Meet 10 Industry Disruptors Paving The Way For Future Businesswomen

If the past few months have been any indication of what the future holds, 2018 is shaping up to be a big year for women in the workplace. As long-overdue social movements rippled through the nation, an unshakable reckoning has taken hold, inciting hope and awakening change on both the individual and societal level. When faced head-on with gender bias, wage discrimination, and blatant disrespect in the workplace, women (who, BTW, make up 47% of the country's labor force) as well as mission-driven brands — like European Wax Center and its Ax The Pink Tax campaign* — are speaking out as a unified force to say enough is enough. And for possibly the first time ever, we're really being heard.
Feeling inspired by the current climate of change, we spoke to 10 industry-disrupting women about their triumphs, aspirations, and motivations — as well as a few of the challenges they've faced (and stared down with steely reserve) along the way. Ahead, get a peek at how these CEOs, founders, trailblazers, and advocates continue to pave the way for women of every professional pursuit to feel and claim their power.
*This post is in partnership with European Wax Center's Ax The Pink Tax campaign, which aims to shed light on the unreasonably high prices charged for female products — ultimately causing the average U.S. woman to spend an extra $1,351 of her hard-earned salary a year. Find out how you can get involved and spread awareness here.
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Nadia Boujarwah, CEO & Cofounder of Dia&Co: A try-on-at-home clothing service revolutionizing the shopping experience for women who wear size 14 and up.

Dia&Co is such an incredible company. Tell us what inspired you to start it.
"Growing up between Miami and Kuwait, I developed a deep love for fashion. I always looked to my grandmother for inspiration; my earliest fashion memories were admiring her 1950s-inspired, chic-with-a-little-Caribbean-spunk looks. As a plus-size shopper, though, I struggled to find stylish clothing that fit my shape and size. In 2014, I teamed up with my classmate from Harvard Business School, Lydia Gilbert, and we made it our mission to dress the 100 million women in the U.S. who wear size 14 and up."

What was the biggest challenge you encountered in the process?
"As two female entrepreneurs pitching a business model focused on a segment of women that has historically been ignored and underserved, we found raising initial rounds of funding to be particularly challenging. Nearly all the venture capitalists we pitched were male, and they had a difficult time understanding the need for or appeal of our product. We heard several times that they’d ask their wives for a second opinion."

How did you learn to face discrimination head-on?
"One of my mantras is a phrase I learned from my mom: You can’t have thin skin on the front lines. Anytime you take a risk, you'll likely face criticism. Through the founding of Dia&Co, I’ve faced a lot of it — some of it professional, some of it personal. However, it’s always only served to deepen my resolve. One example: In the early days, before we could hire models, my image was featured on an ad we ran online. The ad, which simply showed me wearing a tulle skirt, received many hateful, gendered comments insulting my appearance and stating that someone my size shouldn’t wear that type of skirt. I had already experienced being stereotyped for my size and appearance firsthand, but this really strengthened my determination to create a community within Dia&Co where women feel celebrated, accepted, and beautiful — and to begin to change the narrative in society as a whole."
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Michelle Kennedy, CEO & Cofounder of Peanut: An app connecting like-minded mothers to chat, share experiences, and build their own support networks.

What inspired you to start Peanut?
"I was working as the deputy CEO at a dating website when I became pregnant and had my little boy. Support for new moms didn’t exist in tech however many years ago. There were no women having babies in my office. I thought, Hang on a minute. It’s my profession to make people have these romantic connections, and yet I don’t know how to connect with women who are going through the same thing as me to talk about motherhood."

The tech industry is still a very male-dominated space. Do you ever feel inadequate — as if you aren't worthy of your exec position?
"I suffer from imposter syndrome every day. It’s really hard; it’s like you’re waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder and say, 'You’re faking it,' or 'You can’t do this,' or 'How have you been getting away with this for so long?' I don’t know why, but I see it in more women than men. It might have something to do with that early socialization where we’re told we can be anything we want to be — we're just going to have to work harder than the boys to achieve it."

What do you feel needs to be done to ensure there is a higher population of women in tech?
"We have to keep having the conversation — which starts at every age. Thinking back to early socialization when you give a girl a doll and a boy blocks — that in itself is a blocker to STEM because playing with engineering-type toys is the foundation for being interested in STEM subjects."
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Mama Cax, Model, Motivational Speaker & Body-Positivity Advocate: Cax uses social media as a platform to empower women all of abilities and dismantle false notions about what life is like for differently abled individuals.

How did you get your start blogging?
"Right after college, I wanted to travel through Southeast Asia, but the [travel] blogs I turned to were written by mostly white males. I wanted the perspective of someone who could tell me where to get Afro hair products or an accessible route or even potential safety measures for women traveling alone. So I started my blog documenting my journey throughout five countries in eight months. Since then, it's become more lifestyle focused, through a lens of accessibility."

What first inspired you to speak up about being differently abled?
"The body-positive movement was flourishing, but it was also being used as a shield for some brands looking to cash in. I’ve always thought that it should be a celebration of bodies that have been marginalized for so long or deemed 'inspirational' as opposed to beautiful or sexy. I simply wanted to connect to others with scars and amputations and share my journey through self-love."

What advice would you give women experiencing self-doubt in the workplace?
"First, don’t feel guilty for having those feelings, as they're a result of centuries of systemic oppression and unjust treatment. The most rebellious thing you can do is unlearn them. Stop apologizing when it’s not your fault, and stop allowing male coworkers to talk over you at staff meetings. Find ways to affirm your strengths, and surround yourself with other strong, ambitious women. Recognize that some women are more privileged than others, so stand up for and empower those who doubt themselves."
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Claire Wasserman, CEO & Founder of Ladies Get Paid: An online network dedicated to providing women with resources, networking opportunities, and professional workshops in order to take charge of their careers.

What sparked you to start Ladies Get Paid? Was there one particular moment?
"I walked into a party at Cannes Lions Festival and was approached by an older man who asked, 'Whose wife are you?' It stunned me that he didn’t consider that I might be there for business. Throughout that week, I experienced so much behavior like this; it spurred me to consider all the little moments throughout my career where I was objectified or made to feel less than. My 'aha moment' was realizing all this time and energy spent navigating uncomfortable gender dynamics was taking a toll on me. So I started reading feminist literature and began digging into research about the gender and leadership gap."

What has been your biggest triumph since starting LGP?
"The most rewarding part about my job by far is the emails I receive from women who tell me how their lives have literally been changed by the work we’re doing. Once, a woman in Guatemala reached out to tell me she got a raise because her boss saw an Instagram Live I did. It’s incredible how even doing the smallest things can have the biggest impact."

What advice would you offer women looking to start their own businesses?
"Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help. Always be cultivating a support network so that when you stumble — and you will — they’ll be there to catch you."
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Adriana Gascoigne, CEO & Founder of Girls In Tech: A global nonprofit organization focused on empowering and educating women in the technology industry.

In your opinion, what challenges do women still face in the tech industry?
"The challenge is more complex than anyone realizes. A lot of companies just want to throw money at it; they want to hire a head of diversity and call it done. In reality, it’s not that simple. There’s likely a values problem, a pipeline problem, a confidence problem, or even a harassment problem. One of the biggest keys for getting more women in the door in any male-led industry is for men to step up and be our champions."

Tell us about your experience with discrimination in the workplace.
"I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t been harassed or discriminated against [in the workplace]. I’ve felt it more or less throughout my entire career, though it was far more rampant earlier on. Now that I’m in a CEO role within my own organization, I experience it much less, though unfortunately, not because it exists less."

What advice would you give women who feel ostracized in the workplace?
"I would tell them, 'You’re not alone,' and to keep marching forward. You have to follow your dreams and be true to yourself, even if that takes you down a less popular road."
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Lynn Harris, CEO & Founder of Gold Comedy: A comedy startup created to help girls and women find their funny.

What was your vision for Gold Comedy?
"We’re not creating a women-only space, we’re just trying to reverse the norm by providing girls and women a space in comedy — without excluding anyone else. My goal is to challenge people’s assumptions around women, money, and work. For example, I had one teenager doing work for us, and when she was done, she told us she didn't need to get paid. I told her, unless she's walking into a soup kitchen ready to help, to never say that. I’m inflexible on that. It’s something that I want girls to get used to: You work, you get paid."

What is it like today for a woman in the comedy space?
"Every dude that goes on stage has only eight minutes to prove he’s funny, but if you’re the only woman, you have eight minutes to prove that women are funny. I get people all the time saying, 'Ah, we really want to support women in comedy, but do they have to be so vulgar?' No one says that about male comedians. The more women who get into comedy, the more women who define comedy."

Why do you believe comedy is so important for girls and women?
"In my opinion, comedy is power, and it’s important everyone has an equal opportunity to experience that feeling. Especially girls, who are asked to adhere to such ridiculous standards in the world. When else can you own your voice and own your story alone on a stage and force people to have a bodily reaction to you, which is laughter? That’s power."
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Alana Branston, CEO & C0founder of Bulletin Co.: An NYC-based store and website selling products from female-led brands, donating 10% of all proceeds to Planned Parenthood.

What inspired you and your cofounder (COO Ali Kriegsman) to start Bulletin?
"Our original mission was to help talented emerging brands get exposure. After the [2016 presidential] election, we wanted to find a way for the business to directly support women, so we decided to refocus and a build a space for female-led brands, which became one of the core tenets of our company. There's nothing more rewarding than paying out female-led brands so they can grow their businesses and visions."

What struggles have you encountered building your business?
"There was always the feeling that we needed to work a little harder and be a little better to get the same opportunities as male founders. Building a big, successful company and supporting other female founders is the best way to make that type of behavior stop."

What advice would you give to other women pursuing their startup dreams?
"Don't be scared to think really big! When Ali and I started Bulletin, we had a fairly modest vision in mind, but as we gained traction, we slowly started believing what we were doing could be really big and that we were actually capable of pulling it off. It’s hard to make the mental leap to convince yourself that you can build a billion-dollar company. However, I think having more big, successful female- and minority-led companies is the most effective way to make the startup community more inclusive."
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Lola Langusta, Professional DJ: Langusta is a mega-popular DJ, spinning at top fashion events and festivals; a music producer; and the founder of Stoned Fox Media.

What inspired you to become a DJ?
"So many times I'd get frustrated with the way male DJs would play music — it was often aggressive and there was no real flow. I thought to myself, I could be really good at this. I always asked guy friends to teach me, but they would mostly just dismiss me. It was definitely discouraging, but I didn't give up because I was learning out of pure love and curiosity."

How do you navigate the "boys' club" environment of the DJ world?
"Many times I wasn't taken seriously until I showed up and pressed play, and then suddenly minds changed. Female DJs were and still are treated like a commodity. You hear a lot of, 'People would prefer to look at a pretty girl rather than a guy,' which has nothing to do with talent."

Have you ever been put into any uncomfortable scenarios?
"I get a lot of respect for the most part in this industry, and when things haven't felt right, I've always stood my ground and done my best to stay focused on me. I have one story that will remain my own, but basically, I flew somewhere for a job that was nonexistent and was put in a very uncomfortable and unfortunate situation. In the end, I came out stronger and made some beautiful friendships out of a disaster."
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Chinae Alexander, Blogger & Body-Positive Advocate: Alexander has built an online community focused on fitness, health, and empowering women to love themselves and their bodies.

You built your brand from the ground up. What has been the most rewarding part?
"The thing I love the most about running my personal brand is that I get to hire and collaborate with other women whom I believe in and who believe in me. The power of women is they believe in you even when you sometimes don’t entirely believe in yourself."

Workplace discrimination is still very real. Do you have any advice for women that may be battling it?
"As women, we tend to tell ourselves, 'Oh, it’s not a big deal, it's just a joke.' The thing is, it’s not a big deal until it is a big deal. I think the more we say, 'I actually really don’t feel comfortable with that,' the easier the words will start to roll off our tongues. I mean, it wasn’t always comfortable to laugh something off. We became accustomed to it — so we can also become accustomed to speaking up when something doesn't feel right."

What can people in power do to help support women in the workplace?
"I was lucky enough to have a male boss who really advocated for me, and I don’t ever take that for granted. I realize now especially [in this climate] the importance of people who have leverage or power — and are using it in a proper way. Just having someone who treats you like a human of value is shockingly disruptive. It shouldn’t be, but it is."
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Sarah Levey, CEO & Cofounder of Y7 Studio: A candlelit, hip-hop-infused studio offering a range of classes meant to help students combat insecurities through the practice of yoga.

What was your inspiration for creating Y7?
"At the time, I was really frustrated by the yoga experiences that were available to me. Every studio was super bright with mirrors, played little to no music, and just generally left me feeling not great about myself. I would be looking at myself in these twisted poses, judging my body while also comparing myself to all the other people around me. Y7 was created as an experience to combat insecurities and lose oneself in the practice by way of music and darkness."

What has been your experience with age and gender bias?
"Not only am I a woman, but I'm also on the younger side [of entrepreneurs]. I was 27 years old when we started Y7, and even some of my friends questioned me when I left my career to pursue this full time. The first time I really felt it was when I went to tour some real estate on my own. I was blatantly spoken down to, and my questions to the broker were laughed at; I remember him saying to me, 'You've never done this before, have you?' It was awful."

When self-doubt arises, how do you tackle it? Do you have any tips?
"There have definitely been moments when I've questioned myself and wondered if I have what it takes to do this. My advice to others would be: As long as you truly believe in what you're doing, you can't go wrong. Having confidence in yourself and your business is everything."
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