Meet the Female Founders Who Are Making a Huge Impact in 2020

From our Oct/Nov issue, these powerful women are changing the game.
Meet the Female Founders Who Are Making a Huge Impact in 2020
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This story appears in the October 2020 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

As part of our second annual 100 Powerful Women list — led by our cover star, actress and entrepreneur Taraji P. Henson — the following from 47 brands and businesses are finding success by innovating across industries, fighting for , and staying one step ahead of the competition. 

Check out more stories from our October/November issue's list of 100 Powerful Women.

Image credit: Courtesy of The Sill

Eliza Blank

Founder and CEO of The Sill

Eliza Blank runs a thriving brand that sells plants, and she’d just hired a head of retail when COVID-19 struck…when all her stores temporarily closed. It was terrifying at first; even though her e-commerce sales were spiking (thanks to locked-in consumers’ new interest in plants), she was losing money across her five shuttered locations. Still, along with her new head of retail, she spotted an opportunity. “We had solicited feedback from our retail team in the beginning of January, and a lot of them didn’t feel like they had enough time to train before being put in front of the customer, and they didn’t have clarity around career trajectory and growth paths,” Blank says. “So we used those 12 weeks when we were shut down to go back to the drawing board and redo things like training and process and education.” That was time well spent. The Sill began by selling and delivering plants across Manhattan and Brooklyn in 2012, and has since raised $15 million and expanded its e-commerce operations nationally…but it was still adjusting to life as a physical retailer as well. Now, as her stores have reopened, Blank feels more confident. “Yes, we lost revenue, and yes, we lost some team members,” she says. “But now we’re bringing them back to a stronger system.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Able Fund

Flori Marquez

Cofounder and SVP of operations of BlockFi

Flori Marquez knows firsthand how economic crises expose financial vulnerabilities: Much of her extended family lives in Argentina, where hyperinflation has led to distrust of traditional banks. That motivated Marquez to cofound BlockFi, a wealth firm that caters to crypto investors and has raised nearly $160 million. “How can I give my cousins the ability to have savings and earn interest on it, which is a right that we have as Americans but that a lot of other people don’t?” she says. And as economic uncertainty looms, “people are thinking about how to put their assets to work more diligently.” It’s something BlockFi capitalized on early in the pandemic, working to attract new customers who might not have previously considered investing in digital assets. “It paid off tenfold,” Marquez says. “We’ve seen exponential growth.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Incredible Health

Iman Abuzeid

Cofounder and CEO of Incredible Health

Iman Abuzeid couldn’t have seen COVID-19 coming, but she had noticed an inefficiency in the staffing of nurses. Trained as a doctor with an MBA from Wharton, she launched Incredible Health in 2017 to make hiring nurses three to four times faster — just 15 days on average. The platform vets nurses, hospitals pay for subscriptions, and algorithms find the best matches for each job. Incredible Health constantly checks for bias — an issue that has touched Abuzeid, who is Sudanese and grew up in Saudi Arabia, and was once mistaken for a Postmates courier when she arrived to pitch at a venture firm. Despite that, she has raised $17 million and built her staff of 30 to be inclusive, “not just because it’s the right thing to do,” she says, but because diversity drives : “It’s helpful to have multiple perspectives in the room.” 

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Lori Wilson Photography

Mandy Price and Star Carter

Cofounders of Kanarys

Looking back on their years spent practicing corporate law, certain moments inform Mandy Price (left) and Star Carter’s work today. For Price, it was being referred to as the firm’s “diverse partner” in a client meeting; for Carter, it was being told she’d have to wait an extra year to make partner because she took two maternity leaves. “I was essentially penalized for using the benefits my firm offered,” she says. So in 2018, the duo founded Kanarys, a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) platform notable for its method of data-driven analysis: Currently it’s tracking about 800 companies on a wide range of DEI metrics — from which ones recruit at historically Black colleges to which cover gender-transition insurance — and pairing these findings with anonymous employee reviews. “Because diversity and inclusion can be an emotionally charged topic, it made a lot of sense to use , data, and analytics in the center of those discussions,” Carter says. In 2019, the Dallas-based company raised $1.6 million and has since been accepted to Google’s accelerator for Black founders. “It’s easy to discount one voice,” Price says. “But when you add up all the Stars and the Mandys, you see a trend. People are starting to say, ‘Hey, if we can’t retain women and people of color, there’s something within our organization that needs to .’ ”

Related: The Most Valuable Lesson Learned in Business, According to 8 Female Founders

 

Image credit: Courtesy of VMG Partners

Cassie Nielsen

Cofounder and executive director of Women on Boards Project, Talent partner of VMG Partners

Calls for diverse company boards have reached a fever pitch — which is why Cassie Nielsen, a private equity executive, and other in PE and consumer products announced the Women on Boards Project earlier this year. The nonprofit’s goal is to work with consumer companies to place women on their boards. “Women drive 70 to 80 percent of household purchasing decisions,” Nielsen says. “Case studies show that when women aren’t in the room, products aren’t being thoughtfully created for the consumer who buys them.” In February, WOB announced the first 20 companies it’s working with, including Simple Mills, Urban Remedy, and Ancient Harvest. “They recognize that women and ethnically diverse leaders can make such an important impact.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Tagomi Trading LLC

Jennifer Campbell

Cofounder of Tagomi

As the stock market has been rocked by 2020, record numbers of people are looking at alternative assets. “There’s been so much money printing recently,” says Jennifer Campbell, cofounder of crypto trading firm Tagomi, which launched in 2018. “We’ve certainly had clients who are interested in the gold thesis; there’s a limited supply of gold, so they feel that may be a good bet to hedge against. But a similar thesis has been applied to Bitcoin, and we’ve seen more sophisticated folks—hedge fund managers, high-net-worth people—become curious about digital assets.” That’s the audience Tagomi’s model is designed for: people and institutions that make large-volume trades, up to $2 million. But Tagomi’s customers aren’t the only ones eager to bet on the company. In May, Coinbase announced it will acquire Tagomi in a deal estimated to be between $75 and $100 million.

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Lunya

Ashley Merrill

Founder and CEO of Lunya, Chairperson of Outdoor Voices

Ashley Merrill considers herself one of the lucky ones. Her luxury sleepwear brand, Lunya, will count 2020 as a successful year. “I can’t take credit for it,” she says. “We just happen to be selling the right item for this time. Our goal for the year was to be profitable, and we’re gonna hit it.” But Merrill is being humble; she can take credit for building a profitable e-commerce and retail since Lunya launched in 2014. That’s partly why she signed on for an even greater challenge this year, when she became chairperson of beloved-but-struggling athleisure brand Outdoor Voices. In February, the brand’s founder and CEO, Ty Haney, stepped down following reports of crumbling financials. Merrill, a fan of the brand’s and Haney’s, reached out. “It was a company that burned through an enormous amount of capital, but it’s still an incredible brand and a mission that people very much believe in,” she says. As chairperson, Merrill is searching for a strong CEO and advising on its new path toward slower, sustainable growth. (Haney will serve on the board.) “We doom founders because there’s this pressure to be everything,” Merrill says. “Ty is a visionary. Maybe she needed more strong operational support. Businesses need different people at different stages. Even for me, I don’t ever want to run a big company. That’s not my bag. But that doesn’t make me a failure — it makes me someone who knows where I’m strong.” 

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Maha Haq

Maha Haq

Founder of Cannaclub

When Maha Haq’s mother caught her smoking marijuana as a teenager, it changed her life forever. “My mom is a clinical researcher, an academic, so she told me I had to present a defense of why I was smoking,” Haq says. As she researched her report, she found her passion. “I think my mom saw a spark of a devotion to science in me.” Haq has since completed her undergrad studies at UCLA and is currently working toward her master’s in pharmaceutical sciences with a concentration on medical cannabis sciences at the University of Maryland. She is also leading Cannaclub, a student group she started at UCLA that now has chapters across 11 campuses nationwide. The organization is focused on education, advocacy, and opportunity. “My goal is to nurture the next gen of leaders in the space,” she says. She is now in the process of creating a governing body for all Cannaclub chapters that will help campuses communicate and share resources. “We can create and mold this into a better industry.” 

Related: The 35 Most Influential Women In Cannabis

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Match Group

Shar Dubey

CEO of Match Group

How do people date in a socially distanced world? In March, when Shar Dubey took over as CEO of Match Group — which owns Tinder, Match, and Plenty of Fish — her first job was figuring that out. Fast. “We very quickly added video features, including one-to-one chat and livestream, across the portfolio,” says Dubey, who has spent more than a decade in the dating . “Even under extraordinary times, humans will seek meaningful connections.” Over the past few months, she’s watched users navigate the pandemic in different ways. On Tinder, young women in particular connected with international users to find support and information during quarantine. On Match, members are turning to a coaching hotline for tips on socially distanced dating. “We’re taking the best of each product and sharing learnings to create the best user experience for all,” says Dubey. 

 

Image credit: Courtesy of General Assembly

Lisa Lewin

CEO of General Assembly

Lisa Lewin’s relationship with education company General Assembly goes back years. “When I launched my own tech company, I had to build everything myself,” she says. “I needed to refine my skills in development and design, and I took a GA course to do just that.” Fast-forward to August and Lewin stepped in as CEO of the company, following a career centered on the education space. And she’s got her work cut out for her. “We are seeing trends that were already under way get accelerated and pulled forward,” she says of remote work and learning. “Right now, the challenge is ensuring that students feel supported online. Particularly for people trying to get up a rung on the economic ladder, and for those who recently lost employment or work in industries that have completely collapsed, our core mission — ­to help people find meaningful work — is more important than ever.” 

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Agent Capital, LLC

Geeta Vemuri

Founder and managing partner of Agent Capital

Times of crisis have a way of separating things you thought were important from those that truly are. Geeta Vemuri, managing partner and founder of Agent Capital, a healthcare VC firm focused on therapeutics and treatments, says that before the pandemic, “we felt compelled to fly to meet with companies and teams. But now, video effectively puts us in the same room with these people.” Whether connecting face-to-face or webcam-to-webcam, Vemuri looks first for passion in an entrepreneur. She’s invested in more than 25 companies in four areas — oncology, immunology, neurology, and rare diseases — but when asked to name her most meaningful investment, she demurs. “It’s like they’re your children. Some find maturity at a later stage; others move quickly.” Her goal, she says, is to support founders who “are interested in science and trying to actually make our lives better.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Crain's Chicago

Allison Robinson

Founder and CEO of The Mom Project

Research shows that 43 percent of top-rated female talent leaves the workforce within 12 months of having a baby. “It feels very all-or-nothing, like you have to go all-in at work or be a stay-at-home mom,” says Allison Robinson, who, in 2016, founded The Mom Project, a marketplace that connects female workers with flexible opportunities. She’s raised $36 million and grown a network of 300,000 professionals and 2,000 companies, from small businesses to Apple and Nike. “We started out focusing on hiring, but now we’re creating exhaustive programmatic initiatives to bring women back to work after a leave,” she says. Aside from COVID-19 forcing the acceptance of remote work, Robinson is also seeing an embrace of alternative schedules, like a four-day workweek. “Companies are trying to keep agile,” she says. “That’s a win for moms.”

Related: Get to Know the Female Entrepreneurs Who Are Reshaping the Business World

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Anthony Jackson

Padma Lakshmi

Creator and host of Taste the Nation

Episode after episode, Top Chef fans wait to hear “Please pack your knives and go” — Padma Lakshmi’s signature sucker punch as host of the Bravo hit for 16 seasons. But it’s Taste the Nation — the new show she created this year for Hulu — that has given viewers an even truer look at the power of Padma. Lakshmi, herself an immigrant from India at the age of 2, conceived of the series back in 2016 as she watched in horror as families were forced to separate at the U.S. and Mexico border. Taste the Nation would be a way to wrap thorny politics in mouthwatering dishes, with Lakshmi visiting, cooking, and talking history with people in various cultural pockets. In some ways, it’s a triple whammy of her success as a celebrity food expert, an entrepreneur (she founded a home decor line and a jewelry brand), and an advocate. “I think this country is great because of all those different faces,” she says. “Not in spite of them.” Was it an easy sell? “Oh, yeah. People said yes left and right,” she says. Pause. “No, they did not! I’m joking! I think a lot of it was like, ‘Well, are we going to spend millions of dollars making a show with a Brown female host at the center of it?’ ” But after endless noes, Hulu said yes. In June, Taste the Nation premiered to critical acclaim and was renewed for a second season. “I’ve been able to carve out a niche where my view of the world has a very specific voice,” she says. “And that’s the advice I would give to young entrepreneurs. Whether it’s a product, a service, or commentary, you need to form a point of view that illuminates something in a way that others don’t. And you need to live a little, get knocked around a bit, to really home in on what your voice is. Every one of us has a spark inside, and it’s up to us to evolve that spark into something constructive that we can then contribute to our culture.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Theory

Sarah Paiji Yoo

Cofounder and CEO of Blueland

Addicted is the word Sarah Paiji Yoo uses to describe her love of creating something from nothing. She cofounded shopping app Snapette in 2010 and sold it to PriceGrabber, then helped birth brands like M. Gemi and Rockets of Awesome before having a baby in 2017. “I was trying to take a break,” she says. “Then I had the idea.” Imagine a nontoxic tablet that’s like Alka-Seltzer meets Lysol. Plop it into a reusable container filled with water and voilà: eco-friendly household cleaning products. The concept — refill is the new recycle — seemed obvious, but it would challenge Paiji Yoo’s creative yen. “We spoke with over 50 potential manufacturers, even candy manufacturers!” she says. But no one knew how to make such a tablet. So Paiji Yoo and her cofounder, John Mascari, did their own R&D, pinging 100 chemists on LinkedIn before launching Blueland with a suite of cleaners and hand soap in 2019. As for getting customers to make the switch? That’s where they got a break: In March, when the cleaning aisles in grocery stores went empty, Blueland saw a 300 percent surge in demand, and now it’s doing several million dollars in revenue a month. But it’s just the beginning of “figuring out how to do the right thing by the environment,” says Paiji Yoo. “The answers are always so complicated!”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of No Sesso

Pierre Davis and Autumn Randolph

Designers of No Sesso

“When I went to retail stores, I didn’t see garments I related to,” says Pierre Davis (left). Which is why, in 2015, she launched No Sesso — “no sex” in Italian — with Arin Hayes, creating genderless, art-driven clothing. In 2019, Davis became the first openly transgender designer to show at New York Fashion Week, and that visibility led to new opportunities, including an upcoming partnership with Levi’s. Now, as the pandemic brings unprecedented to the industry, No Sesso welcomes the shift: The extra time and space, says codesigner Autumn Randolph, has let them refocus and “create with grace” — something that’s been healing as they move through the social upheaval caused by the murder of George Floyd. “A lot of the work we do is a peaceful protest,” Davis says. “Even in this dark world, we can bring in light.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Glamsquad

Amy Shecter

CEO of Ever/Body

What do Foot Locker, Liz Claiborne, Cole Haan, Tory Burch, and CorePower Yoga have in common? Amy Shecter. Some people are good at launching; Shecter is great at building. Having served in the C-suite at all those brands, in 2016, she became CEO of Glamsquad — then a beauty service startup with pros who met clients at their homes or offices for makeup and nail appointments. Shecter saw an opportunity to add a new chapter to the brand’s story with a Glamsquad product line, using the service calls as an R&D lab. Then she grew the customer base by creating GSQ by Glamsquad, a Gen Z brand, with CVS; she also launched a partnership with QVC. Recently, she took an advisory role at Glamsquad, after helping it double in size, to spread her magic as CEO of the aesthetics startup Ever/Body. “I hope to propel both brands as leaders in the beauty space.” 

Related: The State of Entrepreneurship for Women Business Owners

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Beauty Bakerie Cosmetics Brand Inc

Cashmere Nicole

Founder and CEO of Beauty Bakerie

If anyone can overcome a challenge, it’s Cashmere Nicole. A single mom at 16, she worked her way through school, got her nursing license, and at 27, bought a domain name for Beauty Bakerie, a vegan-friendly cosmetics brand she’d spent years thinking up. Then she was rocked by a breast cancer diagnosis — but pushed forward with the , struggling for years until a last-ditch attempt at influencer marketing gave her a big win in 2015. Sales started doubling week over week; she raised $10 million, and her products are now sold in nearly 1,000 Ulta stores. This year, Nicole disclosed that her executive team is 75 percent Black, hoping to push others to hire more Black talent. “Look on Instagram, ask your Black employees if they have family members, try people out with a temporary role,” she says. “Roll up your sleeves, do the hard work.” 

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Clear Access IP

Nicole Shanahan

Founding donor and primary instigator of Center for Female Reproductive Longevity and Equality

In 2018, when intellectual property lawyer Nicole Shanahan was 29, doctors gave her bad news: She had a low number of active egg cells, and it was unlikely she could get pregnant. As she tried to understand why, she discovered a gaping hole of knowledge; scientists have no idea why women’s reproductive abilities decline in their 30s. So with her husband, Google cofounder Sergey Brin, she committed $6 million to creating the Center for Female Reproductive Longevity and Equality, the first research institute to focus solely on reproductive longevity. Last year, she committed an additional $7.4 million, and in August, 22 researchers were selected to receive the first grants. “The social outcomes are so vast,” Shanahan says of how women’s lives would if fertility could be extended. It would be, she says, like they’d been given “a superpower.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Houseparty

Sima Sistani

Cofounder and CEO of Houseparty

Houseparty launched in 2016 as a playful social networking app that enables group video chats. In 2020, it became a lifeline. “Families were able to give iPads to their loved ones in the hospital, and it was easier for them to always stay connected,” says Sima Sistani, cofounder and CEO. Over a 30-day period, as nationwide lockdowns set in, Houseparty saw 50 million new sign-ups. As its user base expanded, so did team responsibilities, and Sistani worked to adjust expectations and create additional flexibility for employees­ — something she had to do for herself as well, as she and her husband started home­schooling their 7-year-old. “You feel like a failure as a CEO and a mom, but I had to remind myself that my best was good enough. I had to apply the same thinking professionally and not set unrealistic goals right now.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Bearaby

Kathrin Hamm

Founder and CEO of Bearaby

When Kathrin Hamm started Bearaby, she set up unique office hours: One group starts early, one starts later, and everyone overlaps from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. It made sense for a company that sells weighted blankets for improved sleep, something Hamm had discovered while traveling as an economist at the World Bank. The problem was, she couldn’t find one that wasn’t hot. So she wiped out her retirement funds, raised $250,000 on Kickstarter, and launched in 2018 with inventory for three months. The breathable blankets sold out in two days — but that’s nothing compared with 2020. In the wake of the pandemic, a waitlist of 44,000 developed, and Bearaby rushed to onboard a second manufacturer. Revenues for 2020 are approaching $21 million. Busy as Hamm and her team are, she says, they know what schedule she’s on: “I will disappear around 4:00 p.m. and take a nap.” 

Related: 7 Women Investors Reveal What's Different When a Woman Evaluates Your Pitch

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Everlywell

Julia Cheek

Founder and CEO of Everlywell

In 2015, Julia Cheek launched Everlywell to disrupt the “not particularly sexy” industry of lab testing. “Many people assume lab testing is free,” she says. “But then you get a bill, and you have no idea what you’re even paying for.” She knew that the system — dominated by two major labs, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp — was broken, and she started partnering with independent labs around the country to provide access to a menu of at-home hormone, vitamin, and STI tests at transparent prices. In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic descended, she realized that these labs were being vastly underutilized and gave away $1 million in grants to incentivize them to set up for COVID-19 testing. Soon after, Everlywell’s Austin-based team began working with the FDA to get a home COVID-19 test authorized. “We ran studies on transport, temperature, and stability of the test samples,” Cheek says. “We needed a lot of data to show that this was both safe and accurate for consumers.” On May 16, the FDA issued a first-of-its-kind authorization to Everlywell, allowing the company to work with a number of authorized labs to process its kit. “I knew we were doing the right thing, but I was committing the entire company toward a goal with no guarantee,” Cheek says. “This shows you’re never too small to make an impact, even when the problem seems insurmountable.” 

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Malik Amir

Angelica Ross

Founder and CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises

Angelica Ross knows how to make the most of a platform. The founder and CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises, an incubator for LGBTQ talent with a focus on the transgender community, was also a series regular last year on American Horror Story: 1984 and Pose. In the latter, her character, Candy Ferocity — a Black trans — was murdered, a painful and all too familiar storyline within the community. For Ross, as a trans woman herself, her acting and her work at TransTech go hand in hand. “It’s improving awareness of the violence that happens against trans women of color,” she says. “And through TransTech, I can shift focus to how trans people are living and thriving — not just surviving.” This fall, a free, all-digital TransTech Summit will share talks, workshops, and job opportunities with 5,000 attendees worldwide. 

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Fetch Robotics

Melonee Wise

CEO of Fetch Robotics

It’s hard to imagine a company better matched to the moment than one that produces autonomous mobile robots capable of performing deep cleaning in airports and carrying out tasks that minimize contact between workers in warehouses and factories. But Fetch Robotics wasn’t born out of the pandemic — ­­it formed in 2014 and, to ensure that buyers’ return on investment happened quickly, utilized the cloud for remote deployment. “Now that you can’t go on-site to various locations, the ability to deploy robots via Skype or some other videoconferencing has proved to be invaluable,” says CEO Melonee Wise. Fetch’s capabilities to aid humans by performing “dangerous and dirty work,” she says, led to its recent adoption for service at Albuquerque’s airport. “It was easy for us to support the need for that,” she says. “Our robots are a platform, and third parties can put their own accessories on top of them.” 

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Jasreen Gupta

Gloria Lau and Mary Jacobson

Founder and CEO, and chief medical officer of Alpha Medical

It was a rash that got Gloria Lau (left) thinking. The Silicon Valley engineer had spent hours at doctors’ visits only to find out that she just needed a topical steroid. That’s it, she thought. I have to be able to do this better. In 2019, she launched women’s telehealth company Alpha Medical with ob-gyn Mary Jacobson as chief medical officer. For an annual fee of $99, the platform provides members with virtual access to doctors and prescriptions for skin conditions, reproductive health, and urgent care; in February, they introduced mental health care — perfect timing as women would soon begin to struggle en masse from anxiety and depression. “Since COVID-19, we have more than doubled our volume month over month,” says Lau, who has raised $10 million and plans to expand into pediatrics.

Related: 3 Questions To Ask If You Want Female Entrepreneurs to Accelerate

 

Image credit: Courtesy of The Chai Spot

Khalida Brohi

Founder and executive director of the Sughar Foundation

“It has been a very, very difficult time as an entrepreneur,” says activist and entrepreneur Khalida Brohi. Brohi is no stranger to difficult times: When her cousin was the victim of an honor killing in their native Pakistan, she began searching for ways to fight the tradition. In 2013 she created the Sughar Foundation, a nonprofit that empowers Pakistani women through . “It took us years to find the right model,” says Brohi, who also operates The Chai Spot, a tea shop that serves as a marketplace for the goods created by the women who work with the Sughar Foundation. “But it was actually a short time to fight a custom like honor killings.” In the past year, Brohi was selected as an adviser to Pakistan’s new “successful youth” program, which provides subsidized loans to young entrepreneurs. “It’s been quite a journey,” she says. “But I’m grateful.” 

 

Image credit: Getty Images

Jameela Jamil

Founder of I Weigh

With filming on hiatus for the past few months, you might think life would have slowed down for actress and TV host Jameela Jamil. But instead, it’s just given her extra time and energy to pour into I Weigh, the allyship company and community she launched in 2018. It began as an Instagram movement (with now more than one million followers) and this year expanded to a podcast, a YouTube channel, and an editorial website. Its focus is radical inclusivity, amplifying the voices of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC creators, and talking about thorny subjects like mental health without stigma — something that requires extra finesse these days. “Having a podcast that’s so deeply personal, where I talk to people about things they’ve often never spoken about publicly, definitely feels very strange [in a remote world],” Jamil says. “It’s a struggle to create that personability, because something emotionally does get lost, so you really have to compensate for that. It’s been an incredibly productive year for us, but also incredibly sad and stressful. We just want to figure out how to continue to be helpful.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Bonnie Rae Mills

Raylene Yung

Cofounder and CEO of U.S. Digital Response

“A lot of companies and products don’t actually serve everyone,” says Raylene Yung. She would know: She formerly headed up engineering teams at Facebook and Stripe before leaving to focus her attention on more existential issues, like energy science and policy and government, which she studied through a fellowship at the Aspen Institute in early 2020. “I really thought I would have to reinvent the skills I had,” she says. But as COVID-19 struck, she found that her existing skill set was more valuable than she could have imagined. Local governments needed people who could scale processes and handle rapidly growing demands. So Yung, along with three former U.S. deputy CTOs, started U.S. Digital Response, an open-source and nonpartisan organization that connects volunteer technologists with government teams. “Because we started during COVID-19, many of us have never met in real life,” Yung admits. Despite this, U.S. Digital Response has worked on more than 100 projects in 31 states and territories, ranging from improving food security for families in Texas and Washington, D.C., to providing reliable information on how to vote during a pandemic and helping the unemployed apply for benefits. “It’s a little bit of a throwback to the early internet days, when you made friends over AOL,” Yung says. “It feels like that, but in a much more rewarding way.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Athena Security

Lisa Falzone

Cofounder and CEO of Athena Security

“Our long-term vision,” says Lisa Falzone, “is to build to help make people safer.” Falzone and partner Chris Ciabarra founded Athena in 2018, creating an AI system that uses security cameras to identify when someone is holding a gun. The company claims it does this with 99 percent accuracy, and it has earned clients in schools, companies, and places of worship around the world. When COVID-19 came along, Athena started thinking differently. “Public health is also an element of security,” Falzone says. Their tech already had thermal scanners, so it could be deployed to identify people in buildings who may have the disease. They launched it in March and are now in more than 100 locations, including hospitals, manufacturing facilities, and 911 centers. “Who knew,” she says, “that a virus was really the new gun?”

Related: 8 Women Entrepreneurs on What They Wish They'd Done Differently

 

Image credit: Courtesy of KiwiCo

Sandra Oh Lin

Founder and CEO of KiwiCo

If there’s one thing parents need from 2020, it’s a break. “They need to engage their kids and keep their minds active — and that will hopefully provide sanity for parents,” says Sandra Oh Lin. Lin is a former chemical engineer and the founder of KiwiCo, which sells educational projects for kids of all ages, fusing creativity and STEM. In March, as schools shut down, KiwiCo’s sales surged, and to further help their community, her team created an online resource hub for learning at home, complete with tips and tricks, DIY experiments, and guides to help kids understand COVID-19. Shortly after it went live, a flood of traffic crashed the brand’s website. “That’s how much demand there was,” Lin says. So this summer, they launched Camp KiwiCo, a four-week online summer camp. “The content is all free,” Lin says. “We want to make sure there’s still time to capture fun.” 

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Official Black Wall Street

Mandy Bowman

Founder and CEO of Official Black Wall Street

Mandy Bowman grew up in Brooklyn, wanting to be an entrepreneur. “A lot of the Black owners in the community were like aunts and uncles,” she says. “That really influenced me.” In 2015, she launched Official Black Wall Street (the name refers to the once-prosperous enclave of Tulsa destroyed in the 1921 race massacre), an app that helps consumers find and support Black-owned businesses. As the pandemic had a devastating effect on Black communities and nationwide protests erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, more than 200,000 new members joined, eager to show support with their dollars. Bowman is using that momentum to start to play a larger role between Black business owners and brands, financial institutions, and law firms. “I’m really hopeful that things are going to for the better.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Cristi GTZ

Juliana Fetherman

Founder and CEO of Making Authentic Friendships

When Juliana Fetherman left home for college, she couldn’t stop worrying about her younger brother, Michael, who is autistic. “His biggest struggle is being lonely, and his lack of social skills makes it hard for him to make and keep friends,” she says. That concern has since grown into Making Authentic Friendships, a tool that helps people with special needs find friends nearby. It has attracted users in 50 states and 30 countries. Fetherman intended for the app to enable in-person meetups, but its chat function has become a lifeline during quarantine. “Being stuck at home interrupted a lot of and therapies, so the app was a resource for social interaction,” she says. “I have parents tell me, ‘My daughter made friends across the world.’ It’s good for their self-esteem to see, There are people everywhere like me.” 

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Kaitlyn Anne Photography

Jerrica Kirkley

Cofounder and chief medical officer of Plume

Dr. Jerrica Kirkley was in startup mode, and wanted to move fast. She and cofounder Dr. Matthew Wetschler closed a $2.9 million seed round in February for Plume, the first digital health startup dedicated to the trans community. Plume needed to hire, fast — but went slow, despite the strain that created. The reason: They wanted a diverse team with many trans people (which includes Kirkley). To do so, they leaned on listservs, social media, and more — something companies struggling to diversify should take as a lesson: you can’t expect diversity to come to you. “It’s completely worth it,” Kirkley says of exploring non-traditional resources and networks. “Your environment needs to be welcoming to the people you want to bring in.” Plume’s team is now majority trans, and its offering is licensed in 12 states — and growing rapidly.

Related: 10 Inspiring Women Entrepreneurs on Overcoming Self-Doubt and Launching Your Dream

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Mab & Stoke

Christina Mace-Turner

Founder and CEO of Mab & Stoke

Christina Mace-Turner has long believed in herbal medicines. But she knows that most people can’t be bothered to measure out powdered herbs multiple times a day. So in February, she launched Mab & Stoke to sell dissolvable, once-a-day herbal tablets that may help with everything from sleep to anxiety. But when the pandemic hit, she didn’t feel great about selling a month’s supply for north of $60. “Suddenly, we were an unaffordable product,” she says. “If people can’t afford your product, you don’t really deserve to exist.” She launched a Pay What You Can program, offering discounts of 10, 30, or 80 percent; customers who took the smaller markdowns would help subsidize others. When some offered to pay 130 percent to support the program, Mace-Turner knew she’d found something bigger than sales: “It’s not about a discount. It’s about a community.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Sabrina Santiago

Natalia Oberti Noguera

Founder and CEO of Pipeline Angels

“Our members are the friends and family for entrepreneurs who don’t have the friends and family [to raise] that round,” says Natalia Oberti Noguera. She’s the founder of Pipeline Angels, which launched in 2011 with a two-part mission: help more women and femme founders raise capital, and teach more women and femmes how to become angel investors. Since then, more than 400 individuals have completed Pipeline Angels’ boot camp and “earned their wings,” investing more than $6 million in more than 80 early-stage businesses run by women and nonbinary femme entrepreneurs; 30 percent of those companies have a Black or Black femme founder, 14 percent have an Asian woman founder, and 9 percent have a Latina founder. This year, five of Pipeline Angels’ Black members have transitioned from angel investing to venture capital, extending the network’s impact. “When the most marginalized are leading the conversation, that’s when inclusion happens,” Oberti Noguera says. As CEO, she has worked to make sure her walks the walk, building an increasingly inclusive team to help her lead Pipeline Angels. “Our COO, Anisa Flowers, is gay, Black, Native, Deaf, uses pronouns she/her, and leads our investing boot camp, VC-in-residence program, and our pitch process,” she says. “Did it take getting a Native person to join Pipeline Angels for us to start using territory names on our website and agendas? Yes. And that’s OK. It’s not that each of us is supposed to know everything. It’s about, How can we make rooms bigger, bring more people to the table, and co-lead to create richer cultures?”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Spotify

Dawn Ostroff

Chief content and advertising officer of Spotify

Dawn Ostroff always asks herself: What’s next? She finds the answer in youth culture. That’s led her to help create the CW Network and to launch publishing giant Condé Nast’s video network. Now, at Spotify, which reportedly loses nearly 75 percent of its revenue to music licensing deals, she’s driving the business into podcasting. She’s scored exclusive deals with the Obamas and Joe Rogan and acquired studios like Gimlet and The Ringer, but her vision goes beyond flash. “The [podcast] business is so fragmented, both on the creative side and the revenue side,” she says. “The goal is to aggregate the industry and help drive important ” by fostering talent and developing to make podcasts easier to find and monetize. “It’s good for Spotify,” she says, “but we’re not trying to be the entire train. We’re just trying to be the engine.”

 

Image credit: Getty Images

Christine Varney

Partner of Cravath, Swaine & Moore

When Epic Games sprung an antitrust lawsuit on Apple in August, legal experts agreed: If Christine Varney is leading this charge, then take it seriously. Varney is the chair of law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s antitrust practice, and the lead attorney for Epic, maker of Fortnite, in its suit claiming that the App Store — through which Apple takes 30 percent of all transactions — is a monopoly. Varney knows antitrust in a way few others do: She is the only person to have served on the Federal Trade Commission and as the U.S. assistant attorney general for antitrust. Does today’s political moment help Epic’s case? Varney didn’t respond to requests for comment, but in a speech during the 2009 recession, she said, “Antitrust must be among the frontline issues in the government’s broader response to the distressed .” So, maybe?

Related: Win the Uphill Battle for Success with Business Funding for Women

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Clare

Nicole Gibbons

Founder and CEO of Clare

Nicole Gibbons never expected her product — colorful paint! — to put her at the center of the nation’s cultural conversations. But, as she says, “time necessitates it.” Her direct-to-­consumer interior paint brand soared this year as stuck-at-home DIY-ers avoided the aisles of big-box retailers. As sales spiked, the U.S. faced a reckoning on racial inequality — and Gibbons saw an opportunity. “As a Black CEO, I’ve got a responsibility to find ways to bring about ,” she says. On Clare’s Instagram, she posted tips on checking in on Black friends, resources for education, and organizations to donate to. “A lot of CEOs rushed to make statements, and while those are well-intentioned efforts, it didn’t feel very thoughtful,” she says. “There was a desire to help, but people felt paralyzed. So our message was simple: You don’t have to move mountains. You can take small, impactful steps.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Atomyze LLC

Jeanine Hightower-Sellitto

CEO of Atomyze

If you want to track the evolution of market-shaking movements, just track Jeanine Hightower-Sellitto’s career. She spent 14 years at the International Securities Exchange, where she helped to electronify the U.S. options market and served as COO during the organization’s transition to NASDAQ. “Before, it was like in the movies, with men standing on trading floors, waving papers around,” she says. “The electronic system changed the of the industry for securities.” She left in 2017 and became managing director of operations at Gemini, a cryptocurrency exchange that partners with Samsung. And this summer, she moved into yet another market-disrupting position — as CEO of blockchain-based fintech startup Atomyze, which is modernizing the commodities market to make physical assets (like industrial metals) more accessible to institutional investors. “The opportunity is tremendous,” she says.

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Slutty Vegan

Pinky Cole

Founder and owner of Slutty Vegan

In 2018, when Pinky Cole launched Slutty Vegan — a meat- and dairy-free burger joint in Atlanta — she decided to lead with her conscience. “I don’t care about money,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what the bottom line is going to look like — I put people in place to monitor that. My mission here is to help people reimagine food and uplift our community.” Slutty Vegan has since grown into a beloved regional chain, with multiple locations and a food truck, both of which attract long lines of hungry customers. As the finds new levels of success, Cole stays true to her original mission. She set up the Pinky Cole Foundation to empower entrepreneurs and equip them with financial literacy, and this year, as coronavirus gripped Atlanta, the foundation raised money to help other small businesses make rent. After the police killing of Rayshard Brooks in June at an area Wendy’s, PCF partnered with Cole’s alma mater, Clark Atlanta University, to set aside scholarship money for Brooks’ four children. “The real secret is not the food,” she says. “Philanthropy is at the core of why people continue to support this business. I pour back into the community, and people want to be a part of that journey. If more businesses understand that dynamic, they, too, will continue to remain successful.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Lili

Lilac Bar David

Cofounder and CEO of Lili

In the recent wave of neobanks, Lilac Bar David is a rare female founder. Born in Israel, she had her first hit back in 2015 with a mobile banking system for millennials called Pepper, which she grew to a team of 250 with her VP of R&D, Liran Zelkha. “But Israel is very small,” she says. “Liran and I wanted to create a bigger impact. So we looked for a segment that is really underserved by the banking industry and has specific pain points that we can address.” The result is Lili, their U.S. neobank for freelancers and gig workers. Free to users, it comes with a no-fee Visa debit card. (Lili makes money off the processing fees when you swipe.) It has tools for tracking expenses and allows users to set up automatic tax withholding, and, according to Bar David, it can save users up to 60 hours and $1,700 per year. Lili was just a few months old when the pandemic hit, and Bar David quickly turned it into a news hub of resources for the growing number of freelancers. At last count, Lili had 50,000 accounts — 60 percent of which belong to women — and $10 million in funding. Bar David says her toughest challenge has been building a team that’s motivated by solving big problems: “The first thing I ask is, ‘What keeps you awake at night?’ ” 

Related: Karlie Kloss Looks to These Female Founders for Inspiration

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Suzette Hibble of She Photography

Ali Katz

Founder and CEO of New Law Business Model

Ali Katz thinks the motivations for lawyers are all wrong. “We’re financially incentivized to make things as complicated as possible,” she says. “The more complex they are, the more we get paid.” She was once part of the problem, but when she opened her own practice, she developed a better way: working with clients as an ongoing adviser, rather than someone who reacts to immediate needs. It helped her head off problems before they began, saving clients money and her time. That was in 2006, and the method has since evolved into New Law Business Model, a training system to help estate planning and business lawyers escape the billable-hour-obsessed model. Revenue will hit $5 million this year. “We’re teaching lawyers to be business owners,” she says. “Part of that is having systems that allow you to meet the needs of clients without being on call all day, every day.” 

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Caulipower

Gail Becker

Founder and CEO of Caulipower

Caulipower’s origin story begins like many others: A mother was searching for a solution. In 2016, after Gail Becker perfected an at-home recipe of cauliflower-based pizza crust for her two sons with celiac disease, she decided to turn it into a and walked away from a high-profile corporate career. She knew so little about food retail that after a meeting with Walmart, she left wondering, Did we just win? They had. “I just spoke to the buyer as someone who loves food and was hearing what consumers were wanting.” Fueled by the low-carb and gluten-free crazes, Caulipower did $5 million in sales its first year and $96 million in 2019. Business continued to rise in 2020, and Caulipower gave back $1 million to bring healthy food to families in need. “My father spent four years in Auschwitz,” says Becker. “He always told me, ‘The cold was horrible; the work was horrible. Watching people die was horrible. But nothing was as bad as the hunger.’ ”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Jeremy Young

Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon

Founder and CEO of Founder Gym

When Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon took a job at Kapor Capital as portfolio services director, she started unofficially studying the funding gap. “I felt like a mad scientist,” she says. “I’d see how a white male founder acts. And the next meeting would be with a Black , and the next with a Latina.” In 2017, she launched Founder Gym, offering six-week courses that teach underrepresented founders to raise money and scale. “White men have no problem being honest,” she says. “Black and Latina women often aren’t as authentic because they feel pressure to defy stereotypes. I’ve fallen in that bucket, and because I wasn’t truthful, I didn’t get the help I could have.” Founder Gym will hit $1 million in revenue this year and has trained 600 entrepreneurs to date — 70 percent Black — who have collectively raised more than $57 million.

 

Image credit: Courtesy of Bosun Oshunluyi

Crystal Evuleocha and Candice Fraser

Cofounders of Kiira

Since the pandemic started, Crystal Evuleocha (left) got married, pivoted her company, raised a funding round, and held a #FemHealthTech Conference. The 27-year-old, who moved to America from Nigeria as a teen, started Kliit Health in 2019, after she nearly died from incorrectly diagnosing her stomach pain on “Dr. Google.” The app connects users with clinicians to answer medical questions for $10 per secure chat. Evuleocha launched it with nearly $100,000 in winnings from pitch competitions, but it was part of a larger ambition to improve access to healthcare for young, multicultural women. This year, with the world in crisis, Evuleocha and her cofounder, ob-gyn Candice Fraser, saw an opportunity. They rebranded to Kiira, a telehealth clinic. Colleges subscribe and offer the platform 24-7 to students; Kiira collects data on emerging STD and COVID-19 outbreaks. It will debut in two universities this fall, with 13,000 students. 

Related: 50 Ways Women Entrepreneurs Can Fund Their Businesses

 

Image credit: Courtesy of InDinero

Jessica Mah

Founder and CEO of InDinero

InDinero, an accounting services and software company, has been helping small- owners manage their finances for more than a decade. But as the pandemic spread, founder and CEO Jessica Mah was suddenly hearing from much larger clients. “Our incoming customer base flipped to being bigger companies that were downsizing,” she says. “I’m talking billion-dollar-market-cap companies.” The CEO had been eager to grow into this space, but now her team hustled to meet the surge in demand and better serve this customer. And while business has grown for InDinero, to protect it from the unknown impact of 2020, Mah laid off about 20 of her 300 employees. Additionally, she’s leaned into an aggressive acquisition strategy, integrating new companies into her business. “Everyone was like, ‘The fuck, you just laid off people and now you’re doing acquisitions?’ ” she says. “But a lot of people right now are playing defense. We’re playing offense, and playing to win.” 

 

Image credit: Courtesy of John Walder

Candice Matthews Brackeen

General Partner of Lightship Capital

Cincinnati-based Lightship Capital invests in underrepresented founders in the Midwest, and it launched a $50 million fund this year — its largest yet, and the largest to be run by a Black , general partner Candice Matthews Brackeen. “The Midwest has the most Fortune 500 companies per capita; the price to grow is cheaper, and there are great companies led by founders of color here,” she says. (The fund has already invested in five startups.) But the region lacks institutional capital, something Matthews Brackeen is eager to .Might this be the moment in the wake of calls for racial equity? “I can say there are more foundations looking to invest in emerging Black fund managers, and that makes the job a little easier, but at the same time, I want to know more about this new person, like, why are you suddenly interested?” she says. “But hopefully this reckoning is a turning point.” 

 

Image credit: Courtesy of M.M.LaFleur

Sarah LaFleur and Miyako Nakamura

Cofounders of M.M.LaFleur

M.M.LaFleur is a brand that makes clothing for working women, and the founders had a plan for election night in 2016. “We had a pantsuit email prepared to go,” says CEO Sarah LaFleur (left). “Wednesday rolled around and we were like, ‘Oh, guess we won’t be sending that email.’ ” Instead, they emailed their customers to ask what role the brand could play in supporting female politicians moving forward. In 48 hours, the prompt received more than 1,100 responses. “Regardless of politics, the consensus was: We need to see more women in office,” LaFleur says. In the years ahead, they worked to dress more women in politics and in campaigns, including Cynthia Nixon, and counted Tammy Duckworth as a fan and customer. But the real aha moment came earlier in 2020, when the brand launched Ready to Run, an initiative that would loan clothing to women running for office. To date, they’ve dressed more than 400 women, many of whom were first-time candidates who would other­wise struggle to afford campaign-ready clothing. “As a fashion designer, I always wonder if my work is doing any good,” says creative director Miyako Nakamura. “Having a greater mission beyond just making a beautiful piece and a beautiful ? It motivates the entire team.”

 

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