Since the start of the pandemic, women have become a powerful engine for business creation in the U.S., launching new companies at a record rate. In 2020 and 2021, startups led by women accounted for 49 percent of all new ventures, compared to just 28 percent in 2019, according to a study by Gusto, a human resources software company. And women entrepreneurs of color helped lead the way, responsible, for example, for nearly half of the female-led companies that launched in 2020.
That blistering pace of growth is all the more impressive, given the significant challenges that women entrepreneurs still face. Money is a big one—just 2.1 percent of venture capital funding went to women-led businesses in 2022, a rate that’s remained little changed for years. Meanwhile, ingrained biases remain, well, ingrained: Research shows that female founders face significantly more pushback than men when it comes to their qualifications and technical expertise, despite the fact that their companies, according toa study by Boston Consulting Group, return 150 percent more on average for every dollar invested in them than businesses led by men.
Photo-illustration by Gluekit for Newsweek; Source photos by Dillon Johnson/Agua Bonita; Lori Sax; Harrison Boyce/Saysh; Courtesy of Jiggy and Minnow Park
Infuriating? Sure. But that hasn’t stopped the many female entrepreneurs who continue to strike out on their own, including the five founders profiled here.
If you are among the many with a business idea you want to pursue, their stories may inspire you, in addition to offering practical strategies about everything from financing to finding your customers, from overcoming those stubborn biases against women in business to steeling yourself against the rejection that inevitably will come your way on the path to a successful launch. As Olympic track and field champion Allyson Felix, founder of the women’s footwear brand Saysh, says, “You’re going to hear a lot of no’s and you can’t let that discourage you or get in your way.”
In the end, says Kaylin Marcotte, founder of the puzzle company JIGGY, “Making that switch from employee to entrepreneur is ultimately a bet on yourself.” In today’s uncertain economy, if you have a smart idea for a new business and it’s your dream to launch it, there is, perhaps, no better bet to make.
Breaking the Mold for Women
From the ashes of a very public breakup with her sponsor in 2019, Allyson Felix, the most decorated American track and field star of all time, began a new career as the head of her own footwear company, Saysh.
Felix had happily worked with Nike for almost a decade, until the time came to renew her contract. Negotiating while she was pregnant, Felix says Nike offered her a 70 percent pay cut and, at first, refused her request to guarantee that she wouldn’t be punished if her performance suffered in the period surrounding childbirth. Though Nike eventually improved its maternity leave policies, Felix ended up leaving the company, which in turn left her without a sponsor to provide the racing spikes she needed to compete in her fifth Olympics.
“I was venting to my brother [Saysh’s co-founder Wes Felix], telling him I was tired of companies not seeing my value, and he said: ‘Why don’t we just do it ourselves?'” Felix recalls. “I said, ‘you’re crazy,’ but then realized he was right. We have an opportunity to create change instead of asking somebody else to do it.”
Wearing a special pair of racing shoes from her own brand, Felix crossed the finish line at the Tokyo games in 2021 to clinch her seventh gold and first bronze medals. “It’s the biggest highlight of my career,” says Felix. “Usually it’s all about the medal and the time, but this was so much bigger. I had overcome all the adversity, wearing my own shoes, and felt like I was a representative for other women, other mothers and people who’d been told your story is over.”
Creating those special Olympic racing shoes and the more wearable everyday athleisure sneakers Saysh currently sells took Felix on a new training regime. Instead of track times and warm-ups, she had to master fundraising, map a winning business model and deal with some lingering sexist production ideas in the shoe world. In keeping with the company’s women-centric approach, Felix and her brother looked to women-led or women-founded venture capital firms for funding. Their latest round, which raised $8 million, also included support from Athleta—the brand Felix signed with after leaving Nike.
Allyson Felix smiles after winning the bronze medal in the 400m race at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/Getty
Designing the look and feel of Saysh’s sneakers turned out to be a greater challenge than the sister-brother team anticipated. “We thought we were creating shoes for me to wear in the Olympics and that other women would be able to wear as well, but then we learned that athletic shoes hadn’t been made for women,” says Felix. “A shoe is made off of a last or foot-shaped mold, and it is usually always that of a man’s foot being used. So that became an opportunity to say women deserve better.”
Today, customers can purchase the Saysh One (retail price: $150) and Saysh Two sneakers ($185) on the brand or Athleta’s website. She declined to share how many pairs the brand has sold, but within 40 days of launching in 2021, Saysh had sold out and had a 25,000-person waitlist. Saysh intends to use its latest round of funding to increase its wholesale and retail distribution and experiment with an expanded range of products.
Now she’s hoping other footwear brands take notice and begin making more sneakers using molds of women’s feet or adopt a maternity returns policy similar to that of Saysh, which gives people whose foot changes size while pregnant a pair in their new size for free. Says Felix: “We want to make things better for women and push the industry to see women, and not as an afterthought.”
A Tech Solution for Mental Health
At any given time, one fifth of Americans are dealing with a mental health issue. Since 2016, April Koh has been developing a system, offered through health plans and employee benefits programs, that uses innovative machine-learning technology to match a person with the treatment or care option best suited for their unique needs. “There is a tremendous amount of unnecessary suffering and waste in mental health because of all the trial and error in treatment,” Koh says. “It is essentially one big guessing game.”
Koh got the idea for Spring Health as an undergraduate at Yale, where she was studying sociology and computer science, after reading a peer-reviewed paper by her co-founder Adam Chekroud, who was then completing his Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience at the school. The paper described how a machine learning model had outperformed an average psychiatrist in matching someone to the right treatment for them.
“I felt it represented the future of mental health care,” says Koh, who had watched her college roommate and best friend struggle with a severe eating disorder and cycle through various providers and treatments without success. “I [had seen] up close just how much an awful mental health care experience could destroy any sense of hope.”
Spring Health on a phone. Courtesy of Spring Health
Koh reached out to Chekroud, and together, they began thinking through the real world implications of his research. That led to the development of Spring Health’s “precision mental care” approach, which starts by asking users a series of questions that digitally screen them for more than 10 mental health conditions, then uses machine learning to create a personalized care plan. The service also provides a list of available therapists or coaches who match the user’s needs, plus access to digital tools like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness and meditation exercises.
To get the company off the ground, the founders spent a year entering pitch competitions, winning five for a total of $100,000. They also engaged in constant door knocking, meeting with angel investors and human resources leaders, pitching and asking for advice and trying to get their brand in front of as many people as possible. “There were some early believers,” says Koh. “The pain was so acute among employers and HR leaders to provide a mental health solution that actually worked for their hurting employees—they were willing to take the bet.”
It’s one that appears to be paying off. Today, more than 800 companies, including corporate giants like Bain, BlackRock, General Mills, Kayak and Whole Foods, use Spring Health as their mental health provider. The company is winning over investors too, recently securing an additional $190 million in funding. That made Koh the youngest female CEO to head a unicorn—a startup with a $1 billion-plus valuation—which is a distinction she’s both proud of and disheartened by. “There are a lot of male unicorn founders who are younger than me,” Koh says. “I can’t wait for the next female CEO to take my place.”
The accomplishment Koh’s most proud of: the findings of a study, published last summer in JAMA Network Open, which found that 70 percent of its users reported an improvement in their mental health and, on average, it only took about six weeks for a patient to enter remission. This resulted in employees missing 25 percent fewer work days, and saying they were 1.6 times less likely to leave their jobs and companies saving about $7,000 per participant in six months.
“It showed that we can marry clinical and financial outcomes together,” says Koh. “It really confirmed for customers that they don’t have to make a trade-off when making these investments in their employees’ mental health.”
A Puzzling Approach to Self Care
Courtesy of Jiggy
Long before puzzles became a beloved activity of the pandemic lockdown era, Kaylin Marcotte was a fan. For years, she’d done jigsaws as a form of stress relief, completing 1,000-piece puzzles every week to counter burnout from long hours as the director of marketing and community at The Skimm, a digital media startup. But she grew increasingly bored with the typical puzzle’s outdated, cheesy stock imagery.
So Marcotte set out to build a company that makes the kind of puzzles she wanted to solve. JIGGY specializes in modern-looking puzzles featuring designs by up-and-coming female artists, who each receive a portion of the profits from each sale. Marcotte includes glue with the kits so customers can keep and frame their puzzles like true pieces of art.
The path from that initial idea to launch, though, was a long one. “People think you have this aha moment and then overnight you’re working in a garage pulling all nighters, but for me it was more of a slow build,” says Marcotte. “I spent years planning, watching trends, to convince myself this had business potential, that puzzles could be a form of self-care that resonated with others too.”
A chance meeting in 2018 with a woman at a networking event proved the turning point. “I was explaining my idea and how excited I was by it but still unsure and she said: ‘When are you going to bet on yourself?,'” Marcotte recalls. “It was what I needed to hear. Making the switch from employee to entrepreneur is ultimately a bet on yourself and your ability to steward an idea to existence.”
Framed Jiggy puzzle. Courtesy of Jiggy
Marcotte decided to forego outside financing, instead using $25,000 of her own savings, supplemented with earnings from consulting or freelance side jobs, to cover her business and living expenses. Since launching JIGGY at the end of 2019 from her Brooklyn apartment, she’s funded the company entirely from the revenue it generates, in part so she can’t be forced into moves she doesn’t agree with just so she can repay backers. She did appear on Shark Tank but says that was more about the opportunity to tell America about her brand and less about securing a deal. Says Marcotte, “I want to grow slowly and steadily and be more focused on building the brand and its community rather than on just selling as much of the product as possible.”
Lockdown brought JIGGY massive, almost overnight success—sales increased 300 percent from February 2020 to March 2020, selling out six months of inventory—but also led to huge supply challenges. Marcotte says, “How do you grow when you’re sold out, have no product to sell and you’re making customers mad?” She tried a number of strategies to solve the problem, including diversifying her supply chain and selling gift cards that granted buyers priority access when new stock did arrive. She also focused on building out other points of connection with customers through the brand’s social channels, subscription club and Zoom puzzle parties.
It worked. Since launch, Marcotte has sold more than 250,000 JIGGY puzzles, collaborated on designs with the singer Kacey Musgraves and the Girl Scouts, and even had her product featured as one of Oprah’s Favorite Things this past holiday season—a development made possible by the community she built. When the Oprah team requested that a completed framed version of a holiday puzzle no longer stocked be sent to them within 48 hours, Marcotte turned to JIGGY’s customers on Instagram for help—and got it within minutes. Two even took their framed versions off their walls and shipped them across the country.
For Marcotte, there’s no clearer proof of the true force behind JIGGY’s success: “The power of this community we’ve built is the reason we made it.”
A New Spin on a Cultural Flavor
Dillon Johnson/Agua Bonita
When COVID lockdowns caused the beverage startup where Kayla Castañeda was consulting to shut down, she saw an opportunity to turn her new free time and past work experience at drink companies like Coca-Cola into a new venture that reflected herself and her culture. The result: Agua Bonita, the first ready-to-drink canned version of the popular Mexican and Central American fruit-flavored beverage agua fresca.
“I joke that when life gives you lemons, make agua fresca,” says Castañeda. “I wanted to put something out into the world that represented my family and Mexican culture in a fun, non-kitschy way. During the pandemic, my mother-in-law was making us agua frescas everyday and it reminded me of how my grandpa used to make them for us growing up with fruits he’d bring home from the fields. And I was like, why can I not just have this all the time?”
Castañeda put her own spin on the traditional recipes she grew up with. Her drinks contain 80 percent less sugar while still delivering on flavor with options like hibiscus, pineapple and cucumber, watermelon chile, mango habanero and, coming this summer, horchata. They also come in a can, a rarity for a non-carbonated beverage. That decision, which Castañeda made because cans are infinitely recyclable, turned into a big production nightmare. Because the pressure from carbon-dioxide helps give the aluminum can strength, many of Castañeda’s filled cans kept coming out too soft and had to be ditched, meaning she was losing more than other manufacturers with each production run.
Agua Bonita can among tacos. Courtesy of Agua Bonita
She solved that issue last month—just in time since, in a few weeks, Agua Bonita will make the jump from appearing online and on the shelves of about 250 stores to being stocked at almost 2,000 shops, including major retailers like 7-Eleven, Target and Whole Foods. That ensures Castañeda will hit her goal of surpassing 1 million cans sold this year.
“Getting the email that we’d been accepted into Target was one of our biggest accomplishments,” says Castañeda. “I live in a small town with no Whole Foods but there is a Target. I can now just go to my local store and buy [my product] and all my friends and family can finally see it on shelves. It makes it feel more real.”
Getting to this moment required Castañeda to tap her creative and competitive sides to make the right connections and acquire the funding needed to launch. She started out by serving drinks at local community events to make money, then turned to competing in pitch competitions, eventually winning $500,000. She says, “It also helped in building the brand as I got three minutes of people’s undivided attention to tell them about what we were doing.”
Since then Castañeda has won over other investors including wine-and-spirits maker Pernod Ricard and Cher, on her way to becoming the first Latina-run beverage startup to raise more than $1 million. She’s also participated in a number of accelerator programs, like those run by Target and Sku, to take advantage of these organization’s mentorship and business connections. That’s how she won over Target’s buying team, and became a “Brands with Heart” partner at 7-Eleven. Now she’s looking to expand her line by introducing additional flavors and reaching even more consumers at the stores they shop in everyday to achieve her dream of one day being the “No. 1 better-for-you Hispanic beverage brand in the world.”
Even though money has been a challenge, Castañeda has since day one donated a portion of every can sold to supporting nonprofits that help women migrant farm workers like her ancestors. She says, “There’s a way to build your business and elevate the things you care about.”
Putting Wasted Food to Good Use
Courtesy of Full Harvest
The U.S. wastes as much as 40 percent, or 133 billion pounds, of its food supply a year, according to USDA estimates. There are many reasons, from food spoiling during production to consumers tossing uneaten items from their fridge. But a shockingly large amount—a third of all edible produce—happens at the very start of the chain, on the farm.
Christine Moseley is out to change that, via her company Full Harvest, a digital marketplace that connects farmers with food and beverage companies that can use their surplus and imperfect produce. Moseley was inspired to find a solution to food waste nearly a decade ago, while working as the head of strategic products and business development for cold-pressed juice company, Organic Avenue. She recalls standing calf-deep in a field of romaine leaves that were about to be churned under because they were not the perfect center hearts that grocery stores and manufacturers typically wanted, even though her employer was just going to process it into a liquid anyway. The experience bothered her so much, she vowed to find a way to put that excess or oddly-shaped produce to use.
Initially her idea was to use the cast-off produce to make affordable green juices and other plant-based foods. But after eight months of trying, she couldn’t find the right supplier, which led to an epiphany: The bigger business opportunity was in becoming the supplier herself.
Laptop with Full Harvest website on it. Getty
Cash flow and financing were challenges. During the two-and-a-half years it took Moseley to get Full Harvest off the ground, she lived off a $75,000 stake—$25,000 from savings and $50,000 earned via side hustles like renting out her car and helping students write their MBA essays. “I was the cliche,” says Moseley. “I lived in a basement eating rice and beans and peanut butter sandwiches, leveraging a credit card for business needs. I literally didn’t know how I was going to pay my next rent bill. I got my first investor money right in the nick of time.”
Since that initial infusion of cash from an angel investor and the winnings from some pitch competitions, backers have poured $40 million into Full Harvest. But they weren’t the only ones she needed to convince to come on board. She also had to win over farmers, many of whom were still relying on fax machines and paper transactions to do business, by making her platform as “low friction and high value as possible.”
Moseley didn’t let naysayers asking why she wanted to sell trash sway her resolve; instead she found the desire to prove them wrong motivational. “My dad trained me young to believe that: ‘at first, they think you’re crazy, then they accept it, then they don’t remember it was any other way.’ This is the process of true disruption: It means you are onto something if they say you are crazy.”
Today, big name food and beverage manufacturers, like Danone, Mondelēz and Suja, turn to Moseley’s company to source the fruits and vegetables they turn into grocery staples like juice and yogurt, and large-scale farming operations like Lakeside Organic Gardens and Church Brothers Farms use it to offload more of their crops and increase profits by up to 12 percent.
“We’ve sold over 75 million pounds of surplus and imperfect produce, and heard from some of our farms that they’ve had some of their best years financially after working with us,” says Moseley. “Knowing that we’re making an impact both on the environment and to the bottom line of our suppliers and buyers is our proudest accomplishment.”
Photo-illustration by Gluekit for Newsweek; Source photos by Dillon Johnson/Agua Bonita; Lori Sax; Harrison Boyce/Saysh; Courtesy of Jiggy and Minnow Park