Getting Down to Business with L’Oréal USA’s Women in Digital Winners

There comes a point when every “new” campaign to nurture startups either matures itself or fades away. L’Oréal USA’s Women in Digital looks like it plans to stick around.

Now in its fourth year, the annual program continues to provide mentorship to three woman-led startups, who also get a shot at running pilots with the cosmetics giant. Though the matter of diversity and gender in tech has been a frequent media topic this year, the disparity persists in the community—but some inroads are being made.

The winners of this year’s NEXT Generation Awards from the Women in Digital program are Sian Morson, founder and CEO of Cast Beauty; Rachel Tipograph, founder and CEO of MikMak; and Katherine Ryder, founder and CEO of Maven.

More mobile-first and consumer-facing companies were among the applicants this year, says Rachel Weiss, vice president of innovation and entrepreneurship for L’Oréal USA and chair of the program. That compares with last year’s entrants, who were heavily into analytics and enterprise software. But beyond a shift in focus among the hopefuls, Weiss says Women in Digital can now point to the efforts of some graduates for validation. “Now we have a pipeline of women who are mentoring each other and have either sold their businesses, or pivoted their business and are on to something new,” she says.

New York-based alumnus Poptip, for example, was acquired in 2014 by Palantir Technologies for undisclosed terms.

In prior years, the winners from the program were presented at a soiree with celebrities such as Aimee Mullins and Olivia Munn.

Last week, though, the winners came together at a closed event just for L’Oréal marketers and executives. Teams responsible for the company’s different brands got the chance to meet with the winners, Weiss says, to explore the possibility of working together in the future. A grand prize winner is guaranteed a pilot with one of L’Oréal’s brands.

The founders chosen this year all share an ingrained wish to build their own companies. Cast Beauty’s Morson says she comes from an entrepreneurial family. Her app uses weather data to give personalized skin and hair care recommendations, and help users decide which products to buy.

While working in the corporate scene she decided she wanted full control of her endeavors. “I was empowered to think in an entrepreneurial way, even within an established corporate structure,” she says.

Morson started her career as a project manager in advertising, and a project in the early days of mobile gave her the nudge to branch out on her own. At the time, smartphones were just starting to emerge and the ad industry had yet to embrace mobile devices as mediums to reach customers. “This was before the iPhone came out; of course that changed everything,” she says.

Cast Beauty developed out of a personal need, Morson says, to know the effects and changes the weather might have on her skin and hair. Seeing that other women shared this issue prompted her efforts to find a technology-driven solution.

Ambition is not always enough to build up a company. Ryder, who as a journalist worked with The Economist, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker in New York and overseas in Singapore and London, called moving to foreign cities and getting established in those locales an entrepreneurial act. “At a certain point, I wanted to build something rather than write about what other people were building,” she says.

However, Ryder says her first attempt at starting a business, in the Chinese travel sector, “failed miserably.” Despite that letdown, she believed she could create a company—with a bit more experience. She worked in venture capital with Index Ventures, learning how to fundraise, and also fleshed out her personal network of entrepreneurs and investors. “Some of them are investors in Maven,” she says.

Maven is a telehealth platform that lets women have video appointments with doctors, nurses, physical therapists, nutritionists, and other practitioners.

Getting into digital health, Ryder says, came from the realization that many women face problems when trying to address issues with their own healthcare. Maven was created to offer a personalized way to save time and connect with care providers.

Some telehealth services are available from providers such as Captureproof in San Francisco and, to some degree, from Vidyo in Hackensack, NJ. Ryder says Maven is the only telehealth company focused on female healthcare consumers.

The service is primarily available in New York, and Ryder says she is working on taking Maven national. The expansion plan will include recruiting practitioners who are licensed in multiple states. The ability to message practitioners is coming to Maven next month, Ryder says.

The main customers Maven serves right now, she says, are college-age women and pregnant women, during transitional times in their lives. “When there’s some kind of disruption in your life or daily routine, people are using us,” she says.

This year’s grand prize winner was the most mobile-specific of the trio. Video shopping network MikMak is an iOS app that runs short infomercials for beauty products, accessories, gadgets, and other wares all priced under $100. All the videos are 30 seconds long and the hosts all have backgrounds in comedy. “People think of us as QVC for Snapchat,” Tipograph says.

An entrepreneur throughout her youth, she became an eBay power user at 13. “E-commerce and digital marketing were things that I’ve been doing natively my entire life without thinking twice about it,” she says. That trait continued into her college years. As an undergrad at NYU, Tipograph ran a social media agency for comedians. “That’s when I found a passion for using digital communication to disrupt old business models,” she says.

While in school, she also became a reverse mentor teaching executives at Time Warner about the Internet. She eventually got a job at New York-based digital strategy firm Undercurrent, and later joined the Gap’s marketing team in New York running global social media, hired to increase the company’s appeal among younger consumers. “I knocked a decade off the average customer,” Tipograph says.

But she thought there could be another way to drive sales on the Web beyond promotional e-mails and retargeted advertising. Tipograph found that video had the potential to be as effective as those forms of marketing, without annoying the audience. The trouble was professional video production remained costly for advertising. She looked for a way to bring that kind of quality to the mobile scene—but without the typical six- to seven-figure price tag.

Infomercials looked like the answer, Tipograph says, if they were packaged in short videos to appeal to 18-to-34-year-olds. That is where MikMak came from.

She bootstrapped the development of the prototype, went on to raise $2.1 million, publicly launched MikMak back in June, and got named by Apple as a best new app at the time. Under the first revenue model, MikMak took a percentage of every sale it generated, Tipograph says. As her clientele expanded from small brands to Fortune 500 companies, including American Express and General Electric, sponsored content followed.

Tipograph says MikMak’s appeal is it captures people’s attention when they equally want to be entertained and shop, rather than sneak in an ad while they are watching a show. “I’m not trying to fool them,” she says. “They 100 percent know what we’re doing.”

L’Oréal is building up momentum in its efforts to work with startups, which may help to shape the future for the company. Back in March, L’Oréal USA started working with the New York-based Grand Central Tech accelerator. As this push to see more innovation continues, Weiss says the importance of talking about women in tech and business has not diminished. “This conversation still needs to happen,” she says.

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