What do a shade-thrower, a wedding planner, and a pizza-lover all have in common? They're all female CEOs living their dreams and making it big. The three women—Julia Collins, CEO of Zume Inc., a robot-driven pizza delivery service, Angelica Nwandu, founder of insanely popular Instagram-based media company The Shade Room, and Shan-Lyn Ma, the mastermind behind Zola, a digital wedding suite— sat down to talk risk, success, and self-confidence with NBC's Lilliana Vazquez at Marie Claire’s annual Power Trip pop-up conference in San Francisco.
One of the reasons these three women (all Marie Claire 2018 New Guard recipients) are succeeding? They listen to what their audience wants, and then they deliver it. For Nwandu, for example, that meant creating a media space designed for the The Shade Room’s “roommates” (a.k.a. Instagram followers).
“The core of my business is to put black culture on the stage,” says Nwandu. “I have a commitment to the community that I serve. They have helped me create a curated experience that fits them personally.”
To honor that commitment, The Shade Room creates content that its "roommates" truly want to engage with. Posts and articles are driven by "roommates"' comments and suggestions, cultivating an environment that feels both exclusive and collaborative.
Zola, too, grew from the need of consumers. When Ma entered the wedding scene in 2013, she noticed that brides-to-be were yearning for a new kind of registry model that wasn't yet available. “Couples wanted something faster, easier, more beautiful and more inspiring,” she says. Ma delivered when she launched Zola, a one-stop-wedding-shop where, among other kinds of planning, couples can design their own wedding registry (which includes experiential offerings, like honeymoon trips and cash funds) in lieu of standard industry offerings.
Though the three companies are now bona fide industry giants, it took a whole lot of risk for the founders to get them off the ground. “A lot of good ideas sometimes sound like bad ideas when they are first started,” says Nwandu. “If the idea can grow, that’s one that you want to follow through.”
Nwandu, for one, saw the opportunity for growth—and, boy did The Shade Room grow. Since launching in 2014, the Instagram account has amassed 14.3 million followers.
This willingness to take risks was key to Zume's success, too. The company, which uses AI technology to make and deliver fresh, sustainably sourced pizza, is the definition of innovative. With no path to follow, Collins made her own.
“We gave ourselves the permission to take a first principles approach,” says Collins. “I thought, 'I don’t care about the rules, I’m going to rewrite every rule.’"
Though The Shade Room, Zume, and Zola continue to grow, Nwandu, Collins and Ma are still settling into their success. And self-doubt has a tendency to creep in.
"There are days when I wake up and think, I’m in over my head," says Nwandu. "The more success you get, the more scary it gets. One big thing that’s helped me to is detach from success. When I do that, I became more free and became more creative."
Trusting yourself, despite the pressure and resistance that many female founders unfortunately face is one of the things all three ladies contribute to their success. "I’ve developed this unshakable faith in myself," Collins says. "In a sea of 'no’s,' you have to pick yourself back up."