Founder Profile

Michelle Buelow

Bella Tunno

For using her products' sales to feed hungry children.

Michelle Buelow is the CEO and founder of Bella Tunno, a boutique teething-toy maker that booked nearly $5 million in revenue last year with clients like Target and Nordstrom. But she’s not really in it for the money. In fact, her real passion is to feed hungry children. Since 2014, Bella Tunno’s buy one, give one model has helped supply at least one free meal to a hungry child with every product sold. That amounts to 6.6 million meals so far; her current goal is 10 million. Food insecurity in children is important to her because it’s a root cause for mental health problems and addiction later in life. Buelow’s brother died from a drug overdose in 2003, and she wants to help other families avoid that fate. “Children born into food insecurity can be linked to adults with addictive behaviors,” she says, adding that one in six children in the U.S. worry about the source of their next meal. The pandemic has only made things worse: 118 million more people were in food-insecure situations in 2020 versus 2019. That, she adds, “just makes us on fire for our mission.”--Diana Ransom

Company Information
Location
Charlotte, North Carolina
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021

Jessica O. Matthews

Uncharted

For building the tech to make city infrastructure smarter.

Jessica O. Matthews has never been one to shy away from ambitious goals. She’s only 33, but the CEO and founder of Uncharted has been trying to bridge the worlds of infrastructure and sustainability since she was 19. First, she built a company around soccer balls and jump ropes that produce kinetic energy you can use. Then she set her sights on building energy-generating equipment for cities. If people could jump rope to power their cellphones, why couldn’t cars power streetlights? But as she pitched city officials to buy into her energy-generating tech, they turned her onto an even bigger problem that needed solving. Cities have an “information supply-chain issue,” says Matthews. “At the last mile in a community, everything is interrelated.” And she’s not being philosophical. Parking meters might operate via Bluetooth while security cameras or stoplights may run on the municipal Wi-Fi. When one system can’t communicate in real time with another, that lag can lead to inefficiencies and downtime. Uncharted’s platform offers to translate those systems. It also supplies a mesh network of sensors to collect data and pools it in one place, creating interoperability and contextual insights for city managers and staff. The company just completed its first pilot in the city of Poughkeepsie, New York. Next stop, Everytown, USA.--Diana Ransom

Company Information
Location
New York, New York
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021

Ariela Safira

Real

For making mental health care more accessible.

If the pandemic has proved anything to Ariela Safira, it’s that the traditional model of one-on-one mental health care therapy in America needs a makeover. “There’s a huge, heavyweight nature of one-on-one care,” says Safira, the CEO and founder of mental health care startup Real. “It’s expensive; it’s scary; it’s stigmatized.” It's also largely been untenable during the pandemic, when it's inadvisable to meet indoors with anyone outside your Covid bubble. Her company offers subscription memberships starting at $24 for on-demand mental health care services that break the one-on-one mold. And it’s having a moment: After pivoting from a brick-and-mortar subscription model centered on wellness events and other group mental health discussions, in April 2020, the company went full bore into virtual mental health care. Today, Real offers a series of asynchronous “pathways” on different topics, from forming a better relationship with your body image to improving communication in relationships. Each week, members get invited to a new session within that pathway. The hope is that people will engage in their own mental well-being sooner. “The huge issue with mental health care is that most people wait until rock bottom to take part in it,” Safira says. “But if it were more affordable and accessible, they might not wait.”--Diana Ransom

Company Information
Location
New York, New York
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021

Tia Lyles-Williams

LucasPye Bio

For tackling the diversity gap in drug development.

How in the heck does one start a drug company? “I just hit the pavement and knocked on doors,” says Tia Lyles-Williams, by way of explanation. She leveraged this determination and two decades in the biotech industry to build biologic drug manufacturer LucasPye Bio, in 2018, as well as a co-working space for commercial life science startups in 2021. As an industry veteran, Lyles-Williams had seen firsthand how drug companies didn’t recruit people of African descent for clinical trials, even for conditions that primarily affect them, like lupus. “There are a lot of things to fix in biotech,” she says. LucasPye Bio spent several years consulting and building partnerships, and then landed its first customer in 2021, in the form of a multibillion-dollar contract with Nairobi-based IndyGeneUS AI, which is mapping the genome of Africans and people within the African diaspora. LucasPye Bio will help develop drugs based on the findings. As for the co-working space, it’s called HelaPlex and has a built-in accelerator. The name is a nod to Henrietta Lacks, the Black patient whose cancer cells were extracted and stored without her knowledge or consent, and then cultured for use in medical research for decades after her death (they're still being used today). Lyles-Williams says she is in discussions with Lacks's legal team to help the family receive compensation for Henrietta Lacks's contributions to the industry. And, with LucasPye, Lyles-Williams also is firm that she will offer higher wages for employees and focus on bringing people of color into the biotech C-suite.--Gabrielle Bienasz

Company Information
Location
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021

Jennifer Liao

Xiao Chi Jie (XCJ)

For executing the pivot that saved her food business.

When fate came knocking at Jennifer Liao’s door, it asked for ground-shipped frozen soup dumplings. Liao, who co-founded Xiao Chi Jie (XCJ) as a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Seattle, wasn’t sure how to keep her employees busy (and employed) after Covid-19 shut down the restaurant in 2020. So, Liao and her co-founders experimented with freezing soup dumplings and letting their delivery customers heat them up in their own kitchens. People told their friends, and before long out-of-staters began contacting XCJ for dumplings. As a second-generation Chinese American who endured her peers' making fun of her “smelly” food growing up, Liao has always been motivated by introducing a wider range of Chinese foods to people in the U.S. to “break that cycle of [foods] seeming ethnic, foreign, or inaccessible,” she says. So, when Covid provided the opportunity to expand XCJ's reach and build a full e-commerce business on top of the restaurant--allowing her to keep her employees--Liao did it. She and her co-founders examined air shipping and dry ice packaging, finding that it would cost $60 to ship, “not a viable option for most families,” Liao says. To truly expand access, the team had to find another way and has opened six warehouses in 2020 and 2021. XCJ can now access all 48 contiguous states via ground shipping, and the founders also negotiated up and down the supply chain so that customers can buy frozen soup dumplings with about a $20 shipping cost (free for orders of $99 and above)--with a no-melt or get your money back guarantee.--Gabrielle Bienasz

Company Information
Location
Seattle, Washington
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021