The surge in “pink-collar” start-ups—businesses in traditionally feminine industries like fashion, beauty, and shopping—has been a somewhat controversial topic. Tech reporter Jolie O’Dell touched off a mini firestorm last September when she tweeted that the women starting these companies were “embarrassing” her. Concern over the threat of a “pink-collar tech ghetto” was alarming enough that the organizers of last year’s SXSW Interactive conference included a panel to discuss the issue. Girly companies, it seems, aren’t very cool.
But I took up the topic last fall in my article “Handbags vs. Hard Drives,” in which I suggested that companies in feminine industries deserve a second look.
According to a 2010 report from comScore, women spend more time online than men, and they’re overrepresented in social networking, gaming, photos, blogs, and retail. Not only do women spend time online, they spend money, too—female customers make up 61% of online transactions. In a TechCrunch article on the topic, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Aileen Lee called women the “rocket fuel” of e-commerce. “Especially when it comes to social and shopping,” Lee explains, “women rule the Internet.”
But women aren’t the only tech entrepreneurs with their eyes on female customers. From the men behind Pinterest to the dudes who started Shoe Dazzle, smart men are defying gender stereotypes in the pursuit of great business and jumping at the chance to cash in on pink-collar opportunities.
Nils Johnson is one of the three male co-founders of Beautylish, a beauty-focused social network. What attracted three men to the female-dominated cosmetics industry? “Most engineers are guys, so they think about products for guys,” Johnson explains. “When we thought about the intersection of technology and beauty, we saw a large opportunity in a market that was significantly underserved.”
Josh Berman and Diego Berdakin are another great example: The duo took their expertise in technology and proximity to the heart of Hollywood and identified a huge opportunity to revolutionize e-commerce. The result was Beachmint, a designer-curated social-commerce site, which, until its recent launch of a home goods vertical curated by Justin Timberlake, catered exclusively to women. “The founders never pretended to be fashion experts,” says Ara Katz, Beachmint’s Head of Creative and Partnerships. “Their strengths are in technology and operations.”
Michael Topolovac, too, learned of a gap in the market and he saw an opportunity to start a business. After overhearing his female friends express frustration about sex toys, Topolovac founded Crave and set out to make luxury sensual products for women. “I had a vision to make a truly female-centric brand,” Topolovac says.
But not everyone thought Topolovac was the right person for the job. “There were definitely people who asked me, ‘What business do you have doing products for women?’”
When I asked Johnson whether he and his founders had ever encountered similar criticism, he groaned. “Totally. It’s reverse discrimination. They say, ‘Why don’t you address something that scratches your own itch?’” But Johnson is convinced that a passion for building great products and solving challenging engineering problems is his company’s most important asset. Also, he adds, “I made it clear that I was going to hire the best people.”
In many cases, that hiring philosophy means actively seeking to hire women, and some male founders are making strategic choices to recruit women to join their founding teams.
Kevin Ryan, the founder of the famously fashionable flash sale retailer Gilt Groupe knew he couldn’t do it alone. “I knew customers wouldn’t look at me and say, ‘I want to be him.’” If you’ve never heard of the male founders of Gilt, that’s by design. After Ryan recruited Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, they crafted the company’s founding story to celebrate the female co-founders; Ryan and technical co-founders Mike Bryzek and Phong Nguyen are largely edited out of most media stories. In fact, a Google search for “founders of Gilt Groupe” returns almost no mentions of the men. The domain www.giltfounders.com glorifies Maybank and Wilson as the company’s leaders.
Similarly, when Topolovac founded Crave, he knew from the outset that he needed a woman on the team. “It was always the plan to bring in a female co-founder.” Luckily, Topolovac found Ti Chang. She is now featured prominently in Crave’s marketing collateral, particularly the company’s crowdfunding campaign which quickly went viral in August 2011.
Of course, these male entrepreneurs make it clear that their co-founders aren’t just window dressing. In addition to their personal knowledge of the female market, Maybank, Wilson, and Chang have brought valuable skills to their ventures.
Ryan knew he needed expertise in fashion and merchandising to make Gilt a reality. “I needed people who knew the industry, people with knowledge and credibility,” he explains.
And at a time when technical co-founders are a hot commodity, Topolovac was exceedingly grateful to have found a killer engineer—who just happens to be a woman: “I was looking for an industrial designer who understood the industry,” he says. “There’s an extraordinarily good reason that Ti is here: she’s amazingly talented.”
These pink-collar male entrepreneurs aren’t letting gender hold them back. In fact, they even see some benefits of their outsider perspective. “It can be hard for entrepreneurs to not think their personal experiences are a proxy for the market,” explained Topolovac. “Because I come to the table without emotional attachment to the answers, it’s made me a better listener.”
When asked about his experience as an outsider in his own industry, Johnson said he’s actually learned a lot about cosmetics. “I’m just as good at make-up as some of the users on our site. I’ve created some looks on my wife that I’m pretty proud of,” he says with a smile.
Women are the economic engines of some of the Internet’s hottest markets from e-commerce to social media. It’s no wonder then that savvy entrepreneurs—both men and women—are developing ways to better serve the female market. And as with any growing industry, it takes teams of both genders to truly succeed. Just as we need more women to bring their unique perspective to traditionally male-dominated fields, so too will pink-collar industries benefit from smart, innovative men.
Photo courtesy of smlp.co.uk.
Anneke is a founding executive and leads the business side of Reserve, one of Fast Company's Most Innovative companies of 2016. She joined Reserve from the Google Creative Lab where she led teams building the future of tech. An advisor to NPR and a startup veteran, she is an experienced entrepreneur and storyteller who speaks and writes on topics related to technology and culture. She lives in Brooklyn and can be found online at @annekejong.More from this Author