midwest's top female founders

The Midwest’s Top Female Founders to Watch in 2021

“We always say unapologetically: we’re here to win, we’re here to win big, and our opportunity is big.”

That was Lori Coulter, CEO and co-founder of Summersalt, speaking at the State of the Midwest Startup Community 2020.

There’s no denying that women have made many strides in closing the gender gap in tech, but those trends haven’t necessarily been true for female founders. Since 2012, there’s been little increase in venture capital going to women-founded businesses. And in 2020, we actually saw a backward trend for female founders that’s preventing some really great breakthroughs.

In the third quarter of 2020, venture capital funding for female founders dropped to a three-year low. And still, only about 3% of venture capital goes to female founders—that number is even lower for BIPOC female entrepreneurs with an average funding rate of less than 1%.

Lori’s advice to women entrepreneurs seeking funding? Don’t let venture capitalists deter you from opportunity.

“Our jobs as women founders is, if you are asked a prevention question, to pivot to growth every time. You need to paint the biggest picture of your opportunity, and you need to be unapologetic about that,” Lori said.

And one thing is for sure: there are plenty of smart, talented and successful women entrepreneurs who are shaping communities and the future. They’re starting businesses, innovating new technology, leading teams and helping their communities. Last year was a big year for these leaders—even if the VC funding numbers don’t show it—and we’re excited to see what these entrepreneurs do in 2021.

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The Midwest’s top female founders to watch in 2021

1. Lori Coulter, Co-Founder and CEO, and Reshma Chattaram Chamberlin, Co-Founder and Chief Brand and Digital Officer

Summersalt (St. Louis)

When Lori spoke at The State of the Midwest Startup Community in October of last year, we were all blown away by her. She and Reshma Chattaram Chamberlin co-founded Summersalt, a direct-to-consumer lifestyle brand that sells swimwear and other sustainable apparel that lets women feel comfortable, be mobile and stick to their budget. They’ve done innovative work with sizing, taking over 1.5 million body measurements from 10,000 women to create the Summersalt fit. They’re highly committed to body positivity and diversity, both in their advertising and in their company culture.

In June of 2020, Lori and Reshma took a stand against racial injustice—and put their money where their mouth is. In the three years since Summersalt was founded, the company has grown its product line and expanded its customer base that puts the company in the top 1% of venture-backed consumer facing startups worldwide.

2. Lisa McLaughlin and Robin McIntosh, Co-Founders and Co-CEOs

Workit Health (Ann Arbor)

Workit Health is a top Ann Arbor startup that’s making addiction treatment more accessible. For Lisa and Robin, it’s personal. The co-founders both experienced the broken system of addiction treatment in America, and they were both Silicon Valley vets who saw technology revolutionize nearly everything—except treatment addiction. So, they went to work and founded Workit Health to make care affordable, accessible and judgement-free. With their team of technologists, clinicians and experts, Workit Health is a fast-growing startup bringing treatment, both in person and online to the people who need it. And now, because the pandemic is worsening the behavior health crisis, resources like Workit Health, which has seen more clients now than ever, are all the more important.

3. Melissa Butler, Founder and CEO

The Lip Bar (Detroit)

While Melissa Butler was working on Wall Street in 2012, she started making lipstick in her kitchen because she was so sick and tired of the beauty industry “standards”—no diversity, no inclusion and way too many harsh chemicals. So, the Detroit native started The Lip Bar in 2012, and has expanded far beyond her kitchen. Now selling lipsticks, eye shadows, mascara, eyeliner, foundation, concealer and more, you can find Lip Bar products in Target nationwide and at the flagship store in Parker’s Alley downtown Detroit. I’m excited to see what’s next from Melissa and The Lip Bar as she continues to innovate, challenge preconceived notions of beauty, and make everyone feel beautiful.

Tune in to our StartupNation Radio interview with Melissa Butler, founder and CEO of The Lip Bar.

4. Amber Leong, Co-Founder and CEO

Circadian Optics (Minneapolis)

Anyone who lives in the Midwest knows that winters can be brutal. For Amber Leong, an immigrant from Malaysia, the Minnesota winters were downright depressing. After nearly dying from Toxic Shock Syndrome and battling seasonal affective disorder, Amber was inspired to create a better, more beautiful happy lamp. She started Circadian Optics and began making sleek, scientifically-backed (and highly-rated) happy lamps.

On season 11 of “Shark Tank,” she won a $750,000 investment from Lori Greiner and Mark Cuban. In 2019 alone, Circadian Optics brought in $4 million in revenue, and since March 2020, the company has seen as much as a 20% bump in sales.

5. Olivia Weinstock, CEO and Co-Founder; Natalie Amling and McKenzie Kennelly, Technical Co-Founders

Tandem (Columbus)

Last year, we chatted with three female founders who are making a name for themselves in Columbus. Their new startup, Tandem, is a free marketplace for child care. At the time, the company had four employees, all women, who were focused on building the technology and the alternative revenue model to make this free platform possible. Since, then they’ve built up their team and are continuing to grow.

Learn more about Tandem and the company they’re building here.

6. Mary Kay Huse, Co-Founder and CEO

Mandolin (Indianapolis)

Based in IndyMandolin was founded on the belief that the show must go on. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced musicians to cancel concerts, Mary Kay Huse and co-founders Steve Caldwell and Robert Meitus jumped on the chance to build the technology to make live streaming music possible. In a matter of weeks, they were up and running, ready to produce shows. They’ve emerged as an industry leader for live streaming concerts due to their high-quality video and audio, as well as the ability to sell tickets and generate revenue for struggling venues.

In October of last year, they raised $5 million in seed funding. Mary Kay left an executive role at Salesforce for this gig (no pun intended) and grew the company to 30 employees. We’re excited to see where she takes the company in 2021.

7. Ann Marie Sastry, Founder and CEO

Amesite (Ann Arbor)

Let’s face it—online learning isn’t going away any time soon. And that’s all the more reason why it needs to be improved. Amesite, a top Ann Arbor startup, is building an online learning platform that uses AI to better engage its users. In January 2020, they closed a $5.5 million funding round, and in September, the company filed for IPO. They also earned a 2020 BIG Innovation Award.

Ann Marie Sastry, the founder of Amesite, has been a thought leader throughout this period when more students are learning online now than ever before—she’s appeared on CNBCFox News and more. Last year was a big one for the Ann Arbor tech company, and it’ll be interesting to see how online learning continues to grow and take shape, and the kind of role Ann Marie plays in that, in the year ahead.

8. Angelica Ross, CEO and Founder

TransTech Social (Chicago)

Tech companies are great, but they often remain inaccessible workplaces for people who face high levels of discrimination. Angelica Ross is working to change that. She founded TransTech Social Enterprises, based in Chicago, to provide education, support and tech jobs for trans people. Originally from Wisconsin, Angelica is an actor, content creator, technologist and business owner who’s carving a space for and creating a community that’s empowering trans people.

9. Dawn Dickson, Founder and CEO

PopCom (Columbus)

PopCom is a startup in Columbus, Ohio that’s building software for vending machines and kiosks so retail transactions can be contactless and frictionless—which is a really good thing during a pandemic. A natural entrepreneur, Dawn has started four other innovative companies, including vending machines for flats, strategically placed in places where women most desperately need to get out of uncomfortable high heels (think airports, nightclubs, etc.).

In 2020, she raised $2.3 million through crowdfunding and secured the patent for the PopShop Kiosk. In late 2020, they opened up their third round of crowdfunding, and we’re excited to see what’s next for Dawn and this top startup in Columbus.

Tune in to our StartupNation Radio interview with Dawn Dickson, founder and CEO of PopCom.

10. Amany Killawi, Co-Founder and COO

LaunchGood (Detroit)

Founded in 2013 in DetroitLaunchGood is a crowdfunding platform that’s built to empower Muslims and raise money for their campaigns around the world. Both internally and externally, LaunchGood taps into the creative power of Muslims worldwide. Early this year, they reached $100 million in total donations, and since its founding, the company has helped raise over $170,231,265—and counting. Their reach is spread across 144 countries, 20,000 campaigns,  971,300 users and 1.8 global Muslims. Amany is paving the way for Muslim female entrepreneurs, and we’re excited to see what’s next for her and LaunchGood in 2021.

11. Allison Robinson, Co-Founder and CEO

The Mom Project (Chicago)

Built for women who don’t want to choose between their families and their careers, The Mom Project was founded by Allison Robinson while she was on maternity leave. The company works with employers who are dedicated to building and designing a better workplace, so that women with children can get back into the workforce more easily. Back in July of 2020, The Mom Project announced a funding round of $25 million, and since 2018, has grown to over 275,000 users (up from 75,000), and doubled the number of organizations posting jobs on the platform to 2,000.

Many major companies like Facebook, Nike, Uber, Apple, Google and Twitter use the platform to hire working moms for tech jobs. At a time when more women are leaving the workforce due to the pandemic (in September 2020 alone, 865,000 women left the workforce, which was four times the number of men), Allison’s advocacy for women in the workplace couldn’t be more important.

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12. Jessica Willis, Founder and CEO

Pocketnest (Detroit)

Budgeting is always hard, especially during economic downturn. Pocketnest, founded by Jessica Willis, is trying to make it easier. The Detroit fintech startup uses behavioral science and psychology to coach users, primarily Millennials and Gen Xers, to achieve financial wellness. Jessica noticed that the next generation does business differently, and most financial institutions leave them out. But not Pocketnest! Jessica is building a team and the technology that’s helping more and more people achieve financial wellness. Last summer, she participated in BMO Harris Bank and 1871’s first ever Women’s Fintech Mentoring Program, and we’re excited to see the moves she makes in 2021.

If you want to check out some of Jessica’s excellent budgeting tips, click here.

13. Shivani Jain, Co-Founder and CMO

Cubii (Chicago)

Do you ever wish you could get your workout done while you get your work done? Cubii, a top startup in Chicago, makes that possible with an elliptical that fits under a desk. It’s quiet, easy to use, and you can use it wherever you’re sitting, really. It was started by Shivani Jain and Arnav Dalmia, who were undergrads at the University of Chicago at the time. They launched the product on Kickstarter in 2014, and since then, the company has seen a ton of success, bringing in tens of millions in annual revenue with little outside investment. In late 2020, the company was acquired in a $100 million deal, and Shivani and Arnav will continue to lead the Cubii team.

14. Alisyn Malek, Founder, Owner and Executive Director

MayMobility, Corktown Studios, Commission on the Future of Mobility (Detroit)

One of the founders of top Ann Arbor startup MayMobility, Alisyn Malek is an entrepreneur with a lot up her sleeve. Even though she left her position as COO at May Mobility last year to pursue other opportunities, she remains an engineering, entrepreneurial force to watch.

In 2020, she took on the role of the Executive Director for the Commission on the Future of Mobility, which is involved in major transportation and mobility policy and innovation. She’s also the founder and CEO of Middle Third, a boutique consultancy focused on mobility strategy. Not only is she a highly experienced engineer, but she’s also the owner and manager of Corktown Studios, a small artist collective in Detroit including gallery and studio space.

We’re looking forward to seeing her role in shaping the future of mobility in Detroit and beyond!

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