For making menstrual periods more manageable and less shameful
“Think bigger.” That’s Crystal Etienne’s go-to advice when women reach out, wanting to follow in her footsteps: six-figure sales her first year out of the gate, and now $15 million in venture capital and $25 million in annual revenues. “You don’t have to stay a mom-and-pop business,” she says. “But to achieve big things, you have to think bigger. Think like a unicorn.”
Etienne speaks from experience. In 2015, she developed a line of period panties, that, unlike the few competitors on the market, could accommodate pad inserts. When the emails she sent to potential funders went unanswered, Etienne quit her day job in business operations and sunk $25,000 of her personal savings into launching PantyProp (later rebranded as Ruby Love). She used the money to make a small run of underwear in New York City’s garment district in 2016, and used SEO marketing to target moms with teen and tween daughters. “I went all in,” she says. “My husband wanted to kill me, but once I had the idea, I really believed in what the product was going to be.”
Within two years of bringing the period panties to market, she’d crested the $1 million sales mark and expanded into period-proof swimwear, activewear and pajamas. Ruby Love was profitable, and Etienne relished the postiive emails she’d get from moms thanking her for helping their daughters feel more comfortable and confident in their bodies. Treading water would have been easy – but it wasn’t enticing. “I realized I needed to take this bigger if I wanted to help more people,” she says.
To grow at an exponential scale, personal savings weren’t going to cut it. But when Etienne had pursued investors in the past, she’d been met with deafening silence. “I have three strikes against me: I’m a woman, I’m Black, and I’m selling direct-to-consumer,” she says. Research shows that Black women lead about four percent of the nation’s startups but receive well under one percent of venture capital funding each year. Add to the mix that Ruby Love focuses on period products, and, “I am the true underdog,” she says.
Rather than reach out to investors again, Etienne joined an incubator. She came armed with in-depth knowledge of her customer, the market, and her vision of scaling. At the first pitch, “the investors saw dollar signs,” she laughs. With one investor interested, others flocked. In July 2019, Ruby Love closed a $15 million financing round, allowing Etienne to expand her small team to 43, dramatically expand digital advertising and map out future product launches. When the start-up held an in-person “puberty party” in October 2019, moms and grandmothers waited in line for as long as four hours to get inside to help their young daughters and granddaughters build personalized my-first-period kits and get pampered. “There are a lot of Black women who want to speak to their daughters about personal care and hygiene,” she says. “This makes that easier.” –Kate Rockwood
For making chemical manufacturing greener
For easing one of the slowest, most painstaking parts of machine learning
“Does your engineering team really respect you?” an investor asked Daniela Braga when she first came into pitch her artificial intelligence data startup, DefinedCrowd. “Because you’re not quite an engineer.” As a matter of fact, Daniela Braga has a PhD in engineering; she also has a Masters in linguistics—although the latter was hardly a prerequisite to detect the condescension in the venture capitalist’s tone.
While it may have been true that she never worked as a software engineer, she had a feeling his skepticism had more to do with her being a woman. She laughed him off, as she has other doubters. Today DefinedCrowd sells machine learning training data to tech companies and AI specialists all over the world. Braga’s strength as a manager, she says, derives in part from the fact that she has deep technical knowledge of a subject herself (in her case, natural language processing). That expertise gives her the confidence to appreciate and communicate with experts in other fields—and the resilience to brush off shallow types who might judge her superficially, like the investor.
Her advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs: Master one subject better than anyone in the world — and use that as your cornerstone as you scale your business. “Get something very right in your career, and build from there,” she says. “It gives you a whole new level of confidence moving forward.” – Burt Helm