Founder Profile

Aishwarya Iyer

Brightland

For raising the bar on everyday ingredients.

Rising costs. Paper shortages. Bottling facility closures. Last year brought unexpected challenges for Brightland, a direct-to-consumer seller of organic olive oil sourced from small U.S. farms. On the other hand, a pandemic that forced most everyone to stay home and cook more did have its silver linings for the company. “Market demand didn’t slow down,” says founder and CEO Aishwarya Iyer. Indeed, Brightland has gained a cult following for its products: Its $70 set of mini bottles of two oils and two vinegars has sold out three times in the past year.

So while everything else seemed to slow down—particularly the process of shipping and designing products with a dispersed workforce—Brightland’s eight-person team shifted into high gear. The company applied its ethos of carefully sourced, unadulterated ingredients to a slew of new products, including vinegars (balsamic, champagne, and a limited-edition strawberry) and olive oils infused with garlic, chili, lemon, and basil. In September, Brightland launched a line of raw, unfiltered honey produced by two fourth-generation beekeeping families. And the company is planning its first pop-up retail space this holiday season in New York City.

“Our north star is working directly with organic farmers and producers who prioritize sustainability and want to be a part of the world we’re creating,” Iyer says. “We’re uncompromising with our traceability.”--Lindsay Blakely

Company Information
Location
Los Angeles, California
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021

Afton Vechery

Modern Fertility

For giving women better tools to track their reproductive health.

When Afton Vechery walks through the pregnancy test aisle, she sees an industry seriously out of touch with what women need. “The majority of leading brands are pink and talk about babies,” she says. “When you think about the reality of infertility—one in six couples deal with infertility—and unplanned pregnancies … we don’t need to assume the intentions of women as part of the testing process. We’re reimagining these products in the context of the modern woman.”

Twenty-twenty was a big year for working on that particular plan. When Vechery initially co-founded Modern Fertility, along with Carly Leahy, in 2017, her startup launched with a $159 at-home hormone testing kit aimed at democratizing fertility data that can otherwise be expensive to obtain if your insurance doesn’t cover it. Last year, Modern Fertility expanded its product lineup to include prenatal vitamins, a pregnancy test, an ovulation test, and a companion app to keep track of all test results. While the products are all available via the startup’s website, Modern Fertility’s pregnancy and ovulation tests also sell through Amazon and in more than 1,000 Walmart stores.

The biggest milestone Modern Fertility hit recently, however, wasn’t in Vechery’s near-term plan for the company: She sold the company in May 2021 for more than a reported $225 million to telehealth company Ro. The deal represents one of the biggest investments in a women’s health care tech startup to date. What sealed the deal for her was Ro’s established telehealth infrastructure and distribution network. “Instead of building those capabilities and customizing them for women, we could inherit them overnight,” says Vechery, who is staying on as president of Ro’s women’s health vertical. “There is so much more to do, we don’t have time to lose.”--Lindsay Blakely

Company Information
Location
San Francisco, California
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021

Shadiah Sigala

Kinside

For giving working parents a leg up on finding childcare.

On January 1, 2020, Shadiah Sigala launched the app Kinside, which lets employers offer pre-negotiated spots in daycares and preschools as part of their employees’ benefits packages. A little more than two months later, of course, child care centers everywhere shut down.

Sigala, who had raised $4 million at that point, put aside the task of generating revenue and instead used the moment to prepare her nascent app for the considerable opportunity that might await the company on the other side of quarantine.

“We used our funding to double down on improving the product, service, and workflow, so we’d be ready when every family in America would need child care again,” Sigala says. “That’s exactly what happened.”

Kinside kicked off 2021 with 3,000 employers using the app. In the summer, Sigala raised another $2 million from investors in an opportunistic round. Revenue doubled in four months from May to August 2021. Next up: mapping both the supply and demand sides of child care so that Kinside can help facilities target down to a specific neighborhood where to put a new care center. --Lindsay Blakely

Company Information
Location
Claremont, California
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021

Milana Rabkin Lewis

Stem

For providing a financial lifeline to musicians.

When Milana Lewis thinks back on 2020, one metaphor that stands out is the massive Ever Given container ship stuck in the Suez Canal. Lewis’s startup, Stem--a platform that helps indie musicians distribute their work and track down their online streaming revenue--was stuck, she says, both from a product and culture perspective. In late 2018, Lewis parted ways over a difference in vision with her two co-founders. To grow, she wanted to focus less on distribution for emerging artists--which she viewed as slowing down the company and sucking up too many resources--and more on building out financial tools for artists who are further along in their careers. It was a big enough change in direction that she hit pause on product development and spent 2019 reorienting and rebuilding trust with Stem’s team. In February 2020, Stem announced Scale, a $100 million cash advance program aimed at giving artists a way to access alternative funding with fewer restrictions than a label typically imposes. The startup takes a one-time flat fee of between 5 and 25 percent of these advances. A few weeks later, of course, the pandemic hugely disrupted the music business, canceling live shows, and sending artists back into the studios and looking for ways to leverage their existing music catalogues. And Scale took off: Lewis says Stem ended 2020 with $60 million in requests for advances. “2020 was incredible for the business,” she says. “We started to chip away at unsticking ourselves and get the ship sailing again.” --Lindsay Blakely

Company Information
Location
West Hollywood, California
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021

Zuleyka Strasner

Zero Grocery

For taking plastic out of the grocery supply chain.

Zuleyka Strasner did not set out to build a grocery delivery business. An Oxford graduate who studied politics, Strasner moved to Silicon Valley in 2016 to work as chief of staff at a venture firm. Soon she became interested in sustainability and, specifically, a better way to get stuff to people. Amazon had perfected shipping efficiency, but no company seemed focused on cutting out the mountains of plastic packaging that e-commerce generates. So she aimed to develop software that could help pack, route, and batch goods through the supply chain more sustainably. “Very quickly it became obvious that we had to build out not only the supply side but also the demand side, which meant becoming a single, monolithic platform,” Strasner says.

She launched Zero Grocery in 2019, and today it is a platform that offers next-day delivery on nearly 3,000 different items—from groceries to homewares—all packaged without any single-use plastics. Zero works with food suppliers at the point in the supply chain when the food is packed, making sure things like berries go into recycled cardboard containers and spices and shampoo go into reusable glass jars. The service, which is currently available in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, is available to both non-members and members (the latter pay a $25 monthly fee for discounted prices and free delivery).

Demand soared in 2020, and Strasner grew the team from six people in February of last year to 50. In 2022, the company, which has raised $4.7 million to date, plans to expand to San Diego, Sacramento, and Las Vegas. --Lindsay Blakely

Company Information
Location
Richmond, California
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021