Five Female-Founded Companies to Watch (March 2019)

Happy Women’s History Month! We’re so glad to be a part of a community with so much to celebrate: NYC’s WE Venture initiative announced $35 million in new funding for women entrepreneurs; Human Ventures CEO Heather Hartnett announced a $50 million debut fund; Reshma Saujani’s new book Brave, Not Perfect is already hitting bestseller lists; Amanda Eilian’s fund for women entrepreneurs announced the Wingable Class of 2019; and is erecting four more statues honoring women visionaries across NYC.

All of this is welcome news where there is still lots of work to be done—last year, female founders received just 2 percent of the $130 billion invested by venture capitalists. We’re glad to be working with so many of our tech leaders and policymakers to really invest in women-led businesses and foster a culture that reflects our community and city at large.

With that, we’re excited to team up with our friends at WeWork to spotlight five women-founded Companies to Watch working out of their spaces across the city.

P.S. Know an outstanding woman entrepreneur more people should hear about? Nominate them to the Crain’s Notable Women in Tech list here by March 22.



What does your company do?
Healthy Bytes founder and CEO Amy Roberts: We help dietitians get set up with and paid by medical insurance.

When you were a little girl, you were often called “bossy.” Do you think that was a fair characterization? How do you think your attitude as a young person set you up for success as a founder later on?
AR: The most important part of my childhood was that I was encouraged to try things that were challenging for me without worrying about failing or being particularly good at them. Developing a comfort level with being uncomfortable is probably the most important part of being a founder and working on complex problems.

You are incredibly well-educated, having received a Ph.D. in nutrition epidemiology from UNC Chapel Hill. How important was that experience for you in starting Healthy Bytes? How do you think education and credibility play into founding a company?
AR: Being a doctor helps check a box with investors and customers. It helps get me in the room. The real advantage comes from 3 areas: 1) shared experience with our customers—it helps me understand their perspective/address their needs and build rapport; 2) a strong systems approach to solving problems and innovation; and 3) being a programmer helped us try things in the early years without a big budget.

Coincidentally, while March is Women’s History Month, it’s also National Nutrition Month. What are a few things you think make up a healthy “diet” for women looking to start a company?
AR: Coffee and scavenged office snacks? Ha—don’t follow my example on this. Stopping to eat real food with people you care about is always the best “diet.”

When you began your career, you were very much focused on the patient-side of your industry, for example, running clinical trials. Now, your service supports the provider. Could you talk us through how one informs the other? How a holistic understanding lends to a more thoughtful approach?
AR: When I was working in clinical trials—from the cardiac unit, to the psych team, to the transplant team—the single unifying factor to patient success was diet and nutrition. Patients thrived when they had proper nutrition, and Registered Dietitians Nutritionists are the providers who are the most qualified to help people understand how to fit healthy eating into their life in a way that works for them. Dietitians do amazing work to treat and prevent the leading causes of death in the U.S.—everything from heart disease to cancer to diabetes. And, best of all, prevention is often their focus. It’s a personal service that takes into account your life in this moment, plus it’s often fully covered by insurance. At the end of the day, by getting the dietitians paid by insurance, often at low or no cost the patient, we’re still patient focused.

Unlike many industries, women dominate the nutrition profession. Has this helped alleviate some of the friction associated with being a female founder?
AR: Unfortunately, no. If anything, the friction is magnified. We’ve helped hundreds of women start their first private practice. However, our clients aren’t always taken seriously by investors and others outside the field. Nutrition as a whole is often overlooked. It’s viewed almost like a hobby, despite being a huge market that directly impacts one of the biggest drivers of our economy: healthcare. Our dietitians are dedicated business owners and professionals, and we take them seriously by providing tools for them to grow and deliver care to their patients.

What brought you to New York?
AR: We came to New York originally for a digital health accelerator and stayed because of the growth opportunities.

Where do you get your favorite pizza slice?
AR: Joe’s Pizza on 14th.

Where do you get your favorite bagel?
AR: Absolute Bagels.

What is the best New York waterfront?
AR: The waterfront in Red Hook.

What’s your favorite New York building?
AR: Cooper Union.

What’s the best place in New York for a coffee or lunch meeting?
AR: Think Coffee at 123 4th Avenue (because that address is awesome).

Best thing about being a female CEO?
AR: Working with a great team to help other women founders improve the U.S. healthcare system.



What does your company do?
Hopscotch co-founder Jocelyn Leavitt: Hopscotch is a kid's programming app. It’s a simple programming tool that kids can go on, and within a few minutes, build a game. It’s an open-ended tool with embedded video tutorials, so they can publish and share what they build within a community of other kids also sharing games and software projects they’ve made.

Why did you found your company in NYC?
JL: We were already living in New York when we founded Hopscotch, but I love how much the tech community has grown here since we started out in it. I like New York compared to the Bay Area for how much bigger and more diverse of a city it is.

Before founding Hopscotch, you spent a few years as a history teacher, and then more than five in the real estate finance world. What about teaching drew you back when it was time to found a company?
JL: I've always been very interested in education—how you get good ideas out and give people the right tools for thinking about the world. And I think you can do that in a lot of different ways. You can do that as a teacher in a classroom; you can do that as be creating popular consumer software. They both come from the same instinct for me.

When it came time to launch Hopscotch, you founded the company alongside a friend, Samantha John. Fortune recently published the importance of a “work wife,” or strong female friendship, for founders. What do you think of that advice; what’s been your experience partnering with a female peer?
JL: It has been such a wonderful partnership. It’s incredibly hard to start a company, and like with any new endeavor, there’s a strong emotional component. It’s really nice to have a partner to balance things out. I’ve had a lot of friends who have started companies with partners that weren’t exactly right, and if the partnership isn’t solid, the companies often fall apart. I feel really fortunate ours has worked out.

The term work-wife is funny—Sam and I started Hopscotch right around the same time I got married to my real-life husband, and my partnership with her very much feels like my second marriage. I think I see Sam for more hours in the day than anybody else in my life!

One of the goals of the Hopscotch app is to make the programming field more open and inclusive, which then diversifies what software is available down the line. Today, for example, women hold only 25 percent of computing jobs. Do those types of statistics inform how you continue to build Hopscotch?
JL: 25 percent—is it that high now? The numbers were even worse when we started, so this is always top of mind. One of the reasons we started building the app is that we looked around and said, ‘Why are there so few female programmers?’ We realized that, when we talked to our friends who are good programmers—who also pretty consistently fit the image of the white, upper-middle-class nerdy guy—they say they got into programming when they were in middle school and because they loved video games, and once they played a lot of games, they wanted to create their own. Being drawn in by an interactive software and having the tools to use it and create something was pivotal for them, and we asked how we can help more people to have that experience. We want to empower more kids that don’t fit that narrow stereotype and haven’t felt like this was an area of knowledge that was accessible to them.

March is Women’s History Month. Which woman, or women, inspired how you approach running a company?
JL: I really look to peers in our field—friends who have also founded companies, like Adda Birnir, the CEO of Skillcrush. She started her company about the same time as us and has really grown the company since she started, with zero outside funding, which we think is very admirable. We talk to her all the time for advice. The best advice comes from other founders.

How do you get to your office?
JL: I ride my bike.

Where do you get your favorite pizza slice?
JL: Sal’s on Court Street in Carroll Gardens— a legit old Italian pizzeria.

Where do you get your favorite bagel?
JL: Just my trusty corner bagel shop.

What is the best New York waterfront?
JL: Oh, that's so hard. The waterfront of Brooklyn Bridge Park.  

What’s your favorite New York building?
JL: So, I have to say, my husband's a real estate developer, and I really like things he’s built actually. I’d have to say 41 Bond.

What’s the best place in New York for a coffee or lunch meeting?
JL: Near my office: VHH Foods — it’s by the waterfront, and you can get takeout and, in the summer, sit outside looking at the view of Manhattan from DUMBO. It’s lovely.

Best thing about being a female founder?
JL: Because there are so relatively few female founders, there’s a sense of camaraderie among us that’s really nice and welcoming.



What does your company do?
Oculogica president and CEO Rosina Samadani: Oculogica builds non-invasive, FDA-authorized diagnostics that have never been built before!

Alongside twenty years of experience in the medical device industry, this is your fourth startup. When it comes to being a founder, what was the most difficult hurdle to overcome, and what has become the easiest?
RS: For the first startup, it was the risk of not having a regular paycheck and the name recognition of an established company. I had rent to pay in Manhattan, and that was very scary. Looking back, I almost can’t believe I started that first company. It was a huge risk. But once you start, and you make it with one, your risk beta really changes.

Before launching your companies, you worked at McKinsey as a leader in the healthcare practice. How essential do you think breadth of experience is for someone looking to start a company?
RS: It’s important, but there are other things that really help also. McKinsey gave me a phenomenal network. I was there for seven years, and even last week former colleagues of mine were providing introductions. It also gives you an instant credibility that you carry with you forever. It can help get you in a door.  And sometimes inexperience is actually a good thing! If you knew all the hurdles you might not actually start something!

You’ve closed funding rounds from New York-based Golden Seeds and Sofia Fund – congratulations! Both pay particular focus to women leaders; how important was it to find funds dedicated to supporting female founders?
RS: The main difference between funds dedicated to supporting female founders and those that support all comers is the audience to whom you are pitching. After pitching to Golden Seeds and Sofia it’s always a bit of a shock to go into other pitches and literally be facing a sea of male faces. The male audiences are likely looking at me differently than they would a male founder—after all, I’m the anomaly and not the norm for them.

2019 is already off to a fantastic start for Oculogica, having just received FDA marketing authorization as the first non-invasive, baseline-free test for concussions. Do you have any advice for founders who may be operating similarly difficult regulatory environments?
RS: Communicate with your review team, do your homework—with the literature and with expert physicians—and bring all your resources to bear in discussions with regulators.

2.5 million people sustain traumatic brain injuries annually, and yet it wasn’t until 2015 that the public really started to pay attention to things like concussions. What do you wish people knew? What do you wish people talked about?
RS: Three things: 1) I wish people knew that if you get one concussion it does not necessarily follow that you will get chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). There’s a hysteria out there that is not fact-based, and concussion therapists are doing their best to calm people down. CTE is also occurring in people who have never had a concussion. We need a lot more data to understand it, particularly from unbiased datasets. 2) There’s a misunderstanding that we currently have a standard for diagnosing concussion. We don’t, and we need one. 3) We need to have the FDA involved in regulating concussion diagnostics. There is a lot going on in this space, but we are dealing with a serious condition. We need companies who take it seriously and get the appropriate approvals.

What brought you to New York?
RS: My first job with McKinsey.

How do you get to your office?
RS: Walk.

Where do you get your favorite pizza slice?
RS: Little Italy Pizza, a dive on University Place—the absolute best!

Where do you get your favorite bagel?
RS: Bagel Bob’s.

What is the best New York waterfront?
RS: Hudson River Waterfront Walkway.

What’s your favorite New York building?
RS: I love Grand Central’s main plaza. The Frick also has a special place in my heart.

What’s the best place in New York for a coffee or lunch meeting?
RS: Madman Espresso, although it’s tiny!

Best thing about being a female CEO?
RS: Being different is sometimes fabulous! Also, fellow female CEOs are always willing to help because they just know what it’s like.



What does your company do?
HelloAva co-founder and CEO Siqi Mou: HelloAva is the first tech-enabled personalization beauty experience to disrupt the $200bn+ beauty industry worldwide, combining AI and expert dermatology expertise.

Founding HelloAva was deeply personal for you. You’ve said before that if you hadn’t experienced the problem you were attempting to solve, you wouldn’t have discovered a solution. Is proximity the secret sauce for founders?
SM: It’s definitely part of the success. There are many more factors such as identifying a big market; figuring out if it’s a real demand vs artificial demand; is the demand recurring enough; how suitable it is for e-commerce; etc. There are many variants that can drive the success of a business and hopefully if a founder can identify both the passion to solve a personal problem as well as tackling a big market with a valid business model, then he/she is probably going to do something great

HelloAva combines artificial intelligence with what you call “the human element.” As AI and machine learning continue to evolve, what do you think the appropriate human vs. machine balance is?
SM: For beauty purchases, it is quite aspirational and emotional so machine learning should never completely replace the human element to build emotional connections. That being said, AI works a lot better in leading customers to the right sets of products and it’s much more accurate and efficient than human recommendations. It takes out all the trails and errors and can solve the problem of “not knowing what fits me”. We couple this with the human expertise to make the experience both scientifically accurate and emotionally nourishing so that customers feel supported, understood, and cared for. When we started we are around 50/50 (50% AI and 50% human), and now we’ve improved to automation to close to 80%.

While pursuing your MBA at Stanford, you also obtained a MPA from Harvard Kennedy, focusing on international development. How did your experience studying public policy influence your approach to founding and running a company?
SM: Policy and development were my passion because of my past experiences at Morgan Stanley covering Central Banks and official institutions (such as the World Bank and IFC). I wanted to keep pursuing this passion in economic policy and that was what I worked on during my time at the Kennedy School. I have deep connection to development economics growing up in China and witnessed how economic development and entrepreneurship have changed the entire generation, lifted people out of poverty, and created the biggest miracle of economic growth. That is something that deeply touches me and drives what I do. I wanted to start a business and create something meaningful to solve a big problem. And if that could lead to creating more jobs, economic growth, and empowering people, then I think I’ve done my part to create a mission and impact to our economy.

You’ve also moved into the investing space, funding both a clothing company and one in the autonomous vehicles space. How has leading HelloAva influenced your perspective on investing?
SM: Recently I invested in another stealth mode AI company and then Grab (the Uber of SEA). I personally have always loved finance and investing due to my past jobs in banking and buyside, and being a startup founder has helped me broaden my network of entrepreneurs, and I started by just investing in my friends. Early stage investing is primarily about investing in the people and the founding team because the business could change and pivot — it’s very rare a business will be able to get it right at the first shot. I wanted to support a friend but also deeply believe in their ability to lead a team, and build a big business.

On top of that, you’re a concert pianist and serve as the Music Ambassador for Carnegie Hall. It seems like you do it all – what advice do you have for individuals who are struggling to juggle multiple passions?
SM: Personally I believe if you are a highly driven and competitive individual, you will excel in whatever you do because you put effort, passion, and lots of grind into the things you care about. That was the case with me and my music career. I never thought I would become a professional pianist but I worked very hard when I was young and then the next thing I know I was becoming pretty good at it and winning awards.

What brought you to New York?
SM: I originally wanted to stay in San Francisco after graduating from Stanford, but then I figured it’s better to be in a place with more creative energy. We are building a beauty tech company so it’s in the intersection of tech and creativity, and we need the creativity talents to help achieve a big dream together. NYC has some of the best resources for publicity, arts and culture, creative talents, and the engineering talents are here are top notch as well.

How do you get to your office?
SM: Walk/Uber/Via

Where do you get your favorite pizza slice?
SM: I don't pizza because of lactose intolerance :(

Where do you get your favorite bagel?
SM: I also don't really eat bagel because...too much carbs? Wow, am I the most picky person?

What is the best New York waterfront?
SM: Battery Park City right near my apartment.

What’s your favorite New York building?
SM: One World Trade Center, because it symbolizes hope and rebirth.

What’s the best place in New York for a coffee or lunch meeting?
SM: Little Park.



What does your company do?
Blingby founder and CEO Marcia Favale: Blingby makes digital content from video, live stream, ad tech, and more interactives, increasing engagement through a sense of discovery. We create a shoppable hub of products, ideas and experiences.

You successfully raised a seed round back in 2016. Before founding Blingby, you worked in banking at home and abroad. For female founders, who bring in just 2 percent of VC dollars, how imperative is understanding the industry for ultimate success?
MF: It really depends on your value-proposition and the product and service you create. Take the risk, with careful consideration. Where you do not have the knowledge, bolt-it-in through key hires. Don’t be afraid.

You’ve spoken at TedX on the importance of breaking barriers – societal, physical, and personal. You’ve been a CEO since 2009, and head of Blingby since 2015. As you continue to grow companies as a female executive, what barriers have been broken, and which seem to remain?
MF: I have had the privilege of breaking one of the most detrimental barriers, which is the barrier of “perception” and being part of the redefinition of the perception of a woman in finance and in tech.

At about this time last year, you were granted your first patent for making visual sense of metadata. To call attention to another statistic, only 8 percent of American patents are held by women. How do you see this changing based on your own experience with the process?
MF: Sadly, I do not see this changing, not in the near term. However, it should, and it can. As more women become successful in their start-ups, it will inspire, and inspiration is contagious. We need this reinforcing mechanism.

You’ve spent over a decade in another realm of the corporate world, as a board member of various financial institutions. How does serving as a director support your work in the C-suite?
MF: There is no substitute for experience. The experience you gain from being a board member is of paramount importance because execution is key. As a board member, I have been able to delve into the inner workings of management, analyze the same, and construct frameworks for success. I take this experience and directly apply the insight and discipline to the C-suite.

March is Women’s History Month. Which woman, or women, particularly influenced how you approach leadership?
MF: Dr. Elisabeth Czedly Sendy, my great grandmother, born in Hungary, who taught me the importance of leading with your heart and executing with your mind.

What brought you to New York?
MF: I was born in New York and wanted to come back and experience the fast pace, get it done, no holds barred vibe again.

How do you get to your office?
MF: Citi Bike—love Citi Bike.

Where do you get your favorite pizza slice?
MF: Café Viva Gourmet Pizza—amazing vegan choices.

Where do you get your favorite bagel?
MF: Zabar’s.

What is the best New York waterfront?
MF: Riverside Park.

What’s your favorite New York building?
MF: The Metropolitan Museum.

What’s the best place in New York for a coffee or lunch meeting?
MF: Brasserie Cognac.

All illustrations by Elly Rodgers

Aerial photograph taken from a helicopter by Stephane Legrand/