Who inspires you? Can you find a person, place, or experience to incite business inspiration? While many entrepreneurs can be hailed for their vision, ambition, perseverance, struggles and sheer force of will – there are some, unconventional entrepreneurs, that make you want to do more, create something more and catalyze your life’s potential.
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If you are looking for a fresh injection of entrepreneurial inspiration, look no further than these seven change agents who break the mold. Their stories will inspire and empower you to keep moving, keep reaching and keep building an epic business to share with the world.
1. Blake Mycoskie, Founder and CEO of TOMS Shoes
Serial entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie, the founder and Chief Shoe Giver of TOMS, is leading a global movement. It represents a social giving shift that even Mycoskie couldn’t have seen coming in 1997 when the SMU student co-founded his first business, EZ Laundry. Today the 37-year-old social entrepreneur is behind one of the world’s most well-known social giving brands — Santa Monica-based TOMS Shoes, a shoe and eyewear company he founded in 2006 while vacationing in South America.
In 2006 Mycoskie discovered the Alpargata, a traditional rope-soled shoe that has been worn by Argentina farmers for centuries. At the same time, he witnessed the devastating poverty of children too poor to afford shoes, who would then develop cuts on their feet that led to disease.
“Who is Tom? There is no Tom. If we sell a pair of shoes today, we give away a pair of shoes tomorrow. Originally we thought of ‘Tomorrow’s Shoes,’ but I could only fit ‘TOMS’ on the label. I had no idea everybody would want to meet him… it’s an idea for a better tomorrow.”Blake Mycoskie
After this experience, Mycoskie returned to Los Angeles with 250 pairs of shoes in his duffel bag and the idea for his new company, TOMS Shoes. Mycoskie vowed to match every pair sold with a new pair given to a child in need; a movement now known as One for One.
Since the company’s inception in 2006, TOMS has given over two million pairs of new shoes to children in need. To further his vision, Mycoskie has literally turned his sights towards eyewear. A percentage of the company’s profit, selling eyewear, is used to save or restore the eyesight of people in developing countries. To culminate his journey, in 2011, Mycoskie released his first book, “Start Something That Matters,” offering his personal story of inspiration, and the power of giving in business. Connect with Blake on Twitter.
2. Sophia Amoruso, Founder and CEO of Nasty Gal
Sophia Amoruso is the ultimate accidental entrepreneur. The 29-year-old eBay-turned-online entrepreneur started an eBay store in order to work for herself, not thinking she would sell nearly $100 million dollars worth of clothing and accessories — profitably — seven years later.
In 2006, at 22-years-old Amoruso started on eBay while working in the lobby of an art school, checking student IDs for $13 per hour. As a community college dropout, living in her step-aunt’s home, she found her passion selling women’s vintage clothing online. Two years later, in 2008, Amoruso launched the Nasty Gal website, hired her first employee and quit her job to pursue the startup full-time.
“What do you do when you’re living in a hut for $500 a month and subsisting on Boston Market and Subway? You just keep doing what you’re doing…” – Sophia Amoruso, PandoDaily
Today, Amoruso is at the helm of “one of the fastest-growing retailers in the country,” she says. Surprisingly the Los Angeles-based retailer has no marketing team. Amoruso grew her customer base using social media — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest. Her grassroots approach and unique brand voice has created a cult of loyal customers. According to company reports, “a quarter of Nasty Gal’s 550,000 customers visit the site daily for six minutes; the top 10 percent return more than 100 times a month.”
In 2011, Nasty Gal made $28 million in revenue. A year later the company released the first issue of its free, semiannual lifestyle magazine entitled “Super Nasty,” which focuses on fashion, music and culture. To-date Nasty Gal has raised $49 million in venture capital, according to reports. Connect with Sophia on Twitter.
3. Brian Wong, Founder and CEO of Kiip
Brian Wong is redefining mobile as the co-founder and CEO of Kiip (pronounced “keep”), a mobile rewards network. The 22-year-old, Canadian born entrepreneur skipped four grades and finished college at 18 years old. A year later, 19-year-old Wong was laid off from his first real job at Digg.
The devastating turn of events led him to an idea which would garner $200,000 in venture funding — a mobile gaming ad model that was destined to disrupt in-game mobile advertising.
Wong’s initial inspiration for Kiip was found on an airplane trip as he observed passengers gaming with their iPads. He noticed that game advertisements took up screen space without adding any real value. He perceived games as a “holy grail of achievement” and wanted to leverage key moments of accomplishment with a targeted, relevant rewards program that helped brands reach consumers.
To-date the company has raised $15.4 million in funding and Wong has been hailed the youngest person to ever receive venture capital funding by CNBC and The Wall Street Journal. Connect with Brian on Twitter.
4. Kim Etheredge and Wendi Levy, Co-founders of Mixed Chicks
Mixed Chicks co-founders, Kim Etheredge and Wendi Levy, were introduced at a family gathering – the two women instantly hit it off. Etheredge and Levy quickly realized they both shared a common problem as women of mixed heritage: the frustration of using multiple products to tame their curly locks.
As their friendship developed they recognized their dilemma could become a viable business. The two would-be entrepreneurs set out to develop specialized hair care products for women of mixed race. Little did they know they would start a curly revolution.
“We were the underdogs and the obstacles were stacked against us, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t make it — you don’t give up.”Kim Etheredge, YFS Magazine
In 2004, Etheredge and Levy debuted their new company Mixed Chicks, a hair care solution for women of mixed heritage. Using a grassroots advertising approach they built awareness for their e-commerce website. Today their hair care “products are sold in nearly 1,000 beauty supply stores and salons in the U.S. and abroad, and the company topped $3.5 million in revenues in 2009,” according to Black Enterprise reports.
Over the years, the Mixed Chicks brand steadily grew and attracted the attention of larger competitors. In 2011, Etheredge and Levy learned, through other retailers, that Sally Beauty Supply had infringed on their trademarks. After a lengthy, David and Goliath-like, legal battle the jury decided in favor of Mixed Chicks, concluding the company suffered “$839,535 in actual damages, and that Sally Beauty had acted willfully and with malice, oppression, or fraud, resulting in a punitive damages award of $7.27 million.” (Source: YFS Magazine) Connect with Mixed Chicks on Twitter.
5. Scott Harrison, Founder and CEO of Charity Water
At 28-years-old, Scott Harrison had a “crisis of conscience” during an overseas vacation. Harrison made a living in New York City promoting nightclubs and fashion events, for the most part “living selfishly and arrogantly,” he says. He was desperately unhappy and recalled feeling like “the most selfish, sycophantic and miserable human being” and “the worst person I knew.” Soon everything would change.
Harrison endeavored to turn a selfish existence into a selfless mission. In 2004, Harrison quit his job and volunteered as a photojournalist for Mercy Ships, an international Christian charity operating the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world, providing free healthcare. During his two years with Mercy Ships, Harrison was exposed to the harsh conditions of poverty-stricken people in Liberia. He realized that 80 percent of all diseases they encountered were attributed to unsafe water and poor sanitation.
“What would the opposite of my life look like?”Scott Harrison (Source: Charity Water)
Understanding the need, Harrison decided to commit to a life of service. He realized that a lack of clean water was the biggest obstacle facing impoverished societies. After returning to the states, from Africa in 2006, he started charity: water. Six years later the charity has raised over $95 million, and funded 8,000+ water projects in 20 countries to provide access to clean drinking water for over 3.2 million people. Connect with Scott on Twitter.
6. Angela Jia Kim, Co-founder and CEO of Savor the Success
Angela Jia Kim didn’t start her career with aspirations of entrepreneurship. Instead the former award-winning classical pianist stumbled upon entrepreneurship while touring as a concert pianist.
Today, Angela Jia Kim is the CEO and Founder of Om Aroma, a luxury organic skincare line; Savor Spa, an eco-chic boutique spa and the co-founder of SavortheSuccess.com, a niche social network for women entrepreneurs.
Angela Jia Kim discovered her business-calling as she prepared to step on stage while touring. Unexpectedly, she had developed an allergic reaction to a body lotion that was applied prior to her performance. The show went on, but she left the venue with a new thought and determination.
“Resilience is the name of the game in entrepreneurship! If you add that to creativity and savvy smarts, you have a killer brand.”Angela Jia Kim (Source: SheBrand)
According to Jia Kim, “Back in her hotel room, [she] read the label on the rash-inducing lotion and counted 55 ingredients, most of which were chemicals. Two close family members had recently been diagnosed with cancer, leading her to question the long-term effects of chemicals and preservatives in items most of us use every day.” Her experience and new-found awareness would prompt the first-time entrepreneur to launch Aroma & Co., an anti-aging organic skincare line – from her kitchen table in New York City.
The success of her products led Jia Kim to launch a sister company, Savor Spa, in 2007. Two years later, in 2009, her passion for business led the two-time entrepreneur to a third venture – Savor the Success, a premium business network for women entrepreneurs. Today Jia Kim is at the helm of the growing network that aims to fuel the success of women-led businesses. The company also hosts an annual Women Entrepreneurs Rock the World conference in NYC. Connect with Angela on Twitter.
7. Ali Brown, Founder and CEO of Ali Brown International
In 1999, Ali Brown started her first company from a shoebox-size apartment in NYC and from there it evolved into an enterprise that, today, is worth millions. Brown is the founder and CEO of Ali International LLC, a company that provides online marketing tools and strategies, coaching, seminars, and instructional literature for women in business who want to increase their wealth.
Brown’s entrepreneurial journey started abruptly after leaving her job at a New York advertising agency. Using a second-hand computer gifted by her younger brother, and reading any marketing book she could get her hands on, Ali discovered how to use online marketing to build her startup — from her kitchen table. While she was free from the trappings of corporate America, she endured a difficult startup journey.
Like many fledgling entrepreneurs, Brown had trouble finding clients, she didn’t know how to market herself, and was broke. “I remember one night going to the ATM,” she recalled. “I was meeting some friends for drinks, and I couldn’t even take out a $20 bill. My balance was $18.56. I will never forget that number. I had to call them and cancel and go home. I had maxed out my credit cards. I had been putting all I had into my little start-up business.”
Instead of giving up, Brown persevered and decided to figure out entrepreneurship one day at a time. Soon her proficiency in online marketing improved and her email newsletters earned her the title of “Ezine Queen”. Her client roster began to grow.
Today, Ali International LLC has over 65,000 members in both online and offline programs while Brown has personally received honors including: Inc. 500 fastest growing company, Enterprising Women of the Year by Enterprising Women Magazine, Stevie® Award for Women Helping Women, Forbes’ Women to Watch and more. Connect with Ali on Twitter.
The Spirit of Entrepreneurship
It takes a special type of person to handle the risk and commitment that comes with building a business from the ground up. Here’s a look at the inspiration and innovation that fuels today’s leading entrepreneurs.
Infographic research and design by Visa Business.
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