For taking sleep -- not just mattresses -- seriously
Alexandra Zatarain grew up far from the clubby world of Silicon Valley, in Tijuana, Mexico. Today, as co-founder of Eight Sleep, maker of sensor-equipped smart mattresses that provide sleep data to slumber geeks, she’s very much a part of the Bay Area’s venture-backed tech scene. Watching her co-founders, which include her husband, the company’s CTO, reach out to their existing networks of largely white, male investors taught her a lesson about how racial and gender-based inequality is perpetuated in liberal enclaves such as the Bay Area.
As Zatarain sees it, the tech scene didn’t become unwelcoming to women on purpose, exactly. “Almost no one in this boy’s club is trying to keep us out in a premeditated way,” she says. “It just happened and keeps happening because that was natural” and convenient for the existing participants: They sought investment from successful entrepreneurs they already knew, all of whom just happened to be white and male.
Now, her mission is to bring underrepresented groups into Eight Sleep’s pool of talent and investors, saying that the only way to solve systemic inequality is to swim against the current status quo. “My feeling is I have been given an opportunity to get inside,” she says. “Now it's my chance to bring other people into these circles—to do that job of diversifying. Because it won't happen on its own.” She recommends that other founders start by networking outside their usual social groups early—“make diversity in investing a priority from the early days,” so that when crunch time comes, they can move fast when it counts. – Burt Helm
The Mom Project
A networking platform connecting companies with talented professional mothers.
For hiring, and hiring some more, through the pandemic
“The whole world changed in March,” says Camp Gladiator co-founder and co-CEO Ally Davidson, who started the Austin-based workout-bootcamp company with her husband, Jeff, 12 years ago. CG has long differentiated its classes from the competition by emphasizing the community that builds among members who work out together. With classes moving online, virtually overnight, at the onset of the pandemic, Ally and her team had to scramble not only to build satisfying digital workouts but also to maintain that sense of community.
Not only did the team build a successful new virtual product, but CG recruited 20,000 new members while retaining 97 percent of its existing customers. As the company’s head of product, Ally led the reinvention sprint internally as well as with customers: While in the third trimester of her pregnancy, she led 20 live online workouts. The most popular one had 315,000 views. With two other young children at home in addition to the newborn, Ally says her year “has involved a lot of juggling—making sure you’re prioritizing the right things.”
She didn’t develop that balancing act naturally—it’s been a process over years that’s involved myriad executive coaching sessions and frequently seeking counsel from other CEOs and founders. The latter has been especially important. “It can get lonely at the top,” Ally says, “but other CEOs understand that and can give you really great feedback, even if they’re in totally different industries.” – Tom Foster
For helping build social enterprises from the global Muslim community
"Ask yourself: What's the cheapest and fastest way you can get your idea up and running?" says Amany Killawi, the co-founder of LaunchGood, a crowdfunding site for social enterprises from the global Muslim community. Killawi, a former social worker and youth organizer, was determined not to be bound by her college major: "Just because you've studied math or social work, that doesn't mean that's all you can do," she says. Her insistence on cheap and fast powered her through two fundraising trips, netting a total of $10,000. That let her build "a really crappy, bad first version of our platform," says Killawi. Since 2013, LaunchGood has connected one million users to 17,000 campaigns, raising $155.6 million for everything from modest women's wear brands to Eid toy drives to Muslim mental health programs. Says Killawi: "Sometimes, that first run at building something feels really awkward. You have to let yourself sit in the awkwardness." --Kate Rockwood
For bringing sunlight to the deskbound
Amber Leong says the key to creating a great product is its simplicity, which certainly applies to her device: you wake up, and you turn it on for 15 to 60 minutes. Sluggish from her poorly lit corporate job at Jack Link’s Beef Jerky during a Minnesota winter and frustrated by the clunky sun lamp she thought would help, she invented her own sleek, stylish version. Leong garnered a $750,000 investment from Lori Greiner and Mark Cuban on season 11 of Shark Tank. On the show, Leong said Circadian Optics had sold $5 million in product since 2016, and the company has seen as much as 10 to 20 percent bump in sales since March. Turns out, we all need a little sun right now. – Gabrielle Bienasz