Next time you see someone in the subway lugging a bulky blue Ikea bag, they might be building their own beauty empire. That’s how it was for Karen Young in the early days of her company, Oui Shave.

“I spent many days trucking my Ikea bag full of orders on the train and getting a lot of nasty stares,” Young recalls.

That was back in early 2016, when she was working full-time at her day job and pursuing her passion project: a line of shaving products designed to disrupt the status quo in razors marketed to women.

“We’re reimagining what the razor would look like if it was made with the best intentions for women,” Young says. Manufacturers didn’t understand why someone would make a new kind of razor when so many were on the market already. To Young, the reason was simple: she wanted a product that wouldn’t cause razor burn, ingrown hairs, or other unsightly shaving by-products. Oui!

“The experience many women had with shaving was that it was impacting their confidence,” Young said. “It’s embarrassing to show up with razor burn.”

She eventually found an interested manufacturer, in a small German town that has specialized in razors for many generations. She worked with them to produce a glamorous take on the safety razor. And yes, she made it gold. Oui!

Once she had a product, Young started to hustle, emailing hundreds of editors each night after work. One morning, she awoke to find a reply from Refinery29. After a glowing write-up a few weeks later, the Oui Shave orders started to pile in, just in time for the holidays. Cue the Ikea bag.

Since then, Oui Shave’s momentum hasn’t waned. Young quit her job, hired two employees, and snagged a $180,000 prize at the NYC Creator Awards. Young, who bootstrapped her company from $1,500 to profitable, plans to pour the new influx of cash into improving the Oui Shave site. Like many other buzzy new products, Oui Shave is direct-to-consumer, so her site is critical to how she tells her brand’s story to customers. So far, the beautiful imagery and luxe packaging have resonated with consumers. Well, that “and the fact that we’re tired of using products that have been handed to us, and often made by men,” Young says.

Oui Shave's new Rose Gold razorFinding a new generation

Young first saw a safety razor in action as a little girl growing up in Guyana, South America.

“I was raised unconventionally by my grandmother and my three uncles,” she says. “It was three men, a grandma, and a little lady.”

Many mornings, she had watched her uncles shaving with safety razors. With this image in the back of her mind, she first thought her customers would be women 35 to 45 who had seen their grandmothers or other older relatives using a similar product. Instead, her customers turned out to be mostly millennials, who saw the product as something new, something that hadn’t been done before. “They’re coming up in a time when there’s more products targeted to them,” Young says.

Sisterhood of founders

Products serving these millennial women have popped up in recent years, including brands such as Lola, tampons made without synthetics, and Thinx, underwear that absorbs menstrual blood. Young says she feels a kinship with these women-centric, women-founded brands.

“Right now there’s a movement happening around women,” Young says. “There’s a less rigid conversation happening around female products and the female body.”

“There’s a less rigid conversation happening around female products and the female body.”

Based in Brooklyn, Young has found a sisterhood with other female entrepreneurs, including Lauren Schulte, founder of the Flex Company.

Karen has deep expertise in new product development, and has been able to give us advice on that part of our business,” Schulte says.I have experience raising a seed round of funding and have been able to help her think through her fundraising strategy.”

Funding roadblocks

While Young has received valuable advice and made her own way by bootstrapping and enlisting her friends and fiancé to help mail hundreds of orders (with free pizza as payment), she says she’s felt frustrated by the lack of funding options.

“There are a lot of roadblocks there,” she says. “We are considering going the venture capital route. To do that, we have to prove we’re a billion-dollar exit. That’s fine, and we can do that, but what’s worrisome about raising venture capital is that it’s not terribly friendly to female founders and black female founders. Many times women are creating products for an audience they know intimately. But quite often if you’re talking to male investors, that’s not something they really understand immediately.”

“Women are creating products for an audience they know intimately. But quite often if you’re talking to male investors, it’s not something they understand immediately.”

In her journey as a founder, Young has seen her idea go from Guyana to Brooklyn, then Brooklyn to Germany. Now she hopes that her razors can become an heirloom product, handed down, woman to woman. Oui!

“Ten years ago most people here did not know what this brown paste was,” says Anthony Brahimsha of the chickpea dip that is now nearly ubiquitous on menus in the U.S..

Born to Syrian parents, Brahimsha knew that hummus in the Middle East is much better than that found in American grocery stores. With the help of Mike McCloskey, owner of Select Milk Producers, the sixth largest dairy cooperative in the country, he developed a hummus called Prommus that is higher in protein –– three times that of other dips. It preserves the traditional flavor by using cold pressure, rather than heat, in the kitchen.

“What Halo Top is to ice cream and Chobani is to yogurt, we are to hummus,” Brahimsha says, by way of explaining that Prommus is also changing the industry.

The company name is a combination of the words “protein” and “hummus,” but is also a play on the word “promise.” With 1 percent of sales benefitting the World Food Program to fight global hunger, Brahimsha hopes that the product can have a significant effect on ending hunger and making nutritious foods available wherever they are needed.

Prommus cofounder Anthony Brahimsha, who has spent a lot of time on humanitarian missions, believes his hummus could help feed the world.

While the initial idea was born out of his humanitarian work in refugee camps along the Turkish/Syrian border, Brahimsha has even bigger dreams. The world needs to find more ways to make nutritious foods for people who are going hungry, and he thinks Prommus and its innovative production process are part of the solution. Two patents are currently pending.

The company’s four varieties (original, red pepper, olive, and avocado) are sold in the Midwest, primarily in Illinois and Michigan. These flavors were taste-tested by Brahimsha’s fellow members at Chicago’s WeWork River North, a community that he says has been invaluable to the startup.

“There are a lot of co-working spaces, but not everywhere is a community of social entrepreneurs who are rooting for their peers,” he says.

A winner in the business venture category at the Nashville Creator Awards, he says he’ll be able to start the next stage of expansion for his company, primarily by adding staff.

“As soon as you win this award, all the blood sweat and tears that you put into the company comes together,” he says. “Everything that you have been doing, the people that were with you along the way, finally, it feels like an affirmation that you were doing the right thing.”

 

Melanie Faye grew up in Nashville, but she doesn’t credit Music City with her success. She credits Guitar Hero. Yes, that Guitar Hero, the video game that allows players to mimic the sounds and moves of their favorite stars. For Faye, it was Michael Jackson.

“I don’t think growing up in Nashville introduced me to guitar players,” Faye says. “My parents were chemists. I was not able to go to bars and see local shows. Guitar Hero introduced me to all this music I was not exposed to. Guitar Hero looked really cool. It made me feel empowered.”

So, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Faye, now 20, has found fame via YouTube. After dropping out of college three semesters in to pursue her music career, Faye posted videos of herself sitting in her bedroom and playing covers of John Mayer and Mariah Carey.

“Guitar Hero introduced me to all this music I was not exposed to,” says Melanie Faye. “Guitar Hero looked really cool. It made me feel empowered.”

She also used the platform to debut some of her original work, which she describes as a mixture of R&B, hip hop, and pop. Her voice, serious guitar-playing chops, and friendly demeanor propelled those videos to more than 10 million views. She was so popular that the guitar company Fender tapped her to demo a new line of the instrument.

“I thought, ‘This is it! I’m viral. I made it!’ But it does not work that way,” she says. Faye makes ends meet by working at a local doughnut shop and teaches guitar. She also keeps working on her music the old-fashioned way, having been tapped to be the opening act for musicians like Noname and Mac Demarco. Her most recent gig was at the Nashville Creator Awards.

She is working on her first album, which she hopes will be out by the year’s end. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Faye has been working on Homophone for years.

“If I had known it was going to take this long,” she says, “I wouldn’t have told people it was going to be out soon.”

Faye is also working to relieve the jitters that come with performing live, rather than in front of a camera. A recent show at the Hollywood Palladium was a game changer.

“I typically am really shy and inhibited on stage. But I felt so much support and positive energy, I just let loose,” she remembers. “I think to an extent you just have to have fake confidence at first. I walked up and had a confident demeanor and once I heard crowd cheering, then I was confident.”

“It happens overnight,” Maria Vertkin says. “An immigrant moves to the U.S. and goes from being a surgeon to washing toilets.”

College degrees and professional experience from their home country don’t always mean as much as they should when an immigrant starts a new life abroad, says Vertkin. She knows from experience: She spent her childhood in Russia and Israel before immigrating to the United States. But she realized that they have one thing that will always be of use to them: their language skills.

“It doesn’t make sense if you have something as valuable as a second language to not use it,” says Vertkin, who speaks English, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Vertkin, a Boston-based social worker, wanted to help train women to use their multilingual skills to their advantage. She saw a need that they could fill in the medical field. Hospitals in Massachusetts struggled to find interpreters for their patients who aren’t native English speakers. Without interpreters, expensive and even potentially fatal medical errors are possible.

A Found in Translation graduate shows off her diploma.

“The jobs are plentiful and the demographics are shifting,” says Vertkin. “Not only do they serve the local population, but medical tourists come from other countries and they need interpreters.”

The idea was a hit with the judges of WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards. Found in Translation took home a $72,000 prize in the nonprofit category.

In 2011, Vertkin started Found in Translation to help homeless and low-income women achieve economic security by making their language skills an asset, rather than a liability. Within a few weeks of announcing the first class, she had 200 applications.

The nonprofit offers medical interpreter certificate training as well as other interpreter programs. And the training includes more than the core curriculum — childcare, transportation, job placement, and access to mentors for professional development are also part of the program.

The 186 graduates of Found in Translation classes between 2012 and 2017 earned approximately $1.86 million cumulatively more per year than they did before enrollment. That’s about $10,000 more per person annually. She says that if she wins in the nonprofit category at the Nashville Creator Awards, she can expand the program.

Classes currently take place in Boston, where Vertkin estimates they could easily double in size with the right funding. Every city in the U.S., she says, has the potential for success with Found in Translation.

“There is opportunity and need and we are connecting them,” Vertkin says. “The biggest risk is for employers not hiring multilingual employees.”

If Janett Liriano has her way, you won’t be using your FitBit much longer.

Liriano is CEO of Loomia, a New York-based firm at the intersection of tech and fashion. The company creates “intelligent drapeable circuits” that are soft enough to be embedded into textiles and can be safely washed and dried. Instead of wearing a step tracker on your wrist, it could be embedded into your running shoes.

That’s just the beginning of what these circuits can do. Those shoes might not just track your steps, but can also measure the pressure on your feet, giving you information on how you should adjust your gait. They might heat up and keep your feet warm in winter. And a light might keep you safer on a nighttime jog.

Loomia’s CEO Janett Liriano and founder Maddy Maxey

Liriano has two patents for her product and others in the pipeline for the smart fabric-enabling circuits. Her team is working with more than 80 brands on how they can integrate the smart technology into their designs. The current emphasis is on clothing, but the flexibility of the circuit opens the door to other products in the future.

“We are category agnostic,” Liriano says. “If you can make a washable circuit, you can put it on the floor. You can put it in wallpaper.”

Liriano, who took home third place in the business ventures category at the Nashville Creator Awards, sees potential in fields ranging from medicine to transportation.

Not only can Loomia transform the ways smart devices are used, it can also change what happens to all that data once it is collected. The company is looking at ways that consumers can sell their data to interested parties — or choose not to share it.

Liriano, a “born-and-bred New Yorker,” thinks the city is the right place for the firm. It’s one of the country’s great fashion hubs, but it also has a strong startup scene.

New Yorkers are inherently scrappy and resourceful,” she says. “For a business that is not super capitalized, that’s a good network. We are hard-core hustlers.”