Smart, compassionate design can make a resonant change in the world, and no one understands that better than the pioneering women behind some of our most beloved brands. From empowering artisans across the globe, to modeling climate-conscious practices, to streamlining our day-to-day experience at home, these women-led businesses are making waves with big ideas and good design.
Nicole Gibbons of Clare
Paint, according to interior designer Nicole Gibbons, has "traditionally been a hassle." Her work familiarized her with the overwhelming number of colors and product lines in the industry—and the simultaneous "importance of color in the design puzzle." She finally decided to take on the traditional experience with the mission "to make paint shopping simple, and help people everywhere create the spaces they love."
The result is Clare, a direct-to-consumer paint company that delivers designer-created colors and supplies. Its Color Genius quiz offers consumers a personalized color recommendation, too. The lean operation means that "everyone is wearing many hats and working really hard," says Gibbons. The experience has helped her grow as a leader, forcing her to be "confident in what [I] know, and equally confident in what [I] don’t know."
Hana Getachew of Bolé Road Textiles
After working in architecture and interior design for a number of years, Ethiopian-American designer Hana Getachew decided to make a change and marry her desire to create Ethiopian products with her love for textiles. Her Brooklyn-based studio Bolé Road Textiles brings bold, traditional fabrics that are handwoven in Ethiopia to a broader market.
Establishing her company has provided Getachew both freedom and challenges. "Starting and growing business in any capacity is difficult, but being a solo founder, a mom, and also bootstrapping my business is especially intense," she says. However, she values the ability to choose those she works with: "Back in my architecture days, I found myself remaining in instances that I would not tolerate today, ranging from remarks that were racist, sexist, or just demeaning. Now I love and enjoy everyone I work with, whether it’s my vendors, artisans, or consultants."
Carly Nance and Rachel Bentley of The Citizenry
Carly Nance and Rachel Bentley met in college. After graduating and working on opposite coasts, both uninspired by what they found at national and global retailers, they "set out to create a brand that gave people that next-best experience of traveling the globe and meeting amazing artisans personally."
They created The Citizenry, a home furnishings brand with products ranging from handwoven baskets from Colombia, to pillow cases from Mexico, to linen bedding from Portugal. The goal was to "set new standards of quality, transparency, and social responsibility for the home décor category," says Nance. Together, the friends travel the globe in search of artisan partners with whom they develop designs using traditional techniques that are, in many cases, on the verge of being lost.
Ariel Kaye of Parachute
While working in advertising and brand development in New York, Ariel Kaye—a self-described "super consumer of home goods"—was frustrated by the lack of accessibly priced, high-quality bedding. "I recognized a true business opportunity—there was a serious void in the market," she says. To fill that need, she launched Parachute as a direct-to-consumer, online-only purveyor of premium bedding.
Since then, the company has expanded beyond the bedroom, developing collections for the living room, bathroom, kitchen, and beyond; Parachute has also opened several brick-and-mortar stores around the country. The best part about starting her own business? Kaye says that "creating something that people care about and that has impact are my favorite parts of being an entrepreneur."
Miki Agrawal of Tushy
Founded by entrepreneur Miki Agrawal in 2015, Tushy is rethinking the old-school bidet—making it simple, affordable, and beautiful. Determined to alleviate the hygienic and sustainability issues of toilet paper, Agrawal notes that "this area of our body is critical to our health and happiness, and yet we don’t properly take care of it because it’s a taboo area." Her team of "toilet crusaders" are fighting to reduce global waste and the unnecessary felling of trees through the Tushy attachment, which comes in a Classic, temperature-controlled Spa, and portable version.
Michelle Aaro of Cedar & Moss
It was the renovation of her own midcentury, Eichler-style ranch in Portland, Oregon—and her inability to find the fixtures she wanted—that inspired Michelle Aaro to found her lighting company, Cedar & Moss. Drawing from a background in the lighting industry, she developed her own designs that would then become the first Cedar & Moss collection in 2013. The company has evolved from a one-woman show to a busy studio known for its midcentury-inspired designs, subtle palettes, and delicate textures, where each piece is made-to-order.
"It’s not enough for me to make beautiful lighting," clarifies Aaro. "I want to show how nurturing, progressive, and environmentally responsible companies can thrive in the U.S." The company strives to minimize its environmental impact and celebrates diversity; she proudly states that the company is 75% female, 40% ethnic minority, and 25% LGBTQIA+.
Eileen Mockus, CEO of Coyuchi
Eileen Mockus joined Coyuchi in 2011 after a career in performance fabrics and home textiles, becoming CEO in 2018. Founded in the San Francisco Bay Area by Christine Nielsen in 1991, Coyuchi produces organic and natural home textiles including bedding, towels, robes, apparel, infant accessories, and more for a "clean, environmentally conscious home."
Coyuchi’s values, which originally drew Mockus to the company, have only become more pronounced over the years. She says, "As Coyuchi grows, the values become more important to how we do business and connect with our customers. That could be a uniquely female leadership trait, or it’s just good business."
Mallory Solomon of Salam Hello
The spark for Salam Hello came when founder Mallory Solomon visited Morocco in 2018 and noticed that middlemen, not the female weavers themselves, sold the handmade rugs in textile markets, divorcing buyers from understanding the history and narrative behind each piece. She resolved to meet face-to-face with each artisan to "understand the time, labor, and story behind the weave."
The textiles woven by Berber women are not only their livelihood, but also a beautiful tradition that has been carried out for centuries. The company strives to be a "transparent and empowering outlet for Moroccan artisans," says Solomon, citing the two values as ""the top of the pyramid for us." At the same time, she recognizes the challenges that come with working with other cultures, seeking to "ensure that I’m respectfully walking the line between empowering these artisans to be the confident business women that they are, while not [forcing] any Western ideal of what we might think empowerment should be, or look like." Spending time with the craftswomen and their families allow trust to build, and enables Salam Hello to tell the makers’ stories.
Sarah Kauss of S’well
In search of a career move with more purpose, Sarah Kauss started water bottle company S’well in 2010 after realizing that something as simple as "a bottle that looked better and worked harder" could be a way to "do more good in the world." The company is known for its reusable, insulated water bottles with a distinctive, curved shape and playful designs.
Kauss developed the concept for the bottle and bootstrapped it with her savings, vowing to "just get started, even when I didn’t have all the answers or know what would come next." With the support of her network and a healthy dose of hard work, Kauss has continued her mission of ridding the world of single-use plastics, and has now expanded S’well’s product lines to include straws and reusable food containers. In 2017, S’well launched the Million Bottle Project, aiming to prevent the use of 100 million single-use plastic bottles by 2020; since 2015, the company has committed $1.6 million to help UNICEF provide clean, safe water to vulnerable communities.
Jean Brownhill of Sweeten
Jean Brownhill, founder of renovation-matching company Sweeten, says that she started the free service in 2011 "after a maddening attempt at renovating my own Brooklyn townhouse" after selecting the wrong contractor. "I’d graduated from Cooper Union with a degree in architecture, worked in the field for years, and even with that training, made this common mistake and ended up having a terrible experience," she recalls.
"People who’ve worked hard to save up for a house should have a good experience renovating that space," says Brownhill. To that end, Sweeten matches homeowners with contractors and designers that fit their needs, style, and budget. But Brownhill’s vision is not just to bring satisfaction and picture-perfect kitchens to clients' homes; she also believes in building a strong team. As a leader, she declares it her mission to "embrace diversity from the team we hire, to the general contractors in our network, to a wide range of clients."
Vicky Tsai of Tatcha
Inspired by a trip to Kyoto and the geisha culture she was immersed in, Vicky Tsai founded skincare brand Tatcha in 2009 after a career in finance and managing global brands. Her first products were Japanese blotting papers made of 100% abaca leaf and gold flakes, which could absorb excess oil without disturbing makeup.
As the brand has expanded its product lines over the years, Tsai has emerged as a leader in philanthropy. For each purchase, the company supports girls’ education through a partnership with nonprofit Room to Read. As Tsai says, "When you educate a girl, you empower a community."
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Related Reading: 31 Visionary Projects Proudly Designed by Women
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