5 Women Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2020

January 2, 2020

By Jessyca Dewey, contributor via the Underground Group
5-minute read

In short: 

  • The ratio of women-owned businesses in the U.S. has increased dramatically in the past 50 years -- and for the first time, it’s nearing 50%.

  • On the front lines are the five founders below, whose businesses have already seen considerable success and are poised for even more in the coming year.

  • Bolster your entrepreneurial spirit for 2020 by soaking in these founders’ stories of both hardship and triumph.


2020 isn’t just the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. It’s the year the ratio of female-owned U.S. businesses could hit 50%, thanks to a strong economy, more funding — VC investment in female-founded firms hit $17.2 billion in 2019, according to PitchBook(opens in new tab), up from just $2 billion in 2009 — and policies that support women in the workplace, like better access to child care and rules mandating pay parity(opens in new tab)

Since 1972, women have gone from owning 4.6% of U.S. businesses to a whopping 42%, according to the 2019 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report(opens in new tab) from American Express and Ventureneer. That adds up to about 13 million firms employing 9.4 million people (besides their owners) and generating $1.9 trillion in revenue. And growth is up across races, the report shows, with 50% growth for businesses owned by black women between 2014 and 2019. 

Women entrepreneurship is growing, along with venture capital investment in it. However, there's still room for improvement, especially where racial equality is concerned.


If you’re a budding female founder(opens in new tab) looking to push that women-owned business statistic to the 50% mark, then boost your skills and spirit by studying the stories below. These five founders have successful businesses that are poised for even more growth in the new year. 


1. Angelica Nwandu, founder of The Shade Room

Angelica Nwandu, who founded entertainment news site The Shade Room,(opens in new tab) will turn 30 in May 2020. Her brainchild, which had humble beginnings in her self-proclaimed “roach-infested” bedroom, will turn six next year.

Under Nwandu’s leadership, the site has blossomed into a full-blown media empire: The Shade Room will surpass 17 million Instagram followers, whom Nwandu calls “Roommates,” in 2020, and it reaches 35 million readers per week(opens in new tab). Revenue has grown by 50% year-over-year(opens in new tab) and is slated to keep up that pace in 2020. 

Angelica Nwandu is the founder of The Shade Room.(opens in new tab)

But Nwandu’s journey to mogul was not an easy one. 

In 1996, she was placed in foster care after her father murdered her mother(opens in new tab). Only 3% of foster youth(opens in new tab) in the U.S. complete four-year degrees, yet Nwandu, who has been called “the Oprah of our generation(opens in new tab),” graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s in business administration from Loyola Marymount University. 

Despite beating those odds, like many black female entrepreneurs, she had to fight for funding. According to Project Diane 2018, black female founders(opens in new tab) received only .0006% of the $424.7 billion in tech venture capital dished out from 2009-18.

 Read more about diversity in VC.(opens in new tab)

Nwandu’s quest to use her platform to elevate and champion black culture shows no signs of slowing. The Shade Room recently released two new original video series that will live on its Instagram account, with Nwandu serving as executive producer. A third series is on the way.

“The series reinforce our commitment to providing entertainment that caters to black culture and allows us to collaborate even more closely with our Roommates, who truly make TSR feel like a family,” she told Variety(opens in new tab).

Keep an eye out for more original videos and productions from Nwandu in 2020.


2. Katie Echevarria Rosen Kitchens, co-founder of FabFitFun

Katie Echevarria Rosen Kitchens is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of FabFitFun(opens in new tab), a lifestyle company that sends subscribers curated products at a hefty discount from regular prices. FabFitFun, founded in 2010, was one of the first subscription boxes(opens in new tab) to hit the market. 

Katie Echevarria Rosen Kitchens is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of FabFitFun.(opens in new tab)

Kitchens, who was a long-time writer and editor in the lifestyle space, recognized a market opportunity: Let consumers try the cool products she received from publicists. 

 Read more about the subscription model.(opens in new tab)

Now, her company has more than 1 million subscribers(opens in new tab) and provides members with access to the FabFitFun TV(opens in new tab) streaming service, which offers on-demand wellness videos, daily lifestyle content, an online community and year-round exclusive sales and shopping experiences.

Kitchens has been featured in Forbes(opens in new tab), HuffPost(opens in new tab) and #WeAllGrow Latina Network(opens in new tab).

When it comes to FabFitFun’s continued success, it’s all about staying nimble, she told VoyageLA(opens in new tab).

“We try and test a lot," she said. “And while the truth is that not everything works, we are pretty good at not being overly precious and focusing on the pieces that are actually moving the needle.”

In 2019, the brand expanded to the U.K.(opens in new tab), landed a billion-dollar valuation(opens in new tab) and teamed up with QVC(opens in new tab). Something tells us 2020 will be fab and fun for Kitchens’s team.


3-4. Naomi Hirabayashi and Marah Lidey, co-founders of Shine

The wellness industry continues to rise(opens in new tab), driving the popularity of Naomi Hirabayashi and Marah Lidey’s self-care app, Shine(opens in new tab)

In 2016, Hirabayashi and Lidey were friends and coworkers at DoSomething.org(opens in new tab), a nonprofit focused on social change, when they realized how important it was to feel supported by one another. This sparked the idea of sending daily, text-based messages of encouragement, and Shine was born. 

Naomi Hirabayashi (left) and Marah Lidey are the co-founders of Shine.(opens in new tab)

The duo has grown Shine into a popular wellness and self-help app that shares meditation practices, words of guidance and support to 2 million subscribers. That translated into $5 million in Series A funding in 2018(opens in new tab)

Hirabayashi and Lidey have been mindful about their fundraising, telling Forbes that(opens in new tab) they’ve turned down investors who they feel may not share their vision for the company. 

“It is a privilege to be able to have rounds that go so well that we can say ‘no’ to people if we sense misalignment,” Hirabayashi said. “If founders have that opportunity, or honestly even if they don’t, I think it’s better to work with a smaller budget and a smaller team than to have people with partial control of your company that you misalign with.”

Read more about choosing the right VC.(opens in new tab)

Shine has added new features recently, including audio “stories” to help subscribers fall asleep and the “Shine Squad” community to further foster the brand’s sense of support and community. Keep an eye out for additional bright ideas from Shine in 2020.


5. Emily Bernard, co-founder of PlacePass

Everyone knows that when in Paris, you should take a gander at the Eiffel Tower and that the Statue of Liberty is a must-see in New York City. But did you know that you can go on a balloon safari(opens in new tab) in South Africa? Or watch sumo wrestlers practice at a sumo stable(opens in new tab) in Tokyo? 

A lifelong traveler with a background in foreign policy, Emily Bernard found herself frustrated with how difficult and time-consuming it was to find and book unique experiences in exotic destinations. 

Bernard shared this frustration with friend Ethan Hawkes, and together they set out to provide insights and help on what to do and see when on the road. In 2016, they founded PlacePass(opens in new tab), a site that provides an easy way for travelers to find and book adventures. 

Emily Bernard (not pictured below; it's a photo from her brand's account) is the co-founder of PlacePass.(opens in new tab)

Read more about experience-based startups.(opens in new tab)

The PlacePass site now features more than 200,000 experiences in over 180 countries. The company recently partnered with Marriott International(opens in new tab) to provide a growing segment of the hotel giant’s guests with access to unique experiences, and it’s got a similar partnership running(opens in new tab) with Southwest Airlines. As a second revenue stream, it also develops software(opens in new tab) for travel brands.

Bernard frequently provides takes(opens in new tab) on the hard wins of building a startup, especially in PlacePass’s hometown of Boston. 

You can bet you’ll hear more from her and her trailblazing peers above this year.


For more inspiration to start 2020 off right, check out the top leadership conferences of the year(opens in new tab)

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