Some entrepreneurs divine the future, while others recognize the massive opportunity to fix what’s right in front of them. These women across industries–from hiring and data security to baby products and media–are building a smarter version of what’s come before them.
The way Hua sees it, app design isn’t all that different from high-frequency trading. “You have a bunch of models and you see what makes money or what doesn’t right away,” says the former high-frequency trader who decided to ditch Wall Street to launch enterprise software company Apptimize in 2013. Apptimize helps companies A/B test different design features to figure out the best user experience, along with the most effectively designed path to revenue. After graduating from Combinator, Hua raised $21 million, and now has clients, including Glassdoor and Grubhub, in more than 100 countries. Hotel Tonight, Hua says, uses Apptimize’s software to boost revenue by testing all types of features, from geo-location-based pricing models to different versions of its hotel recommendation algorithm. “Even if you’re a product genius, you can optimize design to make a lot more money by using data on what experiences your customers like best,” says Hua. –Will Yakowicz
Silicon Valley doesn’t have a pipeline problem; it has an HR problem. That’s the premise behind the San Francisco-based Blendoor, a recruiting platform that aims to help mitigate unconscious bias and fix diversity issues across corporate America. Today, the three-year-old company has a database with more than 10,000 resumes from minority candidates, which it then “blendorizes”–removing any identifying data–and algorithmically matches with companies’ job postings based on skills, education, and experience. Blendoor reveals an applicant’s identity only when a company wants to move forward with the process, and then tracks how far qualified applicants make it to each stage. The idea is to try to pin down where demographic biases may be impacting the decision-making process–and then correct it, Lampkin says. “Because they’re not getting [diverse] applicants, [companies] think they don’t exist.” That’s just not true. –Guadalupe Gonzalez
For most women, there’s nothing more frustrating–or demoralizing–than shopping for a bra. It turns out, there’s good reason: “Thirty-seven percent of all women fall between cup sizes,” says Zak, who had that insight five years ago, when she started ThirdLove. Most bra sizes, she discovered, were based on a single pair of breasts from a model in the 1970s. Now, says Zak, her mission is “to have a bra for every woman, regardless of shape or size.” In June, the e-commerce company introduced 24 additional sizes, bringing its total to 70–more than double the number of most bra brands. FitFinder is its two-minute quiz that helps customers determine their best size and fit. The 300-person startup, now profitable, is growing revenue by an average of 300 percent annually. Zak and her co-founder husband, David Spector, have even managed to recruit two critical women as investors: Laurie Ann Goldman, former CEO of Spanx, and Lori Greeley, former CEO of Victoria’s Secret. –Kevin J. Ryan
The answer to your hiring troubles might lie in a bunch of computer games. Meet Pymetrics, a New York City-based startup that replaces resumes with quizzes. Companies send potential candidates a series of brain games similar to the ones you’d find on the Lumosity app. The results provide data on traits like risk-taking, altruism, and multitasking to help determine if the job-seeker might be a fit. “We look at your cognitive abilities on a granular level,” Polli says. “As a result, we can understand people in a much deeper way.” Some of Pymetrics’ more than 50 corporate clients, which include Tesla, Accenture, and LinkedIn, have replaced the resume system entirely. They’re seeing increased retention rates on the order of 30 to 60 percent, and some say diversity has improved too. “I think we’re really starting to show,” Polli says, “that A.I. actually has the potential to reduce bias.” –K.J.R.
Computer vision and machine learning scientist Kaliouby was at Cambridge University in 2005 when she had an epiphany: “We need to humanize technology.” While technology had made giant leaps in cognitive intelligence, machines still didn’t understand the subtleties of human emotions, gestures, and nonverbal cues, which made dealing with smart devices, robots, and autonomous tech difficult. After her post-doctorate program at MIT’s Media Lab, Kaliouby and co-founder Rosalind Picard raised $26 million, and spun their research into emotion A.I. software company Affectiva. The company now helps brands like Coca-Cola test advertisements by measuring people’s emotional responses during market research, and is working with Softbank’s robot Pepper to give it “social and emotional capabilities.” Automotive manufacturers and suppliers are also using the software to help detect drowsy, or distracted, drivers. Eventually, she says, semi-autonomous cars will be able to take over if a human driver is not in a state to drive. “We need to be able to interact with machines the same ways we interface with one another through perception, conversation, emotions, and gestures,” Kaliouby says. –W.Y.
If two-factor authentication no longer seems trustworthy, then relying on passwords at this point seems like farce. At least according to Ehrensvard, a former technology design consultant from Stockholm who started Yubico a decade ago with her white-hat hacker and engineer husband. Yubico became known for the YubiKey, which for $50, inserts into a USB and secures accounts by creating one-time keycodes–making it especially effective against remote phishing attacks. Facebook, Salesforce, and Dropbox all use the devices internally; Google has distributed them to all 85,000 of its employees. The Palo Alto, California-based company continually rolls out new secure devices, like the Series 5 YubiKey it launched in September, which meets several new widely accepted authentication protocols. Ehrensvard says not a single user of Yubico’s products has reported an account takeover. “The internet is one of mankind’s best inventions,” she says. “We’re very passionate about making it secure.” –K.J.R.
DeBaun was sitting in a cubicle at Intuit, reeling from the shooting of Michael Brown near her hometown St. Louis. Frustrated by the dearth of black media, she quit her job and launched a digital media platform for black Millennials. “For a really long period of time, I wanted to find an idea that made being broke worth it, even if we didn’t get a big, billion-dollar exit,” she says. The Los Angeles-based media company recently launched 21Ninety.com, for women of color, acquired travel site TravelNoire.com, raised $6.5 million in funding, and opened a tech office in Atlanta–a hot spot, DeBaun says, for African American computer science majors. –Kate Rockwood
Mayer and Christine Dodson were working at a graphic design studio in Burlington, Vermont, when they decided to commit themselves to turning every new mother’s nightmare–breastfeeding in restaurant coatrooms or the corner of an airport–into a well-designed business. Mamava lactation pods are thoughtfully designed, well-lit, ventilated, and electronically outfitted modular rooms that can be plopped into any environment. The five-year-old company now has over 500 pods in circulation at airports, zoos, factories, military bases, stadiums, and at private employers like SpaceX and Amazon. “Sometimes people say we’re riding a wave. And I’m like, oh, no,” says Mayer. “We’re creating a wave–and we are driven by the Millennial moms.” –Michelle Cheng
Lake was still pursuing her MBA at Harvard when she founded her fashion subscription-box company in 2011. In the brief seven years since, she pioneered the concept of mass personalization, built the company to more than a billion dollars in annual revenue, reached profitability in 2015, and–oh, yeah–became the only female tech CEO to take her company public last year. The secret is a combination of ever-smarter algorithms to help make custom product choices for members (from more than 600 partner brands) and an army of several thousand “stylists” to filter the selections and add a human touch to the customer relationship. In the past year, Stitch Fix has launched three new services–men’s clothing, plus sizes, and premium brands–and watched its stock price soar to well over double its IPO price. –Tom Foster
In 2009, Billingsley was running her own IT company in Telluride, Colorado, when she decided to invest in a dispensary in Boulder. She began vetting software vendors, but soon discovered that none could ensure the dispensary would stay compliant with Colorado’s strict payment and product tracking laws. Billingsley reached out to Amy Poinsett, a neighbor who ran her own web development company, to see if she would be interested in starting a weed tech company. A few bottles of champagne and a white board later, the duo had mapped out their business plan. “We still thought it was a good idea when we woke up the next morning,” says Billingsley. Eventually, MJ Freeway would grow into one of the marijuana industry’s premier software platforms that helps dispensaries, manufacturers, and cultivators to process sales, track product, and stay above board. Since launching in 2010, MJ Freeway has processed over $10 billion in sales, with clients across 23 states and 11 countries. –W.Y.
Not many people start a self-described “art project” that ends up raising $75 million in venture capital in six years. DiNunzio, who has an MFA in painting and printmaking, first hatched her secondhand designer clothing platform as a wedding dress resale marketplace called Recycled Bride in 2009. After teaching herself coding, web design, and marketing–and struggling for several years to raise money–she successfully pivoted into reselling women’s entire closets, now competing against other venture-backed startups including Poshmark and ThredUp. Tradesy’s next project: image-recognition technology that can analyze a photo of a dress or handbag, automatically identify its details, and quote a price. —Sophie Downes
After owning a construction company in New Orleans for 20 years, Breaux found herself back in California looking for a second act. She discovered it, by chance, in the skin care industry. Sunscreen typically comes in two varieties: chemical-based and mineral-based, the latter of which is generally considered a safer option because it functions by sitting on top of the skin and physically blocks UV rays. Most mineral-based solutions come in one color–white–and as a black woman, Breaux, understandably, found this frustrating. “I learned something by happenstance that affected my beauty and, I learned, that also affected my health,” says Breaux. “So I said, why not me?” She decided to find a chemist and get to work making her own solution to a glaring problem. “If you wake up and realize I really need this, then there are probably 10 million other people in the world who need this, especially if it’s something that affects their health and their lifestyle.” Four years after incorporating, Unsun Cosmetics is now profitable, enjoying an annual revenue in the low six figures, and planning to launch a line of clean cosmetics in the spring of 2019. Breaux says that people of color often think that they don’t need sunscreen–a dangerous myth that leads to higher mortality rates from skin cancer. She’s made counteracting this myth one of Unsun’s core missions–starting at home. Her oldest son, singer Frank Ocean, uses Unsun products regularly. Her youngest son? “Not my best customer,” says Breaux. –Timothy Crino
Each year, about 20,000 women get ovarian cancer, and lacking a good diagnostic tool, some 600,000 more get their ovaries removed as a preventative measure. After her own health scare in high school, Sarna decided to change that. She studied molecular and cell biology at University of California, Berkeley and then went to work for a health care company. In 2012, she started the San Bruno, California-based nVision, which by 2016 had won FDA approval for a balloon-based catheter device that could travel up the fallopian tubes and get a cell sample from a woman’s ovaries. “My team is all driven by the same thing: Let’s get this product to market as fast as possible,” says Sarna. That meant finding a larger partner with more resources and an established sales force. In April, Sarna sold nVision to Boston Scientific for $275 million. –Kimberly Weisul
When Genet founded her first company, an ink dye startup, in 2010, software companies like Shopify, Mailchimp, and Stripe helped her business grow. “It’s such a magical time for entrepreneurs in that respect,” she says. “But not as many companies were working on the physical aspect.” Specifically: packaging. Genet felt the market was missing a way to easily create branded, customized boxes and envelopes to use for shipping products to customers, so she decided to build the solution. Lumi, which she co-founded by way of Y Combinator in 2015, makes branded packaging for companies. Many of them are startups, like linen maker Parachute and underwear manufacturer MeUndies. Clients can upload designs to create custom items ranging from bubble mailers to tissue paper. With $11.5 million in funding, the Los Angeles-based Lumi has already delivered 25 million units of packaging to its customers. Genet says she uses that first experience as inspiration to reach even more companies. “This business came to be through me living the pain of being a founder trying to ship stuff,” she says. “We have a lot of empathy for entrepreneurs.” –K.J.R.
Tipograph was the youngest exec at the Gap–leading global social media in 2015–when she became aware of a vexing obstacle for online brands: They either had massive customer-acquisition costs or were reliant on behemoths like Amazon and Target. The rise of e-commerce on social media added a new twist–most retailers that posted videos on Facebook, Instagram, and Snap couldn’t convert eyeballs to sales. Her Gap boss told her: “If you can figure that out, it’s a billion-dollar idea.” So Tipograph quit her corporate job and persuaded Gary Vaynerchuk, among others, to invest $4 million in MikMak, which creates enterprise software for brands to do just that. The three-year-old company–whose clients include Procter & Gamble, Nestle, and L’Oreal–is already profitable. –W.Y.
Trained as a chemical engineer, Lin had spent time in management at PayPal and eBay by the time she had her kids. When they were 3 and 5, her friends were so intrigued by her craft projects, she wondered, “Is this a business?” Seven years later, Lin has proved Kiwi Crates is one of the few subscription-box models that works. Inventive, high-quality science-and-engineering kits for kids–like a trebuchet that can launch a Ping-Pong ball 10 feet into the air–have led to high retention, low customer-acquisition costs, nearly $100 million in revenue, and a business that’s been profitable for more than two years. –Christine Lagorio-Chafkin
Aching from Crohn’s disease and chronic pain caused by the steel rod lodged in her spine–inserted to correct childhood scoliosis–Cunningham, then an IBM executive, wondered how she could patch over the between-treatment holes in her insurance. “I got a bottle of wine, sat on the couch with a friend, and talked about my vision of managing health from a smartphone,” says Cunningham. She imagined a preventative technology that could monitor and predict shifts in an individual’s health, “just like Tesla knows what’s going on with every vehicle.” Cunningham’s six-year-old, Chicago-based tech company, which has raised $2.3 million in funding, now offers cancer patients services including medication management and video check-ins with doctors–all through their phones. –Jemima McEvoy
No one has applied clever design and cheeky humor to the least-appealing moments of parenthood better than Hirschhorn. NoseFrida, the country’s most popular baby-registry gift, is a snakelike tube with that parents can use to literally suck the snot from their kids’ noses. Fridet the Momwasher helps women with perineal care after childbirth; the Windi relieves baby gas; and FridaBalls are testicle-protecting underwear for baby-wearing dads–to name a few of the Miami-based company’s 30 products. “I probably get one or two emails a week from parents who are working on developing a product and need help commercializing it,” says Hirschhorn, who’s now producing a web-TV series featuring new product collaborations with parents, slated for release in 2019. –Diana Ransom
Ma was a director of product management at Gilt Groupe when she got her first opportunity to start a Gilt spinoff. The venture eventually folded, but Gilt founder Kevin Ryan, a pioneer in New York City tech, recognized Ma’s talent. So when she pitched him the idea of a company that overhauled the antiquated tradition of wedding registries–think zapping porcelain bowls in a Bed Bath & Beyond–he immediately invested. Five years later, Zola has become the fastest-growing wedding registry site in the U.S., valued at $600 million and untethered to the most expensive parts of e-commerce that once dogged Gilt–including inventory and returns. Ma’s mantra for what’s next: “How can we make this bigger?” –T.F.
Building a women-centric online dating and networking platform on track to hit $200 million in revenue this year hasn’t been enough to keep Wolfe Herd busy. So this summer, the Austin native launched Bumble Fund, which focuses on early-stage capital for female-centric funds and women-run businesses, applying the same attitude she applies to all her endeavors: “Let’s put women at the top and see what happens,” she says. “Honestly: It works better.” –C.L.C.
Paleo, keto, gluten-free–these days, a plethora of people are paying premium prices to pacify picky palates. Smith started Simple Mills in 2012, after eliminating processed food from her own diet. Initially, the former management consultant thought she’d build the company while getting her MBA at the University of Chicago. But after a year of studies, crackers and cookies crowded out classes. “One quarter, I had just one class, and missed five of the six sessions. The next quarter, I flat-out forgot to sign up,” she says. Dropping out paid off: Today, Simple Mills distributes to 14,000 grocery stores, including Whole Foods and Kroger, and is the fastest-growing cracker brand–and top-selling baking mix brand–in the U.S. –Burt Helm
What would be a dream gig for most was less than thrilling for Errett. The former CEO had nabbed a general partner position at Howard Schultz’s investment firm, Maveron, but “I got up every day thinking about how the CEOs I funded were having all the fun,” says Errett. So, in 2013, she decided to go big with Madison Reed, her direct-to-consumer startup that’s attempting to upend the $18 billion hair care industry with cleaner, customizable, at-home dye kits. The brand is now following in the footsteps of Drybar, with its own Color Bars in New York City and San Francisco–and $70 million in funding from investors including Maveron. –Jeff Bercovici
No one was happier than Gropper to see the headlines earlier this summer that industry giants McDonald’s and Starbucks were turning their backs on plastic straws. “It was great timing,” says Gropper, whose plant-based tableware company makes 100 percent compostable coffee cups, plates, utensils, and, as of eight months ago, straws. After five frustrating years of little traction convincing retailers that shoppers want sustainable products, Los Angeles-based Repurpose is preparing for an October debut in 357 Walmart stores across the country. “The biggest challenge has been waiting for everyone else to catch up,” says Gropper. –J.M.