Meet 10 female founders - and one mentor - who are passionate, ambitious, and on a quest to create the next great company.
The Self-Made Woman
If you are a fan of comedy or a viewer of late-night talk shows, you’re surely familiar with Chelsea Handler. The 36-year-old has seen viewership of Chelsea Lately, her talk show on Comcast’s E! Network, quietly edge up, and in June her show beat rival Conan O’Brien’s in the ratings.
Yes, Chelsea Handler, comedian and television personality, is a known quantity. But allow us to introduce you to Chelsea Handler, businesswoman. In 2009, Handler co-founded Borderline Amazing Productions with Tom Brunelle, the head writer of Handler’s late-night show. Since then, the company has gone on to produce four shows — Chelsea Lately, After Lately, Big Loud Lisa, and Are You There…Chelsea? on NBC.
Borderline Amazing is also developing a fifth show with That ’70s Show creator Marc Brazill; a sort-of “Wonder Years about me because I’ve always been this way,” says Handler. And, Handler’s team recently sold a movie to The Weinstein Company, which Borderline Amazing will be producing.
Celebrities with production companies are as common as starlets with fluffy, teacup-sized dogs. But Handler, whose brand is undeniably the foundation of Borderline Amazing, is not only the face — but also the strategic brain — behind the company. “For the first 3 years, I was in every morning meeting,” she tells Fortune. “I never missed anything because you want to get that flow going, you want everyone to know at what level you expect things to be turned in. When you’re putting your product out there with your own name on it, you want it to be very Chelsea-specific. You really have to be involved in every aspect, in every edit.”
Having control on the business side of things is extremely important. But, “power, obviously, can be a dangerous word,” Handler warns. “It’s about being really savvy, about making smart decisions, and about making original decisions.” She uses her power within the company to promote those who would otherwise get looked over. “I really like to look at people who are underdogs. It’s kind of nice to do that — put people on TV that most people would be like `That’s a face for radio.’ I think that’s the best part… We get to put people on that normally wouldn’t have that opportunity.”
Perhaps Handler’s inclination toward underdogs stems from her own relationship with the term. Growing up in Livingston, N.J., Handler, the youngest of six children, says she had a hard time fitting in at school because “everyone’s family was much more together than mine.” And, she wasn’t always a powerhouse comedian. Twelve years ago, Handler performed at the Montreal Comedy Festival. “I bombed horribly,” she recalls. “I was supposed to be this new face of comedy, this new it girl. Probably one of the worst nights of my life. It was a room full of industry, so it was really embarrassing on every level. It took a long time to get past that.”
But those types of moments gave Handler tough skin and pushed her to work harder. “It’s just a lesson in humility. You know, I don’t know what the point of that is, but it’s just the same old cliché that you have to fail to succeed. You wouldn’t be a strong performer if you didn’t know what it was like to be a weak performer.”
Always looking forward, Handler is leading Borderline Amazing as the company renegotiates her deal with Comcast, molding it into a multiplatform contract. “I’m developing a show; a more serious, mindful program. I have an opportunity to bring my viewers to the next level; as I’m growing up, I want to take everyone with me.” She also has her own publishing imprint, Borderline Amazing/A Chelsea Handler Book.
That power — to be taken seriously by these network big wigs — is extremely important to Handler. But it doesn’t mean that she thrives on being recognized for her showbiz gravitas. When asked about Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women in Business list, Handler responded: “Being on any list where people are recognizing your impact on your specialty is always great. But I don’t think you can go through life or your career with that sole intent. It’s not like I get some big hard-on from these lists.”
The Social Entrepreneurs
Julia Silverman, co-founder of Uncharted Play, is stumped. I’ve just asked her to share the best advice she’s ever received, and the entrepreneur responds with a long pause. Finally she says: “Honestly, the first thing that came to mind was, `Don’t tweeze above your eyebrows. Thanks mom!'”
An offbeat, fun answer is exactly what you might expect from the founder of a company that aims to turn playthings like soccer balls into sources of energy.
Uncharted Play got its start at Harvard University, where Silverman and co-founder Jessica Matthews were students in a course called “Idea Translation Lab.” The girls — and two of their classmates — struggled to pass the class. (At one point Matthews turned to Silverman and the two other students and stated, “No, you are not messing with my GPA.”) Their solution was the sOccket ball, a soccer ball that doubles as a portable generator. Inspired by their travels — all four had spent time in developing countries — they hoped to create a means to help those without electricity. “It’s high school physics, really,” Matthews says.
After graduating from Harvard in 2010, Matthews and Silverman took on full-time jobs but both recently quit to work on the sOccket Ball, the first of the products they plan to distribute through Uncharted Play. Matthews serves as CEO of the company, and Silverman is Chief Social Officer.
Their initial idea has captured the attention of big names like former President Bill Clinton. After Matthews presented the sOccket Ball at the Clinton Global Initiative University in April 2011, Clinton exclaimed, “If ever there was an innovator, she’s it.” He also asked Matthews to participate on a “Designing for Humanity” panel at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting this September. And, earlier this month, she could be seen at President Barack Obama’s side as he signed the America Invents Act.
Over the past year, the two women hired a team of engineers to continually improve the ball. It’s now un-deflatable and able to power LED lamps, water purifiers, mini-fridges, and emergency cell phone chargers. They launched the new ball on September 22. Working with State Farm and Latin alternative music group Huecco, Uncharted Play will distribute at least 2500 balls to communities in Mexico, El Salvador, and Costa Rica before the end of the year. They’re also being sent to Nigeria and Haiti.
To make sure customers are properly trained on how to use the sOccket Ball, Matthews and Silverman partner with local organizations in the communities, ranging from NGOs to soccer teams. They’ve formulated a business model that allows them to help others, but also keep Uncharted Play afloat. The company’s 2012 projected revenue is $2 million. Next up: A basketball prototype based on the sOccket (hoping to appeal to more Americans) and the construction of a manufacturing factory in Nigeria.
“Innovation is what we’re really hoping to use [Uncharted Play] as a platform for,” Silverman emphasizes. “It’s about dreaming and thinking about your community and how you can better it through innovation.” Budding entrepreneurs take note: That’s some good advice.
Clara Shih attended Illinois Math and Science Academy — a hypercompetitive school that has produced the founders of Yelp and YouTube, among others — so perhaps it should come as no surprise that she started her own tech company, which, in a cool twist, helps companies manage their corporate presence on sites like those created by alumni of her old high school.
Shih is co-founder of Hearsay Social, a two-year-old software platform that provides corporations with the tools to monitor and manage their marketing campaigns — as well as their employees’ activities on social-media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and, yes, Yelp.
Hearsay Social’s application, sold as a service via the Internet, aims to teach companies how to maximize their efforts on social sites, in part by turning staffers into online ambassadors for their employers’ products and services.
The company, which she co-founded with Steve Garrity, a college classmate at Stanford, has raised some $21 million in financing from prestigious backers such as Sequoia Capital, NEA and Steve Chen, the co-founder of YouTube and an Illinois Math and Science grad. (They didn’t overlap at the school.)
Though Shih had long known she wanted to be an entrepreneur (more on that in a moment) she took a circuitous route to becoming a founder. After Stanford, she worked in corporate strategy at Google and got two masters degrees — one in computer science and one in Internet studies. As part of the grander plan, she realized she wanted to go into sales. “My professors at Stanford used to say, `If you want to become the founder or CEO of a company, you need to know how to sell.” So, Shih joined Salesforce.com in 2006 as a founding product marketer on the AppExchange.In 2007, Facebook launched its application programming interface–a set of tools to allow third parties to build products on the Facebook platform; Shih was surprised that all the apps taking advantage of the platform were for consumers– music sharing, photo sharing, games. “Why isn’t anyone using the Facebook social graph for business?” she asked herself.
Shih tried to convince engineer friends of hers at Salesforce to build something with Facebook. Their response: An uninterested “What is the Facebook thing? I’ve never heard of it.” Shih’s inner monologue kicked in. “I said, `Okay, Clara. You’re an engineer. Why don’t you do this if you think it’s so cool?'” Over the next few weekends — as a total side project — Shih built Facebook’s first business application. Her brainchild, Faceforce, married Salesforce customers’ account and contact information with their Facebook profiles.
The program was the first of its kind and changed Shih’s life. She was approached by publishers and wrote a book, The Facebook Era, about her application and the importance of social media in business. Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, was so impressed by Shih’s initiative that he wrote the foreward in the first edition of her book — and Harvard Business School includes The Facebook Era as part of their curricula. It was this book that connected her with Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook guru who quickly became Shih’s mentor.
The research for her book was intense — and made her realize, “Oh my gosh, where we were with the Internet fifteen years ago is where we are with social media today. I’ve seen this movie play out before. It’s during these narrow windows of opportunity that great entrepreneurship can happen.” She called her old classmate, Steve Garrity, and said, “Steve, this is the day we’ve been waiting for. We have to do this. If we don’t do this, someone else will.” Garrity left his job at Microsoft, moved to the Bay area, and the two began developing Hearsay Social.
Shih penned her 10 year-goals in her journal at age eighteen: To own her own tech company and to be married. Hearsay Social, founded when she was 27 seems to be well underway. And on Oct. 1, Shih fulfilled her other teenage pledge: She married her neurologist boyfriend, Daniel Chao.
The Young Turk
Demet Mutlu takes multitasking to new heights. Mutlu, 30, is an investor in Doktorsitesi.com, a Turkish medical portal with one million members, and Peak Games, a social gaming company in Turkey and the Middle East with 15 million active users. She’s also the founder of Trendyol, a thriving 19-month-old Turkish e-commerce company that itself is an exercise in multitasking: In addition to an online store that attracts 12 million visitors a month, the company operates a fast-fashion clothing line called Milla.
Her juggling act appears to be paying off: Trendyol has raised more than $50 million in capital from investors like Tiger Global and Kleiner Perkins — the firm’s first investment in Turkey.
Still, Mutlu manages to find time to answer customers’ emails, part of an overall effort by Trendyol to stay connected with consumers–a practice that not only helps ensure repeat business but also helps the company forecast demand. Here’s how: Mutlu and her team post designs by Milla, the website’s fashion line, on their Facebook fan page and on Trendyol’s website. Customers can then vote on their favorite designs and the winners are the items that appear in the Milla collection each month. This type of concept is great for production, because it’s based entirely on demand, says Mutlu.
For Mutlu, who started Trendyol while still at Harvard Business School and left the MBA program to work on the company full time, Trendyol is a labor of love. “When I talk about Trendyol, my employees say they see the spark in my eye. That’s really why they accepted the offer [to work here]. They see that excitement and passion and they want to join the company,” she says.
Born in New York, Mutlu was raised in the states, the UK, and Turkey — and went to high school in Italy. She believes experiencing these varying cultures has benefited her in business. “In entrepreneurship, you have to have the right ingredients,” says Mutlu. “I’ve built my finance skills, I’ve built my ability to raise funding from VCs, my ability to understand consumers, my ability to manage people, the ability to write a business plan, the ability to understand operations, to build a supply chain.” Since businesses that scale fast are rather complicated, all these skills come into play. “Though our business looks glamorous from the outside, it’s really, really difficult.”
That isn’t going to stop Mutlu from moving ahead with plans to expand internationally–a big challenge, but from the looks of it, nothing a globetrotting multitasker like Mutlu can’t handle.
In 2005, two years after a failed run for Governor of California (she lost to Arnold Schwarzenegger), Arianna Huffington sought a new challenge. Huffington, whose wit, intelligence and charisma had made her a sought-after pundit on political talk shows, realized the civic “conversation was moving online. People had relevant things to say… and they weren’t alone in saying them,” she tells Fortune.
That year, she and Kenneth Lerer, an angel investor, former AOL Time Warner executive and founding partner of media firm Robinson, Lerer, and Montgomery, launched The Huffington Post. She says: “We wanted to open up the conversation and elevate blogging.”
Starting with only six employees, the website aggregated other sites’ content — much to the chagrin of media traditionalists — and also produced its own. The Huffington Post has grown immensely since; in early January, the site attracted 28 million unique visitors. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong took notice and, in an attempt to redirect and bolster his company’s struggling brand, purchased The Huffington Post for $315 million.
Huffington famously signed the deal during halftime of the 2011 Superbowl, converting her once small, privately owned company into a large, publically traded one. She also became the editor-and-chief and president of the newly created Huffington Post Media Group, putting her in charge of all AOL owned media outlets.
Going corporate has increased Huffington’s media clout — so much so that Bluewater Comics, an independent publisher of graphic novels and comic books, features Huffington’s story in its Female Force series. “It’s flattering,” Huffington says. “It’s about not giving up… a message for young women that life is never linear. You should never get discouraged.”
Her two daughters, Christina and Isabella, are very sweet about all the power talk, she says. “I’ve worked all their lives. It’s always been a juggling act. But the most important thing is them.” Huffington’s own mother was her greatest mentor. “She was the central figure in terms of everything I tried to do,” says Huffington.
In 2000, when her mother died, Huffington wrote, “There was a magnificence in the way she approached everything in her life. Especially her role as mother. She brought me up to believe that there was nothing I should be afraid to try while at the same time making it clear that she would love me not one iota less if I failed.”
Huffington’s mother may have taught her to be fearless, but that doesn’t mean the media maven is a stranger to failure. She’s written and spoken about her many defeats — including the time her first book was rejected by more than two-dozen publishers. “Failure is a stepping stone to success,” Huffington emphasizes.
This type of unshakable optimism keeps the media executive afloat amidst rumors about AOL’s uncertain future. “This is the Golden Age of quality and growth for The Huffington Post. The rumors circulating don’t affect media,” she claims. With a large budget and lots of runway, Huffington is less focused on the future of AOL and more focused on seeing through her goals of expanding The Huffington Post locally and globally. She’s launched branches in Canada and the UK, created several new pages such as “Women” and “Black Voices,” and continues to work toward future partnerships with various countries. (When we met she was about to leave for Brazil.)
The Huffington Post has been “blessed with everything that has happened so far,” says Huffington. AOL provided HuffPost with the assistance it needed to see out its vision. “It was like in a fairy tale. You know, when the helpful animals come along.”
Huffington may be as charming as the princess in one of those fairy tales, but she is not a damsel in distress. If her animal friends fall ill, it is doubtful she will stick around. Yet, no matter the ending, it’s a safe bet that Arianna Huffington will survive.
Lynn Jurich doesn’t regret her time as an associate at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Summit Partners. It was there, after all, that she met Brad Murray, a fellow Summit employee she married in 2007. And it was while vetting startups at Summit that she realized she had the creativity, intelligence, and risk threshold to be an entrepreneur herself. “Hey, they’re not any better than I am.”
With an entrepreneurial spirit but no specific plan, Jurich left Summit and began at Stanford Business School in 2005. While there, classmate Ed Fenster approached her with a new idea. He noticed that solar energy was finally getting cost competitive and suggested the two create a business model solution.
They researched around and came across a `solar as a service’ business model that commercial office buildings used: Solar developers built panels on the roofs of office towers, and signed the building owners to long-term maintenance and power-supply contracts.
Jurich and Fenster adapted this business model for the consumer market. They put in some of their own money, raised about $3 million in angel investments, and began developing SunRun as second year business students. “We would have to skip class and take meetings. It was one of those stories where we barely graduated because we were working fulltime,” recalls Jurich. In 2007, SunRun launched its first solar financing plan.
In the fall of 2008, as Wall Street took a dive for the worse, Jurich was sure her company — still in its infancy — would, too. Yet that November, SunRun closed its first fund with U.S. Bank, who gave the company $40 million. In the past four years, Jurich and Fenster have raised financing for $750 million in solar systems, plus $85 million in venture capital. The company will more than double this year in terms of revenue and customers. SunRun currently installs about $365 million worth of equipment per year; Jurich hopes to install $1 billion dollars worth of solar equipment per year in the near future.
Customers sign 20-year agreements with SunRun. The service is only available in nine states right now. In order to make switching to solar as easy as switching from one utility to another, Jurich and her team have to make sure solar power is competitive in the specified area. Customers then pay SunRun a low monthly fee for solar power, which is typically less or even with what they’re paying the normal utility company, according to Jurich. They’re then locked into that price for the next 20 years.
Though always business oriented — she wrote an essay in 3rd grade about how Christmas helped retail sales — Jurich credits her husband with helping her get SunRun off the ground. The two had been married for less than a year when Jurich founded SunRun. “We said, `Why don’t we approach our marriage like a portfolio? One of us will go really high risk and one of us will go safe,” she explains. Murray went into private equity so that his wife could start her own company.
Now that SunRun is stable and successful, Jurich’s husband is launching his own venture called Tatcha — a skincare line. “We’re kind of a gender role reversal in terms of industry,” laughs Jurich. His support was essential — especially when many of her classmates scoffed at she and Fenster’s business idea. “But here we are today, with very few competitors after four years.”
Sandra Kurtzig is, in many ways, typical of today’s Silicon Valley founders: She’s ambitious, she’s a repeat entrepreneur, and her business software company, Kenandy, is capitalizing on a hot tech trend (software delivered over the `Net). But there’s one thing that separates Kurtzig from the generally youthful pack: She’s 64 years old.
If Kurtzig’s name rings a bell it might be because she was a Valley pioneer in a different era. In 1972, she started ASK Group Inc. (formerly Ask Computer Systems), a groundbreaking maker of manufacturing-management software that became the first female-founded company to go public. (It did so in 1981). Kurtzig left the company in 1985–citing the desire to spend more time with her family. When her successor didn’t work out, she returned to run the company for a few more years before retiring from ASK for good in 1991. The company was acquired by Computer Associates (now CA Technologies) in 1994.
Kurtzig filled her retirement days with projects, including a 5-year stint as the general contractor on her house on the Kohala Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii. She was without a project when her neighbor, Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, suggested that Kurtzig say goodbye to her cushy Hawaiian digs and relocate to Silicon Valley to work on a manufacturing management software that could be sold as a service. “I know you’re big and overbearing,” she told Benioff, who helped evangelize so-called cloud computing. “But I’m retired. Did you forget?” Still, the rush that accompanied the new challenge attracted Kurtzig’s inner adventurer — and she bit. She worked on the Kenandy product, funding all the development herself, in hiding for 18 months before unveiling the company at Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference for Cloud-focused companies on September 1.
The first time Kurtzig started a company, she wasn’t quite so fearless and unhesitating. She was a 24-year old working at General Electric selling computer timesharing devices when she received a call in 1971 from a guy named Larry Whitaker whose company, Halcyon Communications, needed a custom computing program to handle his company’s start-up manufacturing operations.
The idea of leaving her secure GE job was frightening. “In 1971 the man leaving a corporation to start his own company was often the black sheep… and the woman starting her own company was considered a pariah, a piranha, or both,” she recounts in her autobiography, CEO: building a $400 million company from the ground up.
Nevertheless, Kurtzig pushed ahead and, with a $2,000 commission check from GE and a $300 check from Halycon, she founded ASK in a spare bedroom of her Mountain View, Calif., apartment. (ASK stands for she and her sons — Andy, Sandra, and Ken.) The company’s Manman enterprise software was a hit, and by the time Kurtzig retired ASK had annual sales of more than $450 million.
Along the way she raised two sons who have gone on to become CEOs themselves. Andy, 38, is the founder and CEO of JustAnswer Corp, a website that provides answers to users’ questions through its network of experts, and Ken, 35, is the founder and CEO of iReuse LLC, a sustainability consulting and software company. The young men regularly ask their mother for advice. “Do you want me to answer this as a mother or as a business person?” Kurtzig will reply. “As your mother, it’s a fabulous idea. As a businessperson, it’s pretty bad.” She adds: “I’m very proud of them and they’re equally proud of me.”
Her sons aren’t the only folks in Silicon Valley who admire Kurtzig’s business expertise. When Kurtzig finished building a prototype of Kenandy’s software she had little trouble finding backing. She met with Kleiner Perkins partner and former Oracle president Ray Lane, who persuaded the venture firm to invest in Kenandy. (The name is a combination of her two sons, Ken and Andy.) The company has raised $10.5 million in early round funding.
That’s a big change from the early days of ASK. Nowadays, she says, “it’s a different game.” And this time, Kurtzig is playing by her own set of rules.
Founded in 1993, Nova Ortho-Med launched a product called Voyager, which Chen billed as a “Ferrari Red” four-wheeled walker in 1995. The company has since introduced a variety of fairly stylish canes, crutches, cushions and items for bathroom safety. The different lines of walkers have zesty names like the “Zoom series” and the “Getgo series” — perfect for aging Baby Boomers who don’t want to be thought of as oldsters. “No one looks forward to the day they have physical issues. It’s important to know that you have options,” says Chen, 41.
Chen’s inspiration was her father. A physician in his native Taiwan, Bruce Chen moved his family to the United States when Sue was just four. He had hoped to become a famous surgeon but found work as a physical rehabilitation physician. “It’s not glamorous,” says Chen. “There’s little innovation. My father would ask, `Why isn’t more money, time, and thought put into medical equipment to help people move better?'” He lost a battle with cancer when Chen was just fourteen, right as her uncles were beginning to build a manufacturing company.
After graduating from Trinity College in 1992, Chen moved to California — without a plan. She then remembered her father’s dream and, with the support of her uncles’ manufacturing company, she founded Nova Ortho-Med when she was just 23 years old.
Chen started safe, because it was a “male dominated space in an industry that was heavily controlled by insurance and Medicare.” Intimidated, her products resembled every one else’s. But it was when she met a customer — a sassy, spicy woman — that she looked at her and then looked at the walker. “I thought, `This does not go.'” It was that woman, and Chen’s affinity for shiny red cars and toenails, that inspired the Voyager.
Despite the company’s successes — its sales last year topped $25.6 million — Nova Ortho-Med has had to deal with the kinds of challenges and issues that come with being a health-products provider. Four years ago, Chen and her team faced a huge consumer-filed lawsuit. According to Chen, a customer injured himself while using one of the company’s products, and the injury led to his death. The lawsuit was settled, when, says Chen, it was discovered that “our product did not cause his fall.” But the entire situation, “really broke my heart,” she recalls.
It turned out to be a huge turning point. “Being at that bottom point — questioning every motive I’ve ever had in running this company that I love so much — made me realize how much I do love what we do. It completely renewed our mission.” The company rebranded and revisited many of the warning labels on their products. “There is nothing that is worse then compromising the quality of the safety of your product.”
With a new line of glamour bags that incorporate “current, fun, timeless styles,” Chen continues to inspire mobility makeovers. “Dealing with an aging parent, dealing with a debilitating disease, dealing with the discrimination of being in a wheelchair,” shouldn’t be your identity, she emphasizes. She acknowledges that she can’t change the denial aspect of the industry, but she can help make her customers’ lives better.
“I’m not just building a company anymore; I’m not just making grandma hot here and there. It’s time for somebody — and it’s going to be a woman — to transform the industry.” Nova Ortho-Med’s 2010 revenue was $24.7 million — and that number’s expected to grow even more in 2011. Next time you see a colorful cane or patterned walker purse at a mom and pop medical stores, CVS, or on Amazon.com — just a few of the many suppliers Nova Ortho-Med works with — or a woman running after a man with a tennis ball-clad walker, don’t be alarmed. It’s just Sue Chen. “I get to live out my father’s dream. And I get to improve peoples’ lives. That’s the ultimate American dream.”
Carol Reeves is to business-plan competitions what Joe Paterno is to college football: A winning coach who inspires her teams, expects excellence, and keeps students focused on the big picture.
Reeves, 53, is an associate professor of management at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas and a seasoned adviser to student-run companies. With the proliferation of lucrative business-plan competitions such as the annual contest hosted by Rice University, Reeves’ services have never been more in demand.
Her most recent success story: BiologicsMD, which produces a drug that battles osteoporosis. Michael Thomas, Robyn Goforth, Misty Stevens, and Paul Mlakar, Jr., met in the New Venture Development class at the University of Arkansas and formed the company as part of a class project — a foursome Reeves calls a dream team because they each brought a different expertise to the table. Goforth and Stevens provide the scientific background–the two boast PhDs in Chemistry and Biology, respectively. Mlakar, a West Point grad, previously led a privately-held construction company from zero to $22 million in a few years; he acts as Biologics’ CEO. And CMO Thomas is very familiar with consumer marketing, seeing as he is a National Account Manager at Colgate-Palmolive.
Biologics went on to win the 2010 Rice contest, which carried with it about $420,000 in prize money. While other teams presented a medical device that can assess and quantify hand strength and a drug delivery device that mixes and injects freeze-dried medication, Biologics wowed the judges–and Reeves–with its scientific prowess. “I couldn’t even spell the words of the questions [the judges] were asking because it was such high level science,” Reeves jokes, “Robyn and Misty knew it forwards and backwards, so they could answer any scientific question.”
Reeves boasts, “We’ve averaged one startup a year for the last six years. For Arkansas, that’s a big deal.” BiologicsMD won five competitions in 2010 and earned over $630,000 in cash, prizes, and investments under Reeves leadership. It’s now a grownup company, as Reeves calls it, smoothly transitioning from class project to real-life startup. Earlier this year, BiologicsMD was awarded $2.3 million from the Department of Defense.
Reeves is a big supporter of bringing together students with different specialties. In 2006, she developed a Graduate Certificate in Entrepreneurship program for non-business majors. Her class pairs students with one another to create start-up business plans. The students then present those plans at various competitions.
A pro on the subject, Reeves advises fledgling entrepreneurs: “Get ready to work very hard. It’s not very glamorous, but you will be amazed how much you can get accomplished if you work hard.” Also, Reeves emphasizes that you must know your industry. “Make sure there’s a really big pain out there.” She continues to mold students into brilliant entrepreneurs, hoping to not only help Arkansas’ economy, but America’s. “I think if we encourage entrepreneurship, we can do great things.” And if Reeves star-studded teams aren’t enough to bolster her argument, I’m not sure what is.
Zhang Xin was working as a warehouse employee in Hong Kong when a childhood friend from her hometown, Beijing, visited. “It turned my whole world upside down,” Zhang told The New Yorker in 2008. Her friend could speak English, was attending college, and suggested Zhang come to America. Instead, she moved to London, learned English, and received a scholarship to the University of Sussex — and ended up at Goldman Sachs by 1993, only to leave one year later.
Tired of the fast-paced, investment banking life, Zhang returned to China and interviewed with a real estate developer, Vantone. There, she met Pan Shiyi. He proposed four days later. In 1994, the two married and went on to start their own real estate development company, Hongshi, which was soon after renamed SOHO China. Seventeen years later, the company is Beijing’s largest real estate developer.
Pan Shiyi was her co-CEO until Zhang, 46, took the reigns in 2004. Under her leadership, the company went public in 2007 and raised about $1.9 billion. Last year, the company reached $2.8 billion in sales.
SOHO China buildings have a very distinct style. Three SOHO China projects –Galaxy SOHO and Wangjing SOHO in Beijing and Hongqiao SOHO in Shanghai –are designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the London-based firm whose founder specializes in modern, parametric architecture. “We didn’t start off trying to build a brand,” Zhang told China International Business last January. “But I am very aware of architecture as a cultural element of a country.”
Zhang and her husband are know for more than the monstrous buildings they’ve developed throughout China; their inclination toward the avant-garde is often echoed in her personal life: the two are known for their glamorous parties and famous friends.
Despite talk of a real estate bubble in China’s large cities, Zhang remains optimistic about her home country’s prospects. A few months ago, SOHO acquired Jiarui International Plaza, renamed SOHO Zhongshang Plaza, for approximately $296 million — this is SOHO China’s ninth acquisition in Shanghai within the last two years. The company is also constructing a new 50,000 square meter project in Beijing — Galaxy SOHO — that is slated for completion by 2012.
“In China, you know, matter what industry you’re in, you’re able to just put your thoughts into it, try something new, because nothing was there,” she told Charlie Rose in a July interview. “So still even — you know… it still feels like anything is possible.”