Women Founders

9 Inspiring TED Talks You Have to Hear by Female Startup Founders

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 27: Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code accepts the Diversity Advocate Award onstage at the 34th Annual Walter Kaitz Foundation Fundraising Dinner at Marriot Marquis Times Square on September 27, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for The Walter Kaitz Foundation)

Sifting through the thousands of available TED Talks for business development inspiration is a daunting task — so let us do it for you. Among the megawatt stars of the brand and the obsessively shared videos are precious seeds that have sprouted into Big Ideas since their publication in the past two or three years. TED Talks by female startup founders are gem-like origin stories hiding in the archives. We’ve unearthed them so you can get acquainted.

In a recent report on women-led startups and venture capital trends, Crunchbase gets real, saying that more intentional diversifying is needed from male VCs for lasting progress to be made. But on the street level there’s good news, such as that from M Ventures‘ partner Alyson DeNardo, who uses her female-focused coworking space as an incubator to engage with and build the next generation of tech companies. She reports the excitement in realizing that, on one afternoon, all her calls and meetings were with female founders or investors. 

Who are they? What are they creating, supporting and innovating? We looked to the springboard of TED to clue us in on who’s paved the way, who’s winning, and who’s about to be.


Jasmine Crowe, Hunger Is Not a Question of Scarcity (14-minute watch)

  • Company: Goodr
  • Year launched: 2017 
  • Location: Atlanta, Georgia
  • Funding status: Seed
  • Last funding type: Seed
  • Total funding amount: $1.1M

In this talk, entrepreneur Jasmine Crowe urges us to ask the question, when we dine out: “Where does the extra food go?” Hunger became a deeply personal issue to Crowe when she visited with a college friend who had fallen on hard times. She reminds us that 42 million people are living in food-insecure households, so it’s likely that we all know someone who has experienced hunger, whether we’re aware of that fact or not. From her Sunday Soul suppers in Atlanta to an intense focus on the “logistical problem” of hunger, Crowe’s passion and dedication resulted in a threefold approach with her blockchain-enabled food surplus management platform. Goodr helps businesses understand the legalities of surplus food donation, reduce greenhouse emissions from landfills, and feed people. She presents staggering facts and a promising solution to the question of feeding people, not landfills: “That answer is technology.”

Reshma Saujani, Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection (12-minute watch)

  • Company: Girls Who Code
  • Year launched: 2012 
  • Location: New York, NY
  • Funding status: Seed
  • Last funding type: Grant
  • Total funding amount: $6.9M

Perfectionist paralysis is the bugbear fought by education activist Reshma Saujani. She shares the story of her humiliating political defeat — as an upstart against a Congressperson who’d been nearly uncontested for decades — to illustrate how we often wait until later in life to take real risks. In socializing girls to be perfect, we’re missing out as a society on innovations that could be led by women more willing to persevere through challenges. Since founding Girls Who Code, which combines intensive instruction with high-touch mentoring, Saujani has seen their projects and potential come to life. “In teaching girls to code,” she says, through that process’s endless trial and error, “I had socialized them to be brave.”

Yeva Hyusyan, What Drives Success? (10-minute watch)

  • Company: SoloLearn
  • Year launched: 2014 
  • Location: San Francisco, CA
  • Funding status: Early stage venture
  • Last funding type: Series A
  • Total funding amount: $6.9M

The cult of failure is called out in this contrarian talk by SoloLearn founder Yeva Hyusyan, whose crowd-learning platform makes learning code playful and individualized. The idea that everyone who’s seen great success has experienced great failure? “That’s all bullshit,” she says. “As a result, we take failure as an end destination, rather than just another experience in any process.” She argues that stereotypes of what drives success distract from harnessing the unique balance of ego and potential that can help one build upon incremental goals toward a yet-to-be-defined Big Idea. Innovation stalls when the balance isn’t kept, whether that’s in having potential but not the ego to push forward, or when we experience the “social disaster when one’s ego is greater than their potential.”

Lisa Skeete Tatum, Build Your Dream Team (8-Minute Watch)

  • Company: Landit
  • Year launched: 2014 
  • Location: New York, NY
  • Funding Status: Early stage venture
  • Last funding type: Series A
  • Total funding amount: $17.7M

As a child, Lisa Skeete Tatum got an early reputation for being precocious, “but that’s a code word for ‘bit of a badass,'” she says. In this talk, she attributes her career success to her dream team, something she posits that everyone should develop. These are people “who have higher expectations of you than you have of yourself.” Supplemental to abilities and ambition, they’re the people who create the necessary environment for you to take risks and break through. Tackling the issue of ambition in the workplace, where women experience a dramatic drop after the first year on a job, as compared to men, Tatum’s technology platform Landit was made to democratize access and success beyond the C-suite. The platform uses a “one size fits one” approach that helps enterprises attract, develop and retain high-potential, diverse talent.


 Jessica Jackley, Poverty, Money and Love (18-minute watch)

  • Company: Kiva
  • Year launched: 2005
  • Location: San Francisco, CA
  • Funding Status: Seed
  • Last funding type: Grant

From the TED vaults, the origin story of microlending website Kiva is an inspirational stepping stone on the formidable career path of entrepreneur, investor and speaker Jessica Jackley, now a venture partner with SparkLabs Global Ventures and CIO at Aspiration, an app which helps consumers align their spending and social values. Since 2005, Kiva has facilitated more than $1B in loans worldwide, by letting users lend as little as $25 to individual entrepreneurs, providing affordable capital to start or expand a small business. Jackley relays her time spent in Africa, inspired by the microfinance vision of Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Muhammad Yunus, interviewing proto-Kiva participants about their lives and work. “It was humbling to really understand that even if I could have taken a magic wand and fixed everything, I probably would have gotten a lot wrong. Because the best way for people to change their lives is for them to have control and to do that in a way that they believe is best for them,” she says.

Matilda Ho, The Future of Good Food in China (5-minute watch)

  • Company: Bits x Bites
  • Year launched: 2016
  • Location: Asia-Pacific (APAC)
  • Investor type: Venture capital
  • Investment stage: Early stage venture, seed

Mindful patience, says food entrepreneur and investor Matilda Ho, takes years to master — something she learned from an unusual childhood hobby. The practice isn’t in the ability to wait, she says, but in “knowing how to act while waiting.” So while waiting for fresher, safer, more sustainable food sources to blossom in China, Ho pioneered the country’s first online farmers market. Her zero-tolerance policy toward pesticides, antibiotics and hormones in food sent her company far afield for bananas and meat untainted by contaminants. Today Ho leads Bits x Bites, China’s first food tech VC, investing in early-stage startups that tackle global food system challenges.


Dr. Rebecca Brachman, A New Class of Drug that Could Prevent Depression and PTSD  (5-minute watch)

  • Company: Sunrise Bio
  • Year launched: 2015 
  • Location: San Francisco, CA

Neuroscientist Rebecca Brachman proposes a radical idea in this presentation on preventative psychopharmacology: What if someone predictably at-risk for PTSD or depression, such as a soldier, ER doctor, humanitarian aid worker or refugee, could be treated for those diseases not after the fact of trauma but before? In development are drugs Brachman calls “resilience-enhancers,” which follow Louis Pasteur’s principle that medicines can prevent disease. Resilience enhancers could also support a person’s ability to recover and grow. Learn how Brachman and her colleagues made this dramatic discovery.

Nina Tandon, Could Tissue Engineering Mean Personalized Medicine? (6-minute watch)

  • Company: EpiBone
  • Year launched: 2013
  • Location: Brooklyn, New York
  • Last funding type: Convertible note
  • Total funding amount: $560K

In this lighthearted look at a mind-blowing technology, tissue engineer Nina Tandon opens by showing us a beating heart — though not the kind you might expect. She explains how the tiny differences in our bodies have huge impacts on how we metabolize drugs and how drugs affect us, which makes a strong case for developing research models that reflect our diversity (unlike rats). Get familiar with the future, which could be using “pluripotent stem cells” to make personalized models of organs on which to test new treatments, and storing them on computer chips. Named one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company, Tandon leads EpiBone, a bone reconstruction company growing living bone tissue from patients’ own cells.

Tan Le, A Headset that Reads Your Brainwaves (10-minute watch)

  • Company: EMOTIV
  • Year launched: 2011 
  • Location: San Francisco, CA
  • Funding status: Seed
  • Last funding type: Seed
  • Total funding amount: $120K

The future is totally now, which you can witness in this talk by tech innovator Tan Le, whose computer interface moves us from giving commands to a machine, to letting the machine intuit facial expressions and emotional experiences through brain signals. In this way, the interface can control virtual objects, and even physical electronics, with only thoughts. Don’t believe it? Watch the demo. Le’s bioinformatics company EMOTIV enables early identification of biomarkers for mental and other neurological conditions using electroencephalography (EEG).

Ayah Bdeir, Building Blocks That Blink, Beep and Teach (5-minute watch)

  • Company: littleBits
  • Year launched: 2011 
  • Location: New York, NY
  • Funding status: Early stage venture
  • Last funding type: Series B 
  • Total funding amount: $62.3M

While earning her master’s at the MIT Media Lab, interactive artist, engineer and inventor Ayah Bdeir began developing littleBits, an open-source library of ready-to-use bricks that each have a specific function — making learning engineering as fun as playing with Legos. The modules snap together with magnets, offering an intuitively creative approach. In her TED Fellow profile, the littleBit founder and CEO explains: “We spend more than 11 hours with technological devices every day, yet most of us don’t know how they work, or how to make our own. For all the interactivity of these devices, we are limited to passive consumption. I believe that we need to create the next generation [of] problem-solvers, and interventions need to occur early. The time is ripe to create the building block of the 21st century and enable everyone to be an inventor.” In this video, see what RISD students — with no prior experience in engineering — make with cardboard, wood, paper and Bdeir’s clever building blocks.

Rachel Shimp is a copy editor with a background in journalism on arts and culture.