Aimee Mullins, L’Oréal Talk Progress for Women in Innovation

If you ask Aimee Mullins how to drive innovation, she responds with an athlete’s point of view.

Exploring new ideas should be part of a routine, like training for a sport, not just done in a crisis, the athlete and model told me in an interview at L’Oréal USA’s NEXT Generation Awards in New York. “So much of our society is about focusing on one thing,” Mullins said. “Dabbling is how you develop that curiosity muscle.”

Mullins was the keynote speaker at least week’s event, which honored three women founders of startups picked as standouts. This is the third year for the Women in Digital program, which offers the chosen companies mentorship and a chance to test out their technology with L’Oréal’s brands.

The honorees this year were Cynthia Breazeal, founder of Jibo in Cambridge, MA; Victoria Eisner co-founder of Glamsquad in New York; and Tania Yuki, founder of Shareablee in New York.

The importance of women speaking up in innovation is exemplified by Mullins. Born without fibula bones, both of her lower legs were amputated below the knees when she was a year old. Mullins said she grew up learning to walk, run, and compete in sports on wooden prosthetic legs.

Over the years, her prosthetics were upgraded to newer materials, but she pushed for new designs and concepts. Nearly 20 years ago, in her quest to be “the fastest woman in the world with prosthetic legs,” she got in touch with an inventor to create something not yet tried. Rather than mimic human anatomy, the woven carbon-fiber legs that were developed for her were modeled after the hind legs of cheetahs.

Mullins continues to give her input in this field, including working with a team at MIT that is developing a more advanced bionic, prosthetic leg. “The team, which was predominately men, were not thinking in the checklist of what the ideal prosthetic leg can offer,” she said. “They were not thinking it should have a bendable foot-ankle so the user can wear a different heel height. That’s something I think about because I have to bring a suitcase full of different legs everywhere I go if I want options to wear different shoes.”

Tania Yuki, Victoria Eisner, Cynthia Breazeal, and Aimee Mullins at this year's awards.

Tania Yuki, Victoria Eisner, Cynthia Breazeal, and Aimee Mullins at this year’s awards.

Raising the voices of women in innovation continues to be a fight, though one Mullins and others believe is well worth the effort. “Right now, 7 percent of people who get venture capital funds are women,” she said. “It’s not because there’s not enough great ideas that women have.” Even if some of the extra hurdles women entrepreneurs must overcome are inadvertent, Mullins thinks the system is set up to be more difficult for them—but it doesn’t have to be that way. “I believe that men of my generation do not intend to keep their sisters, and their girlfriends, and their wives, and their moms at bay,” she said.

She believes the Women in Digital program helps drive some change by supporting startups founded by women—but there is still a long way to go. “Even when we honor the success of women who are making it, lots of our sisters aren’t, simply because the door isn’t as open as it is for our brothers,” Mullins said.

For Breazeal, the award from L’Oréal came just days after Jibo wrapped up a $2.3 million funding campaign on Indiegogo. Breazeal is on leave from the MIT Media Lab, where she heads up the personal robotics group. Jibo is a “social robot” that learns users’ preferences, can tell stories, take family photos, and be used to make video calls.

Breazeal said her interest in robots began as a kid watching R2-D2 in the “Star Wars” movies. She said Jibo, as a robot for the family, can be used to interact with content from beauty brands such as L’Oréal. “The time is finally right,” she said. “There is a lot that technology can still do to help busy families.”

Part of the idea for social robots, she said, is to combine someone the users trust with information technology. “When you think of a robot in that way, as opposed to a labor device that vacuums, now robots can do many things for you,” she said.

For example, a user might ask Jibo to take pictures, rather than having to set up a camera themselves. Breazeal said Jibo is a helper for the physical world, beyond what digital personal assistants such as Siri or Cortana offer from within smartphones. The spread of mobile computing, Breazeal said, helped familiarize the public with the idea of using devices in their daily lives. Thanks to the crowdfunding campaign, she said, the Jibo team is focusing on getting their product ready for the expected first release in December 2015.

Glamsquad’s Eisner is also trying to make innovation part of consumers’ daily lives. Her company has developed an on-demand app and online beauty service that sends hair and makeup artists to customers. Users of the iPhone app can book appointments in real-time. Eisner said she saw a place in the market for this service, which can come in handy particularly when traveling. Rather than packing a hairdryer and other supplies, she said, one can book a visit from beauty professionals through Glamsquad. Eisner said her company is expanding and also looking into other industries. “We want to scale the business to different cities,” she said. “We’re beginning to launch L.A.”

Meanwhile, Shareablee is expanding overseas, offering its analytics and intelligence to marketers for their social media campaigns. Yuki said she saw both confusion and opportunity in the social sphere, which led to Shareblee’s creation. She is a veteran of Comscore, and prior to starting Shareablee, she led the development of an online-video measurement tool. “Pretty much anything I build will be data-related,” Yuki said.

For instance, that video tool made it possible to foresee certain outcomes of marketing campaigns, but social media remained unpredictable. Yuki wanted to figure out the driving factors that make content popular in social media, and worked that into Shareablee’s platform. “Is it time of day? Is it type of content?” she asked. “How can we use data to make it easy and clear for a marketer to know how to take all of these variables and make a good decision?”

While women continue to make strides as entrepreneurs, Yuki said they still must push back at times against wrong assumptions. “There can be a perception that we’re not building scalable, big idea companies.” After the awards, Yuki was on her way to Brazil to get Shareablee launched there for Social Media Week São Paulo.

Rachel Weiss, vice president of digital innovation at L’Oréal USA, said her company continues to run Women in Digital to find new ideas that can help its own business strategy. (She heads up the program.) “We looked at who can help us solve an issue for L’Oréal that we can’t do ourselves,” Weiss said.

The company’s effort to encourage women in innovation goes beyond last week’s awards. For example, Weiss said L’Oréal worked with Hackbright Academy this year to create a scholarship for women to learn to code. “Not only do we want to support women entrepreneurs, we want to drive talent into our own organization,” she said.

 

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