In a space that’s dominated by white men, less than 2 percent of venture funding goes towards female founders. Over the course of the spring semester, I’ve had the opportunity to lead the Yale Entrepreneurial Society’s inaugural startup incubator, a community of over 25 Yalie-founded startups. As we wrap up our pilot semester this week, I got the chance to sit down with three of my favorite founders: Phyllis, Ellie and Stella. Using the YES Incubator as their launching pad, Phyllis, Ellie and Stella are defying the odds and sharing a glimpse at what the future of innovation could, and should, look like at Yale and beyond. Three female founders, three different stories, and three startups aimed at making meaningful impacts on the world.
Name: Phyllis Mugadza
Residential College/Class: Silliman College ’21
Hometown: Harare, Zimbabwe
Startup: SprXng (pronounced ‘spring’)
Name: Ellie Gabriel
Residential College/Class: Davenport ’22
Hometown: Manalapan, NJ
Name: Stella Gray
Residential College/Class: Pierson ’24
Hometown: New York, NY
To start, can you tell me what your startup is and what makes it so special?
Phyllis Mugadza: SprXng is a reusable menstrual product that also provides therapy for menstrual pains. Really, SprXng’s mission is to flip the narrative on menstruation on its head. For the most part, being on your period isn’t just about getting access to products, there’s so much that comes with it. Menstrual pain is the leading cause of recurring school and work absenteeism among female body individuals. And the fact that you have to look for your medication, make sure you have the right products, and then try and go about your day — It really forced us to ask ourselves what it would look like if the menstrual product was the medication.
You also may have noticed SprXng is spelt out a little strange in that we ex’ed out the “I”. Our brand is very gender-inclusive as we’re very careful to speak about menstruators as ‘female body individuals’, and we design this product for demographics that are way too often ignored when menstrual products are being designed. So really, this is a very feminine-facing space in which a lot of the products are designed to be very pink and bright, assuming that all menstruators are going to be using a female bathroom. So a key demographic we worked with are transitioning transgender males who have to utilize male bathrooms to understand that carrying a baggie with your menstrual cup or disk is very uncomfortable and having to empty your cup in a sink in the male bathroom is also dangerous for certain individuals, so a drainage is featured on the device that allows it to be drained without having to be removed. We’ve worked with an origami artist to make this a very aesthetic product because again the ultimate mission is to combat the menstrual stigma.
Our goal is to make menstruation something that’s beautiful and celebrated, and so we really wanted to develop a product that was beautiful. It literally looks like a flower and we want to also encourage people to start using sustainable menstrual products. Traditionally, they’re very intimidating to us and they’re quite frankly huge even when you learn the folding techniques. It’s really difficult to insert so we’ve been able to overcome those barriers through engineering to ultimately design a product that will encourage people to adopt a reusable menstrual product. We also have a very global-facing approach as our product requires a lot less water than other reusable products. You know we’re designing for menstruators in low resource settings, women in post-crisis and humanitarian settings. Last I’d say the value we provide is that a lot of these major products also assume the abilities of the users and a lot of products are designed for many menstruators who have mobility impairments, and so, reducing all the steps you need in order to use these products (to insert them to remove them to clean them) we’re really giving independence and autonomy to our users.
Stella Gray: GOODZ is an online pop-up store that features handmade products created by women around the world. Goodz donates 20 percent of our artists’ profits to the Pad Project, a not-for-profit that distributes menstrual products to girls, women and other menstruators who otherwise could not afford them. Our mission is to fight period inequity and period poverty. After COVID-19 and quarantine, there was a lot of creative energy that people wanted a space to unleash and share with the world. The power of e-commerce allows for all of these women to connect without actually being in person or sharing space, which also is very helpful during social distancing, and just in general as retail has been down. So I think it’s really powerful to expose all of these young emerging artists, give them a platform for growth, while also joining a shared cause. So beyond just empowering my female artists we’re also empowering women who would be hurting without proper menstrual care. And I think that is what’s very special about it, is it creates this new kind of market that didn’t exist for young artists who could only sell to instagram or their followers and it gives them a bigger reach.
Ellie Gabriel: I’m working on developing Monyter, an emotional intelligence app to help children with autism like my younger brother become better at expressing and regulating their own emotions, and to help them better interact with their environment and families. I have a background in nonprofit work with children with autism, but wasn’t able to run these in-person social events during the pandemic. During early COVID-19 times there’s been an emphasis on health — and not just medical and physical health but also mental, social and emotional wellbeing. After talking to a lot of families who have children with autism I realized that while there’s a lot of wellness apps out there, they’re not really accessible to children or young adolescents with autism and those with mental disabilities. It really separates them from the rest of the world, and they can’t communicate. Imagine if you didn’t know how exactly to express if you’re happy or sad and people aren’t responding the way you might expect them to. It creates this isolation between children and their own family members and you don’t feel like you know each other. And so it’s really important to me personally, because I want to understand my brother and give him as many opportunities as I can, since his are already limited. That’s just how the cards fell.
What are some struggles that you have faced as a founder?
Phyllis Mugadza: I’d definitely say one of the things I found really challenging is having to feel like you need to seek extra validation. Another thing I found challenging is that you really need a lot of stamina in this. Burnout happens often and sometimes it takes the smallest things to get you discouraged so initially, finding the right mentors who have your best interests at heart is always a good thing and just learning how to process even negative feedback is key. And lastly I’d say it’s a marathon trying to also be a student entrepreneur balancing everything else that’s happening in the world. Then, you know, unexpected circumstances like a pandemic and having to navigate that and sometimes feels like you’re not moving as fast as you need to. Or you feel like you’re making very slow progress and imposter syndrome also really does creep in during your entrepreneurial journey. I think it’s so important to always find what it is that gets you out of those very hard moments, because you know there isn’t a stage where you’ll say ‘Okay, I’ve experienced all the tough times, they’re all over now.” I think, as you continue as an entrepreneur you really start to build the tools and you learn how to handle those situations when they come.
Ellie: I would definitely echo that feeling of a need for validation. I’ve mentioned this before at one of our pod meetings but I’ve spoken to CEOs of digital health tech companies and been met with sunken faces when I told them that Monyter wasn’t going to be something that I was working on like 80 hours a week. This project is obviously something I’m very passionate about, but at the same time, I do balance working on my startup along with my career interests and it’s definitely hard as a student because we don’t have just one job. Things are changing so quickly, and you don’t really know how busy you’re going to be one or two or three months out.
I’ve also been repeatedly told that I need a co-founder, and I’m like what are they going to do? I already have my to-do list! I know exactly what I want to do, and I don’t feel like at least in the early stage that I need another person helping along the way. While I recognize that that is something I’ll have to think about in the future, right now I’m focused on testing my hypotheses and building my MVP. In retrospect, I wish solo founders were normalized.
I think, just because of the specific area I’m in, luckily I haven’t found my gender to be much of a barrier. I think that’s also because I’ve been collaborating with women, which has been honestly amazing. I’ve built this cool network. And also because it started out during the pandemic, which was a very isolated way to start a business in general, I didn’t really have to hear anyone’s feedback besides comments on social media and from my customers, so I think in that way, I was very lucky to find that I wasn’t really hindered by a lot of the challenges that female bosses and female leaders can feel.
Despite being a female founder, I personally haven’t had to face too many challenges. Because I’ve been able to work with such an amazing community of female artists, it’s honestly amazing and I’ve built this strong network of women. I think because GOODZ started out during a pandemic, it was definitely a lonely time to start a business in general, but besides that I haven’t felt hindered by a lot of the common challenges that many other female founders have faced which is awesome.
JP: What inspires you?
Ellie Gabriel: While my inspiration for Monyter is my brother, I also note that I grew up in a very entrepreneurial family because of both of my parents. My parents are also big on wanting to pick up side businesses, whether it be a guacamole truck or a t-shirt business. Growing up, Shark Tank was always on TV and that’s what we watched as a family, and my older brother is always recommending podcasts like the Pitch. I couldn’t really escape the spirit and was always thinking about what my next business is going to be and how I can use what I’ve learned from my family and their experiences to do something that has more of a social impact.
Stella Gray: Going off of that, I was going to say I love podcasts and my favorite’s gotta be “How I Built This.” I’ve always had a very entrepreneurial spirit and I think what’s so cool about entrepreneurship is there are so many times that things don’t work out and perseverance is just totally rewarded. And so I’m always really inspired listening to those and hearing, even though all of the founders have totally different stories, I would say the common thread is resilience. And that’s something that’s really inspired me. Along with that, I have three sisters, and I think growing up with them gave me total girl power and really instilled in me the want to champion female empowerment and I think that’s a huge inspiration for why I chose my cause and why I feel so passionate about fighting period poverty through GOODZ.
Phyllis: What’s really cool is that you’re constantly being inspired. Of course there was that source of information that got me started and also throughout this journey I keep realizing the different ways in which inspiration has come up during this journey. I would say my background and my story growing up in Zimbabwe, it’s a very tough and challenging country to live in, at times, there’s definitely been our fair share of very difficult situations and so naturally I like to joke and say we all become problem solvers in our own ways. But I’ve always just loved applied science, I would love to use what I learned in the classroom. I’m thinking Okay, so how can I take this outside to the real world. You know themes of you know, women empowerment as well, I remember just getting so mad one day when I found out the tampon was invented by a man, I was like you know this shows, because you know that was just a little joke I have with myself.
What really drew me to social entrepreneurship is the fact that you are an advocate as you work. You get to advocate for things you really care about and believe in, as you start to develop the startup, especially working in the menstruation space that’s been overlooked. You step into every single meeting with an introduction of slides, and this is the anatomy and These are the things that you haven’t cared but now you should care about it. Leaving that meeting knowing that you’ve persuaded someone to believe in this cause that you believe in and hearing back from people two weeks later, saying “Hey Phyllis, I came across this article. I read more into what you were telling me about him yeah I thought i’d forward you this link!” Whenever I get those emails this keeps me inspired and keeps me going. It’s really just the little moments that pop up along the way, where you see that you know you’re slowly starting to shift behaviors and inspire other people and a lot more people are becoming a part of your journey. Lastly, incubators like this being inspired by founders like Ellie and Stella and hearing their stories is amazing and being a part of the entrepreneurial community.
What is your definition of an entrepreneur?
Ellie Gabriel: I think people love to shout out solutions to problems they see in the world like “Why hasn’t someone invented this yet?!” but don’t actually pursue it. An entrepreneur thinks to themselves “I’m gonna go do that, like right now. I gotta go guys.”
Stella Gray: I’m obsessed with doing polar plunges in the winter just because they’re super fun and thrilling. And it’s super scary until you actually dive in — entrepreneurs are the same in the sense that you don’t have all your answers, because if you did, the solution you’re trying to create would already exist, so entrepreneurs are the ones who can just say I’m doing it, all in and I’m going for it.
Phyllis Mugadza: I would say entrepreneurs are people who love to ask questions and put information together in ways that hasn’t really been done before. They have a way of connecting seemingly disparate ideas into solutions that haven’t really been heard of and so as a result, they have to be really fearless and take risks it’s kind of all over the place, but yeah it’s kind of my definition.
Learn more about how YES is supporting the next generation of bulldog entrepreneurs at www.yesatyale.org.
Jonathan Pierre | firstname.lastname@example.org