Over the last several years, entrepreneurship has exploded on business school campuses, with more and more institutions launching startup accelerators, student-led venture capital funds, and founder-oriented courses.
Yet, women remain significantly underrepresented in the world of MBA startups and venture capital funding. While women account for nearly 40% of full-time MBA students, they comprise less than 20% of entrepreneurs at leading programs such as Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton, which consistently have the highest number of founders.
The statistics aren’t any better for women overall. Although women are increasingly launching their own businesses — outpacing the national average by more than 2x — just 3% of venture capital dollars are invested in startups led by a female CEO, and women of color in particular receive just 0.2% of venture dollars.
Against these odds, and in the wake of COVID-19, women MBA founders continue to push boundaries at their schools and across industries. From food waste to finance, these women are tackling sectors that have historically been resistant to change, bringing fresh perspectives to the table. Here is a list of six female founders we should all know, who are defining the next generation of business and technology.
1. Vrinda Gupta, founder of Sequin Financial
- Age: 29
- School: The Haas School of Business (Berkeley Haas)
- Company: Sequin Financial, a credit card and financial literacy platform for women
Advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “ I’m a new entrepreneur, and the biggest learning I’ve had is that you just need to bet on yourself every single day… Keep on trying until it works.”
When Vrinda Gupta joined Visa, she was excited to work on financial inclusion. As an immigrant from India, she considered credit access the holy grail of the American Dream. For years, she drove product strategy efforts across a variety of major cards, including the wildly successful Chase Sapphire Reserve. So when she applied and was rejected, she was stunned.
“I had no idea what went wrong. The lack of transparency highlighted this larger systemic issue for me — that a lot of people who need access to financial services don’t know how to approach them or how to manage them,” Gupta said.
After six years at Visa, Gupta decided to pursue her MBA at Berkeley Haas to dive deeper into this issue. The summer after her first year, she joined IDEO as a Business Design Intern, where she worked on various solutions related to open financial systems. As part of her research, she spoke to several women about their finances, and continued to hear concerns related to credit.
Gupta soon realized that her own experience with the financial system was far more widespread than she imagined, cutting across age, profession, and income level. So at the end of her internship, she pitched her own credit card company, Sequin Financial, to the IDEO CoLab Ventures team.
At its core, Sequin is designed to give women cash back on everyday purchases like beauty and retail products — categories where women are often charged a premium, or a “pink tax” relative to their male counterparts. IDEO was so compelled by the idea that they led Gupta’s first round of fundraising. Since then, she has secured funding from numerous angel investors — 90% of whom are women —as well as a partnership with Visa.
“My idea is fundamentally to make credit more relevant to women. 70% of women today are not building credit in their own names — they’re using debit cards or are just authorized users,” Gupta said. “Women don’t talk about money or credit. How do we cultivate a community so that we normalize it, personalize it, and make it a part of the conversation?”
Gupta originally planned to launch Sequin’s first card by the end of 2020. But with the onset of COVID-19, she and her team took a step back to think about what would be most helpful to women in this period. Instead of solely focusing on a better rewards product, Sequin is infusing personalized tools to help women improve their knowledge as they progress through life’s stages into its product.
“Women, particularly those of color, have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, so I think it has really lit a fire under Sequin,” Gupta said. “Credit innovation is still at the core of the business, but we’re also thinking about what we can do every step of the way to make it more accessible to women.”
Ultimately, Gupta aims to build Sequin into the go-to financial platform for women, that evolves with users as they progress from opening their first credit cards to buying a home.
“There are many hidden costs to being a woman, but access to credit shouldn’t be one of them,” Gupta said.
2. Kate Kim, founder of rmdy
- Age: 32
- School: The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)
- Company: rmdy, natural, science-backed digestive health
Advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “There’s a lot to be said for understanding and really valuing the founder journey. There is so much wisdom to be gleaned, so much you learn about yourself that the final outcome, whether you succeed or fail or somewhere in between, doesn’t matter.”
At the end of 2017, Kate Kim reached a breaking point in her personal health. As the head of marketing at a high-growth startup, she had long neglected her body’s symptoms in favor of work. While Kim loved the “riveting, grueling, and energizing” nature of her job, she could no longer ignore her inflamed joints, persistent cold, and fatigue.
Kim, who had recently been accepted to Wharton for her MBA, decided to quit her job and travel across India and Europe for the next several months.
“I needed to excavate my health and rebuild it from the ground up,” Kim said. “My experience living in all of these different countries really lit it up for me, how our health is incredibly interconnected.”
When she returned to the US for business school, Kim wanted to find a way to blend her interests in wellness and entrepreneurship. On her first day at Wharton, she met her co-founder, Ryan Morgan, who similarly shared Kim’s passion for “upleveling” personal health. They ultimately decided to focus on digestive discomfort, as nearly two-thirds of Americans regularly experience gastrointestinal symptoms, but most do not seek treatment.
With Kim’s background in branding and Morgan’s in finance, the founders took a highly methodical approach to testing their ideas. They interviewed more than 300 consumers and met with dozens of scientists to glean key insights across product formulation, format, and branding. They particularly recognized the importance of sourcing all-natural ingredients that were proven to aid with digestion.
“In the vitamins and supplements category, there is generally a lot of opacity in terms of where ingredients come from, where you are subscribing more to branding versus an ingredient that is good in itself,” Kim said. “That’s exactly what we wanted to diffuse. We are incredibly transparent about where each of our ingredients comes from and the research behind it.”
After spending a year on product formulation, Kim and Morgan did several rounds of beta testing. They were thrilled when the results empirically validated their hard work — across dozens of pilot tests, their product was 83% more likely to reduce discomfort and bloating relative to a placebo.
In late 2019, Kim and Morgan officially launched rmdy, a daily digestive chewable supplement. The product was immediately a hit — Kim noted that the company doubled sales every month in 2020, fueled by organic growth.
“Many of our earliest brand ambassadors were nutritionists, personal trainers, and health experts, who were thrilled to share our solution with their audiences organically,” Kim said. “That is so much more powerful than any form of paid advertising.”
But with the onset of COVID-19, Kim and Morgan quickly realized that they needed to shift gears to serve their community. They ultimately decided to email their subscriber base, communicate their empathy for the situation, and offer a 20% discount over the next three months. Kim’s inbox was immediately inundated with messages from customers, relaying their love and support for the brand.
“These are the little things that get you up in the morning,” Kim said. “These are the things that keep you going when you’re trying to grieve and process everything that’s going on.”
Despite unforeseen challenges presented by COVID-19, Kim remains incredibly excited about the upcoming months for rmdy and her own personal life — she is expecting her first child in September.
“I’ve learned so much about myself, and gained so many skills that I know I can apply to myself beyond the professional,” Kim said. “Entrepreneurship wasn’t something that felt tenable to me growing up… but I realize that anyone can do this as long as they have a mission they feel really passionate about.”
Follow Kate Kim on on LinkedIn.
3. Brittny Chong, founder of WiRa Lab
- Age: 30
- School: MIT Sloan School of Management (MIT Sloan)
- Company: WiRa Lab, a waste management and renewable energy solution
Advice to entrepreneurs: “Don’t apologize for being big and bold, don’t apologize for taking up room. Protect your spirit and be really unapologetically yourself.”
Shortly after last New Year’s Eve, Brittny Chong flew to Hong Kong to participate in MEMSI, a two-week intensive startup bootcamp with students from MIT’s Boston and Hong Kong campuses. Chong, who immigrated from Jamaica to the US at age five, and who is originally of Black and Chinese descent, had long been passionate about promoting sustainability and economic development globally. She was eager to engage with students from around the world, and pursue her dream of launching her own hardware startup.
When she arrived in Hong Kong, she was surprised to discover a problem familiar to her from her childhood — namely, the lack of a coordinated food waste recycling program. For several days, Chong observed dozens of day laborers, struggling to lug their bags of trash up hilly streets, then dumping them in waste bins destined for landfills.
“For Hong Kong, one of the world’s freest economies, to see a bunch of people grabbing bags of food off the side of the street, throwing them in gerry-rigged wheel barrels, and pushing them up massive hilly streets seemed really odd and unjust,” Chong said.
After conducting further research, Chong realized that the problem she observed was much more widespread. Food waste accounts for nearly 40% of the municipal solid waste in Hong Kong, or more than 3,600 tons annually. Just 1% of this food waste is recycled, and landfills — the majority of which have already been filled — instead serve as the primary method of disposal. Additionally, food waste is a major contributor to climate change, an issue that is deeply important to Chong.
Ignited by her findings, Chong pitched this problem to her colleagues at MEMSI, and quickly formed a team around tackling the issue. Just two weeks later at MEMSI’s demo day, Chong and her team presented a smart waste bin that could not only sort trash but provide backend analytics on waste management. Since then, Chong has continued to iterate her concept — ultimately launching WiRa Lab in March 2020.
WiRa aims to manufacture smart waste bins that sort and convert biomass into biofuel using anaerobic digestion. In the first generation, after the waste is sorted on-site, it will be transported to biofuel plants which will then convert this waste into renewable energy. Longer-term, Chong hopes to erect smaller versions of biofuel plants close to lower-income communities that can be utilized by residents for easier, decentralized access to power.
“I’ve always wanted to do something that would allow me to develop a new economic driver and create jobs in underserved communities,” Chong said. “By shifting consumer relationships to waste, I want to transform the entire energy ecosystem.”
Chong initially aims to sell these bins to resorts across Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, which have historically generated significant waste in these regions. And for every bin she sells, Chong aims to donate another bin to local schools.
“I want to create jobs outside tourism, where the money can stay in the country,” Chong said. “Through these bins, I want to educate young people not only about food sorting, but about something that can inspire them to get into STEM, and encourage them to innovate in their own home countries.”
Follow Brittny Chong on LinkedIn.
4. Kristina Garrido, founder of The Pivot
- Age: 27
- School: The Stanford Graduate School of Business (Stanford)
- Company: The Pivot, a platform connecting professional women athletes with commercial branding opportunities
Advice to entrepreneurs: “Everyday I’m making myself up as I go along. I don’t think people should view that as something to be scared of — it’s really exciting. I dug my heels into things I never thought I would do, and have come out on the other side a very different person.”
Women’s sports have long been neglected in the world of corporate sponsorships, attracting less than 1% of the more than $50B spent on sports sponsorships globally. And within this 1%, the spend is almost entirely concentrated among the top 5% of women athletes — global icons like Serena Williams and Simone Biles.
Kristina Garrido, a second-year MBA student at Stanford, is on a mission to change that. Garrido, who played varsity soccer in college, has spent her professional career working at the intersection of technology and sports. After college, she spent three years on Google’s Account Strategy and Communications teams, and later joined the Commissioner’s Office at Major League Soccer.
But as she met more and more women athletes, Garrido continued to hear about the lack of resources available to women, which ultimately sparked the idea for her company, The Pivot. The Pivot is a two-sided marketplace that aims to connect women athletes directly with brands. For athletes, the platform provides greater accessibility to commercial opportunities, and for companies, the platform functions as a curated search tool for potential brand partners and ambassadors.
“My goal is to change how the sports ecosystem works,” Garrido said. “I want to make brand building opportunities more accessible for professional women athletes who are not just in the top 5%.”
Garrido believes there is a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on the growing excitement around women’s sports. Both participation and viewership of women’s sports is at an all-time high — 3.3 million women play sports in the US alone and turnout at women’s sporting events has grown nearly 40% annually since 2013. Despite these statistics, however, many brands that sponsor men’s sports do not allocate budget toward women’s sports.
“We’re laser focused on building brand awareness and getting exposure. One aspect of that involves educating companies on the power of working with women athletes, who fundamentally represent the diversity and authenticity these companies maintain that they stand for. They haven’t manufactured that image — it’s inherent to who they are and their situations,” Garrido said. “The other part is about building trust in the athlete community, empowering their storytelling and perspective as a part of our growth”
The Pivot helps women athletes in two primary ways: in providing access to brand-building opportunities, and in sharing resources and tools to help women make the most of these opportunities. For the latter, Garrido hopes The Pivot will function similar to an incubator, in facilitating expert office hours, hosting sessions about financial management, and leading workshops on topics like content creation.
During its pilot in the spring and beginning of summer, The Pivot facilitated 13 engagements for five different athletes. Garrido noted that The Pivot has largely worked with growth-stage, direct-to-consumer brands, who are seeking to reach their audiences in newer and creative formats. The Pivot is entering a beta in mid-August, welcoming new athletes and companies into its community.
In the next year, Garrido is focused on scaling the platform to build significant momentum for women athletes ahead of the 2021 Olympics.
“I hope that we scale to hundreds of athletes in the next year who are playing in the NWSL or the WNBA, so by the time the Olympics come around, we have a really meaningful community,” Garrido said. “The fact that I’ve been able to connect with these athletes and hear the way they’ve created success for themselves without nearly as much support as men has been so incredible and inspiring. These stories and conversations are what pick me up everyday.”
Follow Kristina Garrido on LinkedIn.
5. Laura Zwanziger, founder of Everybody
- Age: 27
- School: MIT Sloan School of Management (MIT Sloan)
- Company: Everybody, a tech-enabled platform that provides comprehensive insights on body shape data for fashion designers
Advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “Ask for more.”
Laura Zwanziger has spent her life in fashion. At 13, she began sewing her own clothes, and by 20, she designed a dressform that would come to be exhibited at the MoMA, alongside such iconic pieces as the Hermès Birkin bag and Levi’s 501 jeans. By the time she graduated from Cornell University and joined Oscar de la Renta’s design team, she had nearly a decade of experience under her belt.
But as Zwanziger continued to excel in her career, she grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of body diversity in the industry.
“I kept noticing that garment sizing and fit continued to be a problem,” Zwanziger said. “We’d get a lot of returns and complaints. Someone would always be blaming someone else.”
In the apparel industry, sizes are typically created according to a set of specifications known as grade rules. After a sample garment is created using a model’s measurements, a designer produces the full range of sizes by adjusting or “grading” the seams up or down by a specified number of inches. This process is considered highly secretive, and is unique to each design house and collection.
“Grade rules are protected under lock and key… but they don’t serve the customer, they serve the company,” Zwanziger said.
Although Zwanziger was bothered by this problem, she never imagined herself as a CEO. In fact, when she left Oscar de la Renta to pursue her MBA, her plan was to study supply chain optimization and return to corporate fashion. But a class project soon changed her mind. After resurfacing the styles she created as part of her Cornell senior collection — which were intentionally designed for women with nontraditional body types — she began thinking more deeply about her career path.
Zwanziger originally considered launching her own fashion collection. But when she began searching for a database with more inclusive measurements, she came up short. “I was totally dissatisfied with the number of body scans I could get access to. The most comprehensive database had 9,000 scans out of the 165 million women in the US,” Zwanziger said.
Zwanziger realized she had an opportunity to build something bigger and blend her experience in fashion with her analytics curriculum. With that insight, she launched Everybody — a company that leverages technology and body shape data to help retailers design clothing that actually fits their customers. Everybody’s algorithm formulates clothing measurements based on a wide range of inputs, such as the age and geographic location, that a collection is intended to serve.
To date, Zwanziger has largely been focused on collecting the body measurements that will serve as the basis for Everybody’s database. While at first, she collected all measurements herself with her personal tape measure, she has since pivoted to soliciting these digitally. In response to COVID-19, she created a series of educational videos that teach consumers how to accurately measure themselves at home. Zwanziger has captured hundreds of measurements so far, and longer-term, hopes to own the most comprehensive search engine for grade rules.
Having spent her career in an industry notorious for its cutthroat culture, Zwanziger is now focused on building a company that is inclusive, cooperative, and transparent.
“My advice to other entrepreneurs is to create a culture that you want to be in. You have the power to do that,” Zwanziger said.
6. Dana Kim, founder of Showcase Insights
- Age: 28
- School: The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)
- Company: Showcase Insights, next gen consumer insights via vending machines and mailer boxes
Advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “When you find unwavering and growing conviction in your idea, you know entrepreneurship is worth the risk. You’ll run into so many walls, you need to have that relentless conviction to bulldoze through them.”
For most consumers, vending machines evoke images of convenient snacks, sodas, and souvenirs. But for Dana Kim, they represent novel channels for gleaning customer insights.
Kim, who recently graduated from Wharton, spent years in market research before launching Showcase Insights, a company that aims to democratize access to qualitative consumer research — specifically for product testing and innovation.
“Consumer insights are more important than ever, especially given how saturated and competitive the consumer products landscape is today,” Kim said. “While traditional market research definitely has its place, it can be inaccessible for younger, upstart brands without deep pockets, or resource-constrained innovation teams.”
Kim’s original idea was to launch a network of vending machines that offered products to consumers for free in exchange for detailed feedback. Consumers could access products by scanning a QR code, retrieving items from a machine, and then giving feedback within 24 hours to keep the items free of charge.
After months of research and vendor negotiations, Kim ultimately launched her first machine in Wharton’s MBA common area in January 2020.
“It was six months of hustling and a lot of uncertainty,” Kim said. “But within a few weeks of launching our first machine, we had hundreds of users testing products for 14 different brands. It was an incredible opportunity for brands to access really pointed, in context, targeted feedback, from an audience they wouldn’t normally reach.”
Kim’s background in consumer research has been key to winning clients. She spent five years leading qualitative insights at Kelton Global, and accordingly understands what questions to ask and how to ask them. While today, Kim works closely with all of her brands, in the future, she plans to create a turnkey database of questions that brands can access, so they can easily get started with Showcase in a matter of minutes.
For brands, accessing customer insights via vending machines can be extremely capital efficient, Kim said. Whereas focus groups typically cost several thousand dollars, Showcase Insights surveys are a fraction of that cost. Kim noted that surveys typically feature a blend of qualitative and quantitative questions, specifically focused on packaging, messaging, and recipe testing, leveraging the in-moment, contextual nature of data collection.
But just two months after launching her first machine, Kim realized she would have to rethink her business strategy. As news of COVID-19 spread and in-person classes were cancelled, she knew that students would no longer have access to the products.
“ I remember the moment it hit me, and I realized how COVID-19 would impact Showcase. We were six weeks into launch and thriving. Users were loving the experience, brands were so happy with the data,” Kim said. “I’ll never forget the dramatic moment when I went to campus, unplugged it, and emptied out the inventory.”
Kim, however, was resilient. She was determined to find new ways to serve the brands and users she had worked to acquire. After considering various options, she ultimately decided to send boxes to users’ homes, filled with products for consumer testing. Similar to the vending machines, consumers could try these products risk free, but in a COVID-friendly, contactless manner. Kim noted that this boxed program has been going extremely well, and is growing quickly.
“The best possible results come from high quality participants who are in it for the right reasons — they give really articulate, well thought-out answers,” Kim said. “We want to curate a community of users who are excited about innovation and informing the next generation of product development.”
Although Kim’s business has shifted in ways she never imagined, she remains relentlessly focused.
“Once you see a need so acutely, and you have conviction around an innovative solution to it, the drive to chase down that vision never lets up. ” Kim said. “Vending machines and boxes are just the start. In today’s world, the need to reach your consumer and collect data in new, creative ways is more pointed than ever. I know we can build and evolve Showcase to be the solution that continues to meet that need.”
Follow Dana Kim on LinkedIn.
If you know other women or URM founders that you’d like to see featured in upcoming posts, please submit details here.
Thanks to Abby Chao, Vivien Ho, and Anjani Vedula for making introductions.