Xtreme Solutions, ShoulderUp, and Athena Technology Acquisition Corp
For opening more doors for more women.
After 22 years in the U.S. Army--much of it in cybersecurity and counter-terrorism, which was called “information security” then--Phyllis Newhouse set out to apply her Pentagon chops to the private sector. In 2002 she founded Xtreme Solutions, an IT and cybersecurity company that started in telecom before branching into industries as diverse as banking and retail--and working with military and government clients as well. While growing Xtreme to thousands of employees across 46 states, she’s also founded a womens’ empowerment organization, ShoulderUp, mentored dozens of women, and helped dozens more get involved in startup investing. For her next act, she’s aiming to get more women of color into boardrooms and onto Wall Street.--Christine Lagorio
Baked by Melissa
For coming into her own in the middle of a crisis.
In December of 2019, Melissa Ben-Ishay’s board made a decision: She would become CEO of the company that she’d founded a decade earlier. “My name was on the door and I still didn’t feel worthy!” she said. Three months later, the pandemic forced her to close the doors of all Baked By Melissa stores, which sell mini cupcakes with names such as “electric tie-dye” and “midnight munchies.” “There is no playbook for getting your company through a global pandemic,” she said. Yet she says she never lacked confidence in doing exactly that. Baked By Melissa pivoted immediately to e-commerce, treating its homepage as its flagship store and remaking the organization into a direct-to-consumer gifting company. (The closed stores were revamped to make them look more like showrooms than serving counters.) Even as retail bounces back a bit in 2021, 70 percent of Baked By Melissa’s sales are online. And while the company is confident in the gift-able nature of its online product, the pandemic has given Ben-Ishay confidence. “Now we are completely prepared to pivot, anytime, again,” she says. “We know that Baked By Melissa makes people happy during good times and bad, and it’s our greatest honor to do that through these challenging times.”--Christine Lagorio
For keeping women connected--and her company in business.
“In March of 2020 we were just 14 months old. Panic around the world set in,” said Cate Luzio, founder and chief executive of Luminary, a networking and professional-advancement hub for women and their business allies. A significant aspect of Luminary was its sweeping Manhattan work-and-meeting space. “I didn’t have the word digital in my business plan,” she said. She didn’t close the business--despite the fact that things looked bleak. Instead, the banking-industry veteran went into survival mode, as much for members as for herself. Within a week, she and her team created a digital platform for events for members. Doing so allowed Luminary to scale its events, coaching, membership, and instruction operations—the company has held 1,500 events virtually, and can now count members from 30 countries. Luzio says she’s been tested thoroughly as a leader and owner over the course of the pandemic--but she’s also seen the time alone and space to think as a gift that’s allowed her to forecast the future more clearly. “My brain is able to focus on what I have to get done today and tomorrow, but also to plan for 2022 and 2023,” she says. “Its helped me shift our plan for growth and for the future.”--Christine Lagorio
New York City-based Luminary founder and CEO Cate Luzio left her two-decade finance career at the end of 2018 to start Luminary, which differentiates itself from other female-first co-working spaces by emphasizing that membership is open to everyone (no applications; you can be an intern or a CEO), and that men are warmly welcomed in the space. “I had many male mentors,” Luzio says, “and if we're ever going to change all of the statistics we hear about [workplace inequality], we need men as part of the journey.” Since opening in a 15,000-square-foot space this January, Luminary has hosted 150 events and has grown to over 500 members, with 37 percent of members being women of color. --Anna Meyer
For stepping on the gas when the world slowed down.
Sasha Plavsic had worked for years to grow her sustainable, natural-beauty brand, Ilia. She’d started with just a small line of credit, courtesy of her father, hoping to get her out of a slump. But she took a leap in 2018, using $3 million in seed funding to bring in a CEO and new game-plan: use the safest of synthetic ingredients to create products that weren’t just pigment--that actually improved skin. It was clean beauty, amplified. A big re-launch in Sephora was ill-timed, though: “We had a big coming out party, front of store. And it was the day the mall shut down in March,” Plavsic, now Ilia’s chief creative officer, says. She took her sales and field teams and repositioned their jobs to online marketing and customer service. “We bought ads, even as other people pulled back,” she says. “We stepped on the gas. It worked.” Most of Ilia’s sales are now in-store--the brand’s best-selling foundation is something individuals match to their skin tone before purchasing. Super Serum Skin Tint, $48, has zinc-based SPF 40, as well as moisturizers that target damage and wrinkles, including hyaluronic acids, plant-based squalane, and niacinamide. It also sells an anti-pollution primer, and talc-free eyeshadows. Plavsic and her team used the pandemic slowdown to hone their giving-back efforts, too: the company partnered with Feeding America, 1 Percent for the Planet and One Tree Planted. “This isn’t just marketing for us; as we grow it’s really important we minimize our impact on the planet,” Plavsic says.--Christine Lagorio
Girls Who Code
For coming up with the audacious plan moms need right now.
Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, has long worked to close the gender gap in technology. But after seeing the exhaustion on the faces of many moms on her team as the pandemic unfolded, she was inspired to use her nonprofit to tackle the broader challenges women face in the workforce. They earn less than men; they get passed over for promotions more than men; and they tend to take on more of the caregiving responsibilities for children and elderly parents. The pandemic made things worse. Census data reveals that as of July 2021, nearly a million fewer mothers were actively working than in July 2020. So, on December 7, 2020, Saujani wrote an op-ed for The Hill asking for paid family leave, affordable child care, and pay equity policies. The following month, the mother of two bought a full-page ad in The New York Times, addressed to President Joe Biden from 50 prominent women, urging him to adopt a Marshall Plan for Moms, so-named for America’s 1948 initiative to invest in rebuilding Europe after World War II. “It’s about getting rid of the motherhood penalty at work—and really reimagining motherhood in America so it works for moms,” Saujani says.--Diana Ransom