Illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion
Illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion

Female Forces

Ashley Williams is on her fourth Zoom call of the day pitching her digital content-creation platform, RIZZARR, to potential investors. “Every company has become a media company in some way, but brands struggle to create content that resonates with younger generations,” she says to two investors from a Midwest venture capital firm that focuses on online marketplaces and software as a service.

As the founder and CEO of a tech-enabled content marketplace that connects brands with Millennial and Gen Z content creators around the globe, Williams had to quickly adjust this spring as she opened a new round of seed funding amid the social-distancing measures brought on by COVID-19. With in-person travel limited, she hunkered down in her high-rise apartment in Detroit and focused on perfecting her pitch deck and talking with her lawyer to make sure everything was in order.

“Lots of people are having to pivot right now, but as an entrepreneur you need to be willing to change things all the time,” said Williams, who earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast and digital journalism in 2011. “It’s the natural course of what we do.”

Williams and fellow female founders and alumnae Paige Adams-Geller and Sabena Suri recognize that being able to adapt with agility, speed and focus has become deeply ingrained within them as leaders. While each has charted her own distinct course, they all say that a commitment to fostering courage and pursuing a values-based approach to doing business is what underlies their sustained success.

How it all began

Adams-Geller was raised in the small town of Wasilla, Alaska, where she developed an adventurous spirit and big dreams. She graduated from high school early and was accepted into USC Annenberg, where she began classes at 16. Four years later, in 1990, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication. From there, Adams-Geller went on to be one of the top fit models in the industry.

“There was a period of time when I felt that I had reached the top of my game working as a fit model and knew that the entertainment industry wasn’t going to be a healthy place for me to stay,” she said. Looking for purpose and passion, Adams-Geller consulted a life coach, who encouraged her to launch her own company. Having come from a family of entrepreneurs, she wondered, “Do I really want to be an entrepreneur when I know how all-consuming it can be?” — but the idea was planted. In 2004, she founded her namesake lifestyle brand, PAIGE.

“I think the biggest hurdle, at first, was the notion that word on the street was I was just a model with a clothing brand and that this was all hype,” she said. “PAIGE was just going to be a one-hit wonder, but instead of making me angry, it fueled the fire and made me want to even become more successful.” That fire turned PAIGE into a multimillion-dollar lifestyle brand.

Suri also wrestled with earning credibility. She and her two co-founders were all women in their early twenties when they started their e-commerce gifting company, BOXFOX.

“People just didn’t take us seriously,” said Suri, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public relations in 2012. “When we explained the concept, so many people said, ‘Oh, you’re building gift boxes in your garage, congratulations.’ We had to prove that we’re not just selling gifts, we’re actually powering relationships.”

The idea behind BOXFOX emerged when one of the co-founders’ friends was hospitalized. While searching for the perfect get-well present, Suri found that all the choices seemed impersonal. 

“There was just this hole in the market for sending something meaningful, but also beautifully curated,” she said. “We saw a need for a more authentic gesture — a gift that actually reflected the relationship and the moment that you were trying to honor.”

After starting out in an apartment in Venice, Calif., in 2014 with a $5,000 investment, their company has since changed location four times to keep up with expanding demand, grown to 36 employees and is now worth an estimated $6 million.

Suri credits the company’s success to their ethos: consumer-driven strategy meets elevated execution.

“It’s all about matching human psychology with innovation,” said Suri, who was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the retail and e-commerce category last year. “Rather than reposition or re-invent a legacy brand, we’ve been able to architect from the ground up based on consumer insight and where our culture is heading — convenience, customization and care.”

Williams relied on a similar formula when beginning RIZZARR.

While working as a multimedia journalist at USA Today just outside of Washington, D.C., she listened to interns and realized that Millennials and Gen Zers were having a difficult time building robust portfolios of published articles, videos and podcasts. At the same time, companies also spoke to her about their struggle to find and integrate this same creative content into their marketing efforts as they sought to reach younger audiences.

In 2014, Williams decided to pressure-test her business model by submitting for the annual Black New Venture competition sponsored by the Harvard Business School’s African American Student Union. She ultimately earned second place, a potential investor and renewed confidence. 

“Although the partnership with the angel investor didn’t work out since we had different visions for the company, from all of these breadcrumbs, I finally got the courage to tell myself, ‘Ashley, you can do this,’” Williams said. 

The inner belief

Like Williams, Suri has found that identifying and uniquely solving problems has been crucial to her success.

“When times get challenging, or when you feel like you want to give up, you need to always come back to why you’re doing something in the first place,” Suri said. “I think this is the most important thing for any entrepreneur to remember.”

Suri admits that BOXFOX has intentionally grown slowly, as the team has put one foot in front of the other: writing a business plan, building a website, curating brands to include. Along the way, she said what has kept them moving and growing is an intrinsic belief in the service they’re providing not only their customers, but also their employees.

“It’s not just about the external brand — it’s also about hiring and being able to offer our employees the workplace environment that we dreamed of when we were coming up in the ranks,” Suri said. 

For Williams, raising the seed funding she needs to hire a full-time team of eight, rebuild her platform, and scale further has also taken time and persistence. From the outset, she encountered the barriers women of color face in the venture-backed ecosystem.

“I think investors have this idea of what an entrepreneur looks like, and that’s someone who looks and acts like them: a white male,” she said. “I think as more of us are seen and heard, more doors will open for other minorities.

“I’ve been working on RIZZARR going on five years, and I can tell you that it wasn’t until the third year that I started to see the light,” Williams added.

That third year, 2017, is when she secured a short-term contract position for a national medical company. That opportunity later led to a long-term, life-changing opportunity: a big contract for RIZZARR. This turned into an invitation to join Detroit’s TechTown Business Incubator Center, which led to more contracts and more customers. Based on input from investors, she also shifted from a curated media aggregator to a marketplace model, which allows her roughly 5,400 content providers to create digital media for companies of all sizes.

“My hope is to awaken all of us to the fact that we are connected,” Williams said.

As the first female founder in the premium denim world, Adams-Geller was also seeking to forge a personal connection with customers when she initially selected her company name.

“Even though I knew I always wanted it to be more than denim, I initially made the mistake of calling the company PAIGE Premium Denim and then combined that with a very feminine logo,” she said.

Two years later, when she was ready to broaden the company’s offerings into men’s and lifestyle wear, critics told her that she couldn’t do it.

“Many of my colleagues in the industry would say, ‘If you start off in denim, you’re not really going to be able to do other products,’” she said. “‘They’re just going to see you as a denim brand. That’s all you’re going to be, and that’s that.’”

Adams-Geller refused to listen. She hired a firm to redesign her logo, then positioned her entire collection
under one umbrella, PAIGE, and suffered no consequences as a result. “It only helped move us forward,” she said.

Answering the call to action

As leaders, Adams-Geller, Suri and Williams all advanced into uncharted territory this spring, when they re-evaluated their business models in response to a global pandemic and heightened calls for racial justice.

Employee safety was paramount — and was a particular challenge for PAIGE and BOXFOX, both of which employ warehouse workers who ship products.

“Above and beyond anything, the values we had in place before COVID-19 are the same values that we have now: connectivity and communication,” Adams-Geller said. “And we are relying on them even more on a daily basis.”

Adams-Geller, along with her daughter, Allie Geller Brown, who is a 2005 graduate of USC Annenberg and PAIGE’s chief marketing officer, shared that while things were changing rapidly, their foundation remained steady.

“When you say ‘pivot,’ I think most people think changing directions completely,” Geller Brown said. “A huge part of our strategy has been to not think of things that way. There are certain things that we had to tweak, whether it be messaging or content, but the brand’s DNA hasn’t changed.” 

At BOXFOX, once changes were put in place to ensure the safety of their employees, Suri and her leadership team concentrated on customers’ needs. They added PPE to their gift offerings and introduced a new “Work from Home”-themed collection. The Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd prompted Suri and her co-founders to take a closer look at the brands BOXFOX partners with for their collections.

“We are really trying to answer the call to action for retailers to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black creators and manufacturers,” she said. “By mid-June we identified 10 Black-founded and -owned brands that we began carrying immediately, with more to come. We know we have a wide, captive audience — so we’re excited to use that platform to amplify Black voices.”

Williams echoes the need for timely action and a lasting commitment to Black-owned companies, particularly women-owned businesses. 

“The plight that, particularly African American businesswomen go through, has really been heightened right now,” she said. “From my own experience, I do see that there is now definitely more of a willingness by investors to look at pitch decks and to dedicate more funding to this group.”

Although Williams knows that she may still encounter resistance on the path ahead, she said she also knows that, deep within herself, she has the fortitude to keep going and the power to make positive change. 

Her hope is that, through her life and her company, she can “empower young people to provide conscientiousness to the world, and to awaken generations to come as to what is possible,” she said. “The amount of impact that we can provide in the world is unfathomable. Each of us can create positive ripple effects that far exceed our lifetimes, if we believe.”

Leading by Example 

As part of the Women’s Leadership Society (WLS), young women across the university gather together each year to learn from each other, and to plan and design events that bring in influential women working at the intersection of technology, media and entertainment. 

The speakers have ranged from industry leaders such as Gillian Tett, the Financial Times’ U.S. managing editor, Wendy Spies, Microsoft’s worldwide director of engineering strategy and development, and Nely Galán, Telemundo’s first Latina president.

This year’s two student co-directors, Julissa Romero and MacKenzie McClung, share their insights as to why this program has offered them the critical team-building and networking skills needed to successfully enter the workforce.

Women’s Leadership Society has given me a new perspective on what it means to really find empowerment in yourself — having an idea and going for that idea, knowing this is the problem you want to solve.”

Julissa Romero (BA, communication, ’20), a San Diego native, interned for Alexis Wilson, founder of brand agency Exalt Management, during her senior year. Wilson inspired Romero to be fearless. One entrepreneurial idea she is now considering is finding a solution for women who want to wear a shoe that doesn’t sacrifice height for comfort.

Through WLS, we’ve learned about the perspectives and struggles of women in the film industry, in the accounting industry and in entrepreneurship. It’s made me more emotionally intelligent and better equipped to enter the workplace.” 

— MacKenzie McClung (communication data science, ’21) grew up in Texas and is not new to entrepreneurial thinking. As an engineer, she considers herself a problem solver. She started an online community in her junior year of high school called “Galgorithms” that was designed to share the ways women and girls all over the world were making STEM more female-oriented.

This article was co-written by Mira Zimet and Emily Cavalcanti.