Philly entrepreneurs Jess Edelstein and Sarah Ribner have been brainstorming together ever since their elementary school lemonade stand in Allens Lane Playground. Now they’re 26 years old, and on December 11, they pitched their latest product -- the world’s first all-natural activated charcoal creme deodorant -- on an episode of ABC's Shark Tank
The duo founded PiperWai
with the mission of offering customers a safe, effective, fragrant, gender-neutral, aluminum and chemical-free deodorant. It took a while for them to realize that the activated charcoal in the product -- which users apply with a fingertip -- was the key. A lot of research into body odor and deodorant competitors led to experiments in a Philly home kitchen.
"I was looking up activated charcoal for my stomach, actually," recalls Edelstein, "chief maker" and CEO. She got interested in the substance’s absorbent properties. "I kind of had that lightbulb moment to put it in the deodorant."
This was a few years ago, before activated charcoal became a trendy ingredient in cosmetics.
CFO Ribner tested the new concoction during a volunteering trip in Guyana. The stuff worked.
In its current incarnation, PiperWai is a creme blend of organic oils such as coconut, vitamin E, shea butter and cocoa butter, the signature charcoal (which won’t discolor clothes), and a proprietary blend of 11 "therapeutic-grade" essential oils that keep men and women equally fresh.
After finalizing their recipe, the founders began producing deodorant in batches of 300 at Greensgrow Community Kitchen
, using pastry piping bags to get it into the jars.
The company's name has two parts -- the first is for Edelstein’s beloved family dog Piper; the "Wai" is borrowed from the name of the Waiwai tribe
, who Ribner spent time with during her travels in Guyana.
The pair never saw being woman entrepreneurs as a roadblock to success, but actually launching their business taught them that while there are many programs and funds geared specifically to female entrepreneurs, there are still major gender imbalances when it comes to venture capital.
"I never knew that female entrepreneurs have a hard time in business until we launched a company," says Edelstein. "At some pitch competitions, there were very few women."
Ribner points to the fact that venture capital funds in the U.S. overwhelmingly favor male-founded companies.
A year ago, Flying Kite
spoke with DreamIt Ventures’
Archna Sahay, who explained
that businesses with female CEOs receive less than 10 percent of venture capital funding nationwide, despite women founding businesses at one and a half times the national average -- and delivering 12 percent more revenue with one third less capital than comparable male founders.
"That’s what led us to do crowdfunding instead," explains Ribner; over $27,000 from an Indiegogo campaign
boosted their capacity. "We didn’t have to give away equity and it got us to the next level…So it was one of those situations where one door closes and another door opens."
Now, the two are setting their sights on expanding their deodorant line, developing a stick version of the creme, an extra-strength version and travel sizes. Currently selling their product with 40 independent retailers, they’re working on a deal with Whole Foods in the mid-Atlantic area, starting with Philly.
"You can show people that your gender doesn’t matter," says Edelstein. With the right product and great customer service, "you can still kill it in business."
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Jess Edelstein and Sarah Ribner, PiperWai