6 women leading the reinvention of retail

Startup founders use awareness, empathy, vision and perseverance to chart new territory in e-commerce and product design.

Nov 30, 2016 · 6 min read

Of the 300+ speakers and 100+ sessions at Retail’s BIG Show, many include experienced executives from well-known retail brands, sharing lessons their established companies have learned about marketing, technology and customer engagement. But the annual convention has also become a hotspot for retail startups and a platform for the next generation of disruptive companies to tell their own stories.

We caught up with just a few of the many remarkable women speaking at the 2017 event to find out more about the companies they’re growing, their visions for changing the industry and their strategies for launching innovative ideas.

Meet the founders who are rethinking retail:

“We were not happy with the current solutions on the market in wearables in general so we decided to build something beautiful that is also an essential accessory for any dapper dog — a bow tie,” Fore says. WonderWoof is “inventing a ‘Pet Tech’ category and educating the market.”

“It’s my hope that Shoes of Prey fosters an industry-wide shift from mass producing goods and freighting them all over the world hoping that people will buy them, to a business model of on-demand manufacturing,” Fox says. “For the consumer, I hope that it opens the world to the idea that you can have exactly what you want, when you want it.”

“We want people to no longer see shopping for goods that are relevant to their passions as an isolated activity. People who are interested in kitchen and home should be able to seamlessly move between reading something that interests them to buying a related product,” Hesser says. The connection between content and commerce at Food52 is “a better experience for people and creates a much more genuine relationship between consumers and the companies serving them.”

“The retail industry is undergoing a good deal of disruption, and new types of products and brands are a big part of this equation,” says Lehmann, who advises retailers and tech companies on marketing and commercializing wearable technology products, “from smart jewelry and connected pet products to wearable diagnostics that can predict and prevent adverse health conditions.”

Rocksbox is “changing traditional retail in two ways: We use technology and data to help shoppers find what they love more easily and more reliably (thereby reducing the massive cost to retailers of returns and liquidations). And we believe that the buying decision is happening in her home, and we have built our model around that reality.”

“Consumers desire a positive shopping experience, and Under the Canopy gives them a way to buy what they love and seek while making a difference to human and planetary health, farmer and worker welfare, and future generations.”

Awareness and empathy

Girls Who Code CEO Reshma Saujani, an advocate for closing the technology gender gap, has pointed out that when the people who buy the products are the ones building the products, companies tend to offer better options to their customers. Women control the majority of consumer spending, and female entrepreneurs have an edge when it comes to understanding female shoppers.

“Being the target customer is an advantage. Being able to use empathy as you design a customer experience is incredibly important. I think we’ve been successful so far because we put ourselves in our customer’s shoes and can personally connect with her and her needs,” Rose says of Rocksbox. “Empathy and listening are two of our core values — both how we operate internally and how we connect with our customers and partners in the industry. I think this is a unique leadership style and something that has given us an advantage.”

“We are building products for ourselves — dog-obsessed women who love their furbabies — so it is only natural that over 70 percent of our WonderWoof parents are women,” Fore says.

Despite the obstacles that female entrepreneurs face, some founders discover that their perspective is an advantage. “I’m not only a female, I’m LGBT, and while these two diversity angles may present challenges, they also present unique opportunities and perspectives that others don’t have,” Lehmann says. “The key to being a strong entrepreneur and business person is to be keenly aware of unseen opportunities and patterns, as well as timing. I also think that being a minority of any type sharpens your senses so that you can tap into future trends, ahead of the curve.”

Vision and perseverance

“For many years, the bias of funding a female was so systemic that I was often asked, ‘Can you really focus on building a business while managing being a mom?’” Zaroff says.

Female founders are still hugely underfunded, but many women find success that makes VCs think twice about passing up investment opportunities. With no choice but to do more with less, companies like Food52 are streamlined and poised for profitability.

“Starting a company as women in our 30s — without computer science backgrounds or MBAs — forced us to be more disciplined about every decision we made,” Hesser says. “Investors always tell us we’re the most capital-efficient company they’ve seen. But that’s because we’ve done a huge amount with very little investment. Do I think we could have done more with more funding? Absolutely. Would we have run our company as smartly? Not sure.”

Success depends not just on hustle and drive, but also on the ability to learn, adapt quickly and champion the company’s vision.

Zaroff says lessons she’s learned include “understanding the importance of maintaining as much control over your own vision as possible, surrounding yourself with the right people, balancing patience with opportunity and trusting your gut.”

“My experience is that you never actually end up building the company you think you are building initially,” Lehmann says. “The market will always tell you which way to go to succeed or be more successful. If you don’t listen, this is when you end up being small or failing.”

The market was ready for Shoes of Prey, and Fox says if she had it to do over again, she’d move even faster. “I’d do everything more quickly over the first few years,” she says.

One of the most important things that companies of all shapes and sizes learn at an event like Retail’s BIG Show is that they’re not alone. “In the beginning I was not bold enough about asking for help from others,” Rose says. “I’ve learned to do that, and it has been transformative for me and our success as a company.”

Reach out, make a connection and learn from retail startup peers at Retail’s BIG Show 2017, January 15–17 in New York. Register to attend.

NRF Events

Unparalleled education and game-changing ideas from retail’s visionary leaders.


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The National Retail Federation is the world's largest retail trade association, representing all retail formats and channels of distribution. https://nrf.com

NRF Events

Unparalleled education and game-changing ideas from retail’s visionary leaders.

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