ONE OF THE MOST telling definitions of entrepreneurship, courtesy of Howard Stevenson, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, is also one of the simplest: the pursuit of opportunity beyond the resources controlled.
And let’s face it: In 2020, no one has been controlling anything. Whether it’s a pandemic, government-mandated business shutdowns, or unheard-of forest fires, the uncontrollable has erupted at a global level and filtered down to the trivial details of daily life. But, as Stevenson tells us, if anyone has experience with the uncontrollable, it’s entrepreneurs. In spite of the challenges, entrepreneurs continue to do what they do best: improvise, adapt, and make something from nothing.
In the pages that follow, the women on Inc.’s annual Female Founders 100 list show how to do just that. As our staff reports on startups and small businesses throughout the year, these are the women whose names keep reappearing. They are the most inspiring, the most creative, and the most tenacious role models in entrepreneurship—and therefore, the ones we are most excited to celebrate.
And, like Stevenson, these successful entrepreneurs are doing plenty of teaching. In fact, we’ve asked them to give us their best advice for company-building in five key areas: from vetting the idea, to finding the people and funding, to winning customers and creating a culture. There’s a lot to learn—and a lot to admire. —
1 THE IDEA
You know your idea is outlandish—but is it outlandish in a good way, or not so much?
TRACEE ELLIS ROSS
Pattern is the hair care line she’d always wanted but no one had created—until now.
As an entrepreneur, Tracee Ellis Ross would seem to have some clear advantages: She’s an award-winning actor, producer, and activist—and the daughter of Diana Ross. Yet her first steps into starting her own business brought her the same frustration and rage that so many founders—especially female founders—know all too well. A few years ago, Ross brought the idea for Pattern, a hair care line for curly, coily, and tight-textured hair, to her contact at her talent agency. “She made me cry,” recalls Ross. “She was like, ‘Why would anyone want hair products from you? You’re an actor.’ ” Like many entrepreneurs, Ross was motivated by her own experience: She knew, from years of trying to mold her hair to society’s idea of beauty—and damaging it in the process—that her product didn’t exist yet. And she knew she wasn’t the only one who needed something better.
“I look at the market and know where the actual gaps in the industry are,” says Ross. “If you want to do almost the same thing as another company, figure out what would make you unique. How do you differentiate yourself?” Ross had been picking and choosing various products from multiple brands, trying to find what combined best for her particular hair pattern. But she never felt those products worked together well. With Pattern, she would aim to provide everything in one line.
Pattern, which is sold at Ulta Beauty across the U.S., is for anyone with coily, tight-textured hair. But Ross is clear that her company is centered on a celebration of Black beauty, which she believes is all too rare. “If our hair could talk, it would tell you of our legacies,” she says, “all those ways our identity pushed through spaces where it wasn’t meant to be, but is nonetheless.”
As for her early rejection, Ross has become a bit more sanguine over time. “Be patient, and stay the course,” she advises other entrepreneurs. “Take in the information. Take in the disappointments. They will come. They are important. They are part of the opportunity to clarify what you want to do.” —TENESHIA CARR
REAL TALK IDEA
Question everyone about everything, and seek out reasons why you might be wrong. Then go with your gut. —POOJA BAVISHI Malai
If 90 percent of people think your idea is a good one, you’re already too late. —KAYLA RODRIGUEZ SweetBio
It’s important to just take those bold leaps in the beginning, even if it is a little terrifying, and know that if you don’t make the perfect thing the first time, that’s OK. You’ll continue to improve. Starting on that path will lead you to where you need to go. —ANNA SHEFFIELD Anna Sheffield
Think big, but choose wisely. —ELISABETE MIRANDA CQ Fluency
Remember that even some of the biggest companies didn’t realize, at the beginning, that they could address a global mass market. When I started Everlywell, I was confident there was a big market for women between 25 and 45. What I didn’t understand fully was that there’s an even bigger opportunity for much more common, everyday products—bloodsugar tests versus specialty hormone tests. —JULIA CHEEK Everlywell
Having an obsession with the problem you’re solving is critical. I would never encourage someone to start a company without that. I cannot sleep because I’m living, breathing, obsessing about this problem. You need that drive to push the boulder up the hill. —CAROLYN WITTE Tia
I was able to iterate really fast because I got customer feedback really fast. There were even customers I would email and ask to hop on a call with me because I wanted to learn about their behavior and their experience. A lot of what I did in the beginning was really scrappy, but it helped me learn and improve our business, improve our products, improve our experience. —CAT CHEN Skylar
Find the thing that you’re so passionate about that you won’t care about the haters. —SHEILA MIKHAIL AskBio
When Elisabete Miranda immigrated to the United States from Brazil in 1994, she learned how a life’s experience can get lost in translation. In Brazil, she’d been a respected serial entrepreneur and vice president of her local chamber of commerce. In the U.S., she felt like one more Latin American woman who didn’t speak the language. “When you move to another country, it’s like you become a stupid person,” she says with a laugh, recalling her first days in the States. “You have to suck it up and do what you need to do.”
What Miranda needed to do, she believed, wasn’t just to learn English, but also to turn translation into a business. Her company, CQ Fluency, designs programs for clients to bridge language gaps on an ongoing basis. CQ Fluency focuses on health care—for instance, translating documents describing treatment plans, helping non-English-speaking patients better understand their doctors’ and nurses’ recommendations, and giving them confidence when they are sick and scared. Now, as CQ Fluency oversees projects in 150 languages, Miranda’s clients understand her, loud and clear. —BURT HELM
REAL TALK IDEA
You don’t have to stay a mom-and-pop business. But to achieve big things, you have to think bigger. Think like a unicorn. —CRYSTAL ETIENNE Ruby Love
Don’t be afraid to just get your idea up and out there, even if it doesn’t look perfect. If you can get something out there, you can start learning about your community and your customers, and you can start iterating and improving. —STEPHANIE BENEDETTO Queen of Raw
I am very open about everything that pops into my mind, even though a lot of entrepreneurs hold things close to the vest. People will shut down or lift up ideas in different ways. I learn from both. If they shut it down, it makes me see some of the obstacles we have to overcome. If they lift it up, I see the opportunities. —CAROLYN RODZ Hello Alice
Think simple. If you come up with a product that really solves a problem and doesn’t require people to spend a lot of money or change their daily life, go for it. —AMBER LEONG Circadian Optics
When I looked at this opportunity, I saw how so many women were suffering in silence. It’s not like I woke up one day and said, “Geez, I want to start a company that would stop me from peeing in my pants after I sneeze.” You’re not going to be comfortable jumping on a trampoline with your child if you know you’re going to wet your pants. I’m not selling you a device. I’m selling you a better life. —COLETTE COURTION Joylux
Be comfortable not knowing the answer. There’s no one answer. Be creative and find your own answers. —KRISTY KIM TomoCredit
Your business must solve a real problem. If it does, then when you have pandemics and major catastrophes, you’re not faced with a pivot so much as you have validation that you’re on the right path. —WANONA SATCHER Makhers Studio
If you choose an idea that comes from a place where your fire is, your discomfort with how the world is, and how you want the world to be different, that fuels you when everything else feels impossible. —DANIELLE APPLESTONE Daughters of Rosie
What great adventure doesn’t start with exhilaration—and a little fear? Take the leap! —NICOLE SAHIN Globalization Partners
2 THE PEOPLE
How to strengthen the heart of your organization.
Stefania Mallett thinks like an engineer—a legacy of her computer science graduate degree from MIT—so it’s no surprise that when founding ezCater in 2007, she created “a system for everything.” Customers visit the website and order a tasty spread from one of 80,000 restaurants and caterers, and ezCater coordinates fulfillment for any event in which a group of people want to nosh while they work.
Mallett credits her success to creating clever systems to entice the right talent to join her, and then nourishing their hearts and minds. “My purpose is to create jobs that people want to have,” says Mallett. Job candidates complete mock exercises to get a feel for the work they’ll be doing. One example: translating a printed menu into an appealing digital layout. “After an hour,” Mallett says, “either they say, ‘I hate this!’ or ‘This is kind of fun.’ ”
Her management mantras are “Respect the heck out of your employees” and “Give them so much authority they gasp”—two things that inspire her team to bring their full passion and creativity to work. That’s doubly important as she pivots in the era of Covid. “I deeply believe,” she says, “that if you can just give people the biggest opportunity, the most freedom to be their best selves, you will get that.” —BURT HELM
MARIA JOSE PALACIO
Growing up in the fifth generation of a Colombian coffee-growing family, Maria Jose Palacio knew just how unstable that life could be. Farmers’ incomes swing wildly because of fluctuations in international coffee prices, and they often lose money on their crops. When Palacio moved to New York City, she says, “it just got really depressing drinking $5 cups of coffee knowing none of it was going back to our community.” Her solution: She’d coach farmers to improve the quality of their beans to a grade known as specialty. Then she could pay them a stable and higher price for the beans, roast them in San Francisco, and sell premium coffee to tech companies.
Initially, she got a cool reception from farmers, who were hesitant to work with a new company. “We spoke to so many farmers, and at first they wouldn’t even give us a sample,” she says. That changed when she brought a group of farmers to San Francisco to meet with some of their would-be clients, garnering huge press in Colombia at a time when coffee prices were depressed.
Progeny supplies companies in the Bay Area such as Google, Stripe, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. With so many offices closed because of Covid-19, Palacio is shifting to e-commerce, adding a subscription service, and offering home-brewing classes.
“If you’re going to go into something, make sure you’re passionate enough to push through the highs and the lows,” says Palacio. “For me, it’s the coffee farmers. They don’t allow me to give up.” —BRIT MORSE
REAL TALK PEOPLE
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October - November 2020