Celebrating Women Founders: Building Your Tribe, Cultivating Vulnerability and Owning Your Success

February 28, 2016

April Spencer, Program Director for the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® program in Greater Los Angeles, sat down with two remarkable women founders — Kara Goldin and Melissa Kieling — to hear more about their entrepreneurial journeys, their tips for other innovators and their thoughts on cultivating vulnerability and fearlessness.

Kara Goldin is CEO and Founder of Hint Inc., which produces all-natural, fruit-infused water with zero calories, no sweeteners and no artificial flavors. A former AOL employee, Kara launched her business because she was passionate about developing an alternative to soda to help combat the obesity epidemic in the United States.

Melissa Kieling is CEO and Founder of PackIt, the manufacturer of foldable, freezable bags with patented cooling technology that keeps food and drinks cool for up to 10 hours. Melissa started her company when she found herself in the midst of a divorce, with no college education and a need to get her kids to eat the fruits and veggies she had packed in their lunches.


As someone who actually uses both of your products, I can definitely understand why your businesses are thriving. A lot of people feel the tug to start their own business, but don’t follow through for a number of reasons. What was the catalyst that made you take the leap and what advice would you give to other women who want to do the same but struggle with the realities of funding, time, resources and the inherent risks that are part of the ride?

Kara Goldin: The thing that I see in so many people with great ideas is that they’re not asking themselves two key questions: “Is this product really unique? And am I really solving a problem?” If you can clearly articulate the “why,” I think it’s easier to overcome barriers, raise money and actually scale a company. Sometimes, people start a company because they don’t want to work for someone else anymore or they have a great idea similar to one that was a huge success. They really need to ask themselves what problem they’re solving and how broad of an audience it can actually reach. With Hint Water, we not only created a product, we developed a whole new category. While starting a company is always challenging, when I look back over the last 10 years, it’s been somewhat easier for us because the product is relatable and there’s a compelling story behind it. It’s about clearly identifying your intent, but also effectively articulating exactly how you’re going to solve the problem you’ve identified.

Melissa Kieling: I would definitely consider myself to be more of an “accidental entrepreneur.” I think that some people are innately born with a risk-taking spirit and the ability to take on challenges — which you face a lot of when starting a business. I wasn’t formally trained as an entrepreneur, so a lot of my process was trial and error — connecting with great people, asking for help and allowing myself to be vulnerable. So many people were willing to share contacts and information, and that definitely shortened my learning curve and elevated the process for me. I was a single mom who had just gone through a divorce, and I was really struggling with the fact that I had been home for 13 years with my kids and suddenly had to go out and work to take care of my family. I was driven by dual needs — I developed PackIt, because I simply could not find a product like it on the market and I wanted my kids to eat the healthy lunches I was making for them. Also, the very real need to provide for my family was something that drove me to get up every day and make sure the business was going to be successful. I’d tell other entrepreneurs that, with a lot of risk, there comes a lot of rejection. You have to get comfortable with the fact that not everything you throw out there is going to work exactly as you had planned. More important than making the mistakes is how you react to them. Successful entrepreneurs have the ability to learn from those mistakes and push forward.

According to recent research, only 2% of women-owned businesses in the US break $1 million in revenue. What has helped you scale your business?

Kara: For Hint Water, it was about understanding the bigger picture of the entire beverage industry, seeing a clear gap in the market between soda and plain water and filling that gap. While we’ve grown across the US and continue to grow with retailers like Whole Foods Market and Publix, for us, it was really about looking at where people were shopping and listening to the consumer. I ran AOL’s e-commerce prior to starting the company, so I had that background to help me. Still, I was the biggest doubter — I didn’t think people would order cases of Hint Water online, but I started looking at shopping habits and the convenience factor. I recognized that once you get your tribe — the people who are committed consumers and are using Hint to live a healthier lifestyle or help with diabetes or cancer recovery or pregnancy — they’ll not only order online, but will even go a step further and sign up for a subscription service. In 20 months, e-commerce represents 30% of our business and is swiftly growing. Retail sales are also growing at over 60% this year, so they really feed off of each other. It’s about finding where the consumer wants to find the product, what the consumer needs, how they’ll actually get the product and creating more touch points for them.

Melissa: I think that when you have the opportunity to introduce innovation into a category, you have an advantage. PackIt isn’t a “me, too” product, we’re not simply doing something better — we’ve completely reinvented the category. Being a category disruptor and introducing new technology has really allowed us to scale the company. Also, when you truly connect with consumers, they become brand advocates. If you’re a relatable, transparent brand that creates emotional connections, people will be proud to use your products. All of this paves the way for scaling your business. Along with innovation comes the task of education. We’ve had to educate our consumers before they get to the point of purchase because our unique gel technology is found inside PackIt products and can be missed in a glance. So educating consumers and clearly articulating your differentiators are also key for achieving sustainable growth.

When I think of the traits that truly set entrepreneurs on the right trajectory, determination, confidence and great communication skills are high on the list. What other traits and skills do you think are particularly important for women entrepreneurs to hone, that have been pivotal to your success?

Melissa: You’ve got to be willing to take a bit of risk — to get comfortable with risk. As a mother of three who’s also running a business, some days I’m in meetings all day and some days I make it to my kids’ events. I’ve learned that it’s more important to set aside small moments that we treasure — like putting laptops and cell phones away, crawling into bed with my kids and reading together. I can tell you that there were many days when I was paralyzed by fear because I didn’t know which step to take next. There were so many times when I couldn’t stand the sight of my laptop or bear to open it. So prioritizing and perseverance are also critical to moving forward. In the beginning, I wanted to say “yes!” to everything. The further you get in your business, you learn that it’s OK to say “no,” and that not every deal is the best deal for the business. You have to be willing to pass on some opportunities that may not benefit you in the short term so you can prioritize your long-term business goals.

Kara: When you look at women business owners, so many of us are solving problems and we know that women are great problem-solvers. Beyond that, it’s about making sure that you’re passionate about what you’re doing, then the rest will come. Also, it’s important for any entrepreneur to recognize that it’s OK to not have all your I’s dotted and your T’s crossed. I recently saw Wharton professor, Adam Grant, speak at TED about the importance of a true entrepreneur showing some self-doubt. I couldn’t agree more. It’s about saying “this is what I’m planning to do, but I’m also open to thoughts and guidance along the way.” Often times, when you’re building an entirely new category and changing behaviors, you don’t have all the answers. It’s the entrepreneurs who are willing to change course along the way who are the ones you ultimately want to support.

Melissa: Definitely. I think there’s a general expectation that someone who has the title of CEO on their business card should have all the answers. A big part of starting a new business is that you don’t know what you don’t know, and that can be really scary. Now, many entrepreneurial businesses are embracing vulnerability and transparency. What’s so wonderful about this is that leading with vulnerability also gives your team permission to be vulnerable — which creates a very collaborative environment.

Arianna Huffington has said that “fearlessness isn’t the absence of fear, it’s the mastery of fear” and suggests that women become more comfortable with embracing uncertainty and imperfection. What role has fearlessness played in your journey as a company founder?

Kara: I’m the youngest of five kids, so I had great role models but I didn’t have everything figured out for me by any means. I’m fearless, but I’ve also had to figure a lot of things out along the way. What’s key is acknowledging the wins you’ve had — whether it’s climbing a mountain or having multiple kids or getting out of a bad marriage — and realizing that these are huge obstacles for many people but you were able to accomplish these small victories. Use that as fuel to push you forward in the face of fear.

Melissa: Fear is a natural emotion that comes from uncertainty, which we all deal with in our lives. If you would have told me six years ago that I would start a thriving business, I would have been in complete disbelief. I grew up in a very small town in Iowa where women worked hard, but weren’t encouraged to strike out on their own as entrepreneurs. I’ve also noticed that women are less likely than men to take credit for their accomplishments. We have a tendency to dismiss or not own our successes. When I first started PackIt and was invited to speak at conferences, it was really difficult and intimidating for me to sit on panels with Harvard-educated entrepreneurs. But the more I’ve grown comfortable in my own skin, the more I’ve been able to reflect on my accomplishments and own them. Despite the fact that my path to entrepreneurship has been different from Ivy League entrepreneurs, I now feel like I’ve earned my seat at the table.


Kara Goldin is in the 2012 class of EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™, a national competition and executive leadership program that identifies a select cadre of high-potential women entrepreneurs whose businesses show real potential to scale — and then helps them do it.

Melissa Kieling was a 2015 EY Entrepreneur Of The Year finalist in Greater Los Angeles. Recognized as the world’s most prestigious business award for entrepreneurs, the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year program has honored the inspirational leadership of such entrepreneurs as Howard Schultz of Starbucks Coffee Company, John Mackey of Whole Foods Market, Pierre Omidyar of eBay, Inc., Reid Hoffman and Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn and Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google.

If you’ve been inspired by a successful entrepreneur in your community — or are one yourself — submit a nomination for the 2016 Entrepreneur Of The Year program. Applications will be accepted until March 11, 2016. Follow us @EY_EOYUS for the latest news and information on the program.