2016's Women to Watch

2016's Women to Watch

Carolyn Rodz

Image credit: Nigel Parry
This story appears in the January 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Champions of entrepreneurship and advocates of diversity, sexual equality and work force empowerment, these ground-breaking women are making a big difference in business today. Here are their stories.

Melialani James

Image credit: sultanventures.com

Entrepreneurial Aloha

Locals call it the “brain drain”: Homegrown entrepreneurs from Hawaii follow the jet stream to the mainland for school and pretty much never return. Melialani James saw it happen for years. So she chose a different path.

Yes, the 37-year-old Honolulu native went east in her 20s, but in 2012, after starting two successful apps in Silicon Valley, she moved back home to mentor, coach and help fund startup companies -- especially those helmed by other Hawaiian locals.

The move was purposeful. It was calculated. “For years Hawaii was seen as the place you leave to go start stuff elsewhere,” she says. “Then one day it hit me: Why can’t we make it so people actively come to start stuff here?”

Naturally, the easiest way to change the landscape has been from within. In her current role as head of new ventures at Sultan Ventures, a startup catalyst and boutique venture firm, James leads a team tasked with identifying and recruiting potential portfolio companies; provides mentoring and support to make portfolio companies investor-ready; and works with local companies to provide business-development and deal-structuring strategies.

She also runs XLR8UH, a state-university investment program that dabbles in tech transfer and focuses on proof-of-concept and commercialization. 

Since 2014 James has served as president of the Hawaiian Venture Capital Association, a professional organization designed to bring together members from the local entrepreneurial, investor and business communities to interact through educational and networking events.

And as if these jobs weren’t enough, last year James was selected as entrepreneur in residence at Cornell University’s Pillsbury Institute. For this gig, she keeps remote office hours and makes twice-annual coaching/teaching trips to Cornell’s campus in Ithaca, N.Y.

Lest we forget, James’ first job upon returning home was as program manager for Blue Startups, a venture accelerator bankrolled by Henk Rogers, the man who developed the video game Tetris.

“All of the things I’ve done since coming home have revolved around helping to create an innovation sector,” James says. “That’s what drives me—the notion of enabling entrepreneurs to start companies and live the lives they want to live, and enabling them to realize they can do that all right here.”

Omar Sultan, founder of Sultan Ventures, says James possesses a “special ability” to connect with people on a basic level and “put them at ease” to discuss just about anything. He adds that this characteristic has come in handy for building an entrepreneurial community from the ground up—a community in which founders trust that James has their best interests in mind. “We have a small population; unlike places where it’s hard to go anywhere without bumping into another entrepreneur, here we don’t get that many opportunities for sharing best practices,” he says. “[James] understands that fundamentally and works to help facilitate some of those collisions.”

With this in mind, James says her next big goals are to make the funding situation more equitable for local women and to push local early-stage startups toward commercialization. Consider it the business version of the spirit of aloha. —Matt Villano

Cindy Whitehead

Image credit: Nigel Parry

After our January edition went to print, Cindy Whitehead stepped down as chief executive of Sprout Pharmaceuticals. She continues with the company as a consultant.

Sexual Revolutionary

Male sexual dysfunction is big business. Researchers value the global market for treatment of erectile dysfunction at $4 billion. Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly spent $272 million in 2014 to advertise its ED drug Cialis, and rival Pfizer ponied up $232 million to promote its competing Viagra product. But while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved more than two dozen drugs targeting a range of male sexual matters, pharma has turned a cold shoulder to female dysfunction, despite the prevalence of conditions like hypoactive sexual desire disorder, a chronic disinterest in sex estimated to affect 8 to 14 percent of American women ages 20 to 49.

Cindy Whitehead is balancing the scales. In August 2015 the FDA approved Addyi, a once-daily, nonhormonal HSDD treatment spearheaded by Raleigh, N.C.-based Sprout Pharmaceuticals, founded in 2011 by Whitehead and her husband, Robert. The pink pill, which boosts dopamine and norepinephrine (both catalysts for sexual excitement) while reducing the inhibitory effects of serotonin in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, is the first -- and so far only -- female libido drug to win FDA approval.

“Sex has a lot of components, like how we were raised, our religion and what’s going on in the relationship. But biology comes into the bedroom for men and women alike, and from my perspective, we were ignoring that piece,” says Whitehead, Sprout’s CEO. “It made no sense to me that we weren’t addressing [female’s sexual drive] with a viable medical treatment option.”

Whitehead has spent close to a decade investigating sexual dysfunction. Following stints at healthcare firms including Merck & Co., Dura Pharmaceuticals and Elan Pharmaceuticals, in 2007 she co-founded Slate Pharmaceuticals, which commercialized Testopel, the first FDA-approved long-acting testosterone product for men. Whitehead first encountered flibanserin (Addyi’s chemical name) via the Sexual Medicine Society’s annual fall conference; German pharmaceutical firm Boehringer Ingelheim had developed the drug in consultation with Dr. Irwin Goldstein, director of sexual medicine at San Diego’s Alvarado Hospital and an influential crusader for Viagra and other sexual dysfunction treatments. Boehringer Ingelheim stepped away from flibanserin after the FDA rejected the drug due to concerns about its efficacy and safety; Goldstein persuaded the Whiteheads to step in. After a year of research, they acquired the rights to flibanserin in late 2011, selling Slate to GTCR/Actient Pharmaceuticals for an undisclosed sum.

Sprout resubmitted flibanserin to the FDA in early 2013, filing roughly 700,000 pages of data. Six months later, the FDA shot it down again. “They said, ‘The effects are only modest. Therefore, why would we expose women to any risk?’” Whitehead recalls. “The way that Addyi works is a subtle shift back to normal. In trials we measure women’s level of interest in desire. It’s a five-point scale, and we move them from ‘rarely to never having interest’ to ‘sometimes’ to ‘most of the time.’ That’s a small numerical shift on a five-point scale, and yet that shift actually puts a woman back into a normal range of her peers. Modest is meaningful.”

The FDA requested additional research, so Sprout conducted a series of double-blind, placebo-controlled trials among 2,400 premenopausal women with HSDD. Subjects treated with Addyi consistently reported “meaningful improvements” in satisfying sexual events and increased desire. That information -- augmented by advocacy efforts from such Addyi supporters as the National Organization for Women and National Consumers League -- turned the tide, and the FDA’s joint meeting of the Bone, Reproductive and Urologic Drugs Advisory Committee voted 18 to 6 to support approval for HSDD treatment, contingent on Sprout consenting to risk-mitigation measures like warnings and restrictions to prevent misuse. (Critics argue that Addyi can be dangerous in combination with alcohol and CYP3A4 inhibitors, such as commonly prescribed antifungals, antibiotics and calcium-channel blockers.)

Forty-eight hours after the FDA formally greenlighted Addyi, Valeant Pharmaceuticals International acquired Sprout for approximately $1 billion in cash. Whitehead continues to lead the division, even as the parent company has come under fire over its suspect relationships with specialty pharmacies. 

“This has never been about getting the next blockbuster drug to market. It’s always been about getting it right for women,” Whitehead says. “One of the things in getting this drug to market was about women being able to get it affordably, and because of Valeant, we’re able to do it for as little as $20 per prescription. That’s less than half the cost of a single pill of Viagra.”

Addyi officially hit the market in October. While sales data is not yet available, Whitehead believes her little pink pill is going to have a huge influence on sex and science alike. 

“As a woman leading a women’s sexual-health company, I think our category has been stagnant arguably since the birth control pill. It’s been a category too often walked away from by the healthcare industry,” Whitehead says. “If we’re a success, it could be transformational in terms of interest, research and innovation.” —Jason Ankey  

Carolyn Rodz

Image credit: Nigel Parry

Expanding the Inner Circle

For most entrepreneurs, the inner circle comprises a select group of only the most trusted colleagues. For Carolyn Rodz, it’s bigger. A lot bigger.

So big, in fact, that she has built an organization around it: Circular Board, a Houston-based startup accelerator that helps women think bigger about starting companies. More than 60 women have gone through the program. Another 100 are signed up to participate starting this month, and 250 more in April.

Circular Board is intimate in nature -- no more than 10 women participate in one 12-week cohort -- and highly collaborative: Participants join a peer group and meet weekly (or more) via videoconference to share ideas, offer feedback and give progress reports on their business development.

As Rodz explains it, each peer group serves as a circle of advisors to help guide decision making in the early stages. There is no limit to the number of sessions in which women can participate; after the first rotation, the groups focus more on growing professional networks and having access to mentors and general community resources. “The groups foster an environment in which everyone can open up about vulnerabilities,” Rodz says. “It’s an incredible opportunity to learn and experiment and grow.”

Rodz, 36, stumbled into life as an entrepreneur. Her first job was in investment banking, working for JPMorgan Chase & Co. After four highly intensive years, she switched gears and sought out a job in marketing. Later, she turned her focus to entrepreneurship on what she thought would be a temporary basis, coaching startups on branding and other aspects of marketplace differentiation. Soon she was hooked.

Rodz founded Circular Board as Market Mentor in 2012, and rebranded in early 2015. With the rebrand, she also accelerated the program’s focus on connecting participants with investor networks -- a direct response to a 2014 Babson College study that indicated only 5 percent of female entrepreneurs receive funding from VCs. “Not only are we helping women get comfortable with what they’re asking for, but we’re also helping them get confident to ask,” she says.

While funding is helpful, participants have appreciated a variety of aspects of involvement with Circular Board. Eva Spiros, a program graduate and founder and CEO of Integrated Procurement Solutions, a consulting company in Baltimore, says she has loved the accountability.

“The biggest thing for me was the constant meetings with others to talk about how achieving certain milestones would get us closer to our goals,” she remembers. “Having other people to push me, other people who expected me to do what I said I’d do in the beginning -- that was a key takeaway and a great inspiration.”

Participants soon will have another reason to love Circular Board: In March, Rodz will launch a Virtual Demo Day, in which participants who are ready to take their companies to market can upload their presentation to a section of the company’s website that is open for investors and venture capitalists to peruse at their leisure.

Just another way Rodz is expanding that inner circle. One peer group at a time. —M.V.

Elizabeth Gore

Image credit: Nigel Parry

International Relations

The United Nations’ formal push to create 600 million jobs for the global work force is considered “Goal 8.” For Elizabeth Gore, however, it’s Priority No. 1.

Gore’s passionate involvement with the Entrepreneurs UNite movement generated buzz last year around the idea of fostering small businesses. Due in part to her efforts, the General Assembly voted in September to include entrepreneur support as one of 17 sustainable development goals to achieve before 2030.

Gore, a 38-year-old Texas native who is based in San Francisco, is no stranger to the international stage. She served as the first-ever entrepreneur-in-residence at the U.N. Foundation from 2013 to 2015, then moved to her current role as entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell, where she is tasked with helping fast-growth entrepreneurs build companies in every corner of the world. Specifically, her job is to listen to entrepreneurs, understand what they need and give them access to capital, technology, talent and markets.

The job also puts Gore in charge of Dell’s global policy initiatives, empowers her to advocate for pro-entrepreneur regulations and has enabled her to reconnect with former colleagues at the U.N. “I’ve lived and worked in the humanitarian world for my entire career,” she says. “And I’ve always believed that if you give people an opportunity through business, they have the ability to change the world.”

Gore’s commitment to public service began when she spent more than two years in Bolivia with the Peace Corps. During this time, she marveled at single mothers and refugees who had next to nothing, yet were able to create businesses that had a positive effect on local economies. That’s when she recognized the power of entrepreneurship.

“In the last five or 10 years, all you’ve needed is a laptop and the internet, and you could start a company,” she says, noting that fast-growing small businesses represent between 70 and 90 percent of new jobs in most countries. “That’s a lot of opportunity to make a difference.”

This notion is precisely what drives the Entrepreneurs UNite campaign, which is supported by more than 30 companies. Michael Dell serves as the U.N. Foundation’s global advocate for entrepreneurship, and Gore worked closely with him to conceptualize the effort. Aaron Sherinian, chief communications and marketing officer at the U.N. Foundation, says Gore is uniquely qualified to spearhead the campaign.

“[Gore] understands that entrepreneurs drive a significant amount of what global growth will be in terms of economics,” he says. “She [has shown] that you do not have to be an entrepreneur to be a supporter of entrepreneurship and what that approach and sector can bring to the world.”

Gore says that over the next year, she will continue to advocate for entrepreneurship on a global scale, extending and amplifying the Entrepreneurs UNite effort. She also plans to champion for related issues that pertain to women, including equal access to funding.

“There’s no silver bullet here; it’s a whole jigsaw puzzle that we have to start working on,” she says. “Policy, education, funding and pipeline for women entrepreneurs -- it’s all something we need to rethink.” —M.V.

Kathryn Finney

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Conquering the Divide

It’s no secret that Silicon Valley has a diversity problem. The number of women, African-Americans and Hispanics employed at companies such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo lag far behind the U.S. work force as a whole; meanwhile, only 3 percent of venture funding is earmarked for female founders, and founders of color claim less than 1 percent, according to U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith. While tech leaders debate ways to fix the issue, Kathryn Finney is attacking it head-on.

Digitalundivided -- Finney’s social enterprise -- identifies, trains and funds a diverse range of women with the ambition and skills to build breakout tech businesses. Digitalundivided’s FOCUS Fellow accelerator/incubator program has so far helped black and Latina founders raise more than $13 million in angel and venture financing, boosting to prominence a range of companies such as online design marketplace Zuvaa, food supply-chain data provider FoodTrace and postpartum-care developer Mahmee.

“Technology touches every part of our lives,” says Finney, who founded and serves as managing director of New York City-based digitalundivided. “When certain groups are not included in the creation of these technologies, then we’re not a part of the future. So everything we do is toward making sure that we participate in creating the future.”

Digitalundivided is not exactly the future Finney envisioned for herself as a child. “I thought I was going to be the first black woman president,” she laughs. While attending Rutgers University in New Jersey, she had internships at the White House and on Capitol Hill with Minnesota’s Senator Paul Wellstone, but she soured on politics during her time in D.C.

“It was a privilege and an honor, but it was very challenging to see how it was so difficult to get anything done,” Finney says. “There was a lot of compromise, almost to the point where you had to really go against a lot of your own beliefs. That wasn’t for me.”

Finney subsequently traveled to Ghana to research breast-feeding, and after earning a master’s degree in international epidemiology from Yale University, she settled in Philadelphia to lead a program called the Black Women’s Health Project. In 2003 she started the Budget Fashionista, one of the first lifestyle blogs to gain mainstream media attention, leading to appearances on the Today show, Good Morning America and other programs. Ballantine Books published Finney’s bestselling How to Be a Budget Fashionista: The Ultimate Guide to Looking Fabulous for Less in 2006, and in 2012 she sold her multimedia network to Midwest Media Company for an undisclosed sum.

Digitalundivided began percolating while Finney served as editor at large for women’s community and media company BlogHer. “I was attending a lot of conferences, speaking on women in tech, and I noticed at these conferences that there were virtually no women, virtually no black people and definitely no black women,” she recalls. “I went to BlogHer and said, ‘I want to do a small conference for women of color, like myself, who are founders of tech companies. What do you guys think?’ And they said, ‘We think it’s a brilliant idea. In fact, we’re going to help you -- we’re going to give you some programmatic support. We’re also going to give you some money.’”

Sponsors such as venture firm Andreessen Horowitz and marketing agency Ogilvy & Mather lent additional support, and in October 2012 digitalundivided hosted its first FOCUS100 conference, bringing together aspiring black female entrepreneurs, investors and tech thought leaders.

Beginning this year, digitalundivided will expand its FOCUS Fellow accelerator effort to 16 weeks, shifting the locale to Atlanta; Finney and her team are still finalizing details but anticipate the program to encompass as many as 15 startups.

“You have to be investable and sellable. That’s very important. You get space and you get investment, and possibly housing, too,” Finney explains. “In order to be eligible, at least one of your founders has to be a black or Latina woman, and she has to be an equal or majority owner. If you have three founders and two are white guys and one is a black or Latina woman, she has to own at least 33 percent of the company.”

Digitalundivided is also hard at work on Project Diane, originally an effort to collect data on racial and gender representation across the startup landscape. Named in honor of civil rights activist Diane Nash, the initiative has expanded in scope and is now slated to include an interactive website as well as a Kickstarter-funded video spotlighting unsung black tech pioneers such as Evelyn Granville, a longtime IBM programmer and one of the first black women to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, and Christine Darden, a retired NASA aeronautical engineer.

“The stuff we’ve uncovered is amazing,” Finney says. “It’s a blessing; I think it’s given the work we do even more of a foundation, because now we know the numbers, and we also know the stories.”

Don’t be surprised if Finney herself ends up the subject of a documentary. She has already won the White House’s Champion of Change award as well as the South by Southwest Black Innovator award and Spelman College’s Game Changer award. Manhattan legislators even proclaimed Feb. 26, 2015 as Kathryn Finney Appreciation Day.

“I look at the awards as a way to show others it can be done. I know how important modeling is for my community,” Finney says. “You don’t know that you can create and scale a business until you see someone like yourself creating and scaling a business.” —J.A.