Rebel Female Entrepreneurs Changing Their Industries

trailblazing entrepreneurs

CEOs are frequently seen as profit-driven with a laser-beam focus on the bottom line. But many female entrepreneurs have another goal in mind: According to a University of Cincinnati study, women are more likely than men to use business as a vehicle for social and environmental change (while also making a profit, of course). That doesn't always mean disrupting an industry, but it does require rethinking the business of creating a business — examining not just how a company can function and make money most effectively, but what it can contribute to society. Here are six trailblazing women whose boundary-breaking organizations are doing just that.

They’re on a Mission

CEOs are frequently seen as profit-driven with a laser-beam focus on the bottom line. But many female entrepreneurs have another goal in mind: According to a University of Cincinnati study, women are more likely than men to use business as a vehicle for social and environmental change (while also making a profit, of course). That doesn't always mean disrupting an industry, but it does require rethinking the business of creating a business — examining not just how a company can function and make money most effectively, but what it can contribute to society. Here are six trailblazing women whose boundary-breaking organizations are doing just that.

Whitney Johnson, Founder and CEO of Ubuntu Africa

Whitney Johnson was a junior at Colorado College when she made a decision that would change the course of her life: to study abroad in South Africa. There, she volunteered at an orphanage in one of the most impoverished areas of outside of Cape Town, Khayelitsha, where the majority of the town’s one and a half million residents live in shacks with no running water and suffer from shockingly high rates of HIV. Her experience was sobering. Johnson saw children die, and children rejected from their families because they were ill. She carried girls her own age with the body weight of a five-year-old into the clinic.

At the end of the year, Johnson returned to school to finish her degree, but she couldn’t shake what she’d seen. “I knew people in the U.S. who were living completely normal lives with HIV. It’s a chronic disease that is very treatable,” she says. “Even though I was heartbroken and overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, I knew that I had to do something.

That turned out to be Ubuntu Africa (UBA), a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of HIV-positive children with comprehensive services. (Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning 'humanity to others.') Fresh out of college, Johnson started fundraising until she’d amassed enough to return to Africa. She launched UBA in 2007 in a rundown shack, treating 10 kids. “People told me over and over again that I was too young and didn’t have enough experience to make a difference,” says Johnson. “I was terrified that I would fail, that I wasn’t smart enough or good enough, but those children were in my mind so strongly. I knew the only way I would overcome my fears is by running toward them.” In fact, her newbie status may have helped UBA take off — while more seasoned NGO staffers might have been dissuaded by all the work they knew lay ahead, Johnson plunged in without knowing exactly what to expect.

Fast-forward seven years: UBA now supports 200 children ages 4-18 living with HIV. A second center is expected to open by the end of the year, and in five years’ time, UBA hopes to replicate the program to serve 2,000 of the 11,000 children with HIV in Khayelitsha. “This is just the beginning,” says Johnson. “We hope to roll out on a much larger scale,” targeting all of South Africa and beyond.

So, what has made UBA stand out as a success in a sea of NGOs? Part of it is the organization’s unique focus: “In the nonprofit world, there has been a lot of attention on helping people get access to drugs, but the issue of kids with HIV was largely overlooked,” says Johnson. Also of note is UBA’s flexible nature — the program has shifted in response to the environment and the kids’ needs. For example, it now includes an element that addresses gang violence, and recently added a parent program aimed at educating and empowering the whole family.

In addition, UBA’s whole-person approach — providing both physical and emotional help — is unusual. “We are not just handing out food and medication; we go deep into these children’s lives to ensure they are given the support they need to thrive,” says Johnson. “They come in sick, thinking they are going to die, and they transform into healthy, happy kids with big dreams.” Through activities like soccer matches, yoga, art projects, and kayak lessons, UBA at its core emphasizes positivity and the pure joy of just being a kid.

Lou Marsh, M.D., Founder of ClearFast

Of course, no one expects surgery to be fun — but a new invention promises to make going under the knife at least a little more pleasant. You know that rule about not eating or drinking after midnight pre-procedure? Thanks to anesthesiologist Lou Marsh’s radical reassessment of this longstanding tradition, you no longer have to starve yourself.

Back in 1996, Marsh was the director of a large outpatient surgery center in San Diego. She was auditing some of the center’s statistics and found staggering numbers of surgical postponements and cancellations: 10 to 15 percent of scheduled procedures ended up not happening, costing patients, facilities, and physicians thousands of dollars. The culprit? Patients had broken the “midnight fast” rule and eaten or drunk too close to their appointment time.

Marsh decided to do a little sleuthing into the logic behind fasting…and what she discovered shocked her. She couldn’t find scientific data to back up the practice. It dated back to 1946, when an obstetrician noted that some women who went under anesthesiology during childbirth would aspirate solid food and die. The medical world responded by imposing food and beverage limits, arbitrarily picking midnight as the fast’s start time. “Solid food restrictions make sense, but a liquid fast has no medical grounds,” says Marsh. “In fact, the scientific literature suggested that a healthy patient should be able to absorb a liter of water in 20 to 30 minutes.

So Marsh set about developed a hydrating, nourishing beverage for patients to consume pre-surgery. “When I originally approached my partners and told them about my idea, they looked at me as if I had two heads,” she says. “Getting the word out and convincing doctors to rethink the traditional approach has been difficult, but now, 15 years later, our little company is at the forefront of trying to change the fasting process in surgery.

Within a year of Marsh filing for a patent, the American Academy of Anesthesiology revised their guidelines, stipulating that people can ingest clear liquids up to two hours before a procedure. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing since then. Many medical professionals remain resistant “despite the research supporting this change,” says Marsh. But she’s convinced that “innovative healthcare providers who really look at the evidence will see that this approach makes sense.” (There have not been clinical trials with the liquid she developed, but a company-run pilot study found patients who fasted were significantly more likely to report being uncomfortable before surgery than those who drank ClearFast.)

ClearFast has already partnered with hospitals around the country, including Duke University Medical Center, Mass General and the Cleveland Clinic, says Marsh. Ultimately, the goal is not just to prevent patients from being uncomfortable before surgery but also to prevent the postponement of important procedures.

Ellen Gustafson, Founder of the Apron Project

Ellen Gustafson is on a mission to change the global food system, from eradicating hunger on one end of the spectrum, to helping women feel good in their favorite jeans on the other. It’s a daunting undertaking.

Like many people living in New York City in September 2001, Gustafson was deeply affected by 9/11. She was a senior at Columbia University at the time, and upon graduation started working on international security and terrorism issues. One day, she made an interesting discovery. While studying a map of terrorist hotbeds, she noticed how similar it looked to another map charting world hunger that happened to be hanging nearby. “They intersected almost perfectly,” Gustafson says. “I became interested in the idea that hunger drives violence.” If people’s basic needs for food were met, she reasoned, they would feel less desperate and terrorism would abate.

This realization triggered her next project. In 2006, she started working at the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), where she met model Lauren Bush. The following year, the two of them launched FEED: A line of burlap totes, designed by Bush and inspired by the burlap bags of food delivered by the WFP, printed with the word “FEED.” The idea was simple: The sale of each bag would feed one hungry school-age child in Asia, Latin America, or Africa, for an entire year.

Despite industry skepticism — one major department store executive told her that there was no way people would buy a burlap bag at FEED’s price point — the company was a huge hit (to date, they’ve provided nearly 85 million meals). But in 2008, global hunger spiked and Gustafson decided she needed to take her efforts further. It was around then that she had another “a-ha” moment. She was traveling in Uganda, and went to a little market in search of food, only to find that the shelves were filled with junk — soda, chips, ice cream, candy, packaged cakes. “I had the same exact limited options at JFK airport [in New York], where I had just come from,” says Gustafson. “I realized that just feeding hungry kids was not the solution. We need to revolutionize the global food system.

A couple of years later, she gave a TEDx talk proposing that hunger and obesity were part of the same problem. “At that time, there were a billion people who were starving, and a billion people who were obese,” says Gustafson. “Some people don’t have enough food, while others have too much.” So she started a nonprofit called the 30 Project, a food think tank aimed at connecting obesity activists with people on the forefront of the hunger issue. The goal was to gather data about global food systems, and figure out what innovations are improving the situation nationally and internationally.

As she got more deeply involved in food and nutrition on a policy level, she noticed that it all came back to what we as Americans eat on our own plates. That was the catalyst for the serial entrepreneur’s latest venture: the Apron Project, a line of stylish aprons made by Rwandans out of recycled denim. Eight dollars from every apron sold will be donated to the ChangeDinner Fund of FoodTank, a food think tank.

“If we don’t take ownership of our food intake in our own kitchens, we are not going to fix these problems. We need to put our aprons back on,” says Gustafson. “The apron has become a symbol of women being shackled to the kitchen, but I want to change that imagery: The apron is a powerful feminist tool. If you want to own your health, you have to own what goes into your body.

With over half a dozen successful projects under her belt, Gustafson is clearly a force to be reckoned with. “The number one thing that has driven me is an enduring passion for food issues. Part of it is that, as a woman, I am so tired of struggling against the system just to fit into my jeans,” she explains. “There is something raw and personal about the toxic food environment we live in, and I notice other people are dealing with the same problem. I don’t want the next generation to grow up in this world.

Her strong moral principles have also fueled her accomplishments. “If profit is your only motive, then you probably aren’t going to run an ethical company,” Gustafson points out. “I’m not tied to a balance sheet, and I don’t want to sacrifice my values for money.

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to be successful. Gustafson does her homework, researching and reading about food systems until she knows the landscape inside and out. “I want to understand the ecosystem of the world I’m involved in — speak the language, grasp the trends,” she says. “It’s important for me to feel like one of the most educated people in the industry, because then I’ll have the confidence to know how I can make an impact, even if other people doubt me. I believe that radical change is possible and happens all the time.

Lara Setrakian, Cofounder and CEO of News Deeply

Lara Setrakian found her calling in 1999 at age 17, when her high school brought in “60 Minutes” producer David Gelber as a guest speaker to talk about covering wars in the Balkans. “I was transfixed,” she remembers. “It was at that moment that I knew what I wanted to do with my life.” Setrakian wrote Gelber a letter telling him how moved she was by his presentation, and asking if she could shadow him that summer. She landed a coveted internship at “60 Minutes,” where she recalls being fascinated by how the editing process — word choice, scripting, where to cut the interview off — shapes the way the audience interprets the story. “Sometimes I marvel at the cojones of my younger self, but it came from the heart,” she says.

It didn’t stop there. In college, she interned at ABC, where, in an incredibly gutsy move for an intern, she frequently sent Diane Sawyer story ideas. One of her pitches made it onto the show, and Setrakian became known as the college student who got a story on-air. ABC eventually hired her, and after earning her reporting stripes covering the Duke lacrosse sex scandal, she was given the chance, at 25, to cover Iran and the Arab world for Bloomberg Television. Setrakian’s family is Armenian, and she found the Middle East tremendously fascinating. “I was always very aware of what was happening, and that I was lucky to be American,” she says. “In a parallel universe, it could have been me over there.

Reporting from the trenches of the Arab Spring, she grew dissatisfied with mainstream media coverage of the revolution. So much was happening that it was impossible for readers to grasp the scope of the issue based on the occasional news piece. “I realized that we needed in-depth news portals focused on a single issue that deserves our full attention,” she explains. “The Arctic, Congo, Myanmar — there is a core group of people who are thinking about these topics every day, and can’t afford to wait until a network decides to do one story.” Setrakian began talking to diplomats and humanitarians involved in Syria, all of whom agreed that a news channel dedicated to the situation was necessary. So she took on the challenge to overhaul the way America approaches news.

Media today generally aims for mass appeal — shareability, clickability, stories that will please the mainstream. But Setrakian ventured 180 degrees in the opposite direction of “Pugs Dressed Like Game of Thrones Characters” and “Kim Kardashian Drops 20 Pounds!” Rather than going for a broad take on news — or simple click bait — she hoped to delve, well, deeply into one crucial subject: Syria. She put the idea of “News Deeply” out to her network, and was flooded with support. From those contacts, she assembled a “volunteer army” that eventually morphed into a startup. “It is not easy to test things within an existing system, so I had to start my own system,” she says. “The courage I had to do Syria Deeply stuns me now."

It was a risky undertaking that went against every recipe of success in popular media, but Syria Deeply resonated. The company has won awards, received a slew of positive press, and developed partnerships with publications like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, and Vice. Its committed community of readers boasts a whopping 60 percent return rate. Columbia School of Journalism asked the News Deeply team to study the single story news model. “The idea also started really percolating among experts and thought leaders. They reached out to us about complex topics that they felt were worthy of extensive attention,” says Setrakian. “We plan to do Deeply’s on a number of highly consequential yet misunderstood issues.” Arctic Deeply is currently in the works, with subjects like the brain, polio, Myanmar, and public health to follow. (News Deeply is registered as a B Corp and earns revenue through a combination of foundation grants and digital-design services. The company just took on its first seed capital investment.)

That’s not to say her path was easy. She went from being a journalist, “a lone wolf profession,” to a new media entrepreneur. “It was a steep learning curve — I was doing 40 different things for the first time, at the same time. There were a lot of nights spent in the fetal position,” she laughs. But her extreme commitment to the cause helped her power through all the uncertainty. “People from UNICEF tell us that we are a touchstone, Syrians thank us, and diplomats applaud us,” she says. “We know we are providing a lot of value to people we respect."

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, Founder and CEO of soleRebels

Growing up in Zenebework, one of the most impoverished areas of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu was one of the rare lucky ones to attend college, thanks to her parents’ encouragement. While in school, she also worked in the apparel industry doing everything from marketing and sales to design and production. She was on track to building a successful career in the private sector, when she took a right-hand turn and followed her heart down a different, and much more challenging, path instead.

I had a strong desire to focus my business skills on my community. There were so many talented people who I knew could do great things if given the chance,” Alemu says. “However, owing to extreme poverty, stigma, and marginalization, many of them could not even get a simple job. This was devastating for me as I grew up — they were my neighbors, my family members.

Alemu also experienced the devastating effect that well-intentioned charity had had in perpetuating an attitude of complacency and dependence in her community. “I knew that anything that I did had to be truly business-oriented,” she says. “I wanted to show people that if we worked hard we could have jobs that pay decently and could start to feel the pride that comes with financing ourselves and not waiting for handouts.

So, in 2004, in a workshop located on her grandmother’s plot of land in Zenebework, she launched soleRebels, a WTFO Fair Trade-certified footwear brand that leveraged two of Ethiopia’s greatest assets: the artistic skills of the local community and the country’s natural resources. Staying true to those elements has fueled the company’s rapid success. SoleRebels is Ethiopia’s number one footwear brand export to the U.S. and the fastest-growing African footwear brand, employing hundreds of people. The company is projecting annual online sales of $6 million by 2016 and also has 16 retail stores around the globe (with 50 more shops planned to open in the next 18-36 months). Their latest venture is an in-store kiosk where you can design a pair of shoes from scratch — customers choose the colors and trims, and the product is crafted in real time in Addis Ababa.

The colorful, comfy, ultralight line uses as many locally sourced, recycled, and sustainable materials as possible: free-range leather, organic cotton, jute, Abyssinian hemp, and repurposed rubber tires. “We have a truly zero-carbon production process,” adds Alemu. “Our shoes are assembled by hand, and we hand-spin and hand-loom every single meter of our own fabric—which is historically the way it is done in Ethiopia.

SoleRebels is as good for the people as it is for the environment. “In Ethiopia, you are responsible for more than yourself and your own narrow gain,” explains Alemu. “Taking this idea a step further into the business realm allows us to create a community-centric company that looks at the total welfare of our people and not simply a static bottom line.” Many employees are women who had mastered the heritage techniques of weaving, but were unable to find a use for their skills in the modern world — soleRebels has provided them a vital and sustainable outlet, while also preserving an important cultural tradition. All of the designs are conceived in-house by local designers. And the company empowers staffers to take ownership of the product, which in turn fuels innovation. Spinners have invented new types of threads, weavers have conceptualized more breathable and absorbent fabrics.

The company’s mission is well encapsulated in their brand logo, featuring an image of the indigenous koba plant. “Koba is a marvel of natural efficiency: Its fibers are used in the creation of everything from baskets to tapestries, its roots provide food in times of shortage, it is self-regenerating once harvested and requires little water and no chemical inputs to grow,” Alemu describes. “It’s cool, it’s effective, and it’s resource-friendly — just like us at soleRebels.

Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code

Women have achieved parity to men in almost every way these days…except when it comes to tech careers. Just check out these sobering statistics: In 1984, women earned 37 percent of all computer science degrees. Today that number has plummeted to 12 percent. By 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor Predicts that 1.4 million jobs will be created in computer-related fields—but American women will fill just three percent of them. (Today, women make up 25 percent of the computing workforce.) 

Thankfully, Reshma Saujani is on a mission to change that. Committed to public service and social justice from a very young age (her parents originally came to the U.S. as political refugees from Uganda), Saujani grew up outside of Chicago, where her family was one of the few of Indian descent in their neighborhood. In 2010, after decades of activism and participating in the Democratic party, she decided to run for congress — the first South Asian woman in the country to do so. 

During the campaign, she made the troubling observation that girls were lagging in terms of computer skills. “I was visiting so many schools and I saw the technology divide in New York City, both in terms of socioeconomics and gender,” she says. “Our girls were being left behind and I wanted to fix it.” 

So, two years later, she conceived a summer program called Girls Who Code (GWC). It was attended by just 20 young women in New York City, and was intended to be a one-time event — but the idea took off and has grown into a national movement aimed at creating gender parity in computing. Through summer immersion programs in Boston, New York, Miami, Seattle, and the Bay Area, plus year-round, community-based GWC Clubs, the organization has reached nearly 1,000 middle school and high school girls, and is poised to top 3,000 by the end of the year.  

But as successful as the enterprise has been, Saujani’s intention isn’t simply to build a company — she’s building a movement. “GWC sparked a national conversation about the need to empower girls in technology,” she explains. “Our curriculum is incredibly unique. We aren’t just teaching coding, we are exposing girls to tech companies and female mentors and actually inspiring passion for computer science that will impact their college and career choices.” 

The intensive seven-week summer program immerses teens in everything from mobile app development to programming robotics to web design. Participants also work with female mentors from top firms such as Gilt Groupe and Twitter, and take field trips to startups as well as more established companies (Google, Foursquare, Facebook). The Clubs, led by GWC-trained instructors, offer 40 hours of tech industry experience and project-based computer science education (like building apps and video games) to girls during the school year. 

“Too often girls don’t pursue computer science because they’ve never been exposed to it, or they don’t see the impact it can make on the world,” says Saujani. “By actually embedding classrooms in tech companies that create products girls use every day, we show them, ‘Look, you can do this. You can code this. This is a world that is open to you, and once you learn this skill set, the possibilities are endless.’” Though just 0.4 percent of high school girls express interest in majoring in computer science, 95 percent of summer program graduates say they are definitely or more likely to seek a comp-sci degree.