Real Leaders

5 World-Changing Entrepreneurs Share Their Best Ideas

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A market-based economy is a powerful engine for development, but to be sustainable over time, it needs entrepreneurs to develop a mindset of inclusivity. These five women entrepreneurs demonstrate how this new way of thinking can create prosperity, heal the world, and find deeper meaning along the way.

1. Katherine Jeffrey / CauseGear

Sustainability matters. There isn’t one step in a supply chain where we shouldn’t be doing our best to care for people and planet.

World-changing entrepreneurial idea.

What if the simple purchase of a tote, t-shirt, pouch, or apron could help free a woman from injustice? With over 70 percent of slavery being female, the need for jobs that support freedom for women has never been greater. CauseGear has designed a business model to address the root cause of slavery and human trafficking: Poverty and the need for sustainable, ethical jobs that empower. Handouts of food, clothing, and water may help today but won’t necessarily change future circumstances. To win the war on poverty, a core issue needs to be addressed: Paying those who make our fashion a living wage. Every purchase helps fund a day
of freedom for women crafters.

Impact on the world.

Teaming up with companies to produce branded gear has delivered more than 20,000 days of freedom from slavery and poverty. Their mission is for 1 million people to be made free through self-sustaining jobs. A lifetime guarantee on crafted items promotes the use of fewer, quality items among consumers and a reduction of what gets discarded. Reducing fashion waste may be the most impactful thing we can do to improve the health of our planet.

Best piece of advice for entrepreneurs.

Gather your people, the ones who will journey with you. Receive their encouragement and lean on them. Then, push through the things that you fear the most, move toward your mission, and never, ever think inside the box.

2. Cheyenna Weber / Cooperative Economics Alliance NYC

“Recognizing the interdependence of all life, and acting in solidarity, is how we achieve sustainability.”

World-changing entrepreneurial idea.

The human species has been thriving through cooperation for thousands of years, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at today’s business schools or news headlines. Part of this is because of patriarchy. Women are cooperating and still creating solidarity economies, but feminized labor gets erased and discarded as frivolous. Cooperative Economics Alliance of NYC sees women’s cooperation around shelter, food, financial services, (and literally every other material need) for what it is: innovation that deserves resources and respect.

Impact on the world.

In just two years, the alliance has trained over 100 New Yorkers in cooperative leadership skills to sustain and grow their enterprises. It has raised more than $100,000 to provide microgrants to co-ops and urban farms who are ignored by philanthropy and government, yet face challenges in accessing traditional forms of capital. Wanting to reinvent workplace hierarchy, the alliance has structured its management democratically — with an elected board of directors who call the shots and are accountable to all members.

Best piece of advice for entrepreneurs.

Never be afraid to confront patriarchal visions of dominance and power in your own organization. You can have community ownership or a flat structure for staffing, and still find success.

3. Karen Weber / Boston GreenFest

“To know balance, we must tip the scales and lose our balance. Sustainability offers a way to recalibrate ecological justice”

World-changing entrepreneurial idea.

Weber has led a team of dedicated, self-effacing individuals in creating a multicultural environmental music festival that unifies and empowers the community. The annual Boston event provides interactive exhibits, tech innovation, fashion, transportation, art, music, dance, food, fitness, green design, and gardening — all around sustainability and education. By connecting the community with local, regional, and international green-tech entrepreneurs and people from nonprofits, for-profits, and government agencies, the event has become a catalyst for transformation.

Impact on the world.

Hundreds of thousands of people have come together, who may never have spoken, danced, or done business with each other. The festival has led to many creative projects and petitions being started for social causes. The Boston GreenFest platform has promoted numerous eco-entrepreneurs, networks, and innovations. Bottled water was eliminated from events and replaced with mobile water fountains, and over the 11 years of the festival, more than $1 million has been raised to support the city, local businesses, and artists.

Best piece of advice for entrepreneurs.

Once your idea takes shape, put your best foot forward and stay the course. To the extent possible, be inclusive of people and their ideas. As women, we understand nurture and nature; the triple bottom line is not optional. We have a special responsibility to bring our work to fruition.

4. Kelly Vlahakis / Earth Friendly Products (ECOS)

“Sustainability is not just about better ingredients and a living wage. Family-friendly benefits will create a more sustainable economy.”

World-changing entrepreneurial idea.

ECOS has been making safer cleaning products for 52 years, based on a belief that everyone has the right to buy safer, affordable cleaning agents that don’t put health at risk or pollute the environment. Vlahakis believes that companies can make products that are good for people, good for the planet, and good for business. Their plant-powered laundry detergents and cleaners were developed through “green science” and are transforming the industry. 

Impact on the world.

The company is the world’s first to achieve the trifecta of sustainable manufacturing: Carbon neutrality, water neutrality, and Platinum Zero Waste certification. By using 100 percent renewable energy, sourcing locally, and shipping regionally from its four facilities across the U.S., ECOS keeps more than 56 million pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year.

Best piece of advice for entrepreneurs.

Finding mentors, especially women who are experienced and who can give you support and guidance, is so important. When you reach out to the right mentor, you’ll find no better source of encouragement, knowledge, and inspiration, and that can make all the difference in making your passion a reality.

5. Tracy Graziani / Graziani Multimedia

“The economies of the past were built on the production of things. future prosperity will come from the cultivation and care of our earth and people.”

World-changing entrepreneurial idea.

Early in her career, Graziani found herself bouncing back and forth between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. In each, she found inherent flaws that frustrated her. It wasn’t until she finally encountered the concept of triple-bottom-line business that she found a place to align her values and work. 

Impact on the world.

Graziani is an active community volunteer for environmental, social justice, and political projects — which keeps her tuned to her values and the needs of others. Realizing the power of inspirational stories, she secured the first TEDx license for Mansfield, Ohio. It brings together people who are passionate about ideas, and ideas can be a powerful thing. Her agency donates at least 10 percent of its services to local nonprofits each year — helping to weave values into company culture.

Best piece of advice for entrepreneurs.

I wish I’d sought out a network of other women CEOs earlier in my entrepreneurial journey. I suspect it was due to imposter syndrome, but I definitely used busyness as an excuse not to. Eventually, I found other women who were incredibly generous with their time and support, and I regret the years I wasted feeling so alone.


  • Bob Keener is deputy director of public relations at The American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC). He is responsible for setting ASBC’s press strategy and communications. Bob has been working in issues advocacy for more than 12 years — after a career in the private sector — first running a franchise business and then working in marketing and PR.


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