Chatham's Think Big Forum

Emily Kennedy and Cara Jones-Harries and have helped rescue 120 trafficking victims all over the United States and Canada, from their laptops.

Cara Jones-Harries of Marinus Analytics. Courtesy of Chatham University.

The company Kennedy and Jones-Harries founded, Marinus Analytics, started through research at Carnegie Mellon University, using software Kennedy developed called Traffic Jam to mine information to identify and combat human trafficking.

Marinus partners with law enforcement to rescue victims of sex trafficking, mostly children and female, by using big data. “There was never any question that this tool would have an impact,” Jones-Harries, COO says.

“[Human trafficking] is not something you can readily observe in the community, but it exists in Pittsburgh and throughout the United States,” she adds.

The company, a $200,000 winner in the social innovation challenge UpPrize, was among the success stories spotlighted at Chatham University’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship Think Big Forum on Tuesday, October 13th. Celebrating its 10th year, the Forum featured local women entrepreneurs addressing the female market.

Rohini Shah of Blu Salt, Sophia Berman and Laura West of Trusst Lingerie and Nikki Narvaez of Nikki’s Magic Wand joined Jones-Harries at the conference.

“They’re creating products and services just for women,” says Rebecca Harris, director of the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship of the featured entrepreneurs. “It was a great tie-in to our tenth anniversary, celebrating the rise of products for women.”

While their products span a variety of markets and industries, it doesn’t take long to find a common thread among the speakers. Many of the entrepreneurs faced adversity when bringing their products to market.

Laura West and Sophia Berman of Trusst. Courtesy of Sophia Berman.

“We had a lot men asking if there was a problem if women were in pain,” says Sophia Berman, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Trusst. Trusst Lingerie is re-engineering the bra for women with larger busts, an underserved market in the apparel space. “Men wondered why we’d create this product with so many other brands on the market.”

To answer these questions, the team at Trusst created the “Melon Men” video.

“It’s a bunch of men wearing larger cup size bras with melons in them,” Berman explains. “We needed to illustrate the point to men that this is a real problem, that it would affect your daily life.” The video took off and helped Trusst successfully reach its Kickstarter goal. Trusst opened for pre-orders last week.

Like Trusst discovered, when you’re faced with a problem, the best solution can be solving it yourself.

Nikki Narvaez started her company after losing a fight with a tube of lip-gloss. Try as she did, she could not get the last

Nikki with her Magic Wand tool. Courtesy of Nikki’s Magic Wand.
Nikki with her Magic Wand tool. Courtesy of Nikki’s Magic Wand.

bit of product from the bottom of the container. Instead of tossing it, Narvaez came up with a solution. Out of her frustration, she started sketching solutions to the problem, and Nikki’s Magic Wand was born.

The slim wand with a flexible tip makes it easy to scoop the last of the product out of the nooks of narrow containers.

Once she had the concept in place Narvaez and her business partner took the product to a licensing firm. While the company loved it, ultimately Narvaez decided to develop the Magic Wand without them.

“It was a great opportunity because you can figure things out on your own,” explains Narvaez. “Now no one owns the company but the two of us.” Narvaez learned the skills to grow the business as she brought Nikki’s Magic Wand to market.

Rohini Shah, the founder of Blu Salt, drew from personal experience to create a better handbag for women.

Rohini Shah of Blu Salt. Courtesy of Blu Salt.

“After spending the money on bags that I did, I was inevitably disappointed at the lack of organization in the bags,” Shah says. “To me, the idea of spending four to five hundred dollars on a bag just to jury-rig it with all kinds of other additions didn’t make sense.”

When Shah took a leave of absence from work after the birth of her son in 2013, she started designing the bag she would want to take to work.

Blu Salt’s bags are designed to be organized, as well as offer a sleek look, to allow an easy transition from the workplace to a night out. Using customer feedback from the pilot line, the company launched its second line of bags this September.

Blu Salt also focuses on sustainability and spreading the entrepreneurial spirit. Materials are responsibly sourced, and a portion of each sale goes to educating women in Sri Lanka.

Shah believes there could be more support for women in the entrepreneurship community. “I think visibility of women on a citywide level talking about the success that they’ve had or interesting projects that they’re doing would go a long way.”

Trusst’s Berman agrees. “It’s been challenging to raise money as a female in a male-oriented space. I think more female mentorship, more powerful women in the mentor space would be helpful. It makes a difference to see others out there like you.”

And as Jones-Harries found out, it can take some searching to find the resources you need. “There’s a model that’s happening in Pittsburgh around innovation. I think it could be proliferated in underserved areas, but we’ve found a lot of support by looking to the university community.”

Starting a company can be daunting, Magic Wand’s Narvaez adds, and it helps to have support in the community and a place to share challenges.

“I think it’s about sharing stories. It’s talking about the struggle because a lot of times people assume that it’s easy,” she says. “It’s not, and that’s okay, you can still do it.”

Harries hopes attendees at Chatham Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship events find the network they’re searching for. Before the panel, attendees at the Think Big Forum had the chance to network among themselves and with the featured women.

“I’m all about networking; I believe it’s a critical component of doing business,” Harris says. “I always tell women that ‘work’ is in network, and if you’re not out networking once a week, you’re not doing your job.”

Learn about more events at Chatham University’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship.

Emma Diehl

Emma Diehl is a writer, blogger, and social media marketer working in tech and startups in Pittsburgh. She loves local craft beer and a well-crafted pun.