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Women-Led Wednesdays: Imaginations Running Free

By Lex Schroeder, Senior Writer
11/23/2022

Women-Led Wednesdays: Imaginations Running Free 

As entrepreneurs, imagination is one of our greatest resources. Engaging our imaginations on a daily basis is not childish work; it’s critical to leadership, it’s a way to challenge assumptions, and it can be a vehicle for change. In thinking about the future of our ideas, it’s important to leave room for all the things we haven’t imagined yet. When we follow our imaginations—ideally with the support of other leaders in the entrepreneurship community—slowly, but surely, we can create space for new possibilities to emerge.  

In continuing our interview series with women founders in the Harvard Innovation Labs ecosystem this fall, we asked them to tell us about what they’d imagined for their ventures when they were just starting out versus what they’re imagining for them now. We asked about their recent wins and what advice they’d pass along to other entrepreneurs. As the Harvard Innovation Labs reimagines its own offerings (check out our new student i-lab membership program!), we know that telling these stories is more important than ever. The founders you meet below represent a variety of industries, areas of expertise, and different lived experiences. We’ll update this page with new interviews in the coming weeks and be sure to check out past Women-Led Wednesday interviews here.  

For more on gender equity in entrepreneurship, discover Cases Featuring Women Protagonists as well as the Protagonists of Color Collection from The Harvard Business School Gender Initiative in partnership with Harvard Business Publishing.  

Gulnaz Kordanova, Founder and CEO of Connect-Ed

Gulnaz Kordanova Connect-Ed

Gulnaz Kordanova (Harvard Graduate School of Education, Class of 2023), is Founder and CEO of the NGO Connect-Ed, which works to bridge the digital divide in Kazakhstan by distributing laptops and other learning equipment to schoolchildren. Connect-Ed also offers students, parents, and seniors digital literacy courses to expand their employment options and increase their quality of life. The Connect-Ed team prides itself in taking a holistic approach to solving the challenges of digital inequality. “Through the reuse of computers, we not only help students reach resources, we encourage responsible consumption, and reduce the carbon footprint,” Kordanova says. “We want to co-create solutions with the communities we serve to meet their real needs.” 

Prior to studying at Harvard, Gulnaz taught physics and math at high schools in Almaty, Kazakhstan and Seattle, conducted community-based participatory action research on the distance-learning experiences of schoolchildren from rural Kazakhstan during the COVID-19 pandemic, and launched the NGO Teach for Kazakhstan. Recently featured in “2022 Forbes 30 Under 30 Kazakhstan,” Gulnaz joined the i-lab’s student membership in Fall 2022. In the coming months, Connect-Ed is focusing on building a sustainable financial model and connecting with colleagues in other countries in order to create a network of organizations with similar purposes.                      

What are your recent wins? 

“This year we’ve begun to see traction and results at Connect-Ed. We’ve created awareness around the challenge of digital equity and influenced dialogues that are evolving. For example, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Digital Development, Innovation, and Aerospace Industry recently announced that primary schools will start receiving tablets. This is a significant shift for Kazakhstan’s education system. We also received a grant from the Open Society Foundations and have been featured in publications such as Forbes and Manshuk Media.” 

What kind of team are you building? What makes your team, not just your venture, unique? 

“At Connect-Ed, we are a group of enthusiastic, caring, and proactive citizens who believe in the power of giving back to our communities. My team is highly supportive and collaborative. We help our colleagues in the field, share our knowledge and expertise, and aim to empower others to make educational and digital opportunities accessible. Most importantly, we are a highly ethical organization. We make sure that our work positively influences our beneficiaries, and we live up to these principles internally and externally. We all believe education is a right, not a privilege, and are committed to solving the challenges of educational inequality.” 

What did you imagine for your venture when you were just beginning? What do you imagine for your venture now and in the future? 

“We started Connect-Ed during an emergency in the pandemic. We wanted to quickly help students gain access to equipment for studying online. As we started working in the field, we realized that the challenges of digital inequity go far beyond access. So we started teaching digital literacy skills and have been evolving since. Within two years, we’ve provided close to nearly 250 pieces of equipment and taught more than 150 students. 

Our working algorithm? 

1) Collect laptops from companies, organizations, and individuals. Check the equipment, ensure that it functions properly and is wiped of data, and repair it if necessary. 

2) Provide equipment to children, primarily those with special educational needs and without parental care. 

3) Teach children and their parents the basic functions of computers through WhatsApp and YouTube, and explain how to install and use the basic functions of computer software, mobile applications, and other online tools. 

4) Keep in contact with communities to maximize long-term impacts. 

Recognizing the scale of the challenge, we aim to create a social movement that will contribute significantly to closing the digital divide globally. I imagine that one day organizations around the world will be able to adopt our model and help their communities access equipment and be independent users of technology.” 

Listen to Gulnaz speak about her venture on Instagram

Vanessa Paranjothy, Co-Founder of Freedom Cups

Vanessa Paranjothy, Freedom Cups

Vanessa Paranjothy is Cofounder of Freedom Cups, which works internationally to get reusable menstrual cups to women who need them. Using a one-for-one model, every cup purchased allows Freedom Cups to gift a cup to someone who needs one, reducing the use of non-biodegradable sanitary products and improving access to menstrual products in under-resourced communities. Paranjothy says Freedom Cups is also a vehicle to bring important conversations about reproductive health, women’s bodies, and gender justice and equality to the table. 

“We live in the sad, sometimes farcical, reality that the female form is regulated all over the world in various forms, whether through taxes, legislation, policies, or social norms influencing many aspects of being that include but are not limited to what we can and cannot wear,” Paranjothy says. “Think hijab bans (or women fighting for the right to wear the hijab), think birth control regulation (contraceptive and abortion bans, rules around egg-freezing and oocyte activation), think asymmetrical education opportunities (restricted for girls), and think unequal economic opportunity (job restrictions, unequal pay, and glass ceilings). At Freedom Cups, we’re addressing menstruation, and we know we are wrestling with an issue that is massive, multi-faceted, and age-old.  

Paranjothy is excited to be headed to COP27, the 27th United Nations Climate Change conference, where she will speak on a Gender Day panel November 14. 

What are your recent wins? 

“Being a part of COP27 is a win for us as it shows that while climate change will have to be solved by high-level, top-down interventions like climate financing, adaptation and mitigation strategies, and innovative new technology, there is also space for individuals and civil society actors like us to contribute in ways large and small. We have what it takes to green up menstruation and hope that we can illustrate the point with all the data we have collected on the ground. What makes this even more exciting is that we will have this discussion alongside Singapore’s Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, Grace Fu. 

We also recently completed two education and distribution projects in Thailand, one in the Northern state of Chiang Mai with predominantly stateless Karen women, many of whom have families that are heavily impacted by methamphetamine-abuse, and another in Bangkok with women rescued from trafficking. Both projects reinforced the pressing need for reproductive health education and long-term, sustainable period care in our most vulnerable segments of society.” 

What kind of team are you building? What makes your team, not just your venture, unique? 

“We are ‘accidental’ entrepreneurs. We believe that a business is the best way for Freedom Cups to remain financially independent and sustainable while tackling this important issue, but we never intentionally aspired to start a venture. We are fueled by passion, and we want to temper all of this passion out with people who are technically sound, data-literate, business-savvy and policy-shrewd.” 

What did you imagine for your venture when you were just beginning? What do you imagine for your venture now and in the future? 

“When we began, we aimed to get the topic of periods out from under the rug and into the public consciousness. We got started purely because we thought it was strange that we have put men on the moon, computers in our pockets, and the human genome out on paper and yet women were bleeding out onto leaves or over holes dug into the raw earth or tucked away in menstrual huts.  

We’ve come a long way from when we first started: we now realize the need to engage multiple stakeholders, craft policy with data from the ground, and balance the needs of our customers and beneficiaries. We appreciate the difficulties of running a truly viable business with a double bottom line.” 

Listen to Vanessa speak about her venture on Instagram and Twitter.

Tolu Odugbesan, Founder and CEO of YayVictor

Tolu Odugbesan, YayVictor

Tolu Odugbesan (Graduate School of Design, MDES Real Estate, 2022) is the founder and CEO of YayVictor, a real estate platform where members compete to win the listed homes. First-of-its-kind in the real estate world, the innovative platform gamifies the home buying process, aiming to simplify it for homeowners and buyers both. When homeowners list their houses on YayVictor, qualified customers pay to play a skills-based online game to win homes. Whoever wins the game wins the house, shrinking the time it takes to sell the home from listing to closing. 

Designed not only for individual homeowners, but also property developers, YayVictor aims to change the real estate game altogether. “Think about a developer with a new 50-unit building. They can list on YayVictor and exit the project in record time because the wait time to find a buyer is truncated, plus they no longer have to wait for the buyer to complete the mortgage approval process,” Odugbesan says. A participant in the Harvard Student i-lab in Fall 2021 and Spring 2022, Odugbesan wants to democratize the property acquisition process by addressing longstanding issues inherent in the current home selling and buying process. 

What are your recent wins? 

“The current home selling process is stressful, fragmented, and time consuming, often taking a couple months or longer to sell, from when it is listed to when it closes. YayVictor allows homeowners to sell their homes quicker than ever, for more than expected, at minimal cost. Members who win the homes get to acquire real estate based on their skill and a relatively small investment to play (typically less than .01% of the home’s value). We are happy to say that we recently completed a few of our key market validation milestones. It was exciting to interact with the public, get feedback on our business model, and see our waitlist surge!” 

What kind of team are you building? What makes your team, not just your venture, unique? 

“It’s important to have the right team. It can make or break everything. We’ve had some growing pains finding the right people, but the experience has offered us a lot of lessons and was consistent with the phase of our venture at the time. 

So far, we have had great success working with independent contractors to help us achieve several objectives and milestones. Now, growing our team is one of our top goals for the next quarter. I am looking to build a team that is deeply skilled, diverse, and passionate about what we are building at YayVictor. It is too important not to get right. I also continue to focus on building solid partnerships.” 

What did you imagine for your venture when you were just beginning? What do you imagine for your venture now and in the future? 

“It started with a persistent ‘what if’ that I couldn’t ignore or shake off. That initial question got answered through almost two years of research and mapping out our business model, plus doing market validation to properly address the customer need. Our participation in the Venture Program at the Harvard Innovation Labs provided us with access to experts, entrepreneurial peers, and resources to help us really take off. Now, we are in full on execution mode. What do I imagine for the future? The sky is the limit!” 

Listen to Tolu speak about her venture on Instagram and Twitter.

Alice Zhang, Co-Founder and CEO of Anise Health 
Anise Health

Alice Zhang (Harvard Business School, Class of 2022) is Co-Founder and CEO of Anise Health, a first-of-its-kind digital mental healthcare platform for the Asian American community that offers culturally-adapted therapy, coaching, and self-service tools. Proven to be five times more effective than the existing one-size-fits all mental healthcare model, Zhang says, Anise Health designs its services to address individuals’ complex wellbeing needs and wants to remove cultural barriers (e.g., stigma, provider incompatibility, treatment ineffectiveness) that may prevent people of color from either seeking mental health support or deriving benefits from it.  

During their time in the i-lab’s Venture Program from 2020-22, Anise Health was also admitted to HBS’s Arthur Rock Accelerator program, through which they received non-dilutive funding to get their venture started. Both programs provided them with the mentorship and resources they needed to turn their idea into a business, Zhang says. Both also prepared them for pitch competitions where they won prize money supporting their MVP launch (e.g., the John E. Martin Mental Healthcare Challenge sponsored by Google and the Rice Business Plan Competition). Today, Anise Health’s team includes clinical director, Dr. Janie Hong, a Stanford clinical psychologist, with whom they are developing a clinical model tailored to meet the unique needs of Asian Americans. “Once we validate our care model with this population, our vision is to expand to other communities of color to become the gold standard of mental healthcare for people of color,” Zhang says. “Modern therapy ignores culture despite it playing a critical role in shaping how we experience the world, how we express emotions, and what strategies can effectively resolve our psychological difficulties.” 

What are your recent wins? 

“We launched our direct-to-consumer services in beta in California in June! We’ve seen great traction and engagement so far, with nearly all of our clients indicating Anise’s culture-focus and/or unique clinical model as key reasons for signing up. This validates our value proposition as well as our end-user’s willingness to pay for our services out-of-pocket, currently priced at $200-$250 per month for four therapy and coaching sessions. We also signed our first few B2B contracts with large enterprises offering psychoeducation and ongoing mental health support to their Asian ERGs. Driven by a growing focus on employee mental wellbeing and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in the workplace, we are seeing a strong demand for Anise’s service among employers. And we’re growing our team! We made our first full-time hire, Rachel Peng, our lead software engineer who joins us from Humana.” 

What kind of team are you building? What makes your team, not just your venture, unique? 

“We’re intentional about creating a culture that aligns with our brand and mission: to empower everyone to live an authentic and flourishing life. We know we have a responsibility to keep our teammates happy because without them, we wouldn’t be able to keep our clients and providers happy and healthy. Working in the mental health industry has also made us mindful of the fact that the mental health of our own team has to come first. When we sat down to write our company values, we decided to practice what we preach by making our #1 value ‘Empathy and Respect: Hold compassion for oneself and show respect to all stakeholders.’ 

By creating this foundation, we set the tone for all the norms and rituals that our business observes day to day. We start every meeting by checking in on how people are doing, do weekly retros to reflect on how things are going both at work and in the world around us, do weekly yoga sessions, and offer free behavioral coaching to our employees. We encourage our teammates to set boundaries so that work, life, and health can co-exist and offer mental health days when needed, no questions asked. We do everything we can to lift up our people by empowering them to take care of themselves.” 

What did you imagine for your venture when you were just beginning? What do you imagine for your venture now and in the future? 

“Neither my co-founder nor I were set on pursuing entrepreneurship. However, we both had a strong passion for improving the mental healthcare system fueled by personal experiences. So when we noticed how underserved POC were in our current healthcare system, especially during the pandemic which brought several health disparities to the forefront, we decided to take a chance. When we started, we had no idea if it’d go anywhere given we’d be carving out a new category of mental health services. Not being too attached to becoming a founder enabled us to build a strong foundation for the company; we focused first on understanding and validating the problem and market opportunity without jumping straight into solutioning. This also empowered us to create the deeply mission-driven company that Anise Health is today. 

Today, we’re so proud to be bringing a platform to the market that expands accessibility of high quality mental health services to the most underserved populations and that actually helps them get better. We envision Anise to change the standard of care at the intervention level. As such, we will also be expanding our training programs for clinicians on incorporating culture and intersectionality into therapy while remaining evidence-based. We believe that, in the long run, our holistic and culturally-responsive care model and our curated clinician network will make us the gold standard and go-to-brand for POC mental health care.” 

Listen to Alice speak about her venture on Instagram and Twitter.

Lizzie Matusov, Cofounder & CEO of Pathlight

Lizzie Matusov

Lizzie Matusov (Harvard Business School & The Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Class of 2022) is Cofounder and CEO of Pathlight, an engineering productivity platform that aims to supercharge engineering teams by accelerating engineer ramp times and helping teams measure how productivity changes over time. In the early days of their venture, Matusov and her team wanted to answer the question, “What are the bottlenecks that prevent companies from growing strong, diverse engineering teams?” These days, Pathlight is working to reimagine the developer onboarding experience through automated, interactive onboarding as well as AI-powered analytics.  

Why is a venture like Pathlight necessary? “In the engineering world, poor onboarding can cost a company hundreds of thousands of dollars per month in inefficiencies and increase the risk of an early departure for a company’s hardest-to-hire teams,” says Matusov. “With 1.5 million software roles already unfilled in the U.S. due to the talent shortage, that’s not a risk to be taken lightly… but thankfully, the upside to efficient onboarding is huge.” Founded in early 2022, Pathlight participated in the i-lab’s Venture Program this past spring. They are slowly growing their team as they focus on delivering new tools for managers to track and improve their onboarding product and analyze data to better understand engineering teams’ synergies. 

What are your recent wins? 

“We’ve just completed a pilot in an early stage, retail-analytics startup, and the results were a strong signal for our ability to improve both time-to-productivity and time-to-cohesion on engineering teams. Effective team ramp-ups are no longer just a nice to have, they’re a need to have. A high-quality onboarding process can drastically improve an employee’s tenure, and the right onboarding data can both reduce knowledge bottlenecks and improve knowledge sharing. One upside I’m extremely excited about is the impact on diversity. These knowledge bottlenecks disproportionately impact diverse hires, who often feel like outsiders when asking for information. By removing them, we can grow and strengthen diverse technical teams.” 

What kind of team are you building? What makes your team, not just your venture, unique? 

“At our core, our team is made up of technical people who have lived the pain points we are solving, whether it’s technical onboarding or building strong engineering culture more broadly. We’re passionate about making engineering teams better, but we won’t lose sight of the complex nuances of individuals when we build our product.  

We often say we’re focused on bringing forward the human side of engineering. We know Pathlight will allow companies to create strong, resilient, and more diverse teams. It’s important to us that we are an example of that, so we’re focused on building inclusive teams within Pathlight from the earliest days. For us, this starts at the top with myself being a female founder and CEO of a technical product in an ecosystem where only 2 percent of venture dollars go to women.” 

What did you imagine for your venture when you were just starting out? What do you imagine for your venture now and in the future? 

“The early stages of a startup remind me of the Dunning-Kruger effect: early successes make entrepreneurs initially feel like experts (we don’t know what we don’t know!), but as more unknowns emerge, a founder’s view of the world changes rapidly. The statistical odds of getting the solution right the first time are extremely low, which is why conventional wisdom says to “be married to the problem, not the solution.” 

Our first experiments at Pathlight were in career exploration and hiring. We imagined that our venture would re-imagine how companies bring in talent. But now that we’ve idea-mazed over the past year, we see the world differently. Inefficient hiring is a symptom of a much deeper problem; engineering managers don’t have tools to build and measure teams in a way that prioritizes the synergies of a team over the individuals within them. That bleeds into a number of issues: bad onboarding, lower productivity, increased turnover, and eventually the need to hire more. Now we understand that if we can reduce the bottlenecks in sharing knowledge and collaborating, we actually solve a much bigger problem than just hiring. So, in short, the world we imagine has gotten much bigger.”  

Listen to Lizzie speak about her venture on Instagram and Twitter.

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