Remember the days when speaking to a doctor by phone or video conference seemed too, well, remote? Or when we almost always went to a salon to cover our roots? As the world around us shifted due to the pandemic last year, however, so has our relationship with technology, and leaders in the health, wellness and beauty industries, were prepared to meet our needs — sometimes, even when we didn’t yet know them. These Bay Area-based business leaders have found ways to use technology to improve the consumer experience and even offer previously unimagined services. And, in the era of social distance, their innovations have become even more relevant.
Ming Zhao, Proven
Cofounder and CEO
According to cofounder Ming Zhao, Proven skincare is a “brand for people who simply didn’t have the time for constantly looking for and trying skincare products in the hope that something would work.” This tech-enhanced line offers personalized skincare products derived through the use of artificial intelligence (AI). Zhao, who emigrated with her family from China to Southern Florida at age 12, earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and had established a successful career in finance before she decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and become an entrepreneur. At the time, Zhao was using guesswork to determine which products were right for her skin issues, and did not find solutions until she went to a specialist. It was then that she realized that while personalized medicine is the de facto form of medicine, we do not take a similar approach with our skin. Proven’s Skin Genome Project is a skincare database that analyzes the effectiveness of skincare ingredients and factors such as the water hardness, humidity level and UV index of where a person lives. The process is well-suited to technology: consumers take a quiz that analyzes more than 47 factors about their heritage, lifestyle and environment in order to determine the right products. Zhao notes that she founded the company when she was pregnant, so her two “babies” are the same age.
Kristina Cahojova, Kegg
Having worked at both Amazon and eBay, kegg founder Kristina Cahojova had extensive experience in the tech realm. As someone who does not use hormones to regulate her period, she also had an adult lifetime of experience attempting to track her fertility cycle. “I have always struggled with tracking my fertility; my cycles are irregular due to stress and traveling, so the ovulation tests and temperature methods provide limited information about my ovulation and none about my fertile window,” she says. Cervical fluid plays a critical role in fertility and pregnancy because sperm can’t survive in the vagina unless cervical fluid is present. When she was told by a fertility specialist to track vaginal fluids with her fingers, she could not believe there was no technology to help. “I was shocked that this is the state of the art,” she says. “Today we have drones and autonomous cars, and yet women are still being told to use their fingers to access their fertile window.” Launched in 2020, the kegg app connects to a small insertable device that monitors cervical fluid through precise sensing technology and accurately predicts the fertile window so women know when to expect their next period or when they should take a pregnancy test. Cahojova’s goal is to use technology to empower women to understand their own bodies with accurate and actionable data.
Amy Errett, Madison Reed
Founder and CEO
For years, as Amy Errett watched her wife color her roots at home, she grew concerned about the chemicals her wife might be exposed to in the process. Errett had also grown frustrated with high-end salons, where shelling out $200 for a touch-up had become the norm. So, she launched Madison Reed, a San Francisco-based hair color brand that aims to revolutionize the way women color their hair. Using color-matching technology and a team of on-call colorists, the company helps women identify the right shade of hair color to order online, and then delivers it to their homes. For those who prefer going to a professional, Madison Reed has also opened affordable hair color bars in several cities across the United States, most recently in Chicago. Madison Reed prides itself for its formula that is free of eight harsh ingredients typically found in hair color — PPD, ammonia, parabens, resorcinol, phthalates, gluten, SLS and titanium dioxide. According to Errett, during the peak of the pandemic, Madison Reed saw its new customers increase dramatically to 12 times the pre-Covid-19 levels, even as the brick-and-mortar color bars temporarily remained closed. “We’re humbled that so many people have turned to us,” says Errett, who sees her company’s success during the pandemic as a sign that at-home coloring is here to stay.
Varsha Rao, Nurx
Varsha Rao is a seasoned entrepreneur and executive with experience leading everything from rapidly scaling startups to established companies, including Clover Health, a health insurance startup, and AirBnB where she was head of Global Operations. In 2019, Rao took the helm of Nurx, a telemedicine company offering birth control prescriptions, emergency contraception and home-testing kits for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). All prescriptions are written by a licensed healthcare provider and delivered right to the patient’s door. “Nurx breaks down access barriers to help people receive essential healthcare,” says Rao. “It allows them to share their health information with a licensed medical provider any time, all at the patient’s convenience — on a work or study break or from home, late at night when the kids are asleep — to get the answers, prescriptions and tests they need. We’re finding that our patients no longer see telehealth as a one-time transaction, but as an ongoing relationship.” Indeed, according to Rao, the pandemic sped up the adoption of telehealth and, from her perspective, healthcare is likely to stay more decentralized, with patients seeking care through a combination of telehealth and in-person visits. Rao and her team at Nurx believe that when patients have more control over their own care they’ll be more proactive and preventive, and not as likely to wait for the annual checkup to think about their health.
Gina Gutierrez and Faye Keegan, Dipsea
Cofounder and CEO
Gina Gutierrez and Faye Keegan launched Dipsea “story studio” because they were fascinated by the idea that sexuality is as psychological as it is physical, especially for women. After several late-night conversations with their friends, they learned that not one of them had a great or reliable source of erotic inspiration. Gutierrez and Keegan started reading everything they could on the topic. After Keegan read the book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, she called Gutierrez. “The data supports all of our thinking — we have to do this,” she told her future business partner, and the duo got to work creating a product that they wanted to exist for themselves. Their belief was (and is) that audio is a magical medium for erotica because it’s so imaginative, and they set out to create audio content that was “relatable, nuanced and celebrates the power of female sexuality.” Subscribers to the story studio can explore a vast library of nearly 500 sexy stories, wellness sessions and sleep scenes, whether they want to spark their imagination, immerse themselves in a world of aspirational sex and relationships, rest their minds and bodies, or explore ideas like erotic breath work and meditation. Guitierrez and Keegan describe Dipsea as sex-positive, consensual and feminist. Guitierrez sets the brand vision and oversees the content, product and marketing teams at Dipsea, while Keegan leads the engineering and product teams, as well as the company’s financial strategy.
Brandy Hoffman and Patricia Santos, Volition
Volition Beauty cofounders Brandy Hoffman and Patricia Santos met when they were working for the same skincare company. Through their experience in the beauty industry, the two developed an idea; they believed they could revolutionize the beauty industry by offering consumers an opportunity to influence the product development stage. Volition is a consumer-facing product development beauty brand that asks consumers to pitch the product idea and support others ideas through voting on them. “In the beauty industry, the consumer typically comes in at the tail-end of the process,” says Hoffman. “We believed that if the customer was brought back earlier in the process, we would be able to build a brand that actually solved unique beauty problems.” In other words, Volition is an online crowd-sourcing and community-vetting platform where consumers, enthusiasts and chemists can create their own beauty products. If an idea for a beauty product — a cleanser, eye cream, moisturizer, sunscreen, serum or mist — is vetted by one of the company’s experts, the community is allowed to vote for its creation. Users can read the creators’ profiles, vote for products and, if the product is accepted into Volition’s collection and manufactured, the voters will receive a discount on the product.
For more on Better:
- CEO Julie Wainwright On The RealReal, Her Luxury Consignment Business
- How Mt. Tam Inspired Randy Hetrick to Create his Total Body Resistance Exercise System, TRX
- Restoring Health and Wellness and With Functional Medicine
Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.com.