Catherine Von Burg
For building a safer, and more efficient battery.
Every battery has an environmental impact. But what Catherine Von Burg wanted to produce when she founded SimpliPhi Power in 2010 was a lithium battery with the least impact possible. “Lithium is skimmed off the surface of the earth, so even the mining process is less invasive to the environment than hard coal,” she says. But Von Burg, SimpliPhi’s CEO, also eschews cobalt—a raw earth element used predominantly in lithium ion batteries—which is toxic and flammable and requires tunneling to mine, sometimes relying on child labor. Her lithium ion battery is made of nonhazardous lithium ferro phosphate and uses a proprietary cell and battery architecture, making it a safe and efficient energy storage system for renewable sources of power. SimpliPhi started by catering to the movie industry and the Department of Defense, both of which need portable systems in remote environments to provide energy off-grid. But these days many of its customers are California homeowners who want a backup power supply for planned power outages or unexpected shutdowns so they can save their food and keep their modems going. During the pandemic, when children were schooling at home, many people bought SimpliPhi batteries to save on energy bills since daytime use rates are too high. Von Burg made a decision early on to spurn VC funding. That choice has paid off: SimpliPhi’s revenue has grown by more than 40 percent during the pandemic. Since its founding, the company has donated 1 percent of its annual revenue to people and communities that need access to energy.--Hannah Wallace
Kim Caudle Lewis
For saving jobs--and standing up for her community.
In 2002, when Caudle Lewis founded her Huntsville, Alabama-based engineering, logistics, and manufacturing company, she was a divorced single mom. “My family and friends said, ‘You can’t leave your full-time job with benefits. You don’t know anything about running a business!’” Caudle Lewis recalls with a laugh. But she did it anyway, working in the evenings and on weekends to get it off the ground. Today, PROJECTXYZ is not only a successful company—its revenue nearly doubled to $43 million in 2020—but also a community builder. During Covid, Japanese firm CBC INGS was about to shutter a plastic injection molding plant that it owned in Muscle Shoals. The community contacted Caudle Lewis and her husband, Larry (who joined the company in 2007), and asked if she could save those jobs. “The work was still there but the company didn’t want it,” Caudle Lewis says. “We were able to save those 137 jobs.” PROJECTXYZ’s name reflects the variety of its work. The company does IT jobs and government contracting (including running a factory in El Paso that repairs old missile systems), but also owns a Darnell Ferguson restaurant in Tuscumbia and a local TV station in Athens. “I’m involved with all of them!” Caudle Lewis says. “We like to partner with the community to create something bigger and better.”--Hannah Wallace
For concocting better hair and body care solutions.
Growing up in New Jersey, Jasmine Lawrence was a pageant girl. “Looks were everything for me,” Lawrence says. “I got feedback from judges that they’d love to see me with straight hair instead of the naturally curly, Afro-centric hair that comes out of my head.” So, at 11, in an effort to increase her odds of winning, she got a perm. The horrible result—she had chemical burns on her scalp and lost 80 percent of her hair—was a pivotal moment. In school, she had learned about the scientific method, so she read up on natural ingredients that would heal her scalp and started concocting her own all-natural shampoos. She founded EDEN BodyWorks in 2004 in her parents’ New Jersey kitchen. She was just 13 years old. At first, she sold her products door-to-door, at church, and at the local beauty supply store, but a buyer from Walmart heard about her products and placed an order, and she had to hire her sisters and neighbors to fill it. Then came a 2007 segment on Oprah, and orders spiked to 1,000 a day. Today, Lawrence works works full time in the robotics industry, but she is still CEO of EDEN, whose products are on the shelves at Walmart, Target, and other national chains. EDEN’s hair care lines include papaya-castor, coconut shea, hibiscus honey, jojoba, peppermint tea tree, and almond-marshmallow. All are certified as cruelty free by PETA. Lawrence, now 30, says her core value remains educating and empowering women. “When you look at our brand, it’s not about, ‘Let me help you have the perfect hairstyle and grow your hair down to your butt.’ [It’s about] why would you use castor oil, and what are the benefits of papaya? I want you to be an informed consumer.”--Hannah Wallace
Orchid Island Juice
For acing the clean juice market--long before clean juice was a thing.
When Marygrace Sexton started Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice in 1989, the natural juice landscape was parched. The only citrus juice on the market was Tropicana or concentrate—both pasteurized for longer shelf life. Freshly squeezed citrus juices on a wider scale simply didn’t exist. Sexton, based in Fort Pierce, Florida, sources oranges of above-average sweetness for her juice, which is also free of preservatives and artificial ingredients. “I believe in whole foods and real nutrition,” Sexton says. “When [my daughter] Natalie came in, she put right on the [carton]‘There’s only one ingredient in here.’”
By chance, Natalie’s started an e-commerce site in January 2020, just before Covid hit, which helped the company do well despite losing most of its restaurant clients. The company also launched an at-home sampling program via giveaways and referrals. “What sells Natalie’s is our quality and taste,” says Natalie Sexton, who is the marketing director as well as the source of the company name. Natalie’s has added some unusual flavors over the past year, including pineapple kale zinc and orange beet. Both are selling briskly; the orange beet juice, marketed to athletes, is one of their top six sellers. In all, revenue rose by 6 percent last year to $67 million. Not only was Marygrace able to keep her entire staff on, she even bought fruit from growers whose usual buyer, a competitor of Natalie’s, walked away from its contract. “We care very much about the growers,” Marygrace says, “so we bought the additional fruit and just did a steep promotion.”--Hannah Wallace
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice lost restaurant partners only temporarily during the early months of the pandemic.
For giving homebound kids--and their parents--a smarter pandemic learning tool.
From 2017 to 2020, Sharmi Albrechtsen, chief executive and founder of Smartgurlz, whose programmable toy robots teach young girls computer science and other STEM skills, focused on building sales. In 2020 alone, she planned to attend 15 major trade fairs to help bring her award-winning robots to classrooms nationwide. Then Covid-19 hit, and every single conference was canceled. Worse still, in March, Amazon “temporarily prioritized” essentials like health care items, making it impossible for Smartgurlz to ship orders for five months. Schools were closed anyway, taking the air out of a deal Smartgurlz signed in 2019 with Pitsco Education to launch a new product line called Smartbuddies for children in grades third through fifth. Summer camps were closed too, another potential home for her robots. Her brilliant idea: to take the curriculum she developed for the Pitsco project and adapt it to online learning. She dubbed it camp-in-a-box, and by the end of last summer 250 kids were enrolled. “We didn’t buy any Facebook ads. We just put out a press release, and Good Housekeeping covered it,” says Albrechtsen. She also appeared on Good Morning America. To Albrechtsen, her company’s biggest accomplishment has been adapting to the new normal. She says: “We showed innovation through adversity and were able to help thousands of children during the pandemic.”--Jill Krasny