How Influencers Became Key to Big Brands During the Pandemic — and Why They'll Continue to Grow
Sam primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Previously he was Marjorie Deane Fellow at The Economist, where he wrote for the business and finance sections of the print edition. He has also worked at the XPRIZE Foundation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, KCRW, and MLB Advanced Media (now Disney Streaming Services). He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson, an MPP from UCLA Luskin and a BA in History from University of Michigan. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake
- Influencer marketing has surged during the pandemic as more consumers have moved online and brands have been forced to adapt to new challenges.
- The rise of ecommerce and social media continues to usher in a wave of less formal and potentially cheaper marketing from online icons directly connected to audiences that brands can target.
- Marketers expect the trend to continue, which could lead to more unexpected brand partnerships, like a KFC line of Crocs or Forever 21's Cheetos apparel.
Mix together a cup of cold brew, three pumps of caramel syrup, a splash of whole milk and a generous portion of TikTok and you've got yourself "The Charli" – Dunkin' Donuts' new menu item promoted in partnership with Charli D'Amelio, a superstar social media influencer and the drink's namesake.
Influencer marketing campaigns are not new, but the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated their appeal as companies have been forced to ramp up their online presence. Marketers expect that to continue, due to a combination of changing consumer behavior, a growing sophistication of data and analytics, and tighter ad budgets.
As these forces take shape, subscription streaming services expand and cable's decline continues, could it spell the end of TV commercials?
The Rise of Influencer Marketing
Fundamentally, an influencer is someone with a level of knowledge, expertise or social following that enables them to, well, influence other people's decisions. That premise has existed for a long time, but the internet and social media gave rise to a new capability for companies of targeting specific audiences with more precision than a television or radio commercial. As a result, niche, direct-to-consumer businesses offering specific products, and online influencers to peddle those products, have bloomed.
Before the pandemic set in, Influencer Marketing Hub, a research firm, reported influencer marketing was expected to grow to a $9.7 billion business in 2020, nearly a 50% increase from 2019. More recent evidence suggests that companies are still piling in, even faster than predicted.
Influencer MarketingHub's 2020 report, based on a survey of 4,000 professionals, forecasted a massive rise in the growth of influencer marketing. Courtesy Influencer MarketingHub
In the quarter from June through August, for example, across a sample of 4,500 ecommerce retailers, sales and customers driven to brands' websites through YouTube influencers are up 80% year over year, according to MagicLinks, an L.A.-based social media marketing company that helps firms track the performance of their influencer campaigns. Applications from influencers wishing to use MagicLinks' sales tools have grown nearly fivefold from the start of the pandemic. And across MagicLinks' retail customers, which include the likes of Walmart, Target, L'Oreal and Best Buy, influencer-driven sales are up 115%.
Several other marketing agencies also told dot.LA they've seen increased spending on influencer content, and an expansion of the types of companies that use influencer marketing, compared to pre-COVID.
Part of that is out of necessity. With film production shut down due to the pandemic, traditional commercial advertising was hampered. And with marketing budgets crimped, potentially cheaper advertising routes, such as a well-targeted influencer campaign, grew more attractive.
Influence in the Wake of Ecommerce
The pandemic has also caused ecommerce to skyrocket and led people to spend more time on social media, both of which have increased the supply of potential customers for brands to target with influencers.
"Consumers crave real-life stories and authenticity, and influencers are able to highlight brands in a way that feels real and accessible. We are seeing that during the pandemic, this need is further heightened as more consumers are spending more time on social platforms," Grubhub's director of content and social Mandy Cudahy told dot.LA.
The growing sophistication of data and analytics on the effectiveness of influencer marketing has also helped companies create more targeted ad campaigns likely to reach spenders. For example, tools are improving to help brands find the right influencer, track their ability to drive purchases, and even predict how well an influencer campaign will do.
"There's been a much bigger push around nailing down the attribution and ROI," said Kevin Gould, co-founder of three L.A.-based ecommerce brands that rely heavily on influencer marketing and collectively earn over $60 million in annual revenue.
That push, in turn, is helping to nudge brands that have historically shied away from influencer marketing. Part of what has held them back is the fact that the data from traditional channels like television and radio advertising is far more robust than what's available in the influencer space, if only because it is relatively new.
"You're going up against hard sets of data since like the birth of Macy's, so it didn't become a priority," said Jennifer Piña, MagicLinks' director of brand partnerships. "Now it's being forced to become a priority."
As a result, bigger, more traditional brands are moving into what has until now been a channel primarily used by smaller, direct-to-consumer brands. Tito's Vodka, for instance, ran its first influencer campaign in August with Brooklyn-based First Tube Media. Prior to the campaign, "Tito's had never spent a dollar in influencer marketing," First Tube CEO Andrew Beranbom told dot.LA. Superdry, a publicly-traded British clothing company founded in 1985, is partnering with MagicLinks to launch its first large influencer campaign in advance of the holiday season.
How Influencers Change What We Buy, and What They Make
KFC Crocs, an unholy creation of influencer marketing.
Influencer marketing has also given rise to new partnerships between brands that arguably have nothing to do with each other, with influencers as the linchpin linking them together. Examples include a KFC line of Crocs, e.l.f. Cosmetics' Chipotle burrito-inspired handbag and makeup kit, and Forever 21's Cheetos apparel line.
"It's this idea of like, a brand is a brand," said Piña. "What they actually sell or what people purchase from them is oftentimes irrelevant. It's more about the packaging and the moment and the feel and that's what social media does: it creates excitement for something that is not necessarily exciting. Like Crocs: Crocs is like your dad's brand. But it can immediately become cool, at the drop of a pin, once you get the right influencers involved."
Even as data attribution improves and consumers spend more time online in the land of influencers, one key downside to influencer marketing remains: limited control. A company can manage every element of a commercial shoot or Facebook ad, but using an unscripted TikTok or Instagram influencer requires letting go.
"Brands in some categories historically have been super fearful of letting influencers tell their story because it is so important to the sanctity of the brand to keep the messaging really succinct and in line with the brand guidelines," Piña said.
Yet that informality is part of the appeal of influencer marketing.
"Brands get stuck on needing to be perfect or scripted, whereas influencers talk to you like they're your next-door neighbor," said Brian Meert, chief executive of L.A.-based AdvertiseMint, a digital advertising agency. "It's very organic; it doesn't feel like a pushy ask. I think those kinds of elements have enabled us to grow sales for our clients using more of these influencer- and consumer-generated type videos."
Piña noted that while Ralph Lauren, a premium fashion retailer, has been wary of using influencers because of "brand safety," the company recently approached MagicLinks to build out a year-long TikTok strategy. Even as the social video giant's fight with the White House threatened to upend the living of its influencers, TikTok's hold on the traditionally elusive younger demographic – along with other user-generated video platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Twitch and Snap – has become increasingly hard for companies to ignore.
"Any brand that wants to connect with Gen Z, and sell whatever product or service they have, has to engage (with these platforms)," said Glenn Ginsburg, SVP of global partnerships at influencer marketing agency The QYOU. "Moving forward I think we'll see brands start to build deeper relationships with influencers."
Not every brand is poised to get the same value from an influencer campaign, however. An influencer is unlikely to save the day for a travel and tourism company ravaged by the pandemic, for instance. And it remains a challenge to reliably execute an influencer campaign, notwithstanding the emergence of new tools to do so.
"A lot still depends on relationships, conversations and trial and error," said Darren Litt, chairman and co-founder of L.A.-based talent marketplace MarketerHire. "A successful influencer campaign requires a detailed understanding of an influencer's brand, and that's hard to do with tech and AI alone."
Achieving the cost-efficiency of a well-targeted campaign also remains most viable for companies that are best positioned to drive online purchases. Using Kim Kardashian to sell clothing that flatters one's figure, for example, is more likely to drive trackable sales than, say, pushing Pepsi.
"For mass-market products looking to reach a broad audience, TV advertising remains effective because you get the upside of wide reach with the downside of limited targeting," said Litt. That's especially true for products that people don't typically purchase online.
But much like a song that goes viral on TikTok can drive a listening bump on streaming platforms like Spotify, so, too, it appears, can an influencer campaign drive offline purchases.
Sam Blake primarily covers media and entertainment for dot.LA. Find him on Twitter @hisamblake and email him at samblake@dot.LA.
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Though Silicon Valley is still very much the capital of venture capital, Los Angeles is home to plenty of VCs who have made their mark – investing in successful startups early and reaping colossal returns for their limited partners.
Who stands out? We thought there may be no better judge than their peers, so we asked 28 of L.A.'s top VCs who impresses them the most.
The list includes many familiar names. Dana Settle, founding partner of Greycroft, and Mark Mullen, founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, garnered the most votes.
Settle manages West Coast operations for Greycroft, a New York firm with $1.8 billion in assets under management. She is one of only nine of the top 100 VCs nationally who are women, according to CB Insights.
Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, which closed a $100 million second fund in September to continue funding seed stage business-to-business (B2B) software startups. Mullen has also been an angel investor and is an LP in other funds focusing on other sectors, including MaC VC and BAM Ventures.
Below is the list of the top ranked investors by how many votes each received from their peers. When there was a tie, they appear in alphabetical order according to their last name:
Mark Mullen, Bonfire Ventures
Mark Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures. He is also founder and the largest investor in Mull Capital and Double M Partners, LP I and II. A common theme in these funds is a focus on business-to-business media and communications infrastructures.
In the past, Mullen has served as the chief operating officer at the city of Los Angeles' Economic Office and a senior advisor to former Mayor Villaraigosa, overseeing several of the city's assets including Los Angeles International Airport and the Los Angeles Convention Center. Prior to that, he was a partner at Daniels & Associates, a senior banker when the firm sold to RBC Capital Markets in 2007.
Dana Settle, Greycroft
Dana Settle is a founding partner of Greycroft, heading the West Coast office in Los Angeles. She currently manages the firm's stakes in Anine Bing, AppAnnie, Bird, Clique, Comparably, Goop, Happiest Baby, Seed, Thrive Market, Versed and WideOrbit, and is known for backing female-founded companies.
"The real change takes place when female founders build bigger, independent companies, like Stitchfix, TheRealReal," she said this time last year in an interview with Business Insider. "They're creating more wealth across their cap tables and the cap tables tend to be more diverse, so that gives more people opportunity to become an angel investor." Prior to founding Greycroft, she was a venture capitalist and startup advisor in the Bay Area.
Erik Rannala, Mucker Capital
Erik Rannala is a founding partner at Mucker Capital, which he created with William Hsu in 2011. Before founding Mucker, Rannala was vice president of global product strategy and development at TripAdvisor and a group manager at eBay, overseeing its premium features business.
"As an investor, I root for startups. It pains me to see great teams and ideas collapse under the pressure that sometimes follows fundraising. If you've raised money and you're not sure what comes next, that's fine – I don't always know either," Rannala wrote in a blog post for Mucker.
Mucker has a portfolio of 61 companies, including Los Angeles-based Honey and Santa Monica-based HMBradley.
William Hsu, Mucker Capital
William Hsu is a founding partner at the Santa Monica-based fund Mucker Capital. He started his career as a founder, creating BuildPoint, a provider of workflow management solutions for the commercial construction industry not long after graduating from Stanford.
In an interview with Fast Company, he shared what he learned in the years following, as he led product teams at eBay, Green Dot and Spot Runner, eventually becoming the SVP and Chief Product Officer of At&T Interactive: "Building a company is about hiring correctly, adhering to a timeline, and rigorously valuing opportunity. It's turning something from inspiration and creative movement into process and rigor."
These are the values he looks for in founders in addition to creativity. "I like to see the possibility of each and every idea, and being imaginative makes me a passionate investor."
Jim Andelman, Bonfire Ventures
Jim Andelman is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, a fund that focuses on seed rounds for business software founders. Andelman has been in venture capital for 20 years, previously founding Rincon Venture Partners and leading software investing at Broadview Capital Partners.
He's no stranger to enterprise software — he also was a member of the Technology Investment Banking Group at Alex. Brown & Sons and worked at Symmetrix, a consulting firm focusing on technology application for businesses.
In a podcast with LA Venture's Minnie Ingersoll earlier this year, he spoke on the hesitations people have about choosing to start a company."It's two very different things: Should I coach someone to be a VC or should I coach someone to enter the startup ecosystem? On the latter question, my answer is 'hell yeah!'"
Josh Diamond, Walkabout Ventures
Josh Diamond founded Walkabout Ventures, a seed fund that primarily focuses on financial service startups. The firm raised a $10 million fund in 2019 and is preparing for its second fund. Among its 19 portfolio companies is HMBradley, which Diamond helped seed and recently raised $18 in a Series A round.
"The whole reason I started this is that I saw there was a gap in the funding for early stage, financial service startups," he said. As consumers demand more digital access and transparency, he said the market for financial services is transforming — and Los Angeles is quickly becoming a hub for fintech companies. Before founding Walkabout, he was a principal for Clocktower Technology Ventures, another Los Angeles-based fund with a similar focus.
Kara Nortman, Upfront Ventures
Kara Nortman was recently promoted to managing partner at Upfront Ventures, making her one of the few women – along with Settle – to ascend to the highest ranks of a major VC firm.
Though Upfront had attempted to recruit her before she joined in 2014, she had declined in order to start her own company, Moonfrye, a children's ecommerce company that rebranded to P.S. XO and merged with Seedling. Upfront invested in the combination, and shortly after, Nortman joined the Upfront team.
Before founding Moonfrye, she was the SVP and General Manager of Urbanspoon and Citysearch at IAC after co-heading IAC's M&A group.
In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year, she spoke on how a focus for her as a VC is to continue to open doors for founders and funders of diverse backgrounds.
"Once you're a woman or a person of color in a VC firm, it is making sure other talented people like you get hired, but also hiring people who are not totally like you. You have to make room for different kinds of people. And how do you empower those people?"
Brett Brewer, Crosscut Ventures
Brett Brewer is a co-founder and managing director of Crosscut Ventures. He has a long history in entrepreneurship, starting a "pencil selling business in 4th grade." In 1998, he co-founded Intermix Media. Under their umbrella were online businesses like Myspace.com and Skilljam.com. After selling Intermix in 2005, he became president of Adknowledge.com.
Brewer founded Santa Monica-based Crosscut in 2008 alongside Rick Smith and Brian Garrett. His advice to founders on Crosscut's website reflects his experience: "Founders have to be prepared to pivot, restart, expect the unexpected, and make tough choices quickly... all in the same week! It's not for the faint of heart, but after doing this for 20 years, you can spot the fire (and desire) from a mile away (or not)."
Eva Ho, Fika Ventures
Eva Ho is a founding partner of Fika Ventures, a boutique seed fund, which focuses on data and artificial intelligence-enabled technologies. Prior to founding Fika, she was a founding partner at San Francisco-based Susa Ventures, another seed-stage fund with a similar focus. She is also a serial entrepreneur, most recently co-founding an L.A. location data provider, Factual. She also co-founded Navigating Cancer, a health startup, and is a founding member of All Raise, a nonprofit that supports and provides resources to female founders and funders.
In an interview with John Livesay shortly before founding Fika, Ho spoke to how her experience at Factual helped focus what she looks for in founders. "I always look for the why. A lot of people have the skills and the confidence and the experience, but they can't convince me that they're truly passionate about this. That's the hard part — you can't fake passion."
Brian Lee, BAM Ventures
Brian Lee is a co-founder and managing director of BAM Ventures, an early-stage consumer-focused fund. In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year, Lee shared that he ended up being the first investor in Honey, which was bought by PayPal for $4 billion, through investing in founders and understanding their "vibe."
"There's certain criteria that we look for in founders, a proprietary kind of checklist that we go through to determine whether or not these are the founders that we want to back…. [Honey's founders] knew exactly what they were building, and how they were going to get there."
His eye for the right vibe in a founder is one gleaned from experience. Lee is a serial entrepreneur, founding LegalZoom.com, ShoeDazzle.com and The Honest Company.
Alex Rubalcava, Stage Venture Partners
Alex Rubalcava is a founding partner of Stage Venture Partners, a seed venture capital firm that invests in emerging software technology for B2B markets. Prior to joining, he was an analyst at Santa Monica-based Anthem Venture Partners, an investor in early stage technology companies. It was his first job after graduating from Harvard, and during his time at Anthem the fund was part of Series A in companies like MySpace, TrueCar and Android.
He has served as a board member in several Los Angeles nonprofits and organizations like KIPP LA Schools and South Central Scholars.
"Warren Buffett says that he's a better businessman because he's an investor, and he's a better investor because he's a businessman. I feel the same way about VC and value investing. Being good at value investing can make you good at venture capital, and vice versa," Rubalcava said in an interview with Shai Dardashti of MOI Global.
Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures
Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures, is arguably L.A.'s most visible VC, frequently posting on Twitter and on his blog, not only about investing but also more personal topics like weight loss. In more normal years, he presides over LA's biggest gathering of tech titans, the Upfront Summit. Before Upfront, he was the founder and chief executive officer of two software companies, BuildOnline and Koral, which was acquired by Salesforce. Upfront backed both of his companies, and eventually he joined their team in 2007.
In a piece for his blog, "Both Sides of the Table," Suster wrote about the importance of passion — not just for entrepreneurs and their businesses, but for the VCs that fund them as well.
"On reflection of the role that I want to play as a VC it is clearly in the camp of passion. I really want to start my journeys only with people with whom I want to work closely with for the next 5–7 years or more. I only want to work on projects in which I believe can produce truly amazing change in an industry or in the world."
Lead art by Candice Navi.
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Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.
From helping save beehives to healing the human body, some of L.A.'s most innovative companies are helmed by female founders. Who stands above the pack? We asked the region's top VCs participating in our recent dot.LA sentiment survey to weigh in.
Ara Katz, a serial entrepreneur and founder of probiotic company Seed tops our list. Katz found a niche in a multi-billion dollar industry, but she acknowledges that this past year has been especially tough for women, as the pandemic forced millions to drop out of the workforce.
"It is not lost on me what a privilege it is to be building a company as a female founder and mother given how impactful the pandemic and the past year has been on women and mothers in the workforce," said Katz. "My best advice to founders is to build with abandon — it is contagious, amplifying and makes it all meaningful."
Nationally, female-founded or co-founded companies earned less than 3% of all venture capital in 2020, according to data from Pitchbook. Although women founders say they still face issues of sexism and encounter more obstacles than their male counterparts, there are signs of improvement. In the first quarter of this year, women entrepreneurs reeled in $9.8 billion in capital investment nationally – an all-time high in quarterly investments over the past 12 years.
In Los Angeles, Long Beach and Santa Ana, $544 million was poured into female founded startups alone over that time.
Therese Tucker, founder of fintech company BlackLine, which also made our list, said that it's important for women to find people who believe in them as they build their companies.
"Don't be intimidated by condescension," Tucker said, "Look for people you can actually partner with who 'get' your business."
And just as importantly, founder of health platform Kensho, Krista Berlincourt, said stay true to who you are.
"It is not easy. And you'll be surrounded by men, so just find the people who get you and your vision, hold onto them tight, and go for it. Then remember that soft is strong. You don't have to 'crush it' to be successful," she said. "Be you. Be flexible. Soften. Grow. That's the only thing that has ever worked," Berlincourt added.
Here's the complete list:
Ara Katz, Seed
Ara Katz is the co-founder and co-CEO of Seed, a Venice-based probiotic company designed to improve health and digestion. Katz's experience as a breastfeeding mother led her to explore the importance of microbes and their impact on bodily health. Among other leading roles, Katz was co-founder and CMO of ecommerce marketplace Spring, which was sold to ShopRunner in 2018. She was also on the founding team of Beach Mint, an e-commerce company for fashion and lifestyle brands.
Claire Schmidt, AllVoices
Claire Schmidt aims to empower workers through AllVoices, an anonymous reporting and management platform, which allows employees to report issues in the workplace. The LA-based company has raised a total of $4.1 million with investments by Crosscut, Greycroft, Halogen Ventures and dot.LA founder Spencer Rascoff. Inspired by the the MeToo movement, the platform lets employees alert management to problems like discrimination, harrasment, or work bias. Prior to roles at AllVoices, Schmidt was vice president of technology and innovation at Fox properties and senior director of giving at Thrive Market, an e-commerce platform for organic products.
Ariel Kaye, Parachute
Ariel Kaye used her design and brand background to launch Parachute in 2014. Parachute is a direct-to-consumer bedding brand based in Culver City. The startup has raised over $47 million in funding to date with investments by H.I.G Capital, Jaws Ventures and Brilliant Ventures. The brand avoids chemicals and synthetics in their products putting an emphasis on sustainability.
Therese Tucker, BlackLine
Therese Tucker is the founder and executive chair of BlackLine, an LA-based platform for accountants that takes on repetitive or complicated tasks. BlackLine pulled in nearly $352 million in revenues in 2020, and expects to grow that to at least $410 million this year. Ranked among Fortune's '50 fastest growing' women led companies in 2016, the company also received first place in G2's "Best Finance Products of 2021" ranking.
Sophia Amoruso, Nasty Gal
Southern California native Sophia Amoruso is the founder and former owner of Nasty Gal, a multi-million dollar clothing store originally started on eBay. Nasty Gal was sold at a value of $20 million, including $15 million in debt, to BooHo in 2017. Amoruso's newest project is an eight-week entrepreneurship course called Business Class, which aims to help female business leaders begin or grow their small businesses. The New York Times bestseller author of#GIRLBOSS, she detailed her entrepreneurial story that was later made into a Netflix series.
Madeline Fraser, Gemist
Madeline Fraser is the CEO and founder of Gemist, a mobile app that allows users to design a ring and try it on at home before they buy. Fraser used her experience in growing tech-startups to create one of her own. The sustainable jewelry brand raised $1 million in funding in its first seed round in 2019 and last year was backed by De Beers Group Ventures, Hawke Ventures and Monique Woodward last year for an undisclosed amount.
Krista Berlincourt, Kensho
Berlincourt is the CEO and co-founder of Kensho, an Los Angeles-based health platform and guide to natural medicine. Kensho provides users with specialized wellness services from surfing to acupuncture. The company has raised $1.3 million and is backed by top investors like CrossCut Ventures, Female Founders Fund and Evolve Ventures. Prior to creating her own company, Berlincourt worked in public relations at venture-backed Simple.
Katherine Power, Who What Wear
Katherine Power co-founded Who What Wear 15 years ago out of frustration with a fashion industry that was often out of reach for many. The brand focuses on providing affordable and size-inclusive fashion. She is now CEO of Clique Media Group, a parent company that oversees Who What Wear and other consumer brands. As of 2017, Clique Media Group raised over $15 million in funding with investments by Amazon, Greycroft and e.ventures. Power was also listed in Fortune's 40 under 40 in 2016.
Cat Chen, Skylar
Cat Chen is the founder and CEO of Skylar, a fragrance and body care brand. Chen developed a hypo-allergenic and cruelty free fragrance after being dismayed by the lack of clean ingredients in high-priced perfumes. The company founded in 2017 has raised a total of $11 million backed by Amplify, FirstMark Capital and GingerBread Capital. Prior to Skylar, Chen was was an executive of operations at The Honest Company, where she helped grow the company to $300 million of revenue in her four years there.
Shivani Siroya, Tala
The founder and CEO of Tala, a Santa Monica-based consumer credit smartphone app, Shivani Siroya created the company to assist people in underrepresented markets. Tala uses advanced data science to provide personalized financial services, such as disbursing loans to people with no formal credit history. The startup has raised over $217 million in funding by top investors, and has since been mentioned in TedTalks, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. Siroya's company is valued at an estimated $750 million dollars as of 2019, and was deemed one of the top FinTech companies in the world by Forbes.
Lead image by Ian Hurley.
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