How Did She Do It? A Q&A with Caitlyn Krebs, Co-Founder & CEO, Nalu Bio

Caitlyn Krebs, Co-Founder & CEO, Nalu Bio
Caitlyn Krebs, Co-Founder & CEO, Nalu Bio

Caitlyn Krebs has proven her commitment to making a difference within the emerging CBD market. With more than two decades as an entrepreneur in the healthcare and biotech industries, Caitlyn has always been passionate about health and wellness. Her latest venture, and her sixth startup, is in the CBD space—a $5 billion market ripe for disruption. With two co-founders, Caitlyn started Nalu Bio to produce chemistry-based CBD in the lab. The result: a pure, safe, consistent alternative to hemp-based cannabis products and a potential replacement for opioids in the future. Caitlyn, Nalu Bio’s CEO, recently met with Golden Seeds Managing Director, leader of our Consumer Sector Group and Nalu Bio Deal Lead Carolyn Fikke to talk about the company’s impressive progress and its even more exciting prospects.

CF: Tell us about the origins of your company.
CK: I co-founded Nalu Bio with Phyllis Whiteley, an experienced executive with life sciences companies, and Randall Ussery, a venture capital professional whose father has multiple sclerosis. Randall’s dad started using CBD as an alternative to traditional therapeutics for his pain and tremors. Some days CBD worked well, but other times it didn’t. Randall realized that CBD didn’t have the purity and quality needed to be an effective, consistent treatment. He and Phyllis, whom I’ve known for years, uncovered that there isn’t much data and science behind CBD but it’s everywhere. They contacted me and said we’re looking at the CBD space to see why it isn’t being developed like a true pharmaceutical. We saw huge potential in the market and started working on it three years ago, then incorporated Nalu Bio in September 2019. Nalu is a Hawaiian word that means “wave,” or “go with the flow.” I grew up in Hawaii, where cannabis and CBD are well-known, so the name seemed very fitting.

CF: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this need?
CK: Our goal is to create consistent, ultra-pure, sustainable cannabinoids through chemistry. CBD products on the market now are extracted from hemp, and two-thirds of them are mislabeled or impure. Many contain pesticides, heavy metals, chemicals, solvents, even THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient in the cannabis plant. We are creating pure, THC-free CBD with reliably consistent quality in a sustainable and significantly more cost-effective way than plant-based CBD.

We’re marketing it to consumer packaged goods companies for use in food, beverages, skincare, pain treatments and more. Similar to the process of creating aspirin and vitamins, we are replicating the CBD found in nature with an exact chemically equivalent product. We are very bullish on this market. CBD is a $5 billion industry today. One in four consumers uses CBD, in many cases for pain relief. Long-term, we see CBD as a therapeutic that can reduce or replace opioids in treating pain.

CF: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
CK: This is a new industry, and we’re a disruptor, which is always a challenge. CBD has been legal in the U.S. only since 2018, and many people are still unsure about it. The FDA doesn’t authorize CBD’s use in food and beverages, though several states do. We expect it will be a year or two until the FDA allows those uses, so the regulatory environment is kind of like the Wild West right now.

One of the biggest challenges is the stigma attached to the cannabis plant and CBD, which are often seen as vices. So we have to educate investors, partners and customers. We also have to overcome the lack of scientific data about CBD’s efficacy. Cannabis and CBD have been used for thousands of years, but there’s limited data about efficacy. We’re doing biological assays and animal studies to back it up with scientific data to prove the product’s efficacy. Chemistry-based CBD is exactly the same molecule as the hemp-based product but without the problems—devoid of harmful impurities, devoid of THC, and consistent from dose to dose.

CF: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?
CK: We recently hit a major milestone when we transferred production from our R&D labs to contract manufacturers to begin scaling production. We expect to produce hundreds of kilos of CBD products by the end of the year. Another thing we’re excited about is our success in creating multiple new cannabinoid-based therapeutics which we’re putting into cellular and animal studies. Our plan is to take those therapeutics and partner with various pharmaceutical companies who will then use the ingredients in creating products addressing key health issues. By the middle of the year, we should have pre-clinical data to support the fact that these therapeutics will work better than natural cannabinoids. In addition, we have several letters of intent from companies interested in purchasing our CBD, to whom we expect to deliver commercial quantities early this year.

CF: What advice do you have for early-stage founders about raising money, growing a team, fostering company culture or other issues you’ve had to address?
CK: A year ago, I talked to investors who weren’t interested, possibly because they didn’t know enough about CBD or thought it was too risky. But I’ve kept in touch with them and fostered a relationship, sending them updates on our progress. Now they are interested. So my advice is: When someone says no, be persistent. They may not mean no forever. Update potential investors regularly as you execute on your milestones. Also, leverage your network of advisors to help you build your team. Our advisors have helped us hire the top people in our field, which has given us a lot of credibility.

I’d also tell other entrepreneurs: Believe in what you are doing and keep going. Nalu Bio’s mission is to improve the lives of people and provide better pain therapeutics for patients. The goal of replacing opioids with something safer and nonaddictive is what gets me up every day. It would be very meaningful if we can have some impact on the opioid crisis, no matter how small.

CF: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the Golden Seeds network been helpful to you?
CK: Like you, Carolyn, I went to Brown University, and a fellow alumnus introduced me to Golden Seeds. You and others on your deal team have been so helpful, mentoring me in everything from the pitch to the due diligence. Everyone has been very supportive, willing to make introductions to other angel groups and investors and leveraging their networks to help us build out our team. I’m hoping to be part of the investor network in the future so I can help other female entrepreneurs build successful businesses.

For more wisdom like this from other incredible female leaders, read more on Golden Seeds’ blog.

How Did She Do It? A Q&A with Dr. Smriti Zaneveld, President and Co-Founder of Lazarus 3D

Founder and President, Lazarus 3D, Inc.
Founder and President, Lazarus 3D, Inc.

Professionals in many fields rely on dress rehearsals and practice runs to hone their skills and ensure the best outcomes. Surgeons haven’t had that luxury. The only way for them to get meaningful, firsthand experience has been to operate on people, with all the uncertainties and risks that entails. Dr. Smriti Zaneveld was convinced there had to be a better way—and she made it a reality. Lazarus 3D, the company she co-founded and now heads as President, produces synthetic, 3D-printed models that promise to revolutionize surgery. Surgeons can now rehearse complex procedures on lifelike organs. For residents, this technology provides invaluable skills that can help reduce the learning curve.

Smriti recently told Samina Farid, Golden Seeds Managing Director and Lazarus 3D Deal Lead, about the journey that led to the birth of Lazarus 3D. Smriti discussed the challenges she faced and the progress the company has made and offered advice for other entrepreneurs seeking to make a difference.

SF: Tell us about the origins of your company.
SZ: It all started with a serendipitous conversation on a shuttle. When I was a Ph.D. student at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, I overheard a resident telling colleagues that he was preparing for his first surgery by “operating” on a bell pepper. He wasn’t joking — residents actually practiced suturing on bananas and removing seeds from peppers to perfect their surgical techniques. I couldn’t believe such antiquated methods were still being used! I began brainstorming solutions with my friend and colleague, Dr. Jacques Zaneveld. We started tinkering in our kitchen and eventually developed a technology that can produce soft, synthetic replicas of organs, created directly from patients’ 2D imaging data, using 3D printing. In 2014, we co-founded Lazarus 3D and in 2016, we moved Lazarus 3D into our first real facility, a small production space near the Texas Medical Center. Our clinical pilot was already underway and the published results clinically validated our technology and showed us its positive impact on patients outcomes. It was really exciting for both Jacques and I to see such enthusiasm from so many surgeons in the medical community. I quickly finished my Ph.D. at Baylor so that I could work full time on Lazarus 3D. Jacques is now the CEO and I joined him in 2018 as the President.

SF: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this need?
SZ: Surgeons have always had to tackle complex procedures without rehearsing, which can lead to mistakes and complications that negatively affect the outcome. Lazarus 3D reduces the risk with our unique patented technology. Lazarus 3D’s Pre-Sure® platform (PREoperative Surgical Rehearsal) provides hyper-realistic replicas of organs made of soft, synthetic materials that can be cut, sutured, and surgically operated on. They can even bleed! Pre-Sure®models are 3D-printed directly from patient MRI/CT data, so surgeons can fine-tune their approach on a replica of the patient ahead of the patient’s real surgery. They are also invaluable training tools for medical students as they are a significant upgrade from using fruits and vegetables, or even cadavers. More importantly, Pre-Sure® allows surgeons to rehearse surgeries anytime, anywhere, at their own convenience so they are prepared for any complications that may arise ahead of time.

The uniqueness of this technology lies in the soft, life-like polymers that give Lazarus 3D a competitive edge over other 3D printing platforms. Competitors use tough resins to produce hard plastic models that cannot be surgically operated on, making Pre-Sure® the only platform that allows hands-on surgical rehearsals.

Our business model is also different. With competing products, hospitals have to buy expensive 3D printers and software and hire in-house experts to manage the design, manufacturing, regulatory compliance, quality as well as other factors involved in the process. Lazarus 3D provides a turnkey solution. Hospitals can buy specific models, which can be covered by the patient’s insurance, and deliver them in a couple of days. It’s a very streamlined process which can yield cost-savings resulting from reduced time in the operating room, reduced hospital stay, minimized complication rates as well as reduction in liability/malpractice. Importantly, it can improve doctor-patient communication and surgical decision making. Doctors have told us their patients find it fascinating and are really appreciative that the surgical team went above and beyond the standard of care.

SF: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
SZ: Funding was a challenge. Initially, we were self-funded through sales to our initial customers who were mostly medical schools and some medical device companies. However, we had to quickly scale operations to meet a rapid increase in demand from the medical community. That wasn’t easy. Most investors we connected with at the time in Houston were focused on SaaS and oil and gas, not health tech and medical devices. Instead of fundraising, we continued to bootstrap through partnerships with our customers who really supported us and funded us through sales. Medical professionals became our biggest champions, paying for the development of customized solutions. Our collaborations with surgeons at Baylor College of Medicine, MD Anderson and Texas Children’s were instrumental in our early success. Now, we have expanded our customer base to dozens of hospitals all over the U.S. and are also working on international partnerships.

We also faced regulatory hurdles in getting FDA clearance, which we received in 2021. It was the first-ever FDA clearance of 3D printing technology that allows for soft-tissue surgical rehearsals.

Convincing insurance companies to cover our models is going to be the next challenge. Early evidence indicates that 3D models can reduce healthcare costs by improving outcomes, minimizing errors and follow-on care. Some major health insurance plans have covered Pre-Sure®, which is very promising.

SF: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?
SZ: Pre-Sure® is now on the market in the U.S., which was a culmination of years of work. Our next major challenge is getting the word out about our new technology and scaling our infrastructure to handle an influx of demand. To fuel this growth, Lazarus 3D is currently fundraising. It’s also important to build and develop strong partnerships with top hospitals and physicians who will see the benefits of Pre-Sure®.

Patients are also excited about how this technology will change their lives. We encourage patients to be their own advocates and ask their doctor about surgical rehearsals.

SF: What advice do you have for early-stage founders about raising money, growing a team, fostering company culture, or other issues you’ve had to address?
SZ: Just do it! It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about goals and finding reasons not to act, such as the lack of funding or expertise, but just get past it. The sooner you do, the faster you will learn how to address your shortcomings, who you need to partner with and how to overcome barriers to make it happen. Don’t underestimate yourself—but don’t overpromise, either.

SF: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the Golden Seeds network been helpful to you?
SZ: Golden Seeds is such an impressive organization of successful women who are empowering other women to succeed and giving them the opportunity to do so. We are so fortunate to have the unconditional support of Golden Seeds investors. They mentored us early on, trusted us and their incredible network has opened many doors. This kind of support can be critical for founders who are mission driven and unstoppable but need exceptional guidance and support to help them along the way.

For more wisdom like this from other incredible female leaders, read more on Golden Seeds’ blog.

FemTech: a $1 trillion market ripe for disruption

Brittany Barreto, PhD, Executive Director, Podcast Host

Women’s health and wellness has never received the attention and investment it deserves, but Brittany Barreto, Ph.D., is determined to change that. A recognized leader in what has been termed the FemTech movement, she is actively addressing the enormous need in this area. Brittany’s background as a serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist and scientist with a Ph.D. in molecular and human genetics makes her uniquely suited to this mission. She is the co-founding partner of Coyote Ventures, a U.S.-based venture fund investing in early-stage women’s health startups, and co-founder and host of the FemTech Focus podcast, which has 150-plus episodes featuring experts on women’s health and wellness.

Brittany recently co-authored a groundbreaking report, the 2021 FemTech Landscape, which delves into the disparities in the healthcare market, innovative technologies and developing opportunities. She recently presented the report at a Golden Seeds Trend Talk. Below are highlights of her presentation.

Two years ago, when Brittany decided to start a venture fund dedicated to women’s health, there was no information available on the number of deals and exits in that sector, which was dismissed as a small niche industry. It was clear that women needed a champion, so she founded FemTech Focus, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering, equipping and uniting healthcare professionals, entrepreneurs and investors to revolutionize women’s health and wellness. The FemTech movement is focused on creating solutions for conditions that affect women solely (including menstrual and pregnancy issues), disproportionately (such as migraines, autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s Disease and bone health), or differently (such as heart health, oncology and incontinence).

This is anything but a niche market. There are more than 816 companies in the FemTech category, which covers technology, services and products that improve health and wellness for women and girls. By 2027, women’s health will represent a $1.103 trillion market!

Overlooked and underserved

Despite the enormous potential, the women’s health market is underserved. The medical community, which has historically been male, has systematically overlooked women. The statistics are shocking: The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed country, and 50% of pregnancies are unplanned. Women weren’t consistently included in clinical trials of new drugs till 1993, and most drugs are still not tested on pregnant or lactating women.

It’s clear that the male-dominated medical, scientific and investment communities don’t prioritize women’s issues. Consider the fact that it is reported that 15% of women have never had an orgasm, yet the problem receives little attention. If men had that problem, you can bet there’d be a lot more solutions available.

That’s not the case with FemTech companies. Four out of five FemTech founders are female, and they know firsthand what the issues are. They are solving their own problems. Just over half of their businesses concentrate on menstruation, maternal health, fertility and sexual wellness. One concern is that these areas are saturated and largely geared to affluent white women. Brittany advocates for broadening the focus to cover contraception, menopause, urinary health and chronic conditions that affect females of all races and classes so reduce the disparities in healthcare can be reduced.

Stats prove the value is there

Skeptics might wonder if FemTech is a sound investment, but here are stats worth considering. There have been more than 112 exits since 1990, more than half of them in the last five years, with a total of $27.6 billion. The average exit value is $301 million—which beats the average tech exit of $204 million—and four of the FemTech exits were unicorns. The typical time for a FemTech exit in the past decade was only four years, half the typical time for a tech startup.

Another positive indicator: We’re starting to see pharmaceutical companies buying FemTech businesses. These companies devote only 4% of their budgets to women’s health, so they’re acquiring businesses that serve this market. The most successful FemTech companies have the trifecta of three components: amazing products, community involvement with blogs and events, and lots of educational content including videos, blogs and talks.

Overcoming obstacles

Even so, there are still issues to be overcome. The male standard continues to predominate and more research incorporating gender is still needed.

In addition, there are high barriers to FDA approval, because FemTech products are often the first to address a specific problem. There’s also a lack of insurance billing codes, one reason most FemTech products are direct to consumer.

Then there’s the matter of funding. Women entrepreneurs historically get less funding than men, and that carries over to male issues vs. female. For example, male-pattern baldness will beat out period pain for funding. Male VCs are unaware of women’s health issues and unaware of the number of exits and the size and potential of this market. That’s partly because of their reluctance to talk about women’s anatomy or problems. Men shy away because they’re not knowledgeable about women’s health—but that’s not a valid argument. Most VCs don’t understand blockchain technology either, yet they still consider it a good investment. We need to raise awareness among men and get more of them involved.

A bright future

The FemTech market is still in the early stages, but it is clearly on an upward trajectory and poised for strong growth. The potential is unlimited. Brittany Barreto is on a mission to push female-centered design and get out the message that health care needs to pay attention to this critical market.

Golden Seeds is also supporting women’s health. We’re already invested in a number of companies in this space—such as Bone Health, Consortia Health, JoyLux, Lark, Madorra, Materna and NX Prenatal and NVision —and we anticipate adding to this list. There’s a trillion-dollar market crying for disruption. The opportunity is ours for the taking.

You can connect with Brittany Barreto on LinkedIn and Twitter, subscribe to the FemTech Focus newsletter. and listen to the FemTech Focus podcast.

Read more of our Golden Seeds blogs for relevant, instructive and inspiring insights.

Women in science are leading the way: A look at Cognition Therapeutics’ path to IPO

Alzheimer’s Disease has destroyed millions of lives, and the toll is rising. The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s affects one out of every 10 people over age 65 and nearly 35% of those 85 and older. By 2050, it’s estimated that someone will develop Alzheimer’s every 33 seconds. Faced with this grim forecast, the scientific community is racing to find effective treatments for this devastating disease.

A company founded and led by women is taking a lead role in the battle. Golden Seeds was an early investor in Cognition Therapeutics and we’re proud to support their groundbreaking research and their dedication to battling this and other catastrophic diseases.

On October 8, 2021, Cognition Therapeutics had its initial public offering to fund its research into treatments for Alzheimer’s and diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and macular degeneration, a major cause of vision loss in the elderly. Cognition Therapeutics, founded by Susan Catalano, Ph.D., and led by CEO Lisa Ricciardi, is now a part of the small group of women-led companies to go public – roughly less than 25 companies ever!

Susan, a 22-year veteran of the pharmaceutical industry, has devoted her life to battling Alzheimer’s. She co-founded Cognition in 2007, despite the many obstacles confronting women in this field, and is currently Chief Science Officer. Recognizing her talent and drive, and the potential in her mission, Golden Seeds made our first investment in the company in 2010.

Susan, along with Lisa and the entire team at Cognition, serves as an excellent proof point in the Golden Seeds mission, demonstrating the power of investing in female leaders.

Our investing always followed the science as each scientific milestone was achieved. In June 2020, Cognition received an $81 million grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support a 540-patient study of CT1812, Cognition’s lead candidate for Alzheimer’s disease, in conjunction with the Alzheimer’s Clinical Trials Consortium (ACTC), bringing the total amount of grant funding raised by the company to $168.4 million, a remarkable peer validation of the company’s science by the world’s leading Alzheimer’s experts.

We salute their remarkable success, acknowledge the many hurdles they’ve overcome to get here, and celebrate what this IPO means for all women-led businesses.

Why we invested

We met Susan at Springboard Enterprises, which connects investors with women entrepreneurs. We were immediately impressed – by her background and the work she was doing. Susan had the science support, but she knew that she wouldn’t be able to tackle Alzheimer’s effectively if she did not build her own company. She realized that she had to surround herself with business people to gain support in the business world.

The City of Pittsburgh provided her first funding, making affordable labs available. The city deserves a lot of credit as being the environment that sponsored Cognition. A Pittsburgh-based incubator called Life Sciences Greenhouse, which supports life sciences start-ups, was instrumental in Cognition’s launch as well.

Ogden Ventures, an early-stage fund, was the second investor, followed closely by Golden Seeds. Many would have deemed it to be too risky of an investment at that time, based on the early state. And we knew that therapeutics is a particularly difficult field for women to break into. There are many reasons: It’s more difficult for women to get published in peer-reviewed journals. It’s harder to attract grants. And Alzheimer’s research, in general, is a very difficult field, which compounds all these issues. Ultimately, Susan overcame all of these challenges.

None of that deterred us though, and we proceeded with due diligence. Our lead investor at Golden Seeds, Dr. Nada Jain, used her deep health care experience to review the early science and associated patents and found it to be ground-breaking and promising. Our investors did fundamental work and based their decision on that analysis. Plus, we had a talented scientist like Susan explain it to our non-scientific angel investors.

In turn, Golden Seeds introduced Cognition to another organization that played a key role, Scale Investors, a group of women angel investors in Australia, which invested and facilitated clinical trials. The company went on to raise substantial capital from other angel groups, such as Tech Coast Angels and Cow Town Angels, plus other venture firms.

Eventually, the company attracted Lisa Ricciardi, a former Pfizer executive with experience in many biotech businesses, to take the company forward. Lisa joined Cognition’s board in March 2019 and became CEO one year later.

Validating their mission—and ours

Cognition has become a case study exemplifying the merits of Golden Seeds’ mission to champion and fund women-led startups. We’ve recognized that women in all categories are doing great things in the world but are not getting the funding they need.

We recently hit an incredible milestone – having invested over $150 million in over 200 women-led and women-founded companies, which have gone on to raise more than $1.5 billion of total capital, demonstrating the incredible momentum of women entrepreneurs and the commitment of those investors who want to reshape the investment landscape.

Cognition is just one example of the accomplishments that can be achieved when women-owned businesses receive financial backing. Like any entrepreneur, she needs money to prove to the world what they can do.

We have been transforming angel investing since 2005, proving there’s a better way, and the continued success of Cognition Therapeutics is a prime example.

As Lisa recently declared, “We believe our current clinical programs, the breadth of our pipeline and the depth of our management team puts us in a leadership position among neurological drug-development companies.”

In addition to Cognition, we’ve had several major exits in the past year:

  • Brandwatch, a digital consumer intelligence and social media listening platform, sold to Cision for $450 million in June 2021.
  • RenovoRx, a biopharmaceutical company and innovator in targeted cancer therapy, completed a public offering in September 2021.
  • Tivic Health, a medical device company focused on sinus and nasal inflammation, filed a public S-1 with the SEC in August 2021 to raise up to $16 million in a public offering.
  • Amplyx Pharmaceuticals, an infectious disease biotech company, was bought by Pfizer in April 2021.
  • Roomored, a visualization platform company, merged with Interior Logic Group in September 2020.
  • Haxiot, an enterprise Internet of Things solution provider, was acquired by Digi International in April 2021.
  • HOM, a tech-enabled amenities provider, was acquired by Alfred, a property management company also known as Hello Alfred, in an equity deal in May 2021.
  • BentoBox, a digital marketing and commerce platform provider for restaurants, was acquired by Fiserve in October 2021.

These are just the latest milestones in our journey. We’re excited for what the future holds.

Read more of our Golden Seeds blogs for relevant, instructive, and inspiring insights.

How Did She Do It? Q&A with Nicola Nice, Founder & CEO of Pomp & Whimsy

Nicola Nice, Founder & CEO of Pomp & Whimsy
Nicola Nice, Founder & CEO of Pomp & Whimsy

Nicola Nice has long been a trailblazer in her career. She began her career in research, earning a Ph.D. in sociology and spending 20 years working in consumer insights and brand strategy. The last 13 of those years were spent in New York, where Nicola ran an agency and specialized in the fashion, beauty, personal care and spirits spaces. When Nicola saw a gap in the spirits industry related to the lack of female consumer representation, she seized the opportunity and Pomp & Whimsy Gin Liqueur was born.

Nicola recently sat down with Eric Nadler, Golden Seeds Managing Director and Deal Lead for this investment to discuss the inspiration behind Pomp & Whimsy and what makes the brand so special. They discussed exciting milestones on the horizon and advice on getting started in the alcohol industry as an entrepreneur.

EN: What was the seed of an idea that grew into what your company is today?
NN: The seed of the idea came around the end of 2014. Through my consumer insights work I felt that the female consumer was being ignored or misrepresented by the spirits brand and marketing landscape.

As a woman, I found that frustrating. From an entrepreneurial perspective, I felt not taking the female audience seriously was a missed opportunity. Ultimately as a consultant, you then start to think, there’s a reason why this is not being done well and it has to do with the fact that there are not enough women behind the wheel in the creation, marketing, and selling of spirits. I felt that it was time for spirits that are made by women, for women, and I decided I would step up to that plate.

In 2015, I had a crossroads moment where I decided if I was going to create this brand, it was now or never. I spent the next two years developing the concept and the formulation, getting all of the regulatory approvals, and we launched at the beginning of January 2017.

EN: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this need?
NN: Large spirits companies, like any large global multinational corporation, don’t have the capacity to successfully nurture a new small brand from the ground-up. We fit into this new-world model that’s also happening across beauty and fashion where entrepreneurs are the ones doing innovation, taking the risks, and bringing brands to market.

There are three elements to our approach that I believe really make Pomp & Whimsy stand out in the industry, all of which come as a direct result of our consumer-first approach. The first is that traditionally in our industry, brands are built to fit channels that define the type of brand that is going to come to market, its price point, consumer, and so on. Instead, we said we’re going to focus on the end consumer from the very beginning.

Secondly, most brands in this space are marketed to a male consumer first, on the outdated understanding that women are not as engaged in the space. We’re challenging that assumption by putting the female perspective first and building on it as an innovation platform. This is not about being exclusive to women or excluding the male audience from the equation. It is about looking through the lens of a primarily female experience and taking an approach to innovation that is not the usual way around.

Thirdly, we are marrying the Pomp & Whimsy story to the origins of Gin itself. Not many people know that Gin once had the nickname Mother Gin, so it’s about retelling that backstory of women and Gin, and wrapping the modern-day consumer into that overall narrative.

EN: What is something you wish you had known when you first started your company?
NN: There are two main areas of the business where I’ve had to go through an intense learning curve in the early years. I came into this with a lot of experience in branding and marketing, and my team collectively in the design, consumer insights, and product side of things. However, where we collectively had little experience in the beginning was in sales in the highly regulated three-tier alcohol distribution system. A lot of sales industries operate around their networks and relationships that take years to build, so not having that was a major barrier for us at first.

The second thing, which is where Golden Seeds came in, was the sheer amount of capital that we would need. I wish that I had a more accurate figure in my mind of how much I was going to need, especially in the early years, to get the business to a point where we could be on the radar as a potential acquisition. If I’d had a real conversation around that early on, I may have done things differently.

EN: Tell us how you were able to quickly adjust your business to not just survive, but grow, during the unprecedented turmoil created by the pandemic.
NN: Our business is dependent on the hospitality industry, and as a result of the pandemic, we found ourselves in a de facto prohibition. We had to pivot rapidly to open new channels to get our product to market. For example, we launched an e-commerce business from scratch, and had to rapidly expand our distribution footprint in retail. These things are hard to do and don’t usually happen overnight, especially in the middle of a pandemic. I think what we learned from last year was how to be both creative and highly strategic on the fly. We also had to focus on working with what was inside our control, rather than look to external factors to change in our favor.

EN: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?
NN: I’m excited to say that in spring next year we will be launching a dry-style Gin. Our current Pomp & Whimsy product is a very unique liqueur-style Gin, which has been infused and sweetened. However, there has been so much interest in and demand for the basic Gin base, that we’ll be bringing that out as a limited release in March 2022. Our communications will tell the story around the restoration of Mother Gin, and the importance of writing women back into history. I’m excited to tell that story in a new and refreshing way.

EN: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the Golden Seeds network been helpful to you?
NN: I started our seed round at the end of 2019 after a previous friends and family round had more or less exhausted my immediate investor network. I started to look at different angel investment groups that would invest in businesses that were female-founded, diversity-focused and looking to change gender dynamics within outdated industries. Of course, Golden Seeds was top of the list.

When I first approached Golden Seeds, I was intimidated. I had been told that Golden Seeds is the original and the best and that other angel groups look to Golden Seeds for best practices. I was of the view that I would have a slim to zero chance of getting past even that initial screening.

An investor friend gave me great advice, which was to use their Office Hours program as an opportunity to find out more about Golden Seeds and get a one-on-one interview with one of the investors to see if my business would be a fit. It was a pivotal moment because not only was it a great opportunity to learn about the investment philosophy of Golden Seeds, but an opportunity to interact with an investor and hear exactly what they’re looking for.

Every step along the way has been fantastic because you start to build relationships within Golden Seeds and the investment group. You know that everyone, whether they’re directly involved in the investment or not, is committed to helping the business. They’ve been very helpful and their due diligence process is very thorough. Because Golden Seeds is such a respected name in angel investing, it’s opened doors to start conversations with other groups. That initial feeling of intimidation eventually evolved into a very close-knit synergy.

EN: Where can people purchase Pomp & Whimsy’s products?
NN: Pomp & Whimsy products can be found both online and in stores. Customers can order directly from our website, through partnered delivery services like Minibar, Drizly, and, or find Pomp & Whimsy in retail stores near them. All of our retailers can be found here on our website.

For more wisdom like this from other incredible female leaders, read more on Golden Seeds’ blog.

A Year in Review: Recap of the 2021 Golden Seeds Summit

Loretta McCarthy, Jo Ann Corkran and Peggy Wallace, Co-CEOs and Managing Partners of Golden Seeds

Golden Seeds is now in its 17th year of funding women-led companies, and the journey has been exhilarating, challenging, and gratifying. Our mission remains the same: We continue to focus on women-led companies, funding female entrepreneurs who historically receive a tiny percentage of Venture Capital, as evidenced by our recent bylined article in Fortune.

Though the pandemic drastically altered many aspects of life, we feel very fortunate that we were able to host the 13th annual Golden Seeds Summit earlier this year, although we gathered remotely rather than in person. The three-day event included webinars, panel discussions, speakers, and presentations by 38 of our companies.

The virtual format didn’t dampen participation—attendance was higher than ever. We had 225 participants, including members, staff, entrepreneurs and sponsors. We were delighted to attract wonderful, notable speakers such as Kara Swisher, journalist and host of the podcasts “Sway” and “Pivot,” along with Catherine Wood, CEO & CIO of ARK Investment Management, and Erica Dhawan, the author of Digital Body Language.

The annual Summit is a great tradition at Golden Seeds, enabling us to establish trust and foster connections among our members and entrepreneurs. By harnessing the energy and power of our mission-driven community, we can fulfill the promise of investing together. This year, we created and shared the below retrospective video about 2020.

A year in review

2020 was a challenging year, for all of us personally and for Golden Seeds. Initially, we were worried. Would 2020 be another year like 2008? Would all of our companies survive? Would our members continue to invest?

Economic trials haven’t been the only challenge. The nation continues to wrestle with racial inequality. We recognize that systemic bias extends well beyond gender, and we are determined to create an environment in which women of color have the opportunity to be considered, mentored, and funded. In this process, we are engaging with numerous ecosystems to identify minority entrepreneurs, and we are being rewarded with access to great ideas and companies.

Through it all we managed to prevail and even prosper in these difficult circumstances. Members mobilized beyond our wildest expectations, continuing to support and invest in our companies. In 2020, we invested $12 million in 34 companies, including 19 new companies—and in most cases we never met the entrepreneurs in person, breaking a pre-COVID cardinal rule of angel investing. This brought our total amount of investments in women-led companies since our founding to nearly $140 million.

Adapting to the new environment, we moved events online. To fill our members’ appetite for continuous learning, we developed the Golden Seeds Trend Talk Series on key topics of high relevance. This has become a signature program attracting thought leaders across many fields.

We welcomed many new members in the past year. Now we have more than 300 members across 24 states and eight chapters based in Arizona, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Houston, New Jersey, New York, and Silicon Valley.

How we did it: Strategies during the pandemic

The economic turmoil of 2007 and 2008 taught us that startups don’t have the luxury of time during a crisis. We knew that immediate mobilization and rapid response were critical. Thus, we encouraged our companies to assess effects on their business and adapt as necessary, restructuring the cost side of their business to extend the runway.

Though we couldn’t meet in person, that didn’t stop us from networking. We used Zoom and other video services to connect, actually strengthening our outreach. We helped companies absorb the overload of information about COVID and access government relief programs. We set up a post-investment committee offering more frequent touchpoints, systematically sharing insights, connections, and cautions.

The results have been impressive. To date, we have not lost any companies due to the pandemic. COVID did take its toll, though, with half our companies growing more slowly than expected or missing milestones. However, some businesses actually thrived.

Leadership unquestionably played a part in our success over the past year. Golden Seeds has a strong team of leaders – of chapters and key initiatives – who meet frequently to manage our nationwide organization. Though we look forward to resuming in-person meetings, we will continue to use video calls as an effective way to develop connections. 

Milestones and major events

We’ve also seen active M&A activity in the past year. Liquidity events included Amplyx, BoardBookit, Brandwatch, Haxiot, and Roomored. Brandwatch, which was sold to Cision, was the largest exit by dollars in Golden Seeds history.

Wrapping up

Remarkably, 2020 was one of the best years ever for Golden Seeds. We worked together in new ways and got things done. We are determined to take full advantage of the good things that came out of an otherwise stressful, tragic year and build on the strategies we implemented and the improvements we achieved.

Despite the unprecedented disruption, the determination and resilience of our members and companies prevailed. Thank you all!

Read more of our Golden Seeds blogs for relevant, instructive, and inspiring insights.

How Did She Do It? A Q&A with Allisa Song, Co-Founder and CEO of Nanodropper

Allisa Song, Co-Founder and CEO of Nanodropper

Imagine having to decide whether to pay the rent or save your eyesight. That’s the dilemma countless people are facing, who need expensive medications to treat eye diseases such as glaucoma. Current eyedrop bottles dispense three to five times as much liquid as the eye can absorb. The excess spills out of the eye and much of the medication goes to waste. Concerned by this situation, a young lab researcher and M.D. candidate at Mayo Clinic named Allisa Song vowed to change it.

Allisa envisioned a simple but effective fix: an adaptor that could fit most eyedrop applicators, reducing droplet size and eliminating waste. She teamed up with a mechanical engineer to develop prototypes, and Nanodropper was born. Allisa, who is co-founder and CEO of the company, recently spoke with Kathy Lynn-Cullotta and Ulya Khan, Managing Directors of Golden Seeds and deal leads, about Nanodropper’s mission to improve vision care and reduce costs.

KLC and UK: Tell us about the origins of your company.
AS: It all started in October 2017, when I read an investigative piece by ProPublica that was reposted by NPR. The title says it all: “Drug companies make eyedrops too big and you pay for the waste.” The article focused on glaucoma, which mostly affects older people, especially women and people of color. As many as one in four patients run out of eyedrops before the month is up because much of the medication is wasted when the eye can’t absorb it all. Every missed drop contributes to irreversible blindness. But it’s a struggle for someone on a fixed income to pay as much as $500 a month for eyedrops. Even with insurance, a 20% copay is a lot. I came up with the idea for an adaptor that would fit onto eyedrop bottles and designed a prototype with Elias Baker, an industry mechanical engineer and a co-founder of Nanodropper. We built a team, won a number of design competitions and in July 2018, incorporated. Over the next two years, we filed a patent and lined up manufacturing, and then launched the product in the summer of 2020.

KLC and UK: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this need?
Our number one goal is to help patients who run out of medication before insurance will pay for the next refill, forcing them to go without or pay out of pocket. There’s no incentive for a drug manufacturer to use a container that dispenses less medication, so we knew this had to be an aftermarket product. Other solutions on the market require a completely new container with narrow, pointy tips, which pose a hazard to the eye. Our product is an aftermarket adaptor that fits most eyedrop applicators. The elongated and flexible silicone tip helps the user aim the drops precisely, and the drops themselves are small enough to be fully absorbed.

Though our focus is on helping patients, we can add value at every level of the industry. By reducing waste, we can improve patient adherence, helping optometrists and ophthalmologists ensure quality care. Fewer early-refill requests mean less administrative work for clinics, insurers, and pharmacies. This supports the healthcare system’s goal to optimize value-based care, improving patient outcomes and reducing costs.

KLC and UK: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
One of our biggest challenges was finding manufacturers that would take a chance on us. We’re a very small company in an industry that hasn’t had many startups and no one was interested in small-scale volume production – from creating the injection molds and fabricating the actual parts down to the packaging, labeling and sterilization. We must have called every single manufacturer in a number of states. It took a lot of persistence, due diligence and networking, but we finally found the right partner, and we’re proud that we manufacture everything in the U.S.

Fundraising was another challenge. Although our management team is unique in terms of age and gender, our track record spoke for itself and we’re grateful to have had our initial investors vouch for the pace of our work and our stewardship of the funds they’d invested. At the end of the day, we accomplished a lot as a brand-new medical device company, getting a product on the market in less than two years, with minimal funding.

KLC and UK: How did COVID affect your company?
Like everyone, we had plans for 2020. It should have been a big year for us. We wanted to launch at the beginning of the year and we were timing our funding round to support a marketing push. But then COVID hit, funding got delayed, all the clinics closed, and we took a backseat to the emergent need for other medical devices. It was a difficult time for us, not knowing how and when we would be able to recover, but local support helped us get through this period. As soon as things eased up, we were able to begin manufacturing because we’d chosen to keep production in the U.S. and didn’t have to deal with international supply chain issues. In some ways, our entry into the market was timely, because we helped patients avoid unnecessary expenses and trips to the pharmacy at a time when finances were tight and they wanted to shelter at home.

KLC and UK: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?
This funding round was a big turning point for us, allowing us to think about what’s next in terms of scaling. We’re now partnered with more than 100 clinic locations in the U.S. and plan to increase marketing efforts and sales support to add more clinics and hospital systems. We are in the beginning stages of our clinical trial and have more trials in the works, and we presented at our first academic conference at the American Glaucoma Society in March.

KLC and UK: What advice do you have for early-stage founders?
AS: I attribute a lot of our success and ability to execute to the team dynamic among our four co-founders. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that picking the right people early on can make or break your company. I believe that character traits are more important than concrete skills. You can acquire skills, but you either have certain traits or you don’t. As we were building our team, the most important things to us were trust, an alignment in values, the ability to be a team player, and self-accountability. We have an amazing team and we’re very deliberate in creating a culture of encouragement in which everyone feels they can contribute ideas and be heard.

KLC and UK: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the Golden Seeds network been helpful to you?
It is an honor to join the list of incredible companies that Golden Seeds has invested in and to be mentored by other women. You have both been wonderful to work with throughout the due diligence process, helping us with connections and introductions. We’re in awe of the depth and breadth of the network of groundbreaking women who have had such impressive careers and are willing to help us succeed to their ranks. We’ve faced difficulties getting started, but we know it’s nothing in comparison to what the pioneering women experienced breaking into new fields as the “firsts”. We’re so grateful for what they’ve done and for their support.

For more wisdom like this from other incredible female leaders, read more on Golden Seeds’ blog.

How Did She Do It? A Q&A with Gwen Burlingame, Co-founder of Beckon

Life without ice cream? Unthinkable! But that’s the sad reality for millions of lactose-intolerant Americans forced to settle for dairy-free alternatives that don’t hold a candle to the real thing. Refusing to compromise on something as delicious and enjoyable as ice cream, two young entrepreneurs teamed up to make premium, no-compromises, dairy-based ice cream that anyone can enjoy – even if they can’t digest lactose. Beckon was born.

Gwen Burlingame, who cofounded the company with Katy Flannery, told Golden Seeds Managing Director Carolyn Fikke how they grew from a business selling small batches at local farmers’ markets to one with distribution in 1,600 retail outlets nationwide. Their success story offers inspiration for other entrepreneurs pursuing their own passions.

CF: Tell us about the origins of your company.
GB: It all started with a college friendship. My cofounder Katy Flannery and I were both lifelong ice cream lovers, but she became severely lactose intolerant and had to settle for sorbet, medicinal-tasting economy brands or nondairy desserts made with soy, coconut or almonds and none of them stacked up in terms of taste and texture. After college, Katy became a pediatric ICU nurse and I worked with L’Oréal in consumer-packaged goods marketing. On her days off, Katy experimented making dairy-based ice cream that was lactose-free. She started with fresh milk and cream – the same ingredients used in traditional ice cream – and then added in lactase, a natural enzyme our bodies produce to digest lactose, which is the sugar found in milk. We started looking at the market, and we were shocked that there wasn’t a premium lactose-free ice cream made from dairy, given that so many people are lactose intolerant. So, we created that premium lactose-free ice cream category.

We started the company in 2015, making the product ourselves in commercial kitchens and selling it at farmers’ markets. In 2017, we got our ice cream into a few local retailers around the Boston area and into several Whole Foods Market stores. As interest from retailers grew, we decided to rebrand and repackage for growth as Beckon – a name that suggests an invitation to join in. In May 2019, we were authorized for national distribution with Whole Foods Market. That was our big growth moment.

CF: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this need?
GB: About 25% of Americans are lactose intolerant to some degree, and that number climbs to 65 to 90% among Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans. Those are huge numbers, and the incidence of this problem is growing.

We saw a white space in the frozen dessert category for a premium dairy ice cream that was completely lactose-free. We believed a product filling this void would have longevity, because it addresses a real, growing medical issue. Non-dairy alternatives can be gritty and have undertones of coconut or almonds. Also, they’re often full of additives used to try to mimic the taste and texture of real ice cream. Our proprietary, patented formula has the same taste and texture as regular dairy ice cream without using gums or other stabilizers. So, we can offer a premium taste experience that everyone, whether they’re lactose-intolerant or not, can enjoy.

CF: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
GB: Getting off the ground was a challenge, as it is for most small businesses. Distributors aren’t interested unless you have retailers signed up, but retailers don’t want to take a chance on you if you’re not signed up with distributors. We were fortunate to start out with a commercial kitchen in Boston with an amazing executive board that does a lot to support small businesses. We met UNFI, the preferred natural foods distributor for Whole Foods, which was starting the Next Program for emerging brands. That enabled us to get in the door with distributors and grow with Whole Foods and other retailers. Thanks to the generosity and support of those groups, our ice cream is now sold in about 1,600 stores, including nationwide in Whole Foods and chainwide in Sprouts.

The rebrand of Beckon was another challenge. When we started out, we were a homespun, farmers’ market brand, but as we grew, we had to make a hard decision. We felt that optimizations and improvements could make the brand shelf-ready for grocery stores but switching over a brand while it is out in retail – we were in 100 stores at the time – is extremely difficult. The Whole Foods buyer and the UNFI team and our other partners supported us, so we ripped the Band-Aid off and rebranded in 2018. It was difficult, but it laid the foundation for future growth.

CF: What advice do you have for early-stage founders?
GB: Early on, we got some great advice that Katy and I come back to often: Begin with the end in mind. Basically, if you have an idea of where you want to go, even if it is way in the future, use that goal to guide your decisions. As your business gets going, you’ll face many decision points that could be forks in the road taking you in one direction or another, and many opportunities will come your way. Keeping the endpoint in mind will ensure that you don’t stray from your path too much.

CF: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?
GB: We’re coming out with two brand new flavors in pint size, Peanut Butter Cup and Dark Chocolate Brownie. The Peanut Butter Cup flavor will also be available in quart size, extending the quart-sized line we launched last year with Sprouts and a few regions of Whole Foods.

Peanut Butter Cup is a highly requested flavor, but it took a while to find a company to partner with that shares our values. We’re excited to be partnering with Unreal, a candy company that uses high-quality, clean ingredients that meet our guidelines. We’re using their broken or misshapen peanut butter cups that are otherwise perfect for this flavor. This approach fits in with one of Whole Foods’ 2021 trends: upcycling excess natural food ingredients to help reduce food waste.

We’re also launching a novelty product exclusively with Whole Foods in May. Taking inspiration from the yogurt aisle, our new 4-ounce Beckon snack cups have lids filled with toppings – vanilla with rainbow sprinkles, mint chip with crushed chocolate cream cookies and dark chocolate brownie with chocolate cookie gems. The smaller size makes it a permissible, snackable indulgence. This will be the first of its kind within the frozen set, so we’re excited to get that out into the market, and we hope to expand distribution later in the year.

On the business front, we have expanded our team with two key hires: a supply chain manager and a brand marketing manager. This year, we’re focusing on growing brand awareness and preparing for distribution growth into more conventional channels in 2022.

CF: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the Golden Seeds network been helpful to you?
GB: I can’t say enough good things! We’ve been very fortunate to have you as our main contact at Golden Seeds. You and all the other members we’ve connected with have been wonderful throughout the entire fundraising process. You’ve all provided great support and helped us with pitches and meetings. You’ve also been very generous in helping us extend out network outside of Golden Seeds. As female founders, Katy and I see incredible value in having a group of supportive investors who are successful female executives and leaders. Golden Seeds has been a natural fit for us.

For more wisdom like this from other incredible female leaders, read more on Golden Seeds’ blog.

The beauty industry wakes up—finally—to Black women

Nicola (Nikki) Chung, Innovation Lead for Hair Care at SheaMoisture
Nicola (Nikki) Chung, Innovation Lead for Hair Care at SheaMoisture

Seventy-five percent of consumers identify as having textured hair, with textured hair including anything from wavy to tight, coily hair. These consumers feel like the typical mass products don’t work for them and they need something special. As a result, if you look across the haircare category, the multicultural space is what is driving growth. In fact, this hair care sector alone now represents a $2 billion per year opportunity. The beauty space for Black women is experiencing exponential growth as more, and larger, companies target the multicultural market. 

Golden Seeds explored this dynamic market with Nicola (Nikki) Chung, Innovation Lead for Hair Care at SheaMoisture, a pioneering brand recently acquired by Unilever. In this role, Nikki has developed hundreds of products for textured hair and helped SheaMoisture change the way the beauty industry serves Black women. Nikki spoke with Carolyn Fikke, the leader of Golden Seeds’ Consumer Sector Group, and a former investment banker with expertise in the consumer space. This is one in a series of Golden Seeds Trend Talks focusing on topics that are relevant, instructive and inspiring.

CF: Let’s start at the beginning. How and why did SheaMoisture get into business?
NC: Our founders were carrying on the legacy of their grandmother. They started a business in the U.S. about 30 years ago, drawing on her expertise in quality soaps and personal care items to support their family. It was a passion close to their hearts. They realized there were no brands representing Black women and championing their needs and causes, so they set out to address those needs. Their mission was not just to serve underserved consumers, but to overserve them. That’s still our motto. SheaMoisture is committed to offering high-quality products with natural ingredients that women can use with confidence.

CF: Can you talk a bit more about what market SheaMoisture serves and what needs are being addressed?
NC: Black consumers in the United States have enormous spending power — $1.3 trillion a year. About $2 billion of that is in the hair care sector, which includes shampoos, conditioners, styling products and treatments for textured hair. Marketers overlooked the need for specialized products for decades. Most hair care products on store shelves weren’t designed for textured hair, which requires more moisturizing, less-frequent shampooing, and more styling and conditioning treatments than straight hair. Commercial brands didn’t offer the full range of products Black women needed, and what they did offer was mostly petroleum-based. Black women wanted high-quality natural ingredients, so many created their own products at home, adding oils and butters and other ingredients to moisturize and protect their hair.

CF: What marketing strategies helped the company gain traction?
NC: It’s always been all about the consumer. In the early days, when money was tight, SheaMoisture focused on connecting with the community. We were among the first to use social media, starting a two-way conversation with customers to establish a relationship. The company also used event marketing, taking part in hair meet-ups where women gathered to talk about their needs and to share and sell products they were making themselves. It was important for SheaMoisture to find out firsthand what consumers wanted and to be seen as part of the solution. That’s true for any entrepreneur. You need a deep understanding of consumer needs—whether that comes from in-house data, social media or frontline testing—so you know your customers’ pain points and frustrations. That’s one of the keys to success, and it’s driven SheaMoisture’s product development. We’ve had to curtail in-person events because of the pandemic, but we’re using virtual events to maintain a connection.

CF: How else has COVID-19 affected the beauty business?
NC: One of the big challenges for beauty companies is that people are working from home and going out less socially. Women don’t need to style their hair every day, so brands have had to pivot. For example, there’s been greater focus on hygiene, and women are washing their hair more. Because they’re visiting salons less often, they’re also coloring and even cutting their hair themselves and using more at-home treatments.

CF: How has SheaMoisture’s product line evolved, and what’s on the horizon?
NC: Consumers have always driven our product innovation. Our early lines were focused on our customers’ top needs. The raw shea line was all about adding moisture, especially for those who were starting to embrace natural hair, rather than using relaxers. When consumers were excited about certain ingredients, we incorporated them into our line. Our largest and most successful line continues to be the coconut and hibiscus products that define curls and control frizz. The Jamaican black castor oil collection is also among our best sellers. The market isn’t static, so we’re continuing to evolve. We’re seeing younger consumers with somewhat different needs. Many are using wigs, weaves and extensions, not to hide their natural hair but to protect it. They also want the ability to vary their looks for different occasions. Wigs and other products can be expensive, so we’re developing products to extend the life of their investment. In addition, we’re looking at products for men, who have their own unique needs.

CF: Is the market evolving as well?
NC: Absolutely. It’s becoming more competitive, and there are more small companies jumping in to serve Black women. Fenty Beauty, which was founded by Rihanna, is one of the success stories. The company provides makeup for hard-to-match skin tones of all types. Another is Mielle Organics, which offers natural ingredients to support healthy hair, skin and nails. The Lip Bar emphasizes inclusivity and offers makeup made with vegan and cruelty-free ingredients.

CF: Tell us about your Community Commerce initiative.
NC: SheaMoisture is committed to giving back to empower Black communities. We recently announced a $1 million fund to support minority entrepreneurs and have already invested millions in education, healthcare, safety and fair wages. It starts with our supply chain. We source Shea Butter from co-ops in Ghana, offering fair wages and investing in the infrastructure to raise the standard of living. We’re also driving investment back into the Black community here in the U.S. and donating to activists working for social change. We support Black creatives as well, using Black artists for our ad campaigns, for example.

CF: How has the acquisition by Unilever affected SheaMoisture?
NC: It’s given us the best of all possible worlds. The community connection is part of our brand DNA, and Unilever respects that. They’re committed to having SheaMoisture own the customer relationship. At the same time, they’ve given us access to a wealth of data and expertise to inform our product innovation, and their operational excellence is helping us move faster and deliver even better results.

CF: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
NC: Focus on your customers so you truly understand their needs and their problems. Social media is a great way to stay connected, and it’s only going to grow as platforms change and new players and technologies emerge. You need passion and skill, and you have to bring something unique and differentiated to the market. Either address a problem nobody else is targeting or define and solve a problem in a better way than the competition.

Learn more about SheaMoisture on the company’s website.

Read more of our Golden Seeds blogs for relevant, instructive and inspiring insights.

How Did She Do It? A Q&A with Lauren Foundos, Founder & Chief Executive Officer at FORTË

Lauren Foundos, Founder & Chief Executive Officer at FORTË
Lauren Foundos, Founder & Chief Executive Officer at FORTË

Lauren Foundos thought her life as a successful institutional bond trader was pretty much perfect. But the demands of the job left her little time for working out, a lifelong passion that had made her an All-American field hockey player. Determined not to lose her sense of self, Lauren left Wall Street and sought to parlay her love of fitness into a business. Her familiarity with exercise studios gave her an idea that was ahead of its time – making live fitness classes available online. That vision led her to found FORTË, a live and on-demand streaming video platform. 

Lauren recently told Golden Seeds managing partner Jo Ann Corkran about the challenges she’s faced, the evolution of her business and how it fits into the pandemic world we live in today. Her story offers inspiration for other entrepreneurs forming and growing their businesses.

JC: Tell us about the origins of your company.
LF: I was successful on Wall Street, trading billions in institutional bonds, but there was something missing. I felt there should be a greater purpose to working hard. I’ve always been passionate about exercising, so I fixated on the fitness space. I started talking to gym owners about the possibility of offering their classes to more than the 20 people in the room. That led to the idea of live-streaming classes to make fitness more accessible to anyone, any time. I was convinced that was the future and didn’t want to find myself in the regrettable position of seeing someone else develop the idea into a successful business. 

In 2015, I incorporated FORTË. The name means “strong” in Albanian, a homage to my parents’ homeland. In 2016, I left my job in finance and spent the next three years developing proprietary hardware and software that would be easy for nontechnical gym owners and operators to use. 

Now, users tell us that we are changing their lives and making them healthier. And gym owners say we helped them save their businesses during the pandemic lockdowns. Nobody said I made their life better when I worked in finance.

JC: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this need?
LF: Before the pandemic, almost nobody was live-streaming fitness classes, though some of the more future-thinking studios had video on demand. Our system makes live streaming easy; we can get a gym or fitness studio live-streaming through their own branded digital platform in 10 days. We hardwire three to five cameras in the chosen location(s) and install an on-site server that duplicates the control room function at a production studio. All an instructor has to do is turn on the microphone. And unlike other video platforms such as Zoom, YouTube or Vimeo, FORTË is designed specifically for the fitness industry. The FORTË system handles everything from bookings to payments in concert with the gym’s existing management software. We are kind of like OpenTable for gyms. We even provide legally compliant music. 

I live and breathe this stuff, so we were able to anticipate every problem a gym owner could encounter and provide a customized, seamless solution. Our customers tell us this was exactly what they have been dreaming about. Another difference from the competition is that we aren’t direct to the consumer, so we don’t have to acquire the customers who’ll be taking and paying for the classes. Our customers, the gyms and studios, already have more than 100 million clients.

JC: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
LF: There were a number of challenges in developing the technology. In a TV studio, you have complete control over the environment, but in gyms you have almost no control. Gyms can be dark, noisy and hot, which is bad for the equipment. And streaming video requires a lot of bandwidth, which is not that common in gyms and fitness studios. Solving these problems and making the system scalable took a lot of work. 

Fundraising was another hurdle. I never thought being a woman was a disadvantage, but I discovered that venture capitalists don’t take women as seriously or give them the same respect that they give men. It was a wakeup call. I learned that approximately 2.2% of VC investment goes to female-founded companies, while 86% of VC money goes to all-male teams. I feel fortunate in finding funders like SeventySix Capital and Golden Seeds who see the opportunity in funding female founders.  

JC: What’s coming up next for FORTË? Any big milestones on the horizon?
LF: We’re building a really strong team – we’re up to 60 people now – and we’ve made some great hires from companies like Nike and Orangetheory Fitness. Many of them are women who joined us because they’re excited to be working with and for women. 

COVID has accelerated the adoption of online streaming by gyms and studios, and FORTË has been well positioned to take advantage of this opportunity. We believe livestream classes will continue to be relevant even after society opens back up. People can work out in the gym some days and at home other days. Looking ahead, we think there might be opportunities in industries besides fitness, such as education. We’re working with a cooking school in Tokyo right now.

FORTË is also helping gyms and studios reach an untapped customer base beyond current regular fitness buffs. There are millions of people who are too intimidated to go to gyms because they’re out of shape and/or can’t afford high-priced options like personal trainers and Peloton. Our technology allows gyms to reach these people with livestreaming without costly upfront capital investments.  

Our client list is growing, too. We launched with the YMCA, which has a customer base of 23 million people; UFC is about to go live; and we’re streaming from the gym at UnderArmour’s world headquarters. We are already operating in US, Canada, EU and this is just the beginning.

For more wisdom like this from other incredible female leaders, read more on Golden Seeds’ blog.