Meet 12 Young Founders Who Are Disrupting the Way Business Is Done
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Katherine Allen, 24, and Atreya Misra, 24
Cofounders, Flo Recruit
Flo Recruit was designed to help companies secure top talent at recruiting events. “We had a road map of where we would be at the end of 2020,” says cofounder Atreya Misra. But of course, COVID-19 put a halt to all events — job fairs included. “We basically had to start from scratch.”
It’s a position most entrepreneurs were in this year, forcing them to refocus on the value they offer — and then to rebuild for how to be valuable now.
That came naturally to Flo Recruit because it had gone through the reinvention process once before. The concept began five years ago, when cofounder Katherine Allen was in the basement of her sorority house at the University of Texas, sorting through stacks of pledges’ résumés. “You’re trying to put together groups of members who might like each other because they have to talk during a party for 20 minutes,” she says. “It just felt ridiculous because there’s literally more than 1,000 potential new members at UT.”
Allen was a mechanical engineering student and figured she could build a more efficient way to recruit. She drew up wireframes in her journal, then went looking for a developer to build the product. She found Misra, a junior at the time, and the two soon started selling their software mostly to Greek-life organizations. “Then the light bulb went off,” says Allen. “We saw there was a much bigger opportunity: employers.” At big college recruiting events, headhunters are so mobbed that they struggle to keep track of whom they’ve met.
By 2019, Flo Recruit had grown into a platform that helps businesses track, research, and hire candidates they meet at events. The company completed the accelerator Y Combinator, raised a seed round of more than $1 million, and attracted some of the nation’s biggest law firms as clients. When COVID-19 hit, Allen and Misra worried the company was done for — and then, once again, realized they faced a massive opportunity. “This has forced people to become comfortable with remote interviewing,” says Allen. “We want to be the leader that provides a virtual solution before they even know what that’s supposed to look like.” With its new virtual products, Flo Recruit is now on track to triple last year’s revenue.
Jeremy Cai, 25
Founder and CEO, Italic
Jeremy Cai is the son of Chinese immigrants who worked in auto part manufacturing in Chicago. That got him interested in manufacturing in general — and he was puzzled to see how slow the industry was to adapt. Even as direct-to-consumer companies disrupted retail, older companies seemed stuck on the same model they’d relied on for half a century.
At 23, he decided to join the disruptors. He imagined a luxury fashion and home goods company that would sell its items in a totally new way. Most brands buy product from a factory, then mark it up for consumers. His company would act more like a partnership: He’d create a platform through which manufacturers could sell directly to consumers, therefore earning double or triple their usual profit. He’d take no cut of the sale; instead, he’d charge a $100 annual membership fee to shop on the site.
The appeal, as Cai imagined it, was that products would come from the same highly skilled manufacturers utilized by brands like Prada and Celine, but at a fraction of the cost. He spent 2018 meeting with 400 manufacturers, trying to convince them to invest in inventory they’d sell through his platform.
“We got a lot of noes,” he says, laughing. But he also got three yeses, and his company, called Italic, launched that November with handbags, scarves, and eyewear. The products were good, but his model didn’t work. Consumers weren’t willing to pay for a membership, because they didn’t see the value. So he pivoted. He dropped the fee and added a small markup on the items while he focused on bringing in new products from dozens of factories and building brand awareness.
This July, armed with a solid reputation and plenty of happy customers, Italic reintroduced memberships, and a waitlist quickly formed. “Don’t take advice at face value,” says Cai, who has raised $13 million in venture capital to scale the business. “It really comes down to being creative and figuring it out on your own — especially if you’re trying to build something new.”
David Zamarin, 22
Founder and CEO, DetraPel
Sometimes an idea is bad. But other times, an idea is good — and just the timing is bad.
David Zamarin didn’t realize it at the time, but his idea fell into the latter category. As a teenager growing up in Philadelphia, Zamarin just couldn’t keep his beloved Air Jordans clean. He imagined a magical film that would peel off his shoes whenever they became dirty, revealing a pristine surface. But…it didn’t exist. And he had no idea how to create it.
So he did the next best thing. He started a shoe cleaning and repair business called LickYourSole, which he marketed to local sports teams. It was an instant hit, and he sold it four months later. But as he got older, he couldn’t shake his original idea. Was a protective film for shoes really possible?
To find out, he got involved with the chemistry department at the University of Pennsylvania’s Singh Center for Nanotechnology. Then he embarked upon a long R&D process. After more than three years, he’d actually done it: He created DetraPel, a nontoxic liquid that protects materials from stains.
In 2017, at the age of 19, he pitched the product on Shark Tank and got a $200,000 offer. The money ultimately fell through, but the publicity was priceless. “We had hundreds of thousands of visitors to our website within several minutes of the show airing,” Zamarin says. That helped fuel growth, and it has empowered Zamarin to bring on key hires and focus on strengthening operations as the brand projects a 13-times growth in 2020 year-over-year sales.
This year, in response to COVID-19, DetraPel shifted production to make disinfectants and hand sanitizer — and business boomed even more: “We had record sales in March, April, and May.”
Matthew Rooda, 26
Cofounder and CEO, SwineTech
Matthew Rooda grew up in southeast Iowa, where his parents and grandfather were pork producers. But his family encouraged him to go to college to try something new, so he entered the University of Iowa on a premed track. While he was there, he took a part-time job at a farrowing house, where sows give birth, and got an up-close look at the problem of piglet crushing, which kills one in every 10 piglets. “One morning I went up to one of the moms, and she had lain on, like, eight of her babies,” Rooda says. “They were dead. Fifteen minutes later, she lay on another one. I was so frustrated. I was just like, I have to figure out a way to solve this problem.”
In 2015, Rooda and his friend Abraham Espinoza, a computer science student from Saltillo, Mexico, founded SwineTech and developed an algorithm that identifies the squeal of a piglet being crushed. They built a mesh network that could pinpoint the location of a piglet in distress, as well as a wearable patch for the sows. When a piglet beneath a sow starts squealing, the patch gives the mother a gentle TENS impulse (the same used by chiropractors on humans), prompting her to shift and the piglet to wriggle free.
Rooda and Espinoza, 28, have raised $7 million in funding for SwineTech and will soon launch a new product that repurposes healthcare management techniques for the industry. Rooda may have been pulled back to his family’s roots, but this is nothing like his grandfather’s pig business. “It’s been exciting to help the industry move into the digital age,” he says.
Cecilia Gonzalez, 26, and Kimberly Robles, 27
Cofounders, Hype and Vice
Kimberly Robles (pictured, right) was studying business at the University of Southern California when she met Cecilia Gonzalez (left), a student at the nearby Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. The girls instantly bonded over two things: They both grew up in Mexico, and they both knew how to hustle.
At tailgate parties, they noticed that all their girlfriends were cutting up and redesigning USC shirts to make them cuter, more fitted, and less masculine. Collegiate apparel, after all, isn’t known for being fashion-forward. So Robles and Gonzalez jumped, founding Hype and Vice in their dorm rooms and debuting with trendy USC T-shirts. In just a few months, students were lining up at other campuses for clothes in their school colors.
From there, two problems would test their hustle. First a batch of cease-and-desist letters landed at the girls’ dorms just as sales started to soar. Rather than give up, they negotiated licenses to legitimize their use of schools’ logos. Then they realized their suppliers were eating up their margins. So they rethought their operations. “We were like, How complicated can it be to set up our own factory?” says Robles.
As it turns out, very — especially in Tijuana, where they decided to have their shop. Without a clue where to start, they cold-called local factory owners seeking advice; one finally invited them to his office and showed them the ropes. (“We’ve never been afraid to ask,” says Robles.) From there, Hype and Vice was able to acquire a manufacturing plant. It opened last summer.
The brand now has 60-plus university partners, 10 employees, and $1.7 million in funding. Discovering your entrepreneurial journey is easy, says Robles — even if the journey itself is challenging. “Just dive deep into an industry you’re passionate about, and you’ll find problems you can fix. Then go and fix them.”
Lani Lazzari, 26
Founder, Simple Sugars
Lani Lazzari was desperate to clear her eczema. Nothing she tried helped. Then one day, after a lot of experimenting, she mashed up a sugar scrub in her kitchen — and it worked! But when she decided to turn her homemade solution into an all-natural skin care company, no one thought it would last, much less go on to make $5 million in profits. Why? Because Lazzari was 11.
Age, it turns out, would be just one of many hurdles she’d face in business — but many years later, the setbacks would prepare her to thrive during COVID-19.
Lazzari formed her company, Simple Sugars, in middle school, and it grew slowly. In high school, she drove 10,000 miles around the country promoting it in her great-grandmother’s 1999 white Chevy Prizm — earning her a lot of social media attention, and an invitation onto Shark Tank. She went on the show, scored $100,000 from Mark Cuban, and, on the first weekend the episode aired in 2013, did an explosive $650,000 in sales.
This would become Lazzari’s next major hurdle: She wasn’t prepared to handle that volume of sales. “You just have to focus and say, ‘OK, I don’t know the ultimate solution, but what are the small things I can start solving in the meantime?’” she says. Step by step, she put together the pieces of the puzzle, hiring a team to handle the company’s overflowing inbox and seeking out new sugar suppliers to meet demand.
By 2014, Simple Sugars had scaled and placed products on 450 store shelves. But when Target called with an offer — typically any entrepreneur’s dream — Lazzari experienced yet another big hurdle. “They wanted us to hit a lower price point for them than for anyone else, including our own website,” she says. Her online sales accounted for 80 percent of revenue, and she feared undercutting herself, so she declined the deal. Then she looked closer at her other brick-and-mortar partnerships, saw a slowdown, and made a bold decision: In 2017, she pulled out of almost all storefronts so she could refocus on e-commerce.
That decision felt especially prescient in 2020, as stores closed while her online sales bumped up. Revenues are on track to hit $3 million in 2020. “It’s not significant growth,” Lazzari says. “But also, I’ll take it!”
Jamie Marshall, 24, and Kevin Tan, 26
In 2017, when Jamie Marshall and Kevin Tan were students at Yale, they thought the same thing generations of students had thought before: Waiting in line for food is annoying. But unlike others, they decided to solve the problem. They created Snackpass, an app that lets users order ahead for fast and easy pickup, all the while earning rewards points that can be shared with friends. At launch, 80 percent of Yale students started using the app, and restaurants were quick to partner with it. (It charges about 10 percent or less per order, which is much lower than most delivery apps.) “Other food apps need to burn money to acquire and incentivize drivers,” Tan says. “We’ve removed that line item from our equation.” Today, the app is used across 14 campuses and has raised $21 million. But COVID-19 has swiftly changed restaurants and campuses. “We’re helping both reopen safely and go contactless,” says Tan. Adds Marshall, “We built an integrated suite for restaurants, including digital menu QR codes and self-serve kiosks, to drive business safely.” And throughout the turbulent changes of this year, they’ve learned to make their product easy to use—no matter what. “Your value needs to be a no-brainer to the customer,” Tan says. “They need to be irrational to not use your product.”
Paris Smalls, 27
Cofounder and CEO, Eden GeoTech
Eden Geotech’s aim is to replace hydraulic fracking — which pumps millions of gallons of water infused with hazardous chemicals into the ground as a way to draw out oil or natural gas — with a planet-friendly alternative. CEO Paris Smalls and his cofounder, Ammar Alali, 31, have developed the Pulsed Electric Reservoir Stimulation, a technology that uses electrical energy to boost permeability without leaving behind harmful materials. The company has attracted more than $2 million in funding and is currently working with its first partner, Petroleum Development Oman, to deploy its technology. But today’s success isn’t quite what the founders had originally envisioned. “Our primary focus at launch was to create a technology that could utilize the latent heat in abandoned oil and gas wells to generate renewable geothermal power,” Smalls says. “After a year, we realized that though it was technically feasible, it wouldn’t be economically feasible. We needed to get creative to ensure the company’s future.” His takeaway: “Don’t be afraid to pivot,” he says. “Be flexible and open to new ideas.”
Ivonna Dumanyan, 26
Cofounder and CEO, Fathom AI
As an NCAA Division-1 athlete, Ivonna Dumanyan was all too familiar with preventable injuries. If I could only understand the abilities and limitations of my body, I could find the workout, recovery, and care measures that are effective for me, she recalls thinking.
At the time, Dumanyan was studying mechanical engineering at Duke University, and Gabrielle Levac — another student-athlete — was studying statistics. Together, they started digging into the problem, speaking with leading sports science researchers, all in the interest of using data to create safer workouts.
Today that passion project has grown into Fathom AI, a company that works with fitness providers to capture user bio data and uses analytics and machine learning to create personalized workouts and recovery plans. Dumanyan and Levac, 28, have raised $3.2 million since incorporating in 2015 and are currently negotiating a $2 million to $4 million contract with a national boutique fitness brand.
“Heed your fears,” Dumanyan says of starting a business. “Discomfort can lead you to either self-destruction or the questions you should be asking, the problems you could be missing, and the most pressing challenges that you must tackle.”