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A woman’s touch: Why female-led startups are centering design in their business

January 18, 2022, 7:31 PM UTC

The design world is packed with incredible stories of innovation, creative journeys, and of course the detours along the way. Talk to any start-up founder and you’ll hear the same stories—a narrative thread of personal story, random idea turned real life adventure or surprisingly solved problem. And there are plenty of female founders straddling both worlds. In fact, a cursory email to the fantastically bright Vanessa Cho at Google Ventures asking for her thoughts on women leveraging design to build early-stage companies garnered an incredibly quick, impressively thorough list. (See also: Uno Health, Brightline, Blavity, Gravity Sketch, Cala Health and Dandelion Energy.) The women we spoke to are just a sliver of what happens when design leads the way between an initial idea and a growing business, and are great examples of how leaning on design to solve a problem can create an entirely new way of doing ordinary things whether you’re a scientist, an athlete, or just an average Jane headed to the doctor for your annual physical.

Amor Sui

Beau Wangtrakuldee is a PhD and material scientist. While completing her postdoctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 2018, she found inspiration in the wake of an unfortunate lab accident. “I was burned by a chemical in the lab,” Wangtrakuldee recalls. “My lab coat didn’t protect me. The chemical spilled onto my coat and burned through onto my leg.” The experience prompted her to consider her personal protective equipment (PPE). The idea that the gear made with the sole purpose of protection didn’t protect her when she needed it, invited a host of questions around how and why PPE is designed. First, she says, most PPE are designed to fit Caucasian males. Secondly, the textiles used in the process were also not always doing the job, either.

The project began as a passionate side hustle to offer scientists better options and is now Amor Sui, a growing, legitimate business selling protective PPE based in Philadelphia. Today, three years in, the company is still very much in its nascent stages, but growing quickly and just took on their first seed round of investment. The through line at Amor Sui, Wangtrakuldee says, is truly designed for the end user: scientists and (as of 2020) healthcare workers. “Last year we did half a million in revenue with more than 1,500 customers,” she says, noting expected growth in the coming year of three to five times this last year’s revenue. “We are building the first online buying experience for safety wear. We only sell protective products that you can reuse and rewash over time, and we are prioritizing premium quality over disposable products. We are focused on empowering the user.”

When Wangtrakuldee explains the business, she likens it to Rent the Runway for PPE. The entire purchasing experience is digital and goes so far to link hospitals and labs with local vendors who can launder and help care for the Amor Sui PPE properly. Shoppers can order a free try-on box and then shop entirely online for antimicrobial gloves, fire resistant face masks, chic tops and pants, lab coats and even PPE hijabs that meet all sorts of safety certifications. The hijab, Wangtrakuldee says, is a great example of Amor Sui’s design practice at work: “People from all over the world buy it from us and they can’t get it anywhere else. Headscarves are usually made of silk. If you have a scientist who works in the lab and they work with chemicals, that can catch on fire. We are the only ones who make the fire resistant hijab and it is one example of why designing for women is so important.”


After co-founder Carolyn Witte spent three years visiting various doctors to finally land on a diagnosis of PCOS, an incredibly common endocrine disorder, she wondered how she could reimagine the system for herself and others. Tia is a comprehensive, innovative healthcare clinic for women and is named for the Spanish word for aunt, a nod to the notion that there’s no better place to gain sound, comforting, and accurate advice than your cool aunt. “If I wasn’t able to be diagnosed with one of the most common medical disorders for women my age,” says Witte, who at the time worked as a team lead at Google Creative Lab, “I wondered what it must be like for other women with less common or more complicated conditions trying to navigate the healthcare system. I became obsessed with the idea of fixing the disconnects I saw in the system, and knew I needed to do something for other women experiencing the same frustrations.”

Since 2016, Tia has built out a virtually integrated platform that offers women online and in-person care. Witte says her focus was to ensure that Tia draws best in class providers and inspires female patients to keep up with their care and visit with a doctor not just when something is wrong, but before a problem arises. “When we treat women as whole people, not parts — with a comprehensive care model that can support their whole lives and prevent sickness, not just treat symptoms – we can make healthcare work better for women, for families, and communities,” she says. A big part of delivering on that sentiment has been creating a physical space that matched Tia’s mission. The organization’s clinics have both indoor and outdoor waiting rooms, dedicated labs to make bloodwork super-efficient and hassle-free, and beautifully designed exam rooms to make patients feel warm and supported. There are even virtual care booths providers can use during office hours to connect with patients who can’t make it into the office for a visit.

Witte is clear that Tia’s design philosophy is grounded in two things: top notch patient care and providing an amazing work experience for providers. That combination, she says, allows each stakeholder to get what they need at Tia. Looking at those individual journeys have been a big part of building the business. “Women are the most valuable but underserved population in healthcare, representing $2.8 trillion in annual spend,” says Witte. “However, the healthcare system has fragmented women’s health into silos by body part or life stage, creating an ineffective model that doesn’t support their whole health. Our biggest challenge is shifting this paradigm in women’s healthcare by providing comprehensive ‘whole woman, whole life’ care that delivers better outcomes at a lower cost for both patient and provider by fusing primary, mental, and gynecological care and wellness together. Reaching more women and being able to treat them comprehensively from puberty to menopause is how we’ll define success.”


Elite runner Allyson Felix was approaching the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and had no running shoes. Her long standing relationship with her then sponsor soured amid her pregnancy and entrance to motherhood, ultimately leaving Felix to stand on her own and go in an entirely new direction for her gear. “I was told to know my place and essentially choose,” recalls Felix. “No woman should have to choose between being a professional and being a mother.” From that pivot, Saysh, Felix’s own shoe brand, was born. Derived from the French word for moving back and forth (seiche) and specifically in the way water moves in enclosed bodies (lakes and reservoirs), says Felix, “Saysh is a community-centered lifestyle brand for and by women; a platform for women and a place to share truth.” She now runs the company and its community arm, Saysh Collective, with her brother Wes Felix who serves as co-founder and CEO. “Allyson and I believe that building community is about two-way engagement, meeting our collective where they are, and helping them to see themselves in our content helps separate us from other brands,” says Wes. “Community is a relationship. It’s people talking, sharing, and being vulnerable. Our community started with my sister and me…Saysh is a community built to celebrate, educate, and empower women. We are committed to being a community that listens, that hears, and then works to find a solution.”

Head of Design Natalie Candrian and advisor Tiffany Beers used the wrap dress as a point of inspiration when considering the brand’s athleisure shoe, the Saysh One, says Felix. It needed to be effective, but also breathable and used for everyday wear. It also needed to be designed by women, she adds. Felix points out that most shoes are men’s shoes in women’s sizes, not necessarily designed for women and with their foot shape in mind. “The design is inspired by the lines of a wrap dress and is sculpted to fit the shape and form of the female foot,” says Felix. “The influence of women, especially Black women and women of color, continues to heighten in the footwear and streetwear industries; however, women-owned brands and collaborations are still unequal to the amount of men’s.” 

With the Saysh One, says Wes, Candrian and Beers tried to approach the project from a blank slate perspective: as though no sneaker existed. “We used Allyson’s feet as a guide rather than any previous shoes since men usually have smaller forefeet and larger ankles than women,” he says. Keeping true to the women behind and at the core of the brand, says Candrian, is incredibly important. “The Saysh design language has two purposes: to be honest about what our product does for her and to evoke emotion. Saysh designs will make you feel something. The fluid grace gives you quiet and mindful confidence: a balance that evokes feminine strength from within.”

For Felix, the company is an extension of what it’s meant for her to be a female athlete. “Throughout my career, I was always told to know my place,” she says. “Runners run. This is a similar experience for many women in this industry and in others, who are often shrinking themselves to fit into roles or spaces. But now I want to remind others to take up space. I want to lead them to live in our greatness and fight for what we believe in. I was tired of asking for change. I knew I needed to create it. Saysh’s vision is a future in which inequality is undermined by female creativity and athleticism. More than anything, I envision a future where no woman or girl is ever told to know her place. A woman’s place is wherever she decides it is.”  


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Nicole Gull McElroy


New design magazine

Deem is a new LA-based print magazine rooted in design as a social practice. Founded by Room for Magic’s Nu Goteh, design researcher Alice Grandoit, and filmmaker Marquise Stillwell of Openbox, the magazine is a collection of writing from designers, architects and thinkers covering topics as far-reaching as neurodiversity, science, technology, art, architecture, race, culture and more. In its third issue, Deem is focused on applying principles of equity in design work, even opening a pop-up reading room in Los Angeles to invite conversation and idea sharing. 


Blending business and design

Savannah College of Art and Design has launched the SCAD School of Business Innovation. For more than 40 years, the school has continued to bolster opportunities for its graduates across industries. The new school aims to meet the changing needs of business and constant demand for innovation, from supply chain to marketing to product development and more. The program’s purpose is to offer up the next generation of creatives and work closely with top employers across industries. Assignments in the school will mirror real life professional projects, leveraging research practices and actionable strategies alongside user-centered design thinking.


New CDO at Zillow

Jenny Arden was named Chief Design Officer at Zillow last week. With an impressive CV marking years of work at Google, Airbnb, Lyft and Nike, Arden’s new role (the first of its kind at Zillow) will be responsible for carving out the brand’s future identity. While details of the new role are still unfolding, Zillow has released in a statement that Arden will leverage and elevate the design practice at the company to increase the brand’s connection to its users.


Tia co-founders, COO Felicity Yost (left), and CEO Carolyn Witte (right). Courtesy of Tia.

“I’m inspired by my fellow female founders in all categories. In short, representation matters, no matter what demographic it is. When women, or any demographic, see themselves represented in a business or market that matters to them, they are more likely to engage. I hope the ‘by women, for women’ mission continues to grow – and even more so for underserved women, like women of color and women from different socioeconomic backgrounds.” – Carolyn Witte, co-founder of Tia.

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