Feature

When Women Define Women

Entrepreneurial UB alumnae are spotting unmet needs in the marketplace—and transforming the health, beauty and wellness industries along the way

Rachel Jackson with her sons at their North Buffalo home. Photo: Douglas Levere

Story by Lynn Freehill-Maye

NINETEENTH-CENTURY ENTREPRENEUR Lydia Pinkham had been cooking up herbal remedies in her Massachusetts cellar kitchen for years, grinding herbs like pleurisy root and bottling the resulting compound to share with her female neighbors. Over time, the home remedy developed a strong reputation for relief from cramps and menstrual pain, and her family started encouraging her to sell the blend. In 1875, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound hit the market at $1 per bottle, becoming so popular that Pinkham started to receive up to a hundred letters a day from women seeking health care advice.

Pinkham’s understanding of what women really needed—one of the product’s slogans was “Only a woman can understand a woman’s ills”—brought her fame and fortune. Yet in spite of her success, and that of a few other notable American women who have founded lucrative companies in the women’s health, beauty and wellness sectors over the years, men continue to dominate the space. In other words, it’s still largely men who are recognizing the needs and dreaming up the solutions for women.

But change is on the horizon. A surge of female entrepreneurship in the U.S.—the number of women-owned businesses is up 68 percent since 1997—is reshaping everything from corporate culture to product lines across the spectrum of industries, and most notably in those industries that cater to women. Three UB alumnae are among those leading the charge. Rachel Jackson, founder and CEO of Rachel’s Remedies, invented a reusable relief pack that gives breast-feeding women control over their time and comfort. Dayna Bolden, founder and creative director of Bolden Creative Media, is using her sizable influence to promote the authentic beauty of natural black hair and a relaxed, easygoing style for women on the move. And Ellen Latham, founder and partner of Orangetheory Fitness, developed a science-based interval workout geared to how women train best.

Each of these female founders brought a fresh eye to her sector, spotting a need that men hadn’t fully understood and pushing to fill it in the marketplace. But even in 2017, when there are vastly more female entrepreneurs than in Pinkham’s day, they’ve encountered a lack of female mentors and faced doubts about whether their ideas are valid. All three have pressed on to develop businesses to reflect what women (and, in some cases, men) need now for health, beauty and wellness—and in the process, are reshaping their industries to reflect a much broader swath of society.

REMEDY-FINDER

Rachel Jackson (BA ’95)

Rachel Jackson (BA ’95). Photo: Douglas Levere

Back in 2011, when new mom Rachel Jackson developed clogged milk ducts and inflamed mammary glands from breast-feeding, she figured that her conditions must be ultra-rare since they seemed to have no real solutions. Her doctor suggested taking hot showers (up to eight a day), tucking warm washcloths under her shirt, even leaning over a table and dipping her chest into bowls of warm water.

Jackson found these solutions absurd, especially as she cared for her son and tried to keep up work as a corporate lawyer. “All the things that were available didn’t allow me to take care of my child—I couldn’t do anything,” she says. “There were times I was on a conference call with a judge, coming up with reasons why I couldn’t appear in person.”

Jackson had a second child a year later and encountered the same issues. Indeed, the more breast-feeding mothers she talked to and blogs she read, the more common she realized these conditions were. And then she got angry. “It’s not the exception, it’s the rule, and there just wasn’t anything out there,” she says. “If it were a problem that men had, there would’ve been a solution in the 1400s. I’m convinced of that.”

So Jackson, 47, took it upon herself to develop a fix—a reusable breast-feeding relief pack—which her husband jokingly called “Rachel’s remedy.” She eventually turned that into the name of the company she founded in 2014: Rachel’s Remedies. Reflecting how great the need clearly was, the packs are now sold online and on shelves at more than 350 stores, including Babies R Us and Buy Buy Baby. The company is currently developing new products, including an antimicrobial nursing pad. Jackson recently signed a deal with the country’s top baby-bottle seller, Dr. Brown’s, to start cobranding both products. They’ll hit 800 Target stores in January and begin to reach the Dr. Brown’s market of 58 million breast-feeding women worldwide.

Jackson’s entrepreneurial journey began with a homemade chest-soother: a grainy heat pack that could fit comfortably in a bra and retain moist heat without soaking her clothes. Having majored in environmental studies at UB before turning to law, she wanted the solution to be all-natural. She shopped for materials (bulk flax at the co-op grocery, waterproof material at the fabric store) and had her seamstress mother-in-law sew a prototype.

She asked practically everyone who walked up to her North Buffalo door to try one out—even men, for knee and shoulder pain. Then one July night in 2014, she was having dinner with her father and stepmother, UB English professors Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian, when her father turned to her. “He said either do something about this or stop talking about it,” she recalls. “The next day I formed the LLC and went all in.”

Jackson arranged for her breast-relief packs to be produced locally, at a facility in Orchard Park. UB gave her guidance and support through its Western New York Incubator Network. She secured $100,000 in funding from Launch NY, and even more from Z80 Labs. Most recently she won the Bright Buffalo Niagara start-up competition’s $20,000 grand prize and was a finalist in the 43North competition.

Still, she has hit fundraising roadblocks, many clearly a result of sexist attitudes. “I presented in front of one group of investors, all men, and no one was making eye contact,” she remembers. “I was told things like, if you’re doing a presentation don’t use the word breast. Don’t say breast-feeding. Say nursing, because you don’t want to offend the men.

“It’s been an old boys’ network for a long time,” she continues. “It’s not going to change overnight—it’s going to take a lot of work and education, like anything worth fighting for.”

STYLE-SETTER

Dayna Bolden (BS ’10)

Dayna Bolden (BS ’10)

Thirteen hundred photos ago, at the very bottom of her Instagram feed, Dayna Bolden posted snapshots of herself applying makeup to her younger sister Dominique’s face as Dominique dressed up for prom. This was 2012. Bolden, then 23, looked barely older than her teenage sister, whom she thanked for getting her on the still-new social media platform. Bolden kept up with it, at first posting grainy smartphone shots and selfies with her husband, Ernest, and friends. But over time the images started to reflect more sophistication in art direction and content, showing a sleek and polished urban woman.

Five years after that first post, Instagram means business for Bolden, now 29. A basketball player and marketing major at UB, Bolden had worked since graduation in corporate sales and retail operations for athletic-wear giant Under Armour. This year, with 42,000 Instagram followers and counting, she was able to leave that job and go solo as a social media influencer and creative director. “When I started, I would share cute outfits here and there, not knowing this could eventually be a business for me,” she says. “It’s been such a blessing.”

As people look to their peers rather than to professional models for inspiration, corporations have shifted some of their advertising dollars to everyday people—and Bolden has surfed that wave. You can think of her as an entrepreneurial marketer, blogger and model who helps companies imagine fresh ways to promote their brands while driving or creating trends among her followers. She’s scored deals with firms like Revlon and Google, who appreciate her image as a stylish, confident mom and woman of color. In February she launched her own business, Bolden Creative Media, and is on track to make six figures in her first self-employed year.

Scroll up Bolden’s Instagram feed and you’ll see an emerging professionalism, hand-in-hand with an evolving personal style. At the start, Bolden’s hair was chemically straightened and carefully styled. A few months in, around the time she was expecting daughter Aria, she chopped it short and let its natural coils crown her head. It was a decision driven by painful memories of getting her hair done as a child. “I think my mom put a relaxer in my hair when I was, like, 7—really young,” she recalls. “All my life it was ‘get the relaxer’ every month. I can never see myself putting relaxer in Aria’s hair. While she’s under my watch, I’ll instill in her how beautiful her hair is.”

Shortly after going natural, Bolden and one of her best friends, Brittany McNeal, started blogging about their stylish lives with untreated hair under the rubric Chic Naturalistas. The idea took hold; they were featured in magazines like Essence and It’s My Hair!, and the exposure built a major social media fan base. Natural hair is “a huge deal” for African-American women, says Bolden. “Now it’s starting to become more normal to be natural, but even five years ago it was like, ‘Why is she doing that?’ I was just over it—the damage to my hair, the chemicals. I wanted to embrace my natural hair texture.”

These days Bolden’s fans want to see her look in person, snap pictures with her and get her beauty advice. Brands hire her to attract people to their booths at major events. She travels nearly every weekend, recently flying to L.A. for a beauty convention, Atlanta for a Disney Moms conference, Brooklyn for an Afropunk festival and Manhattan for Fashion Week. Even when she and Ernest took an anniversary jaunt to the Bahamas in August, she couldn’t resist the chance to post from the trip for her fans.

When she’s home, Bolden churns out content: blog posts for DaynaBolden.com and images for social media. Essentially, she’s a real-world model who dreams up, schedules and edits her own fashion shoots. She hires professional photographers to document her against urban backdrops that now tend toward clean white and cool gray. The images look effortless, but they’re often taken during marathon six-outfit shoots, with Bolden changing outfits in her car along the way. “The more effortless it looks, the more work it takes,” she says.

Every so often she’ll show more of a getting-ready scene, perhaps applying makeup like she did for her sister in that first Instagram post. In a recent image, Bolden’s hair is twisted into bright aqua curlers, with Aria on her lap in matching yellow ones. She hopes her daughter and other women will be inspired to be both multidimensional and real. “I’m showing the world that you can be your true, authentic self while having all those roles and titles—mom, wife, businesswoman—that we women tend to have.”

FITNESS-BUILDER

Ellen Latham (EDM ’88, BS ’79)

Ellen Latham at an Orangetheory studio in Boca Raton, Fla. Photo courtesy of Orangetheory

In 1986, Ellen Latham lit out from her hometown of Niagara Falls, N.Y., for Fort Lauderdale. A football coach’s daughter and a fitness buff, Latham had majored in health science as an undergrad and was earning a master’s in exercise science. She was also teaching P.E. and managing local YMCAs, but was ready to take her skills to a new level. “It was challenging to grow in the fitness world in upstate New York,” she recalls.

In Fort Lauderdale, Latham finished her degree remotely and worked at big-name health spas, where stars like Linda Evans trained, before eventually opening her own Pilates studio. Over the years she developed an enthusiastic following and built up her clientele. Then, in 2010, a major opportunity presented itself. One of her clients, April Kern, suggested Latham talk to her husband, an investor who specialized in health and wellness franchises. Kern was sure Latham’s dynamic workout style could be taken nationally.

Seven years later, Latham, 61, is founder and partner of the runaway success that is Orangetheory Fitness. Nearly 750 Orangetheory-franchised studios are now open in 46 states and 16 countries. This year, both Forbes and Fortune, as well as the entrepreneurial-advocacy group Women Presidents’ Organization, recognized Orangetheory as the fastest-growing female-owned business in the nation after its annual revenues hit $450 million.

Latham developed the Orangetheory workout—an energetic, metabolism-spiking combination of cardio and strength-building—from scratch. She pored over studies old and new about intervals and heart rates, crediting UB, she says, “for instilling in me the need for research, science and data.” Then she went beyond physiology, tapping into psychology and behavioral science to fashion a more effective workout for her mostly female clients. “I knew women would not continue with a workout if they didn’t feel successful at it,” she says, explaining her decision to create walker, jogger and runner categories. Because women tend to crave variety in their fitness routines, she also changes workout themes daily.

Men wound up loving the Orangetheory workout, too, and now compose around 40 percent of the company’s clients. A marketing truism holds that women will enter a business with a masculine vibe, but men will largely steer clear of a business with a feminine one. Orangetheory has flipped that theory around, putting women front and center in its marketing and still attracting men. The approach has been so effective that on a recent day, Latham—who still leads several group workouts per week—had a woman with a pacemaker and a Miami Dolphins football player in the same class.

Her business partner Jerome Kern and two other executives and investors they brought on board have helped Latham build out the concept and expand the business over seven years of scaling up. Her partners are high-level businessmen with impressive experience in areas like sales, management and private-equity investment—but also strong opinions that didn’t always jibe with Latham’s vision. She recalls having intense conversations about how Orangetheory would be run, stifling her frustration and only letting it out on the way home.

“Over time I saw they respected me and listened to things I said,” she acknowledges. “But it is interesting being a female going into that all-male environment. It would’ve been nice if there were more female mentors out there.”

How to change that? Latham cheerfully ends an interview about her entrepreneurial success by volunteering to mentor any women who need guidance. “I would be more than happy to serve in an advisory capacity,” she says.

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Lynn Freehill-Maye is a freelance writer in Buffalo, N.Y.