East Bay Women to Watch
Six female entrepreneurs share their secrets to success and what drives them.
If you’re an East Bay woman thinking about starting your own business ...
You’re In Good Company
Passionate. Ambitious. Driven. These are just a few words that describe these six East Bay women making a splash in the business world, spearheading innovation and sparking new trends along the way. Whether they’re taking on the likes of Betty Crocker or managing information for financial giants, these entrepreneurs are changing the landscape of their industries—and they’re just getting started.
Edited by Casey Cantrell // Photography by Erika Pino & Laura Ming Wong
Gigja Wesneski, founder of Root Science
The Walnut Creek resident who turned her beauty products into a successful business. By Sarah Damassa
Root Science isn’t your ordinary skincare company. Founded in 2013, the Walnut Creek–based business takes a markedly old-school approach to its beauty products: Each batch is handmade, using only organic ingredients harvested in the wild. The laborious process delivers a line of moisturizers, cleansers, exfoliants, and facial masks that packs a serious punch—and demand for Root Science products is booming as a result. The company’s online store is a hit, and its 10 products are popping up in boutiques like Anthropologie and Free People.
But founder Gigja Wesneski originally had very different plans for herself. Born in Iceland, Wesneski was eight years old when her mother moved the family to Massachusetts. “She had very little—she grew up literally playing with bones on a farm in rural Iceland,” says Wesneski. “My mother wanted bigger opportunities for [us].”
Wesneski found those opportunities. In 2008, she graduated from a small community college with a practical radiology major and was looking forward to finding a 9-to-5 job with a steady paycheck.
Then, the Great Recession happened. Unemployed and struggling to make ends meet, Wesneski found inspiration from an unexpected source—her younger sister.
At the time, Wesneski’s sister suffered from a variety of skin conditions: chronic inflammation, cystic acne, rosacea, and extreme sensitivity, to name a few. Conventional skincare products like Proactiv and Murad didn’t help, and even prescription medications were largely ineffective.
“At one point, the only normal pigmentation on her face was around her eyes,” says Wesneski.
Wesneski was determined to create something to help her sister. She read everything she could find about alternative forms of treatment, from Chinese medicine, to aromatherapy, to herbalist remedies. Noticing a pattern in the herbs and oils used across different therapies, she ordered ingredients from organic suppliers and started mixing what would eventually become Root Science’s first product, Bare.
It worked. The potent serum dramatically improved her sister’s troubled skin—and soon, friends and other family members started clamoring for their own samples. “It was getting to the point where people were calling me for more and I just couldn’t afford to keep up,” says Wesneski.
A chance encounter with a cosmetic doctor at a holiday party helped Wesneski realize she could turn her formulas into a business.
“He asked for some samples to give his patients … and they loved them,” she says. “He came back requesting more. I was waking up excited to be helping people.”
In 2014, Wesneski and her boyfriend, Derek Reynolds, launched Root Science. Later that year, the couple moved to Walnut Creek to capitalize on the green beauty movement that was taking off in California. Armed with Chris Guillebeau’s self-help business guide, The $100 Startup but no investors, the young entrepreneurs managed to bootstrap themselves to some early success. “It took a few years longer to gain momentum, but it was well worth it in the end: We’re completely self-taught, self-funded, and still do most everything in-house,” says Wesneski.
As they developed the business, Wesneski turned to her homeland for inspiration.
Embracing the raw beauty of Iceland, Wesneski aims for simplicity in creating Root Science’s pure and natural products. In lieu of using artificial preservatives, Wesneski utilizes glass bottles to extend shelf life; instead of chemicals cooked up in a lab, she packs her formulas with organic, nutrient-dense ingredients.
“If you were to use every single ingredient in our formulas independently, [each] would help your skin,” says Wesneski. “That’s how vitamin- and mineral-rich our blends are.”
And if a product is sold out and one of the key ingredients isn’t available—well, you’ll have to wait. “It’s not about being the biggest or fastest,” she explains. “You can’t compromise the skin [with inferior products].”
The beauty care industry has taken notice. European investors are eagerly wooing the company in hopes of expanding the business into select countries, including Iceland, but Wesneski isn’t losing sight of how far she’s come. Today, she identifies herself as 50 percent Icelandic, 50 percent American, and a testament to what happens when tenacious drive meets opportunity. “Starting Root Science was a leap of faith. We were always on the edge of our seats and—I won’t sugarcoat it—we still are,” says Wesneski.
Sadly, her mother passed away in 2001, long before she could see Root Science blossom, but Wesneski has no doubt her mom would be proud of everything her daughter has accomplished.
“My mother moved our family to the United States because she wanted her three children to have limitless opportunities,” she says. “[She] was the catalyst. I feel like I am living proof of the American Dream.” shoprootscience.com.
What advice would you give to women starting their own business?
Minimize distractions. Focus is everything in the early years of a business, so make your external environment a place of peace.
What’s next for Root Science?
Our goal is to continue producing in-house while expanding globally. It may be easier said than done, but we don’t want to sell out to third-party manufacturing.
Do you think the United States is the “land of opportunities”?
Starting a business [here], I felt that the cards were stacked for me, not against. The resources exist—you just need to take advantage of them.
The Savvy Dealer
Cynthia Parker, founder of Econoday
How a former stockbroker took on the male-dominated world of finance—and became an economic powerhouse. By Lexi Pandell
Cynthia Parker founded Econoday to create a simple, digestible resource for investors. That was three decades ago. Today, her company makes the world’s best-selling online economic calendar and manages information for financial and media behemoths, including The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg.com, Fidelity, JP Morgan, and Scottrade.
When she started working on the stock market trading floor in San Francisco, in the 1980s, it looked very different: Out of 500 people, only a handful were women.
“It was the size of a football field, with rows of guys screaming at each other,” the Lafayette resident says.
Despite the skewed numbers, Parker was not deterred. After all, she had a great role model—her mother, who also had worked in finance.
“My mom had us at a time when it was not fashionable or acceptable to work when you had kids,” says Parker. “She succumbed to the pressure at one point and quit, but realized the other women were just going to each other’s houses and playing cards. She said, ‘This is stupid,’ and went back to work.”
Once Parker began her job, she raced to catch up to her colleagues, but it didn’t take her long. Soon, it was “almost impossible for me to give bad advice,” she says. “It was really fun.”
Her secret? Tracking economic indicators, or information provided by government agencies and other groups, to help her forecast where to make the best investments. Parker kept a calendar of indicators on her desk to glance at while making trades.
Parker started Econoday in 1990 as a side project, taking just two weeks off each year to create a calendar to sell to other investors. She didn’t plan for the business to take off. But by the time she had her first child, Parker earned as much money from Econoday as she did on the floor, so she committed to Econoday full-time.
Now, when Parker thinks back to her time on the trading floor, she laughs about the men’s unbridled bravado. But she recognized the importance of confidence. “My mantra is, ‘Believe in your dreams, believe in yourself, and take action,’ ” she says. econoday.com.
What advice would you give to women starting their own business?
Ask for help—to this day, I do not do enough of that—and find a good mentor.
How did you balance work with being a single parent?
It takes a village, and I had a great village. My friends and family are amazing, and made it easy. My kids are the light of my life.
Who inspires you?
People who have an idea and take on the challenge of making [it] a reality. Vicki Abeles [Lafayette resident and director of Race to Nowhere] is amazing. She has a vision for what she wants to do for education and does it.
Laurie Peterson, founder of Build and Imagine
An Oakland woman challenges gender norms in children’s toys. By Rachelle Cihonski
In 2012, Lego—a toy company known for manufacturing building sets mainly aimed at boys—launched a new product for girls (Lego Friends), and Oakland resident Laurie Peterson wanted to know who was instigating the positive change.
“I get to the management team, and there are 18 white, middle-aged men in suits,” she says. “I tweeted [a screen capture] and put a header on it: ‘Meet the Lego team, more masculine than a [Lego Minifigures] collection.’ ”
The tweet went viral and caught the eye of the toy titan, which contacted her.
“I was feeling a little bit bold, so I decided to try and get myself a job out of this situation,” she says with a laugh. “[He said], ‘We’ve got a strategist. He’s a hotshot.’ And I said, ‘Oh, he’s a hotshot?’ ”
Despite her efforts, Peterson didn’t land a job at Lego. But with an MBA from UC Berkeley and experience working for LeapFrog, Peterson decided it was time to start her own company when she saw Lego Friends and another East Bay company, GoldieBlox, introducing engineering toys for girls to the marketplace. The result was Build and Imagine, an innovative toy company that promotes STEM skills for girls through magnetic construction sets.
“I really wanted to be a part of shaping what that play experience was going to be like,” says Peterson.
In 2014, she took a homemade prototype of her first toy—inspired by watching a group of kids at SFMOMA play with magnetic building pieces—to a toy fair in New York. It was an instant hit.
“I was selling the prototype to retailers without having a factory lined up to make the product,” she says.
Today, Build and Imagine sells nine themed sets and accessories on Amazon, and at Barnes and Noble and small retail stores across the country. Each themed set comes with magnetic walls, allowing kids to build their own “dollhouse” and decorate it with magnetic accessories. There are also strong female leads—and diverse characters—that can be dressed up as knights, scientists, artists, and more. The toy is designed for girls but has been wildly popular with boys as well. “It’s not just about building but about being the creator of your own story,” says Peterson. “Narrative play tends to be more appealing to girls.”
In the last two years, Build and Imagine has earned more than 30 awards, including Creative Child Magazine’s Building Toy of the Year award for the company’s Marine Rescue Center set. Peterson was also named 2015’s Rising Star Innovator of the Year by the Toy and Game Innovation Awards—the Oscars for toy designers.
Still, there are challenges ahead: Target is test marketing her building sets at a few dozen of its stores, where the toys need to sell as well as Lego Friends, American Girl, and Shopkins. “Right now, [the struggle is] how I am going to grow this business,” she says. “But that’s a pretty fortunate place to be. It means I’ve overcome a lot.”
What does the ideal future of toys look like to Peterson?
“The toy industry is still mostly a boy’s club. My ultimate goal [is] to be an investor and fuel more innovation in the industry. All the interesting change is coming from independent toy-makers, but no one is funding that. And women independent entrepreneurs are so important for driving innovation in toys. I hope I can help them.” buildandimagine.com.
What advice would you give other women starting their own business?
Despite working in toy and tech companies, I always felt like I wasn’t ready. … Guess what? You’re never going to have it all figured out. You just have to do it. And if you’re afraid, that’s OK. Be afraid, and do it anyway. It doesn’t mean it’s not the right path or that you’re not ready.
How do you define success?
Success would be to get more girls constructing and to really expand the definition of what a toy for a girl is.
What motivates you?
I love the toy industry. It brings me so much joy to see kids play with my toys.
Sarah Jones, founder of Miss Jones Baking Co.
A former accountant takes on mainstream products with her new organic baking brand. By Alejandra Saragoza
Take a step into Miss Jones Baking Co.’s Emeryville office, and it’s like you’ve walked into a baking utopia: Shelves are packed with shiny bakeware, cake mix, and tubs of frosting, while giant golden balloons spelling out bake float in the corner. To monitor trends in the baking world, one shelf is devoted solely to products from the company’s competitors—the very brands Miss Jones plans on surpassing with its line of organic frosting and baking mixes.
Tired of the bland mixes and frosting found in grocery stores, Sarah Jones launched her company in 2015 with the plan of disrupting the baking goods industry—and she isn’t shy about saying so, calling Miss Jones the next “modern American baking brand.” While many baking companies pack their products with artificial flavors and preservatives, Miss Jones relies on simple recipes made with natural and sustainable ingredients, resulting in frosting and mixes that taste homemade.
“We use high-quality organic ingredients but focus on taste first so people get a from-scratch experience,” says Jones. “People shouldn’t know that cupcake was made with a mix.”
Jones’ company is the culmination of a lifelong ambition. She grew up baking with her mom, trying out new recipes in the kitchen. “I was always looking for something that taught me a new skill set, whether it was how to make caramel, an Italian meringue buttercream, or French macarons,” says Jones. “I liked pushing myself to do something different.”
She decided to study accounting at the University of Texas at Austin, knowing a business background would help when she started her own company someday. She worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Apple before meeting Brit Morin, who had just founded the digital lifestyle company Brit and Co. Jones became one of Morin’s first hires, and served as the head of operations and the food editor.
At the same time, Jones was busy developing the concept for Miss Jones. When she premiered the brand at San Francisco’s Fancy Food Show in January 2015, the response was overwhelmingly positive, giving her the confidence to strike out on her own. “I thought, if all of these people are interested in [Miss Jones], then it’s time to do this full-time,” she says. That April, she left Brit and Co. to focus on her business.
Today, Miss Jones’ products line the shelves of 2,500 stores nationwide. The six baking mixes and six accompanying frosting flavors are all made with seven or fewer organic ingredients, and each mix comes with alternative baking instructions to create vegan or dairy-free versions. (The frosting is also vegan and dairy-free.) Jones has even managed to make the first natural version of Funfetti frosting, using dyes made from fruits and vegetables.
“We think that’s part of being the modern American baking brand,” says Jones. “We like to make things as flexible as possible.”
She is confident she has something special with Miss Jones—and she’s spoiling for a fight against her competition. “We want to be organic for the masses,” says Jones. “So, we’re going after the big guys.” missjones.co.
What motivates you?
The desire to succeed. This is our thing to own. We are bakers, we understand the market, and we have the passion that no big company has.
What is your key to success?
When I think about how I went from being an accountant to where I am today, it was all about taking advantage of opportunities, making my own luck, and working really hard.
What’s your advice to other women entrepreneurs?
You cannot be afraid of hard work or sacrifice. You have to be willing to lay it all on the line, let the cards fall, and continue to work through it when things don’t go your way.
Michele Hofherr and Lindsay Snyder, Cofounders of Previously Owned by a Gay Man
Meet the women selling fabulous used furniture in the online marketplace. By Lauren Bonney
After Watching her fabulously gay friend go through countless remodels and redecorations, giving away all of his gorgeous (and expensive) home decor and furnishings each time, Oakland’s Michele Hofherr got an idea.
“It made me think, ‘There’s got to be an opportunity here,’ ” she says. “A lot of people do not want to use eBay, or they don’t want to deal with [selling online].”
Thus, Previously Owned by a Gay Man was born. The online consignment marketplace for luxury furnishings lets users sell that rare mohair sofa or buy that vintage rug. Once an item has sold, the company arranges the delivery to its new home. Think of it as a high-end version of Craigslist—minus the hassle of scheduling a meet-up or experiencing an awkward encounter.
While putting the idea together, Hofherr reached out to her friend, Lindsay Snyder, who had just relocated to Piedmont after having her second child and resigning from her position as the director of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “I was planning my next career move, and she lured me in,” says Snyder.
As it turns out, the women were a match made in business heaven, with Hofherr’s background in photography and design complementing Snyder’s marketing and tech know-how. “I feel like we are the perfect partnership,” says Snyder. “To be honest, it hadn’t ever occurred to me to pursue something entrepreneurial until Michele planted the seed.”
And girl, did that seed grow. What Hofherr and Snyder thought would be a Bay Area service quickly blossomed into a nationwide marketplace, gaining traction among collectors, designers, decorators, and homeowners—and that was just the beginning. The site’s blog, Ahead of the Curve, which offers decorating tips from gay men, has become popular among users, and there is even talk of creating a TV show with a producer from The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Suffice it to say, plenty of opportunities lie ahead, and that’s all part of the fun. “I am motivated by being constantly challenged and stimulated,” says Hofherr. “I like having a vision and working toward it coming to life.” previouslyownedbyagayman.com.
What advice would you give to women starting their own business?
Snyder: Partner up. Having a business partner makes it easier to tackle all of the “opportunities” (as we call them) that inevitably arise.
Hofherr: I think a lot of people get caught up in the idea of something rather than the practicality. Make sure the day-to-day tasks are fulfilling.
Who inspires you?
Hofherr: Sheryl Sandberg. The thoughtful way she handles herself as a role model and in the face of adversity is really exemplary.
How do you define success?
Snyder: Enjoying what I do—working hard, learning as we go, moving the needle, and laughing a lot.