill the gaps in the regional IT distribution industry in the Middle East North Africa region. Kaul is also the chairperson of the Meera Kaul Foundation, which funds organizations led by women in emerging markets, and she serves as an advisor and an investor in many startups around the world.
For Yuki Kotani, who co-founded Harboring Hearts Housing in 2009, the motivation was personal. She is a congenital heart defect survivor. Also, her father is a heart attack survivor and a heart transplant recipient. Kotani was one of the main caretakers during her father’s illness and witnessed first-hand the type of emotional stress and overall strain it puts on the patient’s loved ones. As a result—and in honor of her father—Harboring Hearts provides emergency financial support for those undergoing heart procedures. The organization also provides financial assistance with housing, meals, child care, transportation, prescription co-payments or clothing. In addition, it provides community events such as “heart” parties that feature games, face painting and crafts, and other activities that provide fun and emotional support.
Katrina Lake is at the intersection of fashion and technology. Her company, Stitch Fix, is a San Francisco-based company founded in 2012 that provides personal shopping services for busy women. Customers complete a 10-minute style questionnaire, and a stylist personally selects five articles of clothing to mail to the customer. The customer can then decide to purchase the desired items or mail the rest back in a pre-paid envelope. Over 200 brands and labels work with Stitch Fix, and the company has 60 employees in its San Francisco headquarters, 200 warehouse workers and 300 stylists from around the country who work from home.
Although Nicole McKinney Lindsay began her career in corporate finance, her passion for career development led her to become the associate director of admissions at the Yale School of Management. From there, she worked at Goldman Sachs and oversaw MBA recruiting strategies at Wharton, Chicago Booth, Kellogg and Tuck. After working with more than 1,000 pre-MBA and MBA students, Lindsay was dismayed at the number of applicants who seemed overwhelmed by the application process and also by the small number of females and minorities pursuing an MBA. This led her to found Diversity MBAPrep, the only online community that provides MBA admissions coaching resources for women and minorities. She has also authored The MBA Slingshot for Women: Using Business School to Catapult Your Career.
Vera Makarov is the founder and CEO of Lamudi in Latin America, which is the region’s largest real estate website. In less than a year, Lamudi acquired over 100,000 listings from over 1,000 clients such as RE/MAX, Century 21 and Coldwell Banker. Makarov is also the co-founder and CEO of Carmudi in Latin America, which is the region’s leading auto classifieds website.
Alexis Maybank left an investment banking position at eBay to help start the company’s Canadian branch and its automotive business. Several years later, after obtaining her MBA, Maybank gambled once again and helped to found Gilt Groupe, a members-only fashion website. Her gamble paid off, as Gilt has over 6 million members and carries over 700 brands. The company, founded in 2007, started as a women’s site carrying clothing, shoes, jewelry, accessories and handbags. Now, it also sells men’s clothing, shoes and accessories; items for babies and children, including clothes, toys, books and games; and home items, such as furniture, rugs, lighting, luggage, bed and bath items, and candles.
After completing her MBA, Allison Karl O’Kelly was on the management track at Toys R Us when she became pregnant with her first child. Even though the company did its best to work with her and offered her a schedule of three eight-hour days per week, after four months she decided that the arrangement would not work and resigned. O’Kelly started doing freelance accounting work and quickly realized that she had more work than she could handle and started enlisting the help of other moms to work on the projects. This led her to found Mom Corps in 2005, which now boasts a database of hundreds of thousands of professionals and has franchises around the country that are all owned by women.
Going through an MBA program helped me to learn all aspects of a business. I learned what I liked, what I didn’t like, what I was good at and what I wasn’t. Most of all it helped me to focus on my strengths and surround myself with the right people to complete the management needs of an organization.
Monisha Perkash previously founded and was the CEO of Tuition Coach/The College Company, which she sold to SimpleTuition. In 2011, she helped to found Lumo BodyTech, Inc., and is the company’s CEO. Lumo BodyTech creates such products as Lumo Lift and Lumo Back—products that improve posture by vibrating when the user slouches and also tracks activity to encourage people to be more active. The Palo Alto company raised $1 million in a seed round, pre-sold 16,000 devices and then raised another $5 million.
Martine Rothblatt made history for being the highest-paid female CEO in the country. With a $38 million compensation package, she is one of only 11 women on the list of American’s highest-paid CEOs. Rothblatt is also the only woman on the list who was born a man. In 1990, she founded and served as chairman and CEO of Sirius Satellite Radio, which is the first satellite-to-car broadcasting system. In 1992, she founded United Therapeutics Corporation, a Silver Springs, Maryland-based pharmaceutical company and is the chairman and CEO of that company as well. In addition, Rothblatt is a co-inventor for three treprostinil patents for the treatment of pulmonary arterial hypertension.
As one of only three women in her undergraduate computer class in India, Pooja Sankar understands that students may not feel comfortable asking questions in class. Her company, Piazza, is a free online community that allows anonymous posting and allows students, teaching assistants and instructors to interact with each other. The Palo Alto-based company was founded in 2009, and currently, hundreds of colleges and more than 600,000 students use Piazza. Professors can enroll their classes at the beginning of the school term and then students can post questions any time of the day or night. In 2013, Sankar also decided to offer tech recruiters a tool for recruiting students directly through Piazza. That company, Piazza Careers, allows companies—who may pay a fee of $20,000 or more per semester—to search through computer science and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes on Piazza and target those with specific skills.
I was so inspired learning from many successful company founders in my entrepreneurship classes. Their stories gave me the courage to follow my dream of starting a company about which I was deeply passionate.
In 2010, Reshma Saujani was campaigning for a congressional seat in the state of New York. She lost that bid, but throughout her campaign, she visited many schools and observed a noticeable gender gap in technology. This led the former deputy public advocate for New York City to found Girls Who Code in 2012. The purpose of the organization is to educate and inspire girls to pursue careers in technology. Girls Who Code has a seven-week summer immersion program, and for 35 hours each week, selected teenage girls learn about various topics such as web design and application development, and they also form teams and work on projects. They are given the opportunity to talk with female mentors and take field trips to such companies as Amazon, Facebook and Twitter. Girls Who Code has a goal of reaching 1 million young women and currently offers classes in 19 cities, including Boston, Miami, San Francisco and Seattle.
Amy Sheng is working diligently to make your smartphone even smarter. Her company, CellScope, is working on visual attachments that allow users to remotely diagnose conditions and diseases. CellScope Oto, the company’s first product, is an otoscope that allows smartphones to capture diagnostic quality images and videos of the ear and send them to health care professionals. Sheng says that there are at least 25 million ear-related trips to the pediatrician’s office or the emergency room on an annual basis. CellScope Oto allows parents to obtain a quick diagnosis from the comfort of their home. The company also plans to create a digital first aid kit for busy parents and people living in rural areas. However, the kit is not just for patients. The kit will also prove valuable to doctors and nurses who want a digital recording of exams for follow-up visit comparisons and to medical students who want to get a second opinion.
Founder and CEO, Hooked Media
With a million apps in Google’s app store, it’s quite understandable that consumers might overlook some of the offerings. But using algorithms and a prediction engine, Prita Uppal has created a game recommendation platform, Hooked, to analyze games that the consumer has already installed and then rates and recommends other games. Hooked has been downloaded 4.5 million times, and the users average 12 downloads a week. Uppal admits that she is “an avid engager in mindless entertainment—reality TV, games, etc.” and knew that she wanted to found and lead a company with this focus.
Founder and CEO, Drazil Foods, LLC.
As a mother of four who has lived in several countries including Japan and Poland, Christine Wheeler enjoyed drinking water and was accustomed to cultures in which tea was the drink of choice. Perhaps this led to heightened frustration when she encountered a shortage of healthy, reduced-sugar drinks for kids in the United States. Wheeler also noticed that consumers were beginning to shun 100 percent juice, so she started experimenting with juice and caffeine-free herbal tea. Her goal was to reduce the amount of sugar in the beverages without losing taste or nutrients. The result is Drazil Kids Tea, launched in 2013, which has a blend of 54 percent herbal tea and 46 percent fruit juice. The tea is sold in many popular stores, including Whole Foods.
I went to business school to learn about business but I came away with so much more. During my two years in the program I was thrown into many new, sometimes challenging situations. Learning to navigate through these strengthened my confidence and tenacity, qualities that are important for an entrepreneur. Besides making lifelong friends, I also gained a network of peers that I frequently call on to help me with my business.
Along with co-founder Alexis Maybank, Alexandra Wilkis Wilson has helped to revolutionize the e-commerce luxury landscape. Wilson formerly worked with Louis Vuitton and Bulgari and brought both fashion experience and MBA knowledge to the table. She says the two chose the name “Gilt” because it means gold-covered and opulent and also sounded “guilty.” As for “Groupe,” it made the company sound more sophisticated. Gilt Groupe business highlights include selling three $16,000 Volkswagen Jettas for less than $6,000 each. The cars sold within a matter of minutes. Christian Louboutin sales are also extremely popular. In addition, Wilson and Maybank recently published a book By Invitation Only: How We Built Guilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop.
According to Danielle Yacobovsky, the premise of BaubleBar is simple: source pieces of jewelry directly from the designer and offer them at a discounted price under the BaubleBar label. For example, a necklace that retails for $90 at Anthropologie would be sold for $35 through BaubleBar. Then, Yacobovsky and co-founder Jain started designing their own jewelry. And although BaubleBar is an online store, the company has featured its jewelry at pop-up stores in the Anthropologie chain, and more recently, landed pop-up stores for a limited time in 35 Nordstrom stores and also on Nordstrom’s website.
Michelle Zatlyn co-founded San Francisco-based CloudFlare to protect websites from malicious attackers. On a weekly basis, she says that companies receive ransom notes from cybercriminals who have hijacked their website and demand a ransom to return service. However, when these companies sign up for CloudFlare, the company resolves the problem for them. And Zatlyn says that every day when she looks in the mirror, she knows that she’s helping to build a better Internet. On a daily basis, 5,000 new customers sign up for CloudFlare, ranging from enterprise customers, who may pay anywhere from $20,000 to millions of dollars yearly. At the other end of the spectrum, some customers have a $20 a month service, and CloudFlare also offers a free service.