Last year, we published our industry leading Female Entrepreneurs report on the state of gender diversity across the UK’s high-growth economy. The data was rather shocking. 25% of high-growth business with a female founder secured 21% of investment deals and just 9% of pounds invested in 2019. In honour of international women’s day, women’s history month, and every day that gender bias pervades, we’ve highlighted the UK’s top female founders who are beating the odds. Each of these women has secured significant investment for their innovative and ambitious businesses, all whilst under the age of 30.
This ranking is based on estimated paper worth, which our data team calculates using company valuations and ownership filings submitted to Companies House.
1. Ella Mills
Title: Co-Founder and Brand Director
Company: Deliciously Ella
Daughter of supermarket heiress Camilla Sainsbury and Shaun Woodward, the former Northern Ireland secretary, Ella Mills took a path into the world of entrepreneurship that is becoming increasingly common for millennials, having turned a once hobbyist blog into a small empire. In 2011 she was diagnosed with a condition called Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, which affects the body’s heart rate and digestion. As she changed her lifestyle and diet to adjust to this diagnosis she began her food and wellness blog in 2012 under the now eponymous brand name Deliciously Ella.
Despite being caught in the crossfire over the ‘clean-eating’ controversy in 2017, the Deliciously Ella business has continued to thrive. Eight years after Ella started her blog and the company is operating a deli, an app that went to number one in Food & Drink in the UK and a range of food products. The team continues to publish regular wellness content alongside these operations. As Brand Director, Ella runs the company with her co-founder, CEO and husband Matthew Mills, and a team of around 50 employees from their head office in Camden.
Deliciously Ella has raised two rounds of equity finance totalling £2.46m with a limited investor base, taking investment from 24Haymarket and just a handful of angels. This capital has been used to help the brand scale in a sustainable manner. Indeed, with such a wide offering developing in such a short amount of time, the company was forced to readjust its focus in 2018 when it decided to close two deli locations, and is now operating just the one deli in Mayfair. The majority of the business is currently focussed on the innovative no additives, no stabilisers, no preservatives food products that have been rolled out across supermarkets up and down the country.
2. Valentina Milanova
Title: Founder and CEO
Having graduated from the University of Buckingham with degrees in Economics, Business and Law, Bulgarian born Valentina Milanova began her career supporting high-growth companies at Techstars and Founders Factory. At the end of 2017, whilst still working these jobs, Valentina embarked on her own journey of entrepreneurship with the creation of Daye.
Daye is an online e-commerce platform that provides research and innovative products designed to improve standards in the feminine hygiene industry. Needless to say, the successfully scaling venture now demands Valentina’s full-time attention.
Having secured limited regulatory approval, the company is now producing a range of tampons including a CBD-infused option which helps soothe menstrual cramps. All the tampons are made from ethically sourced, organic and lab-tested cotton, putting sustainability and customer care front and centre. Even the packaging is environmentally friendly; biodegradable applicators are made of sugarcane and external wrappers are water-soluble, compostable or biodegradable. Products are purchased on a subscription basis, with customers able to build their own package with a choice of regular and super flow CBD and ‘naked’ tampons. There’s even an option for the number of days between shipping, so that delivery will sync up with each individual customer’s cycle.
To date, Daye has raised two equity funding rounds worth £5.51m with backing from Index Ventures, Kindred Capital VC, Kohsla Ventures and various angel investors. Beauhurst research estimates the company’s most recent round of £4.23m valued the company at around £6.84m pre-money.
3. Tanvi Bhardwaj
Title: Co-Founder and CTO
Graduating from the University of Manchester with a first class honours degree in Computer Engineering, Tanvi Bhardwaj spent just over a year working as a Software Engineer in Bangalore before co-founding her own venture. Along with former classmate Mustafa Khanwala (co-founder and CEO), the engineering duo are now bridging the gap between the high street and the digital realm with the MishiPay app. This software allows shoppers to self-checkout by scanning a barcode and paying for an item with their phone, eliminating the need to queue in stores.
But what about theft, you ask? Once a product has been purchased its RFID security tag is disabled, allowing shoppers to walk out of the store without setting off alarms. MishiPay can be quickly and easily integrated into existing retailer infrastructure, and has already been deployed in stores across Europe.
Tanvi and the MishiPay team have now scaled the company into its venture stage of evolution, having secured a £10k grant from Manchester Enterprise Centre and three funding rounds worth a combined £5.29m. Investors include Nautu Capital, American Express Ventures and United Ventures.
4. Maya Pindeus
Title: Co-Founder and CEO
Company: Humanising Autonomy
Hailing from Austria, 29 year old Maya is an experienced Innovation Design Engineer, and is now the co-founder and CEO of artificial intelligence company, Humanising Autonomy. Humanising Autonomy develops unique software for autonomous vehicles that analyses and predicts the behaviour of pedestrians with the aim of minimising road accidents. Solving this problem will be a necessary step in effectively rolling out autonomous vehicles. But it can also be implemented in existing technology, in driver assistance systems in vehicles that are already operating on roads across the UK and beyond.
Indeed, even though it was only registered in late 2017 and is still in the seed stage of evolution, the company is already operating on a global level and using a variety of data sources to inform its machine learning system, allowing the technology to work effectively in different environments and countries where pedestrians may behave differently.
The company has raised two rounds of equity totalling £4.53m with backers from across the world, including Anthemis Group, German fund Amplifier, Japanese-based Global Brain Corporation and American firm Synapse Partners. Maya and her team have established a number of partnerships from Airbus to TfL. Maya told us that choosing London as the home for the Humanising Autonomy headquarters has allowed them ‘to build an extremely valuable professional network in London and in the UK that has supported us throughout our entrepreneurial journey.’
In addition, Maya also credits a large part of her business growth to ensuring she has a diverse team full of energy and creativity. She stated that “at Humanising Autonomy we all came together to develop world changing technology that has a real impact on society. It is therefore crucial that our team represents the society that we are developing for.” She adds that “diversity of gender and age is a measure of success to us. Our team has a 50/50 gender balance which cuts across all our teams.”
Title: Founder and CEO
Describing herself as a ‘social entrepreneur’ Lucrezia Bisignani has an eclectic background across drama and technology, having graduated from Singularity University in Silicon Valley at NASA, and trained as an actress at The Oxford School of Drama. At 28 years old, Lucrezia is now the founder and CEO of edutainment startup Kukua.
Blending edtech with gamification, Kukua develops a range of educational media for children in Africa, featuring strong positive role models that they can truly identify with. The company’s first franchise, Super Sema, portrays the first African child heroine to inspire girls and children and help them develop literacy and numeracy skills. Having started with apps and video content, Kukua is now producing a tv series, books and materials for schools, merchandising consumer products and organising unique live events and entertainment.
Currently in its venture stage of evolution, Kukua has raised £2m in equity funding to date. Backers included British VC Firstminute Capital and accelerator programme Founders Factory, French Kima Ventures, German Burda Principal Investments, and Nigerian EchoVC Partners. It’s a credit to the strength of the UK’s high-growth ecosystem that, with such an international focus and investment from Europe and beyond, Lucrezia chose the UK as the location to launch her startup. She stated that “the investor ecosystem here has become one of the leading in the world and being a UK company facilitated the process to be a part of it.”
Lucrezia was optimistic when we asked if she felt her gender had impacted her experience as a founder, commenting that “there is a general growing excitement to fund women-led companies, and for me the biggest barrier was my self-belief.” In order to remove these concerns for future generations, Lucrezia believes that “we need more role models and positive examples of female founders to help pave the way for so many extraordinary female entrepreneurs out there” and the key to this is “believing they can do so at the highest possible standards.”
6&7. Joyce and Raissa de Haas
Title: Founders and Co-CEOs
Company: Double Dutch
With double the business brain power twin sisters Joyce and Raissa de Haas are the co-founders of Double Dutch, a premium soft drinks company that designs mixers for high-quality spirits. As students, Joyce and Raissa made tonic waters for their friends and family, as they felt the current offering of tonics were lacking in taste. Alongside their mixology hobby both sisters studied a Masters in Technology Entrepreneurship at the University College of London. It was here they first trialled the idea of the Double Dutch concept and were awarded the UCL Bright Ideas Award for most promising startup.
As a result of this award, the sisters received cash investment, free office space for the year and mentorship. They launched their first products in 2015 and now export a million bottles a month of tonics and mixers to over 25 countries worldwide. Double Dutch is in more than 4,500 bars and restaurants across the UK and distributed by a range of online retailers including the likes of Waitrose, Ocado and Amazon. The company has progressed into the venture stage of evolution and to this date has secured £5.06m through several fundraisings.
Double Dutch’s other accolades include Richard Branson’s Virgin Foodpreneur award for most innovative and disruptive food and beverage product in the UK in 2015. This was followed by the award for Best Adult Soft Drink at the World Beverage Innovation Awards in 2016. In 2019, both Joyce and Raissa featured in Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Retail and E-commerce List.
When asking if Joyce and Raissa felt that gender had impacted them in securing investment they explained upon starting out they quickly realised that the food and drinks industry was heavily male dominated. However, this made them more determined to work harder and to come up with inventive ways to secure funding. “We decided to make a list of the top 20 people we’d love to have on board, basically anyone we thought could add value to Double Dutch. We approached them via LinkedIn and found that a lot of them were open to grab a coffee. In fact, our first round of investors all came from LinkedIn, and it is really a great mix of people who all have different assets to bring to the table.”
“Having said that there is always more that can be done. We need to encourage a new generation of entrepreneurs and offer them mentors, as well as vocal male advocates for women in business and vocal female role models that can share how they have taken ideas to grow their own brands. We had a lot of support launching our business and we wanted to give back by creating a network to help other women grow their brands and businesses.”
Double Dutch have been putting this aspiration for change into practice. They have recently launched a scholarship and mentoring programme to help support, train and empower aspiring female mixologists. The initiative has been designed to help foster up-and-coming female talent in the form of training, mentoring and financial support.
8. Sasha Haco
Title: Co-Founder and CEO
Along with a First Class Honours in Natural Sciences, Sasha was also awarded the Institute of Astronomy Prize and the Queens’ College Natural Sciences Prize whilst at Cambridge University. She then went on to complete a PhD in Theoretical Physics and spent a year as a visiting fellow at Harvard University. During his time, she worked with and co-authored several papers with Stephen Hawking on the black hole information paradox.
Following these remarkable achievements, Sasha took a leap into the realm of entrepreneurship as co-founder and CEO of Unitary. Unitary is making the internet safer by using AI to interpret online content including video, text, images, and audio to identify inappropriate or harmful material. The aim is to to help with moderation on platforms and also provide assurance of brand safety to advertisers. They are currently live and actively checking content on a forum with 22 million subscribers. Unitary’s latest funding round of £1.35m set a pre-money valuation of £4.34m
When we asked Sasha about her experience of securing investment as a female founder, she said “I have heard many other female founders talk about their bad experiences with funds. I can imagine that many VCs are looking for the next Steve Jobs or Larry Page, and so have a mental model of what this should look like. I’ve even heard some founders say that they’ve had more success in getting meetings with VCs if they sign off an email with a male name. Maybe I’ve just been lucky but I never encountered any discrimination and I don’t think my gender impacted my fundraising at all.”
Sasha’s refreshingly positive experience of fundraising in part comes from working with investors that she credits as “female founder friendly”. These recent funders include Global Founders Capital and Jane VC, an early stage venture fund that invests in female entrepreneurs who are paving the way forward with the next big technology companies.
9. Charlotte Pearce
Title: Founder and CEO
Charlotte Pearce is a female entrepreneur who has put pen to paper – literally. Charlotte is CEO and co-founder of Inkpact – a bespoke letter writing service designed to help clients deliver high-quality correspondence. In a digital world currently saturated by emails and ads, Inkpact’s aim is to provide more thoughtful communication on behalf of businesses to help increase their engagement. The company offers their services across the UK with a diverse community of scribes and claims to have a 99% open rate. Clearly there is a broad market for this type of personalised marketing, with Inkpact having worked with some top brands, including John Lewis, Tiffany & Co and Deloitte. To date, Inkpact have secured £1.35m in equity fundraising over four funding round. The company’s latest round of £351k in October 2018 set a pre-money valuation of £5.12m
Inkpact is not Charlotte’s only endeavour, and she does much more than champion that the pen is mightier than the keyboard. She has a broad range of other business interests, from speaking at events, to presenting a podcast and the video series Humans of Business, which is sponsored by Octopus Ventures. Recent guests on this podcast include activist and businesswoman Gina Miller, Founder of Ella’s Kitchen Paul Lindley, and former apprentice star Suie Ma, founder of Tropic Skincare. In 2016 Charlotte was awarded Rising Star in the Variety Catherine Awards and listed in the Maserati Top 100. In 2017 she was named in Forbes 30 under 30 list for technology.
Title: Founder and Director
With roughly one third of food being wasted globally and 60% of food thrown out in the UK, food wastage rates are pretty worrying to say the least. Solveiga Pakštaitė is on a mission to reduce unnecessary food waste and revolutionise the way we determine expiry dates. As an Inventor, founder and Director of Mimica she has developed a biologically accurate food spoilage indicator that determines food freshness by using temperature: the labels will turn from smooth to bumpy if the product is spoiled. Not only will this reduce wastage and improve safety, it will help those with sight loss to independently determine the expiry date of food.
For the first few years after incorporation, Mimica was completely funded through £250k worth of grants. According to Solveiga, things got tougher when it came to raising equity finance. Having raised just over £200k in seed funding, Solveiga brought in Laurence Kayson as Mimica’s CEO, due to his proven track record in building businesses in the food waste and smart packaging space. To date, Mimica has secured £1.38m. It may not be long before we see the Mimica labels on the highstreet, with the company’s initial plans to launch their labels on juice bottles, followed by an expansion into milk and meat packaging.
Indeed, Solveiga’s invention has already received widespread press attention, industry recognition and numerous awards. In 2017 she was listed featured in MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35 Europe. In 2018 she was named Social Entrepreneur of the Year by Barclays and given the People’s Choice Award by FoodBytes!. In 2019 Mimica was a double winner at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
Reflecting on her business success, Solveiga told us: “I never thought I’d start a company, but it was market pull that made it an exciting opportunity. We are lucky to have had many successes at Mimica: we have developed ground-breaking scientific technology, we have wonderful continuous support for our mission from the general public and from other organisations who want to help, and created a world-class business that’s rooted in our values, creates great jobs, lending a hand when we can, delivering with kindness and decency. What’s not to love about all that?”
Solveiga is also the founder and Director of her own freelance design studio ‘Design By Sol’, and is a visiting lecturer at University College London delivering talks on Transformative Entrepreneurship. Solveiga is also a Board Member on Fast Forward 2030, a network of entrepreneurs who promote models of enterprise for Sustainable development.
From revolutionising the feminine hygiene industry to building a global standard for human interaction with automated mobility, there is no denying that these entrepreneurs are changing the world as we know it. Despite the shocking statistics we’ve seen, it’s encouraging to see that many have had positive experiences securing fundraising, which seems to have been aided by investor’s awareness of the gendered issues facing the high-growth industry.