Young Women to Watch

Young women are becoming a powerful force in business.

The Story Exchange’s first-ever list of Young Women to Watch shows a crop of female entrepreneurs who are shaking up traditional industries, spearheading social change and driving advances in medicine, technology and even transportation.

Our Top 10 includes women like Melody McCloskey, whose venture-backed startup, StyleSeat, gives beauty professionals access to online scheduling, and Ann-Erica Whitemarsh, whose social enterprise, Rascal Rodeo, allows special-needs people an opportunity to enjoy rodeos. Elizabeth Rees of Chasing Paper has invented a new type of removable wallpaper. Sara Cinnamon of Abiogenix has created a device to help people take their medications better. See the full list here, or scroll to the bottom of this page.

When we set out to identify the most innovative female entrepreneurs under age 35, we weren’t sure what we’d find. This is a generation of “millennials” that came of age in the worst economic period since the Depression, who still must deal with a male-dominated Silicon Valley-style of entrepreneurship. Could the younger set possibly be making strides?

We were blown away by submissions when we posted our call for entries in January. The criteria: Women must be innovative or disruptive, under age 35 and — if they have male co-founders or employees — the main leaders of their companies. We heard from 80 women, mostly in the U.S. but also in far corners of the world, from Australia to Romania. Some are already running multimillion-dollar businesses. Some 70% have created jobs, with the majority employing two to five workers. Most (65%) are self-funded, though 7% have received angel or venture capital funding. They represent a diverse mix of industries —  from e-commerce and tech, to media and health and wellness.

Most noteworthy to us, though, was their answer to the question: Who is your role model?

About a third of the young women listed their mothers, which at first blush wasn’t a surprise…until many revealed that their moms are entrepreneurs, too. “My mom has always shown me what hard work and passion look like, especially as a little girl running around her home store,” one 20-year-old candidate wrote us. A 30-year-old applicant who felt “trapped” in a 9-to-5 job said her mom encouraged her to strike out on her own: “She started her own business, so I did too!” Another 20-year-old told us her mother, an entrepreneur, “is the hardest working woman I have ever met in my entire life….she emanates confidence.”

Still others said they were inspired by trailblazing women that came before them: Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Gilt Groupe’s Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, Cisco’s Padmasree Warrior and XO Group’s Carley Roney were just some of the responses.

Male role models made the list, too — many women credited their hard-working dads with showing them the way to succeed in business, and more than one woman cited Sir Richard Branson as a personal hero.

But we were struck by how many applicants consistently named entrepreneurial women as their role models. Clearly, the impact of high-achieving women — whether it’s their moms or today’s superstars —  has had a profound effect on women under the age of 35. By contrast, women of previous generations have had far fewer female role models in the business world to emulate. (It wasn’t until 1977 that the Census even counted women-owned firms.)

Our research is anecdotal, but we aren’t the first to notice that younger women are making advances, possibly as a result of successful female role models. Marsha Firestone of Women’s President Organization, a trade group for high-growth women-own firms, says women under the age of 35 are also benefitting from the winds of change and from greater access to resources. “The Mad Men era is over, and young women know that they can strive to be their own bosses, to achieve success in business and to not be limited by outdated perceptions,” she says.

To be sure, there is plenty of room for improvement. At the Kauffman Foundation, senior fellow Alicia M. Robb says younger women are starting up social enterprises with relative ease, but need more encouragement when it comes to non-traditional fields like computer science or engineering. “Right now, if you look at women in accelerators or startup weekends, it’s still pretty sad, and there are much lower levels of participation,” she says.

Still, Robb says she’s encouraged that the tech industry, long the domain of young male entrepreneurs and older male investors, seems to be making an effort to be friendlier to women.  “I actually think the tide is changing,” she says. “People are doing the self-reflections and saying, ‘we need to change.’”

One factor that is still an unknown: What happens when these young, ambitious, entrepreneurial women have children? The majority of women — some 83% — who applied for inclusion on our list do not have children. If they choose to start families, the juggle could put a strain on their professional lives, not to mention they could face bias from investors, colleagues and others.

Interestingly, after we selected our Top 10, we noticed that three of the women on our final  list have children, which could indicate that young leaders are finding ways to make parenthood and entrepreneurship work. Allyson Downey of WeeSpring, a social-shopping platform for new parents, was even nine months pregnant with her second child when we interviewed her for this package.

Another from our Top 10, Giovanna Scheidler, whose company Ova Pal makes a wearable patch that predicts fertility, acknowledged that her top challenge is balancing work and family. “It is a daily battle to not be overwhelmed by guilt that I’m not at home with my children,” she told us.

But at the same time, “I know that working hard leads to being a great role model for my kids,” she said.  “That helps me know that I am doing the best that I can.”

We don’t doubt that these tremendous women will be role models for the next generation to come.

Read more about the innovators who made our final list by clicking on their individual profiles.