In partnership with Unilever Prestige

While the pandemic has been hard on entrepreneurs and small business owners across the board, last year witnessed an unexpected surge of new business launches. There’s also been substantive growth in venture capital funding of start-ups. But VCs are not just funding anything. According to CB Insights, the focus of record-breaking funding has been in retail technology and sustainability — companies that are helping people and the planet.

It’s against this backdrop that Unilever Prestige and WWD joined forces to present “Project Connect,” a $15,000 grant and mentorship opportunity to uplift visionary entrepreneurs and start-ups that improve the connection between humanity and technology in a post-COVID world.

Project Connect Council Members share their ideas on the growth of entrepreneurialism, and how the pandemic underpins the proverb: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Project Connect Council Members include: Vasiliki Petrou, Executive Vice President and (Group) CEO of Unilever Prestige; Amanda Smith, President of Fairchild Media Group (parent of WWD); Carla Nelson, Founder of the Black Fashion World Foundation; Kevin Fried, Director of Retail at Google; John Melo, President and CEO of Amyris; and Vicky Tsai, Founder and CEO of Tatcha.

Vasiliki Petrou

Vasiliki Petrou, Executive Vice President of Unilever Prestige.  Courtesy Image.

Unilever Prestige’s Petrou said the current environment is ideal for spawning new ideas and innovation. “I believe the forced adoption of virtual communication has certainly opened up more opportunities and white space for innovation, especially around how brands can engage with their audience,” Petrou explained. “We’ve never found ourselves in a situation like this where so much of what we used to know and accept as normal was changed overnight.”

Petrou also said as restrictions lift and physical retail and events return, “there will be a mind-shift that stays with us. It’s our responsibility as business leaders to create a comfortable environment for our consumers that makes it easy to adapt to this new age of retail.”

“While COVID restrictions have been hard for us all, the switch to living, working and socializing digitally has definitely made people more open-minded to the idea that when businesses think outside the box, they have the potential to help solve bigger world issues,” she said. “We are excited to be able to support entrepreneurs who are thinking this way, and revolutionizing how we interact with consumers across in the industry is an important first step.”

Carla Nelson

Carla Nelson, founder of the Black Fashion World Foundation.  Keston Duke

Regarding what is behind a surge of entrepreneurism, Nelson said in times of crisis, opportunities arise. “Historically we have seen that businesses are created out of challenging times,” Nelson explained. “Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Uber, and Airbnb were all created during recessions. The health, economic and social crisis that we are all currently facing has fueled the necessity for the creation of enterprises that address each of these areas.”

Nelson said as a result, “we are seeing what is being called the ‘Startup boom.” The U.S. Census Bureau has reported a surge in new business applications, I believe this will only continue especially with the creation of new normal marketplaces.”

Kevin Fried

Kevin Fried, director of retail at Google.  Courtesy Image.

Google’s Fried also noted the role of “necessity” in driving founders to launch brands, products and services during these trying times. “In the past year, we saw innovation flourish out of sheer necessity,” Fried said. “Now that people have been given the runway to do this, we’re emerging with new ways of thinking that will continue to test the boundaries of what we’ve thought possible.”

He went on to say that there’s an opportunity “to continue down this path to reemerge stronger than ever from this pandemic, and I think entrepreneurs and established businesses alike will collectively contribute to solving problems that lie ahead.”

WWD’s Smith described this moment in time as unique, and unprecedented. “Never before have so many technologies been at the fingertips of so many excited minds across industries,” Smith said. “Social impact and enterprise opportunity are no longer considered at odds, but are, in fact, innately intertwined in how we look to foster growth in sustainable businesses that can be scaled and advanced leveraging nascent technologies.”

Amanda Smith

Amanda Smith, President, Fairchild Fashion Media  Courtesy Image.

But company founders face a host of challenges, and success can come with a cost, Melo said, adding that entrepreneurs have always “taken on personal risk to bring new, better ideas into the world.” When entrepreneurs have a larger purpose and succeed, though, Melo said they are the true winners. “Today, entrepreneurs continue to be rewarded for building profitable businesses but the entrepreneurs who are truly celebrated, achieve an additional higher goal, which is to create long-term value for people and the planet,” Melo said. And that’s a big plus for business.

“Good business is good for business; sustainability improves the bottom line; and the winning entrepreneurs will be the ones who understand this deeply and are delivering innovative, actionable, scalable ideas that boldly move the world forward into unchartered territory,” Melo said.

John Melo

John Melo, president and CEO of Amyris.  Courtesy Image.

Tatcha’s Tsai agreed, and also acknowledged how a crisis like the pandemic can create opportunities. She said her company was started “in the midst of the last recession, so my one piece of advice to entrepreneurs is to always view a crisis as a learning opportunity, not a roadblock.”

“Some of the best ideas are born out of circumstances that make us relook at life as we know it and reevaluate what is important or what’s needed not only by consumers, but by ourselves,” Tsai said. “Like many things, the pandemic only accelerated the arrival of this ‘new age’ of entrepreneurship. This shift, which pre-pandemic might have taken place gradually over several years was compressed into several months, forcing brands and consumers alike to learn and adapt to change in real-time.”

Vicky Tsai

Vicky Tsai, founder and CEO of Tatcha.  Courtesy Image.

Tsai said the future is “already being defined through technology, and built on agility and resilience both IRL and online. Critical thinking and problem-solving are no longer enough — the next generation of entrepreneurs will need to be digital-natives, capable of constantly evolving and innovating at digital speed.”

She said businesses also must now rethink what it means to be of service to its clients. “A global mindset, transparency, values, and the sense of connection we offer to our community are also no longer nice to haves — they are now must-haves and crucial to any entrepreneur’s success,” Tsai said.