6 Innovative Women to Watch in 2015
In fields as varied as robotics, finance, biomedical engineering and education, these innovators have taken a decidedly humanistic approach to effecting positive change. It’s a benevolent form of leadership that is driving real results while setting the stage for the next generation of socially conscious entrepreneurs. Keep an eye out for these women and their pioneering work—we have no doubt you’ll be seeing more of them.
Lauren Bush Lauren
Lauren Bush Lauren’s FEED tackles hunger through commerce
Lauren Bush Lauren has a singular focus: feeding hungry people. Her New York-based consumer-goods company, FEED Projects, and its associated nonprofit, FEED Foundation, define success in terms of meals provided—85 million in seven years, the equivalent of roughly $11 million.
Bush Lauren, 30, believes social entrepreneurship is most effective when the mission is clear to the consumer. FEED Projects sends funds from products sold—each stamped with a number indicating how many donated meals will result from the purchase—to its partners on the ground fighting hunger: UNICEF, United Nations World Food Programme and Feeding America. As part of its fundraising initiatives, FEED Foundation creates events that ultimately support the same organizations. The dollar equivalent of each meal is 11 cents in the U.S. and 10 cents internationally.
“FEED connects consumers to the cause of hunger,” Bush Lauren explains. “If it is not quick and easy and simple, you lose the consumer. FEED is a nice way to hook people and make them more aware of what is happening around the world. That’s the role we can play.”
FEED’s simple calculus and youthful, well-designed products such as bags, bracelets, scarves and T-shirts have engaged Bush Lauren’s Millennial peers and made the company a model for other anti-hunger advocates. “It is a very big deal to reach young
people on hunger,” says Billy Shore, founder and CEO of Share Our Strength, which created the “No Kid Hungry” campaign. Bush Lauren’s model of social entrepreneurship, he adds, “has taught us a broader lesson: the opportunity for nonprofits to create wealth instead of just redistributing wealth.”
A new deal with West Elm will enable FEED to be even more effective at that mission. For the partnership, Bush Lauren worked with the home furnishings company to design a 30-item range of FEED housewares (in West Elm stores now); a spring collection and a steady stream of other projects will follow.
“She articulated our culture absolutely perfectly,” says Jim Brett, who was named West Elm president in 2010 and has turned the chain of more than 65 stores into Williams-Sonoma Inc.’s fastest-growing brand, in large part by partnering with high-profile designers.
Bush Lauren’s renown came at a young age. She doubled down on fame and fortune when she married David Lauren, son of American designer Ralph Lauren, in 2011. But as the granddaughter of one U.S. president and the niece of another, she already led an exceptional life. She modeled part time while attending Princeton University. She traveled around the world as a student ambassador for the U.N.’s World Food Programme.
It was while working with the U.N. in Guatemala in 2003, dishing up corn and soya porridge for schoolchildren, that she was inspired to make fighting hunger her mission and refocused her budding design career on creating products that would
engage others in that cause.
With no business experience, she founded FEED in 2007 and grew it slowly through a series of mostly one-off partnerships made possible through connections. This gained her access to the professional expertise she lacked, while the partners
assumed most of the risk of developing FEED’s products, as well as managing distribution and marketing.
“FEED has been built on partnerships,” Bush Lauren says. “FEED offers this nice, easy, clear solution for our partner companies to engage with the mission of hunger, to allow their consumers to participate with them in giving back.”
The longest-running partnership has been with skincare giant Clarins, which has provided 6 million meals through its “Gift with Purpose” FEED bag program. Other collaborators have included Whole Foods Market, Godiva, DKNY, Target, Barnes & Noble, Gap, Women’s Health magazine, HSN, Lord & Taylor, Pottery Barn, Bergdorf Goodman and Harrods.
“To have these amazing, prebuilt machines behind our brand and our mission really helped amplify what we are trying to do,” Bush Lauren says.
The Whole Foods partnership was a major breakthrough. “It showed me the magnitude of the impact, positioning and branding that you can have with a good partner. That partnership alone fed all of the schoolchildren in Rwanda for a year.
Just selling one bag—the FEED 100 Bag—across the country in their stores.”
A three-month promotion with Target in 2013 placed FEED products in departments throughout the store. “To have the Target sourcing team behind the FEED brand was spectacular,” Bush Lauren says. “To go into product categories like apparel, and experience and play with things we hadn’t been able to do before—denim shirts, hoodies, tea towels, pie pans and bicycles. It was really neat to see FEED translated across so many categories.”
The secret to a successful corporate partnership, she adds, “is saying no to opportunities that may seem good, but in the end compromise your brand and your vision.”
FEED’s corporate partners seem to appreciate that clarity. “[Bush Lauren’s] very strong will helps keep the FEED brand strong,” says Maria Dempsey, executive vice president of marketing at Clarins. “She will not let another company dictate her brand. She makes sure her partnerships reinforce her values.”
Bush Lauren is saying no more often these days as she edits the FEED portfolio. She wants fewer but deeper, more substantive relationships with partner companies that will allow FEED to engage directly with consumers. To this end, in the fall she launched FEED Supper, a monthlong campaign to inspire customers to host fundraising dinner parties for the FEED Foundation, which launched around the same time as the West Elm line. It was a powerful combination; with social media interactions rising, the company saw robust sales of the housewares collection and a spike in donations, which enabled FEED to deliver 1.8 million meals.
Bush Lauren continues to expand FEED’s line of proprietary products—a diaper bag is one example—and ramp up sales on the company’s website. “We are giving our consumers a reason to come back and shop FEED time and again,” she says. Going forward, “we want to offer our consumers the same products on our site that our partners are offering on theirs, something West Elm allows us to do.
“We are developing FEED into more of a lifestyle brand with daily touchpoints for consumers to interact with us as a brand and as a mission,” she adds. “We want to scale our impact and our business.”
As part of that, FEED is bringing more operations in-house. “We want to be less reliant on others,” Bush Lauren says. “Partnerships continue to be a way for us to test next steps for FEED without having to fully invest our staff with the responsibilities, time and resources. But we have great product development, great logistics, great marketing in-house now. We are capable of doing this on our own.”
Bush Lauren’s directness is her trademark. And she runs her office accordingly. “I expect everyone to be entrepreneurial and very collaborative,” she explains. “You have to be. If you aren’t, it immediately shows. That means taking the initiative,
problem-solving, being self-taught, learning things you may not have initially known, taking a class, calling friends, figuring it out, learning how we can do things better. Taking on more and more responsibility.”
As it evolves, FEED maintains its focus on delivering meals, including the same bare-bones porridge Bush Lauren first served to students in Guatemala. As the face of the organization, she is aware she is selling herself, and that means dealing with a larger-than-life family heritage. But she deliberately stays above the political fray; she has not jumped into the congressional debate over cuts to food stamps or joined first lady Michelle Obama’s crusade to improve the lunches served in public schools.
“It is a conscious choice of how you want to be perceived,” she says. “You act in a way you want to be seen. You meet me, you have to get past my name and move on to more real things.”
Enhancing the human experience through social technology
There are always complaints that the latest, greatest technologies are alienating, pulling the user out of the human experience. But what if we could make technology that’s humanized, capable of bringing people together, fostering connection and empowerment?
That’s the question that drives Cynthia Breazeal, a pioneer of social robotics. The founder and director of MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots Group recently took a leave of absence to launch Jibo, the first social robot designed for home use. She’s exploring what it means to bring high-tech, humanized robotics into our living rooms.
“It’s not just about this natural interface; it’s appreciating that human beings, when we experience the world and make decisions and take action, certainly consider information, but we consider all these other factors,” Breazeal says. “It’s social, it’s emotional, it’s also physical. The more technology can support a holistic human experience, the more empowered we are to be more successful. A social robot is this technology that speaks to human experience for the first time [in] all these dimensions at once.”
For years Breazeal has explored how anthropomorphized robots instilled with interpersonal skills can facilitate everything from childhood education to managing chronic disease, to senior care and even the creation of family memories. For example, a social robot can help a grandfather who lives far from his family see and play a game with his granddaughter in real time.
In addition to enhancing interaction, robotics technology can be effective at encouraging better behavior, Breazeal says. Take a robot that functions as an exercise coach. Breazeal has found that a human-like appearance, interface, movements and interactions create more desirable and—more important—longer-lasting results than other forms of technology.
“If you can create technology that humanizes and engages people that feels like it’s treating us like another person, people become more empowered, people do better,” she says.
It’s no Rosie from The Jetsons (though friendlier and arguably more helpful), but Breazeal’s Jibo robot—which she crowdfunded on Indiegogo, raising $2.3 million on a goal of $100,000—acts like an additional family member to enable interpersonal interactions. It has all the functions of a smartphone but also serves as a hands-free reminder, messenger (it recognizes each member of the household), storyteller (complete with sound effects, graphics and movements), avatar (a see-and-track camera supports video calls) and assistant. Imagine: At the behest of a simple phrase or motion, Jibo takes pictures of precious family moments without one person having to step out and get behind a camera; business travelers can use the robot’s video chat to be part of a family dinner or put the kids to bed. Jibo can even order takeout.
Breazeal is working to take such experiences even further. “Technology is tremendously empowering and scalable and affordable—and God knows people need more support that’s affordable,” she says. “There’s an undeniable need, but there’s a lot of room for improvement for us as technologists, as scientists, as engineers, to create technology that better supports our human values.” —Michelle Juergen
A neuroscientist individualizes the path to learning
She launched Palo Alto, Calif.-based Declara in 2012 to develop a technology platform that creates learning experiences based on a person’s user profile and interactions with data. Instead of hammering people with too much too quickly, the
system delivers the information and resources users need, precisely when they’re ready for it.
Declara uses machine learning, algorithms and recommendations to create a “learning path” for each individual based on how they interact with data, both informational (websites, documents) and social (tweets, blog posts).
“Declara is about helping people be lifelong learners,” Pierson explains. “We really look at their intentions and interests so we can automate the ontologies of learning pathways … and pull in open content and proprietary content into learning packages and be able to recommend those to them. And next year, we’ll start bringing in biometric data to really help.”
Before starting Declara, Pierson ran a company that partnered with McGraw-Hill Education to launch a product called the “Power of U” to teach mathematics to grade-school students.
“We saw very quickly that we were able to take kids who were lagging behind in math by three years and catch them up to their age peers in six weeks by really changing the modality of learning to match the kids’ preferences and how they actually learn,” Pierson says. “So I thought, Well, can we create a company that can do this at scale?”
Scale indeed. Declara’s first client was Education Services Australia, which brought the company on to help introduce teachers to a new curriculum. Declara has since started working with the teachers’ union of Mexico (1.6 million teachers strong)
and in Puerto Rico. To further its international reach, the company has created subsidiaries in Mexico and Singapore and is building one in Brazil.
But educators aren’t the only learners who can benefit; Declara has also introduced a platform for enterprise learning. The company is in its second year of working with biotech firm Genentech. “It really helps with the onboarding of new employees and moving people into becoming managers or high-level executives,” Pierson says.
And come spring, Declara will launch a “prosumer” version for individual use. “Imagine people who may have health issues. We can start to build automated pathways for individuals who are trying to hit goals of losing weight or hitting those metrics to change their lives.” Think of the system as a more targeted Google, one in which only useful information makes it through to the user’s workspace.
A neuroscientist and former Marine, Pierson had one experience that taught her—the very hardest way—how difficult learning can be. Struck by a drunk driver when she was 22, Pierson spent 18 months in a coma and then had to relearn pretty much everything.
“What would have been amazing for me is to have been able to receive curated content and curated experts to really help,” she says. “The thing about Declara is we’re not using machine learning to remove the human, but to actually bring in the expertise of other people into our learning experience.” —Jenna Schnuer
A biotech engineer fights disease through innovation
There’s a lot that’s impressive about Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia. The 46-year-old biomedical and mechanical engineer, physician, professor, inventor and entrepreneur has been anointed one of the most innovative young scientists worldwide and one of the 100 most creative people in business, to name just two of her accolades. The co-founder of biotech startups Zymera and Hepregen, she won the 2014 Lemelson-MIT Prize of $500,000 for her groundbreaking inventions in miniaturized biomedical technologies and youth mentorship.
But the most impressive thing about Bhatia? She’s only getting started.
“I’ve always been a little bit of an impatient inventor in the sense that I know there are really big problems out there, and we’re only just scratching the surface. I always seek to move beyond what we’ve found to try to make the biggest impact with whatever we have on hand,” says Bhatia, a graduate of MIT and Harvard.
Two of her most lauded inventions thus far are synthetic biomarkers that detect cancer through a paper urine test and a human microliver built from scratch to fight infectious disease by predicting drug toxicity and interacting with human pathogens. The microlivers provide a basis for an engineered liver that may one day replace the need for transplants in patients with liver disease.
Bhatia attributes her success to mentors who “saw more for me than I saw for myself” and to diversity—of experience, of interests, of colleagues. Her portfolio of inventions reflects this: In addition to drug toxicity and cancer therapeutics, she has addressed problems in the areas of tissue regeneration, noninvasive diagnostics and infectious disease.
“Innovation happens at the interfaces of different disciplines. Because I was an engineer and trained in miniaturization, I realized there was a whole world of microfabrication, which was invented for making computer chips, and the whole word of nanotechnology, which was a material-science invention. These things have been developed over the course of 50 years by teams of amazing people, and they were really right to be borrowed for medical applications,” she says. “That idea that you can combine fields and really leapfrog in advances has been something we try to repeat over and over again by bringing in diverse teams with diverse perspectives and experiences.”
Though she has received much acclaim, Bhatia admits her journey hasn’t always been easy. “One thing I struggled with a lot when I was coming up through the pipeline was looking forward to seeing if there were women who had the life I thought I wanted. It didn’t seem like there were a lot of great examples of that,” she recalls.
So Bhatia is a strong advocate for promoting STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to women, getting more women into high-tech entrepreneurship and being a model for what young girls can achieve. “I try to be really transparent about the way I’m living my life,” she says. “I think that’s part of paying it forward and keeping the door open for women behind you.” —M.J.
Closing the gender gap in investing
Angela Lee won’t be satisfied until U.S. startup investment groups boast as many women among their ranks as men.
Less than 20 percent of accredited angel investors in the U.S. are women, according to a report from the University of New Hampshire’s Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics. And at venture capital firms, women account for just 6 percent of all partners, says a study by Babson College’s Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship.
To help close the gap, Lee founded 37 Angels, an angel investment network based in New York City. Since 2012, the 50-member group has invested $50,000 to $200,000 in 25 startups, both female- and male-led.
While Lee—a serial entrepreneur, investor and assistant dean at Columbia Business School, where she teaches leadership and strategy courses—is passionate about helping women founders, her top priority is getting more women to invest. “There are a lot of resources right now focused on helping the female entrepreneur,” Lee says, referring to the recent spate of educational, networking and financing groups. “There are very few folks that help the female investor.”
To that end, 37 Angels offers a monthlong, hands-on boot camp for qualified female investors who want to join the network. Attendees—half of whom are entrepreneurs themselves—learn what to look for in a pitch, how valuation works and what to do after writing a startup a check. At the end of the program, angels make a $5,000 investment in one of half a dozen startups presenting at 37 Angels’ pitch forums, held five times a year. As an unexpected bonus, several women who’ve gone through the boot camp have since taken venture capital jobs, Lee says.
Seeding startups with mentorship is as much a focus as sharing the wealth. At the end of each pitch forum, presenters can ask the angels for help, be it an introduction to a Google exec or a top-notch Ruby on Rails developer. “We try really hard to instill a service mentality with the angels,” Lee says.
37 Angels takes pitches from both female- and male-run companies. Lee doesn’t want to restrict women from investing in startups that interest them, regardless of who’s at the helm, and she doesn’t want investors to feel obligated to fund women as some sort of diversity or social responsibility initiative.
“For me, it’s really important to remove the asterisks of investing in women,” Lee says. “When a woman gets funded, everyone knows it’s because she’s awesome. It wasn’t because it was ‘the right thing to do.’” Besides, Lee adds, with more women investors, “I do think that more women and a more diverse type of startup will get funded.” —Michelle Goodman
The brightest new force in clean power storage
“Confident. Connected. Open to change.” Typically, stereotyping Millennials is a surefire way to underestimate them. But the characteristics listed in a 2010 Pew Research Center report on “Generation Next” are spot-on descriptors for Danielle Fong, the 27-year-old co-founder and chief science officer of LightSail Energy.
A junior-high dropout from Nova Scotia who began college at age 12 and started a Ph.D. program at Princeton’s Plasma Physics Laboratory at 17, Fong left school just shy of her 20th birthday to move across the U.S. to Berkeley, Calif., with the aim of addressing the world’s energy crisis.
The result, LightSail, is tackling the thorny issue of energy storage, “a problem that’s been around for literally a century,” says co-founder and CEO Steve Crane. There are many methods of stockpiling watts for later, but none are ideal; batteries are expensive and gradually degrade, while oil and gas are volatile and subject to geopolitical turmoil. Pointing out that Thomas Edison unsuccessfully “beat his head against” the energy-storage issue, Crane says Fong “was able to think about the problem literally from first principles down to atoms and molecules. I had never heard anybody do that before.”
Fong and Crane met in 2008, when she was taking a year to work odd computer jobs across Silicon Valley—positions she sought deliberately in order to grow her personal network. “Starting a company alone was kind of a lonely thing,” says Fong, a self-described social person. “I wanted a co-founder.” By traveling around, meeting people and working on their projects, she hoped to network and also prove her own worth. During this time, she crashed on friends’ couches and helped out with their startups.
Meanwhile, Fong continued to refine her energy plans. “I kept a list of ideas in a spreadsheet with all kinds of different details, like what it would cost, how long it would take, what are the risks, who you would sell to,” she says.
The brightest idea—the basis for LightSail—is a means of collecting and releasing energy on demand through the use of tanks of compressed air injected with a water mist. Instead of burning fossil fuel, the system uses renewable energy like solar or wind power to compress air; when electricity is needed, the air is expanded to drive pistons that operate a generator. (It’s mechanically similar to piston engines.) The high-strength, low-cost air tanks are, Fong believes, the first that make it viable to use compressed air for electricity storage.
The motor metaphor is appropriate, says Fong, because automotive engines produce energy at about 5 cents per watt, compared to solar cells, which run $1 per watt, and power plants that charge around $2. “If you calculate it out, you add up all the power from all of the automobiles throughout the world, it’s—order-of-magnitude—100 times that of the electrical power on the grid today,” she explains.
The technology grabbed the attention of early-stage investors. Vinod Khosla became Berkeley-based LightSail’s first outside investor after the company’s founding in 2009. In 2011 Fong and the LightSail team were invited to attend the Khosla Ventures CEO Summit and to present to Bill Gates. The Windows creator even sent LightSail’s research to Nathan Myhrvold, a physicist and the founder of Microsoft Research, to make sure all the physics penciled out. Gates personally invested in LightSail in 2012.
The 55-person company has netted $58 million, even attracting Peter Thiel to the portfolio after the outspoken investor called clean tech a “disaster” just the year before. “It’s time to find honest companies that can develop technologies that stand on real innovation instead of the backs of taxpayers,” Thiel said in a statement upon backing the company in 2012. “LightSail is run by engineers, not salespeople, and it promises to be one of the first true alternative energy storage companies.”
With plans to deploy its first storage system late this year, then four more in 2016, LightSail’s technology will soon begin to change the world—and the trillion-dollar energy industry. In fact, in one of LightSail’s first demonstrations ever, Fong’s technology will be used to bank energy for a wind farm on the coast of Nova Scotia, not far from where she grew up.
“It’s also a great excuse to come home,” she says. “We don’t have to pay for hotels.”
—John Patrick Pullen