Founder Profile

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

Sashee Chandran

Tea Drops

For bringing innovation to the tea industry.

The daughter of immigrants from China and Sri Lanka, Sashee Chandran grew up steeped in the ritual of making tea. But the slow process of brewing loose-leaf tea didn’t fit into her Silicon Valley tech schedule as a digital marketer at eBay. After tinkering in her kitchen, she finely ground and compressed the leaves into a product that simply dissolves in water—no tea bags or strainers required. “Tea is thousands of years old, but the last true invention in this category was when the tea bag was invented,” Chandran says. That was around 1908. Tea Drops became a hit at farmers markets, so she quit her job in 2015 to pursue the project full time. Soon after, retailers like Anthropologie and Nordstrom began stocking the product. Fast-forward five years and Tea Drops, the company, has raised $8.4 million to date and is on track to pull in eight figures in revenue in 2021. While about 75 percent of Tea Drops’ sales come via e-commerce, the product is on shelves in 2,000 retailers nationwide, including Whole Foods and Costco. And in July, Chandran obtained a patent for her invention. “Persistence and grit alone gets you pretty far,” she says. “For someone with no technical or chemistry background, it was just sheer will to push that [patent] through.” Tea Drops initially responded to the pandemic by going into survival mode: Chandran let go of some staff, everyone on the team took a salary cut of at least 20 percent, and the company renegotiated terms around purchase orders with vendors. But then as the team frantically researched consumers’ tea buying habits in early 2020, they discovered a gap in the market that Tea Drops could fill: boba bubble tea. About a month later in May 2020, the company’s boba kits--complete with tea drops, sweetened condensed milk packets, and boba pearls--launched. Tea Drops sold millions of dollars from that “hero” product and wound up exceeding revenue expectations for 2020. --Lindsay Blakely

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

Ashley Merrill

Lunya

For helping people up their loungewear game.

Though she’s been running her luxury sleepwear company, Lunya, for nine years now, founder and CEO Ashley Merrill says every year has brought new challenges. Most of the time, they involve the “unsexy” parts of building a successful company, like scaling operations and management. Covid and political and social unrest brought a double-whammy: In March 2020, revenue fell to just one-third of projections. Election season forced Lunya to compete for ad inventory--and for customer attention--against an avalanche of political messages across the internet. While demand ebbed and flowed throughout the year, 2020 ended strong thanks largely to loungewear being one of the few Covid-friendly fashion categories. But Lunya wasn’t immune to supply chain woes. The company's factories in China, Peru, and the U.S. all experienced periodic closures, which meant delays and sometimes order cancellations. “We were reminded we can’t be a one-trick pony,” Merrill says. “You can’t get all your manufacturing from one place, all your logistics through one method, or all your customers through one avenue. A global pandemic or an iOS update can change the whole game. There is no one way to do anything--the only way is a diversified business.” Merrill says these days, she’s continuing to learn what her company needs from her at different stages. In the early stages of Lunya, she was hands-on. Now that she has a C-suite of executives, she says her job has shifted from being a doer to being a thinker. “I focus on the vision. I help keep hope alive,” she says. “And I get out of the way now.” --Lindsay Blakely

Company Information
Location
Santa Monica, California
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021

Jenny Du

Apeel

For saving produce from spoiling too soon.

The mission at Apeel hasn’t changed since its founding in 2012: The company fights food waste, primarily with an invisible, plant-based coating that prolongs the freshness of produce. But when the pandemic disrupted supply chains and consumers’ shopping habits in 2020, the ability to extend the life of fresh food became even more valuable. “We had this important service to provide with our technology,” says co-founder Jenny Du. “We give all stakeholders in the fresh produce supply chain more time.” Du says Apeel just saw one of its biggest growth periods ever: By the end of 2021, the company’s coating will be used in at least 40 produce packing houses--up from eight sites in 2019--around the globe. That means Apeel-treated produce is on shelves in tens of thousands of grocery retailers, including Kroger. Employee headcount doubled to more than 500 people. And the company says its technology saved 20 million fruits from spoilage in 2020. In August of this year, Apeel landed another $250 million in funding, giving the startup a $2 billion valuation, from investors including Temasek, Andreessen Horowitz, Katy Perry, and others. To date, the company has raised $635 million. Du says the funding will go in part toward growing Apeel’s global footprint and also leveraging its data to create new revenue streams by helping supply chains get smarter. --Lindsay Blakely

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