Almost a decade ago, Jenny Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman launched Rent the Runway, an online designer-fashion rental service that not only shifted the face of retail but widened the opening for women wanting to climb into the formerly tech-bro dominated world of entrepreneurship.
"We saw that our brand at Rent the Runway stood for female empowerment," says Fleiss. "Not just in the sense of the fashion, but in the sense of the customer who was going after their dreams, whether it was that they wanted to be an entrepreneur themselves or kill that meeting at work."
And while helping encourage professional women was never an explicit goal when Rent the Runway was taking off, it has been a welcome consequence, says Fleiss. It has also served as the motivation behind Project Entrepreneur, a program designed in collaboration with investment bank UBS that addresses the lack of female representation in entrepreneurship. Currently in its third year, alumni of the program--comprised of a venture competition and various other educational events--have already earned over $25 million in early-stage funding.
Here are this year's five top-placing, trailblazing startups you should be keeping an eye on:
1. Entrada ESL
Erin Janklow, Founder and CEO
Erin Janklow wasn't a typical college student studying abroad in Italy in 2007; she actually learned the language. The Northern Colorado native learned firsthand that taking up a second language as an adult is challenging, but it's not impossible.
"That made me realize that with the appropriate resources it is very possible for an adult to become fluent in a foreign language," says Janklow. Two and a half years ago, she decided to take the idea to market in the form of her Washington, D.C.-based startup, Entrada ESL. Using an earpiece and a wearable device, Entrada teaches low-income immigrants working in the service industry how to speak English while they work.
The employer-sponsored program drives recruitment, increases retention, and improves the service that staff are able to provide--and already has one big customer: Rent the Runway. "We will be starting to work with Rent the Runway in their warehouses, which is both an incredible highlight from this program and an incredible opportunity for their staff," Janklow says.
2. Floss Bar
Eva Sadej, Co-Founder and CEO
Can't leave work to go to the dentist? Floss Bar will come to you. With in-home, in-office, and after-work dental services, this startup is hoping to disrupt the dental industry, which is worth $134 billion. The company's biggest innovation is its employ of dentists' offices after hours, so customers can get services like teeth cleaning and Invisalign consultations when it's convenient for them.
It's confident that its employer-focused operation will also take off--particularly as more and more businesses emphasize perks. Co-founder Eva Sadej says she has already seen soaring interest in the one-year-old startup. She notes clients like WeWork, General Electric, the Lego Corporation, and Rent the Runway. While it's services are currently available only in New York and Boston, it is looking to expand into every U.S. city next year, starting with Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, and Miami. Plus, it accepts a number of dental insurance offerings.
3. Leche Lounge
Stephanie Conduff, Founder and CEO
"I went to a Madonna concert and there were five women sitting in a bathroom in leather pants looking for a place to pump," says Stephanie Conduff. "We all love Madonna but we have a couple of kids now. What are we supposed to do?"
It was when she came back to work after having a child that Conduff came face-to-face with the pervading lack of accommodation for mothers in the workplace. Frustrated but inspired, the former attorney decided to solve the problem herself, building her own company, Leche Lounge, in May 2015.
Based out of Tulsa, the company's portable lactation stations provide comfort and privacy for working women while solving a legal mandate. "I think it's really important for businesses to retain really talented employees and not lose them because of this problem, which is easily fixable," Conduff says.
Conduff has been building the business through partnerships with the U.S. Air Force, major casino WinStar, and colleges like Oklahoma State University.
Aline Sara, Co-Founder and CEO
Before starting NaTakallam ("We speak" in Arabic), Aline Sara was a journalist, on the ground reporting the Arab uprisings. From the Middle East herself, Sara witnessed firsthand the struggle of refugees restarting their lives after displacement: "One percent of refugees worldwide will get resettled," Sara says.
Responding to that, she founded NaTakallam in 2015. This New York-based startup provides employment opportunities for refugees and displaced people in the form of language education and translation opportunities. "Refugees being passive recipients of aid is not sustainable or dignified," she says. "We're working with highly skilled refugees and we don't want that capital to go to waste."
NaTakallam has already formed partnerships with a number of universities, including New York University, Columbia, Emory, and UC Berkeley.
5. PathSpot Technologies
Christine Schindler, Co-Founder and CEO
A nervous laugh spread through the audience as Christine Schindler showcased her company's product, a sanitation device designed to detect contamination on the skin. When offering the audience a quick trial, she asked: "If you're feeling brave, I have my device outside.... I can scan anyone's hands, especially if you just got off the subway."
Her company, PathSpot Technologies, based out of New York, sells these products to restaurants to protect their employees and customers from food-borne diseases. After employees wash their hands, they scan them with the device and are notified if there is any contamination that will get people sick. The data is then aggregated and handed over to the management team, so they can adapt their sanitation culture accordingly.
Fleiss is particularly enthused about the idea behind this 2017 venture: "PathSpot is very exciting to me," she says. "I walk into restaurants and always see those signs, 'Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning to Work.' We live in these techy, Instagram bathrooms, and you have these signs that don't make sense. You look at these basic things that exist in our world and find a new way of approaching them; I find that really fun."