PSFK spoke to the organizers of the Wide Awake: A Day For Female Founders conference, plus the female leaders behind Unbound Babes, Birchbox and Eloquii, to glean insights into where a more equal retail landscape is heading
On March 8, women and their allies across the world came together in person and in spirit to celebrate womanhood for the annual International Women’s Day. For the retail industry, there was significant reason to celebrate: Female-led businesses have grown 58% from 2007 to 2018, nearly 5x faster than the national average. Yet despite what appears to be progress, the glass ceiling remains firmly intact: In 2018, female-founded startups raised only 2.2% of venture capital investment.
Last week in midtown Manhattan, a powerful group of women united to tackle this issue. Wide Awake: A Day for Female Founders is a new type of conference that reimagines the traditional and oftentimes inefficient format. The event’s debut in Manhattan featured an impressive list of panelists from across the industry, with hyper-focused workshops that offered attendees one-on-one insight and meaningful networking opportunities. PSFK had the opportunity to speak with its organizers, as well as the founding women and CEOs of brands Unbound, Eloquii and Birchbox, on what they value as priority for the future of retail, customer experience and beyond.
Wide Awake was born organically when two of its founders, Jennifer Bett Meyer and Melissa Duren Conner of Jennifer Bett Communications, noticed that the major conferences across the country weren’t meeting the needs of early-stage female entrepreneurs. The duo joined ranks with designer Rebecca Minkoff, a seasoned veteran supporting women-owned businesses with her trailblazing Female Founders Collective, and Cate Luzio, Founder and CEO of The Luminary, the stunning collaboration hub geared for female professionals, where the conference took place.
Melissa Duren Conner: First and foremost, we wanted to make this a free event. When conference ticket prices are so high, that dictates who can attend. Small businesses and early entrepreneurs stand to gain the most from these networking opportunities, but may lack the resources to afford a spot. We’re really grateful to Visa for helping us make this happen.
We also wanted to ensure that what we were providing was valuable. We sent out a survey to attendees asking them what they’re most interested in. Human resources and public relations were really popular. We plan on rolling out a follow-up survey in a few weeks to see what did well, and then what we can improve and expand.
Rebecca Minkoff: For women in particular, there’s a strong sense of collaboration. The speakers and mentors we have here today are eager to provide insight to young and early-stage entrepreneurs because they’ve been there themselves, they share the experience. And The Luminary was the perfect place to make it happen.
PSFK: Cate, what gaps did you notice in female-centric spaces that you wanted to address with The Luminary?
Cate Luzio: I wanted to create a space where women could make meaningful connections with other professionals, a place that supports women and women-identified with networking opportunities, workshops, fitness classes, etc. In this case, it means going beyond just a conference by providing real, tangible takeaways.
In between keynote conversations, PSFK caught up with some of the women pioneering innovations in the retail industry today. The following excerpt was edited for clarity from three conversations:
PSFK: What are the trends you’re seeing in the retail market today, and what are the ones you’re leveraging in your work?
Mariah Chase, CEO of Eloquii: Machine-learning and AI have been hot topics for nearly a decade. We employ machine-learning in pricing. I think there’s a lot of optimization left to be done in pricing across the retail industry, and that’s something we’ve spent time on and continue to focus on.
As much as we’re seeing automation and robots, there’s also a return to humanity—or rather, a realization that people are not becoming robots any time soon. So the in-store experience is more important than it’s ever been, but it is now in contrast to the experience the customer has online, which can be very transactional. When we look at stores, we stay away from explicit technology and focus on implicit tech that can help the customer have a better experience.
Polly Rodriguez, Founder & CEO of Unbound: When you look at our industry in particular—sexual wellness, sex toys or adult—there’s been so much stigma that people who weren’t men were too scared of the reputation risk of starting a business that involved sex in any way. There is a huge increase of diversity in the companies being founded now, and I think its wonderful because the most qualified people to create solutions are the ones who experience those problems.
From a technological perspective, we sold other brands for two years and noticed a huge trend for software, and app-enabled hardware, and we felt it was counterintuitive for our category. We kept seeing app-enabled vibrators and were like, “What is this?”
The thing that got us really excited was haptic technology, and really intuitive products that literally were responsive when consumers used them. We have this new vibrator ring: When you hold it horizontally, and then you move it, the vibration intensity increases. If you tap a custom pattern, it’ll play it back.
How do you make fashion-forward, intuitive products that really blend? For us, sexual identity is a core component that we’ve been denied to define for ourselves. Accordingly, we want to build products that allow women, femme and non-binary people to live that truth and that identity.
Katia Beauchamp, co-founder & CEO of Birchbox: The internet is making us more aware than ever. You have to stand out to consumers, and that comes from having a very thoughtful brand and product that solves a problem for consumers.
More than ever, thoughtfulness is really important because of its stickiness. Price and discounting is certainly a successful way to get consumers, I just don’t think its a sticky way.
PSFK: Eloquii’s Curated Campaigns product gives sales associates the ability to visually curate product selections and send personalized recommendations to shoppers, who can then respond directly to the email. How important is personalization to Eloquii?
Mariah: There’s a tension between high relevance and not necessarily as relevant as you may think. A winning marketing campaign, when it’s really good, generally has a very broad appeal. But there is significance for personalization when you start to understand who the customer is, and where she is on her fashion journey.
We have some ladies who are very fashion-forward and early-adopters, and we have some who are just starting. How do we talk to them to show them imagery, merchandise and styling that is relevant to where they are on their journey?
We have a hashtag on instagram called #XOQ that is all user-generated content. We often hear from customers that they won’t purchase anything until they’ve looked at the XOQs, because they want to see real women with their same size. It’s for inspiration and education. It’s a built-in review of the item, with the visual component. That speaks to the relevance of personalization.
PSFK: Unbound is a DTC retailer that started on a subscription-based business model, a service that it still offers. What insight did you derive from that, and why did you choose DTC?
Polly: We always knew we wanted to make our own products, but we knew we had to prove traction to raise venture capital, which proved to be very difficult. So the subscription model allowed us not only to prove the traction, but also to get a really deep understanding of the products out on the market. We learned what people liked and didn’t like, what price points resonated and where the gaps were.
It was also interesting to see that the subscription customer was different from the DTC. We have a much higher percentage of male customers for the subscription, and we found that subscribers tend to be couples that suffer from paradox of choice, the “I don’t even wanna make a decision on what to buy.” So the subscription allowed for an easy and opt-in way to explore the category without consumers’ having to make decisions or feel too embarrassed, awkward or intimidated by the experience.
One amazing thing about DTC: We did a survey recently, and 92% of people said they’re buying the product themselves to use on their own, which to me is amazing because when you think about masturbation for women, femme and non-binary, it’s so stigmatized.
PSFK: You’re training Walgreens employees on Birchbox to make sure they offer quality advice. How important is employee support and assistance to Birchbox in ensuring that customers receive the proper amount of assistance?
Katia: The big insight that we’ve had at Birchbox since founding the company is that we are uniquely focused on a different consumer from the greater industry, which focuses on a consumer who lives and breathes beauty. Everything is geared toward that person and represents at best 30% of the market. 70% of the market is not represented there, and at least 50% of the market is still really engaged with beauty but not passionate about it.
We realized that we are those people, and that’s a big opportunity. We refer to them as the casual beauty consumers: They’re not looking for beauty or trying to change their routines, but when a product really delivers on a problem, they’re willing to trade up. We want to focus on them.
That’s such an important part of what drives everything we do, so we had to spend a lot of time onboarding the Walgreens team with that messaging. We’re really talking about the consumer who might not be interested, who might be intimidated, so we really spent a lot of time because we believe in serving those people who haven’t been a priority.
For updates on Wide Awake forums in your city, visit the website here.