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Ravenswood women-founded startup helps independent retailers customize goods

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Updated: February 20, 2013 6:07AM



Who would have thought the Kardashians would be the impetus for a woman-owned Ravenswood tech firm winning a coveted Women 2.0 award and a year’s work opportunity with cosmetics company L’Oreal USA?

The local startup, Citizen Made (Citizenmade.co), founded by Rachel Brooks and Bryn McCoy, provides Chicago’s locally owned and small-sized retailers an affordable platform from which to sell personalized products — not just so customers can pick a certain color, for example, but so they can fully design the product they want.

This column, Sun-Times’ Digital Second City Scene, broke the news about Citizen Made and its business model on July 6.

Brooks, 25, and software engineer McCoy, 37, believe their company’s software platform can revolutionize retailing and consumer products in two ways: Letting small, independent shops gain access to what are now multi-million-dollar “customizer” machines that let sneaker buyers fashion their own shoes, and enable shoppers to fashion just about anything they want for competitive prices.

That’s what L’Oreal’s next-generation customers want, too: The ability to customize products to accentuate their unique style and ingenuity, said Rachel Weiss, vice president of digital strategy and chair of L’Oreal USA Women in Digital.

“The Kardashians have helped create this idea that everyone can be a star and can brand herself,” Weiss said. “We are interested not only in the customization of products, but also of packaging.

“To ensure we have the right return-on-investment and profit-and-loss financials in creating these customized products, how do we create products at mass and still be profitable? That’s an important area (in which) to wrap our brains around,” Weiss said.

L’Oreal partnered with Women 2.0, a San Francisco-based media company that aims to increase the number of female founders of technology startups, on the Women 2.0 “Pitch” Conference and Competition on Nov. 20 in New York City.

At the contest, Chicago’s Citizen Made, founded in Fall 2011, won the L’Oreal USA Women in Digital’s Choice Award — the year’s-long work opportunity, plus a $25,000 grant and shoulder-rubbing opportunities with L’Oreal’s venture partners and professional mentors.

McCoy, Citizen Made’s chief technology officer, said the prize will allow the company to use its customization canvas to “think through places” throughout L’Oreal’s business divisions where customization “would be a key asset.”

Brooks, the CEO, said the customization trend shows smaller-run productions are making a big comeback — the same kinds of niche, custom-design manufacturing that propelled retailers such as Crate & Barrel to create a niche to vie with big department stores in the 1960s.

McCoy said the resurgence is a response to big-box stores and mass-market retailers “not having unique and personal goods.”

“People are starting to understand this cycle of consumerism, and now want to buy things that are more meaningful,” she said.

L’Oreal sees venture capital as a key issue for women.

“Fewer than 10 percent of venture capital investors are women,” said L’Oreal’s Weiss. “Fewer than 7 percent of startups are led and operated by women.”

Women own 28 percent of all businesses in the United States, according to VentureSource.

Rudina Seseri, partner at early-stage venture capital fund Fairhaven Capital and a member of L’Oreal USA Women in Digital’s advisory board, said women-owned tech startups are still too few.

“There aren’t enough women entrepreneurs and CEOs,” she said. “I’d like that to change.”

Yet Seseri, who concentrates on digital media and consumer technology, said the problem stems from the low numbers of women who select engineering and computer science careers.

“The funnel has been narrowed from the get-go,” said Seseri, whose firm’s investments have included data storage solutions firm EqualLogic, which Dell acquired five years ago for $1.4 billion.

Yet women are proving adept at starting e-commerce and consumer-oriented companies in which technology is an enabler but not the main business model, Seseri said.

“The consumer Internet is more intuitive to women,” she said. “They know the trends, the spending patterns, the next big thing, and they are targeting a familiar demographic (much like themselves).”

In Chicago, the number of startups founded by women stood at 88, the same as in 2011, according to Femanomics, a Chicago-based firm dedicated to gender parity throughout the business community.

Those 88 companies combined raised $49.64 million in funding, an 8.97 percent increase from 2011, the Femanomics report stated. By the start of 2013, 84 of the original 88 companies continued to operate.

Throughout the Chicago region, women-founded companies comprised five in Evanston, and one each in La Grange and Naperville.

Citizen Made’s co-founders prove that women are gaining status:

** McCoy made Forbes magazine’s list of six “New Female CTOs of Startups” — where she described herself as a “wild at heart creative type” and a technophiliac.

** Brooks was named among the Dell #Inspire 100 list in the entrepreneur category as a “world changer.”

“The #Inspire 100 are the social entrepreneurs who invest every dollar to make the world a better place, writers who connect communities, designers who embody the spirit of innovation,” said Fara Howard, Dell executive director of North America Consumer and Small Office Marketing.

** Citizen Made won the Chicago Interactive Marketing Association’s $15,000 Digital Startup Initiative grant.



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