15 Young Founders Rethinking Everything From Artificial Intelligence to Carbon Removal, Sustainable Fashion to...Pizza!
Our definitive list of the up-and-comers to watch this year.
Alexandr Wang, 25; Scale AI
He's sweating $7.3 billion worth of teeny-tiny details.
As a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Alexandr Wang was the casualty of a wickedness that plagues college campuses the world over: His roommates were stealing his food. Specifically, they were taking his yogurts. "Yogurt is one of the easiest foods to steal, because it's so perfectly contained," he says. "It's the perfect crime." So Wang put a camera on the inside of his fridge that he hoped would not just record the happenings of the fridge for him to review later, but know — on its own — that a yogurt had gone missing. He soon realized, though, that such a system would need to learn quite a lot to do what, for a human sentry, would be a relatively simple task. For one, the system would have to learn what a yogurt looks like — and, just as important, what it doesn't look like. After all, plenty of other things are also perfectly contained. It would also have to learn the numerous places the yogurt might be in the fridge, and the copious configurations of surrounding items. To gain this artificial intelligence, his system would not only need a wealth of images to learn from; it would need the important parts of those images to be labeled. This idea of labeling is key. Only then could the AI learn the nature of the relevant elements. Only then could the data become useful. Indeed, only then could his system spot yogurt theft.
Wang is guided by a core principle: You have to give a shit. And pervasive though they may be, fridge infractions would not have fueled him forever. But Wang had been studying artificial intelligence, and even had been accepted to Y Combinator's prestigious accelerator program with an AI company in mind. His fridge experiment made him realize just how essential — and underserviced — labeling was to transforming companies' wealth of data into beneficial uses. Labeling could empower projects that could help fix far bigger problems, like climate change and expanding medical care access — that is, solutions worth giving a shit about. After his freshman year, he dropped out of college, and at age 19, he cofounded Scale AI with a focus on data labeling.
Six years later, Scale is valued at over $7.3 billion — leading Forbes to declare him "the world's youngest self-made billionaire" (on paper, anyway). But he prefers talking about another figure in the billions: Scale has provided 7.7 billion labels to various forms of data. It has partnered with clients ranging from Airbnb to Lyft to Pinterest to Instacart to the U.S. Air Force. Its systems have scoured supply chain documents, tracked the damage to structures sustained through the war in Ukraine, and sorted through images of people's skin to help improve the detection of dermatological diseases, among numerous other applications.
To start, though, Scale focused not on the countless projects it could service but on a single space: self-driving vehicles. "One of the most valuable things that you can do is focus really, really finely, initially," says Wang. By doing so, you can devote yourself to fully understanding your clients' needs. In fact, Wang had at first incorrectly predicted what autonomous vehicles would need Scale to solve. "If we had not focused all of our attention toward this set of customers, we may not have talked to them enough to actually have realized that we were focused initially on the totally wrong problem set," he says.
Wang is a believer in big breakthroughs and in sustaining a high pace — of refusing to succumb to incrementalism. He initially planned to expand beyond the automotive industry after a year or even six months. It remained Scale's sole focus for three years. There was just too much to know — too much to master. Only once Scale had grown large enough that an entire team would not have to split their attention, but could instead focus completely on a whole other set of ideas, did they move on to another industry — and to equally unpredictable problems their clients wanted to solve.
Three years ago, Scale had 100 employees working in its headquarters. Today, it has 600. This has posed a question: How do you determine who gives a shit? It's easier to see a small, hustle-minded crew giving a shit. But what about hundreds and hundreds of people? In fact, Wang seeks two forms of giving a shit — about work in general and about Scale in particular. For the former, Wang thinks that a person's passion can be revealed by their attention to detail — not just in the larger, more noticeable parts of a project, but in the smaller elements too. He asks prospective employees: "What are some of the details that you think someone may never notice, but that you sweat the effort on? What were the things that were 5% of the work but took you hours and hours?" He seeks that craftsmanship as evidence of an almost "seductive call to the work." When evaluating a prospective employee's passion for Scale in particular, Wang wants that desire to come from within. He's learned not to throw out reasons for why that employee specifically might be a fit for the team; instead, he simply gives an authentic (though, of course, impassioned) pitch about the work they're doing, and lets the recruit decide if it's something they believe in, too. He doesn't want his pitch to persuade them; he wants the company's values to do the heavy lifting.
As Scale continues to accelerate, Wang believes a key to thoughtful growth is deciding how much time the company devotes to different kinds of work. He and his team do so by asking themselves two questions: How important is it to the customer? And, How well do we understand it? "If it's important to the customer, you want to be incredibly responsive," Wang says. "And if it's something you understand well, you have an opportunity to be more thoughtful about it. And if it's something we don't understand very well, then we have to move quickly because we have to learn."
There is plenty left to learn. Scale has been expanding its services — not just to labeling all kinds of data and having its tens of thousands of contractors refine the labels, but to building algorithms informed by all kinds of data. They're also constructing networks of reviewers with particular expertise in, for instance, dermatology or satellite images of deforestation. But while Scale's work has already become world-spanning, Wang believes data can be used for far more good yet. "We've laid the foundations, but the best of these technologies is yet to come," he says. That potential is very much worth giving a shit about. — Nate Hopper
Kelly Erhart, 26; Project Vesta
"I wanted to fully focus on solutions."
Kelly Erhart was environmentally conscious as a kid but made a choice as a young adult: "I wasn't going to let my climate anxiety become apathy," the 26-year-old says. "I wanted to fully focus on solutions." She found her focus one weekend while reading a dense climate report, which noted a particular solution called "enhanced weathering." In short, it encourages a natural process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere when water hits certain rocks. Seemingly every major report listed enhanced weathering as a crucial tool for reaching climate targets, but nobody appeared to be doing it outside of scientists in labs.
This would become the focus of Project Vesta, which she cofounded in 2019 as a nonprofit and is now a public benefit corporation that has raised $6 million in philanthropy for its 501(c)(3) side.
Erhart had previously cofounded a waterless toilet company, and learned an important lesson there: Even as the world needs many solutions, nothing gets done unless you build a team that's singularly focused in one direction. To that end, she built an impassioned team who identified why "enhanced weathering" hadn't left the science labs: "Scientists aren't entrepreneurs," she says. "They don't take risks, and this is a risky thing." Her company secured significant funding so that scientists with a wide range of specialties — who may not normally collaborate — could together research its use. This year, Project Vesta launched its first pilot site, where a specific kind of carbon-capturing sand will be spread on beaches. Several more are in the works, with the hopes of one day removing billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. — Nate Hopper
Stella Han, 25, and Carlos Treviño, 27; Fractional
"We're creating a one-stop shop for people to come together."
Stella Han and Carlos Treviño wanted to invest in real estate, but they were having a tough time. Both come from real estate investing families, so they knew more than the average 20-something about it. But Han didn't meet the criteria to become an accredited investor, so she wouldn't be approved by most platforms. She and Treviño were looking to buy a plot of land in Mexico, but that required complicated and expensive legal mechanics. The two were commiserating over this while working at the fintech startup Affirm. "That's when we realized how important community is and how much of a game changer we'd be if we brought in a lot of the software technologies," says Han, "and tying all of that with our real estate background and creating a one-stop shop for people to come together."
In 2021, Han and Treviño founded Fractional, a marketplace for friends and family to invest together. As of last November, Fractional has raised $5.5 million. The company has a $30 million valuation and investors include Kevin Durant and Goodwater Capital. To help people buy property together, Fractional either works with groups or matches potential co-owners, then uses legal and financial software to facilitate the purchase, and then partners with property managers and other real estate service providers to make sure the investment is well-kept. — Britta Lokting
Olamide Olowe, 25; Topicals
"You don't have to be everything to everyone, but you have to be everything to one."
Olamide Olowe grew up with chronic skin conditions that weren't always talked about publicly, like ingrown hairs. This meant that she didn't feel represented in beauty aisles, either. In college, she looked for ways to help people like her: She dabbled with becoming a dermatologist, then cofounded a brand, SheaGIRL, that ultimately sold to Unilever (along with its parent company, Sundial Brands). From there, she looked for a way to make an even bigger impact — and in 2020, she launched Topicals, a skincare brand for chronic skin conditions. The company also highlights the connection between skincare and mental health. "People think beauty is futile and unimportant," she says, but it's "a point of connection for people to themselves." Today, Topicals is the fastest-growing skincare brand at Sephora and has raised just under $5 million.
Even though Olowe has personal experience with chronic skin conditions, she still had a lot to learn about how to reach her customer base. People with chronic skin conditions are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, she says, which means Topicals needed a heightened sensitivity and awareness to earn their trust. "I always say, 'You don't have to be everything to everyone, but you have to be everything to one." Since launching Topicals, customer feedback has been Olowe's top priority. "How you build a brand is understanding the customer," she says. — Britta Lokting
Amira Rasool, 26; The Folklore Group
"Our African-based brands tend to have more sustainable practices."
After college at Rutgers University, Amira Rasool got her master's in philosophy at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. While she was there, she thought a lot about decolonization. "When African countries were colonized, they were told their customs were wrong," she says. But on this side of history, she thought there was a lot to admire about those customs.
In 2018, that thinking prompted Rasool to found The Folklore Group, a Techstars-backed e-commerce distribution platform that brings fashion and lifestyle products from African nations to the rest of the world. Although the idea received praise and investor interest (just this April, she announced a $1.7 million pre-seed funding round), the actual logistics proved to be complicated.
First, there was the matter of simply getting The Folklore's brands out of Africa — and paying their creators. No payment system was available continentwide, but The Folklore is working with a vendor who is helping to facilitate payments for brands on their platform. African designers couldn't get professional photographs of products, so The Folklore showed them how. Then, because shipping small-batch quantities was pricey, Rasool figured out bulk shipping and distribution. To keep up with demand, this spring the brand pivoted from direct-to-consumer to wholesale.
Now, Rasool says, she's working to bridge a different culture — that of consumer expectations. "Our customers in the West are used to a certain speed and accessibility, but our African-based brands tend to have more sustainable practices," she says. "They usually engage in slow fashion, produce smaller batches, and are careful about where they source. So we've tried to show consumers there is value in adjusting their personal behavior to be more sustainable. Plus, there's a positive impact on others they can be proud of." — Kim Kavin
Henrique Dubugras, 26, and Pedro Franceschi, 26; Brex
"Go to the boring industries."
Henrique Dubugras has advice for young entrepreneurs seeking massive opportunities: "Go to the boring industries."
That insight helped Dubugras and cofounder Pedro Franceschi create something that's very not boring — a company, Brex, valued at $12.3 billion.
Brex provides financial software solutions for startups and scaled companies, including mid-market companies as well as larger enterprises; it has confirmed a $300 million raise, has more than 1,100 employees, and serves more than 50,000 customers.
"Fintech, oil and gas, insurance, automobiles — there's all these industries that don't have young entrepreneurs thinking about them," he says. "That's where opportunity is."
Dubugras first learned this as a teenager in Brazil, when he launched an app to help Brazilian teens navigate U.S. college applications. It failed to monetize, but it put him in a problem-solving mindset. Then he met Pedro Franceschi, another self-taught coder in Brazil, and together they launched a payments company, Pagar.me, which sold in 2016 in a multimillion-dollar deal. While building it, they spoke with a wide range of entrepreneurs about their financial problems — and kept hearing about how small businesses struggled to secure corporate credit cards from traditional banks. That gave them the idea for Brex.
"We ask why things are this way, and people say, 'It's always been this way,'" Dubugras says. "So, we think about whether something has changed in the world that could make things easier." — Kim Kavin
Adam Guild, 22, and Dean Bloembergen, 25; Owner.com
"They needed to find a way to be profitable to survive."
Some startup founders build a product first, and then build a community around it. Adam Guild and Dean Bloembergen worked in reverse. "We started with the people we wanted to help and the problem they were facing," says Guild. And here's what they saw: "Restaurant owners are being screwed over by huge corporations like DoorDash and Yelp," says Guild, "because they're taking 30% of every transaction when profit margins average 5%." So they launched Owner.com in May 2020. With the company's product, restaurants can take orders directly from their own websites instead of sending customers somewhere else — which helps independent eateries reclaim control of their online ordering and customer data.
To date, Owner.com has raised $26 million, has a $150 million valuation, and works with thousands of small businesses nationwide. Guild first got the idea after helping his mom improve the website for her dog-grooming business. When his work boosted appointments and walk-ins, he started to think about who else he could help. The pandemic offered an answer: Restaurants were suffering, so he teamed up with Bloembergen, who was his former roommate at a hacker house, to talk with restaurant owners and find a solution for them. That's when they learned how much restaurants were losing from online ordering systems. "They needed to find a way to be profitable to survive," says Guild. — Britta Lokting
Nikita Gupta, 26, and Ahva Sadeghi, 28; Symba
"Follow your gut, not the recipe."
As a six-time intern, Ahva Sadeghi knew how badly internships needed to become more inclusive. She had an idea: If companies could efficiently, cost-effectively scale up their internship programs, particularly through offering more remote internships, that could create more opportunities — including for students from a wider array of backgrounds.
That's what she was thinking about when, at a 2018 conference for women in technology, she met Nikita Gupta, who had the technical skills to build the platform Sadeghi envisioned. The two had dinner — and, to see how well they collaborated, made dinner together, too. They saw a lot of themselves in each other; as empowered women of color, each was the sort of person they'd hoped to be mentored by at their own internships. Within six months, Gupta joined Sadeghi to work full time on what is now Symba, an intern onboarding, project management, and offboarding platform that has seen over $1 million in annual recurring revenue and created over 5,000 professional development opportunities.
Gupta has a mantra: "Follow your gut, not the recipe." That's helped them navigate an often demoralizing fundraising landscape, which often lacks women of color. "People invest in people that they trust and that look like them," says Sadeghi. Through Symba, Sadeghi, 28, and Gupta, 26, hope to shift that dynamic — because today's diverse interns could be tomorrow's mentors and investors. "We're becoming role models for other aspiring entrepreneurs," says Gupta. "But there's still a ton of catching up to do for the rest of the world." — Nate Hopper
Ludovico Bassetti, 27, and Edouard Freda, 28; Talia di Napoli
"Make sure that whatever you fix doesn't become a problem later."
Edouard Freda had left a job at Chanel and was considering joining the Italian navy when his grandmother told him, "Your uncle Guido is up to no good." Guido had been a longtime McDonald's franchisee in southern Italy, but had pivoted: He wanted to sell frozen pizzas — handmade and cooked in his native Naples — across Italy. When Freda visited Guido's shop one weekend, he found a crew of pizzaiolos flipping pies beside a Star Wars-style cryogenic freezer. And that's when Freda decided: "I'm quitting everything."
Freda, now 28, has a product management background and saw potential — to do something literally fresh in the frozen pizza market. Guido could handle production and Freda could handle the rest — not just in Italy but internationally. Soon, Freda convinced his college roommate, Ludovico Bassetti, a fellow Italian, to quit his consulting job and join him. (There is also a third cofounder, Dean Elnatan, 31, director of operations.) They called it Talia di Napoli.
By early 2020, Freda, Bassetti, and Elnatan were running the company from New York City — but e-commerce was slow. Who the hell is going to eat frozen pizza at home this year? Freda wondered. Soon after, the pandemic answered that question. Demand spiked for eat-at-home food, and the press was seeking novel options to recommend. After a single laudatory article by Food and Wine in April 2020, the company went from about ten orders a day to 2,000. "First, you pull your hair out," says Bassetti, 27. But they tackled their biggest problem first, then their next biggest, and then the next, one by one. "Then it's just making sure that whatever you fix doesn't become a problem later." Their solutions worked. In 2021, Talia di Napoli saw $5.6 million in revenue between e-commerce and sales to major retailers like Whole Foods. They — and Guido — are up to plenty of good. — Nate Hopper
Liza Velarde, 30; Delee
"Your words don't matter until you show your actions to them."
Liza Velarde spotted the CEO of Heineken standing by the elevator. The year was 2012, and Velarde was a student at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico — where the CEO had just spoken, and where Velarde and two other students had been studying how to trace barely perceptible "circulating tumor cells" in blood samples. The students imagined creating a technology that could both help doctors detect cancer earlier and better understand a treatment's efficacy. But they had no funding. Maybe the CEO of Heineken could help?
Velarde wasn't sure if she should approach him. So she called her mom. "What do you have to lose? If he tells you no, you'll be the same as you are right now," her mom replied. Her elevator ride with the CEO led to $50,000 in funding. "There wasn't even a company back then," she says. Ten years later, there is one: It's called Delee, and it has raised over $2.6 million.
As CEO, Velarde, now 30, has learned one important lesson, over and over: If you want people to believe and invest in you, you have to show them. "It doesn't matter that you say that it's working, or that you publish results," she says. "Your words don't matter until you show your actions to them." That's even more true for people like her, she says — women of color who struggle to get the same funding as men. But she has shown them, with action and results. Delee has begun commercializing its technology and is eyeing Series A funding. This time, Velarde is armed with more than an elevator pitch. — Nate Hopper
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