The new entrepreneurial Wonder Women

A new class of female entrepreneurs is connecting with women while creating better products and customer experiences — and a culture of support. NRF’s Susan Reda reports from Shop.org.

Sessions like “Women Rule: Entrepreneurial Inspiration” at NRF’s Shop.org conference in Los Angeles last month typically feature intimidating, take-no-prisoners-style presentations. From where I sit, they can go one of two ways.

Either I leave feeling like a classic underachiever, harboring feelings of inadequacy about everything from a lack of education to the inability to walk in four-inch heels, or I am stirred by stories that challenge traditional thinking, embrace new behaviors and are imbued with perseverance and passion. I’m happy to report I left this session feeling the latter.

Speakers Gregg Renfrew, founder and CEO of Beautycounter, Mariam Naficy, founder and CEO of Minted, and Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, co-founders and co-CEOs of theSkimm, are entrepreneurs and thus relatively new to the corner office — Minted set up shop in 2007, theSkimm in 2012 and Beautycounter in 2013. But don’t let their new-kid status color your view: Each has made customer centricity the linchpin of their business — working to understand what’s most important to their largely female customer base, and shaping everything from product development to engagement to better serve her needs.

Gregg Renfrew

Gregg Renfrew founded digital beauty brand Beautycounter after years of researching the products women put on their faces and bodies. She learned that there were some 1,500 potentially harmful ingredients in the products most of us use, yet only 30 have been banned in the United States (versus 1,400 in the European Union). “Beauty is a $62 billion industry here and it’s governed by one and a half pages of legislation,” she said. “That’s just not acceptable. We need to create a movement that gives women access to better products, makes them feel beautiful and protects our greatest asset — our children.”

Beautycounter was born of that passion, and Renfrew has built the brand on three pillars: education, product and advocacy. All Beautycounter products have easy-to-read labels that provide ingredient transparency. The products are high-performance; Renfrew wouldn’t have it any other way. And, while she’s committed to delivering great products that are safe for a woman’s health, she’s equally focused on using commerce as a voice for change. “Current laws don’t allow the FDA to recall products in this industry,” she said. “We need to update laws.”

Women should never compromise their health in the name of beauty; Renfrew believes women want “direct, transparent and authentic relationships. It’s not just products, it’s a movement,” she said. “Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.”

Mariam Naficy

Mariam Naficy has spent the last 10 years building Minted, a competition-based marketplace that curates designs from a community of artists, makers, and hobbyists around the world. She tapped into what was then a nascent trend: Consumers seeking deeper meaning in the products they purchase. Today, the concept of the “consumer as creator” is embedded in shoppers’ psyche and thousands, if not millions, are using YouTube, social media and the like to teach themselves multiple art forms. “Minted is where the power of technology meets design,” Naficy says.

A digital retail veteran, her goal was to “build a retail company where the merchandise is always fresh and completely right,” she said. “At Minted we search for hidden talent and we utilize the power of crowdsourcing to predict trends.” In the early years, Minted sold mostly stationery; today the designs have been extended over various lifestyle categories.

Naficy affectionately labels those who share their work on Minted a “design army” and told the audience of retail decision-makers that she believes “consumer style is highly elevated. The consumer knows better than we do.” She then debuted a new extension of the business, Minted Wholesale and Licensing, inviting retailers to tap into the creative genius of the company platform for their own businesses.

theSkimm co-CEOs Danielle Weisberg (right) and Carly Zakin (center)

The co-founders and co-CEOs of theSkimm have managed to connect with millions by rethinking the idea of morning news and editing a laundry list of stories down to just a handful of topics most likely to spark conversations among friends and colleagues. Danielle Weisberg attributes theSkimm’s success to being “a voice that today’s consumer can relate to first thing in the morning. We like to say that we disrupted the news, but we did it with love — and we fit in to the way our generation embraces technology.”

Having cut their teeth at NBC News, the entrepreneurs had a gut feeling that Millennial women, in particular, would embrace something different, something better suited to today’s give-it-to-me-in-five-minutes pace. “TheSkimm makes it easier to live a smarter life,” Carly Zakin said. “It turned out to be what so many were craving — an authentic voice that provided some value-add, in a way that was simple to access.”

“TheSkimm is like that friend you don’t mind hearing from at 5:30 in the morning,” Weisberg said.

To say theSkimm went viral quickly is an understatement. While investors couldn’t see past what they deemed a niche market, today theSkimm boasts more than 5 million readers — along with some 25,000 “Skimm’bassadors” who help promote the brand. Listening closely to their audience has helped the co-founders build a culture around theSkimm; they now lend their collective voice to everything from books and wine recommendations to a “No Excuses” voter registration partnership with Rock the Vote last fall that resulted in 110,000 people registering to vote.

These entrepreneurs are rewriting the rules of retail from a woman’s point of view. They’re concerned about women’s health, passionate about providing new vehicles for creative expression and reorienting the exchange of news while building a culture that celebrates sharing and support.