For Divya Gugnani, building her own empire was never going to be enough. After leaving a career in investment banking and private equity to take a leap of faith to the other side, she built a popular online fashion destination and sold it to QVC in 2012 then cofounded cult favorite Wander Beauty in 2014 and has served as CEO ever since. But all of this was just a warm-up for what would soon become Gugnani’s true passion: helping other female founders of color forge their own success.
“Back in the early days of my career at Goldman Sachs, there was only one woman with a senior role in my group. She had fought so hard to get that seat at the table and guarded it with her life,” the beauty entrepreneur and investor recalls. “Seeing that, I felt strongly that as I grew in my career, it was important to create more seats at the table and leverage my network to pull more women into opportunities.” With women receiving only 2.3% of the total venture capital money invested each year and women of color getting less than 0.65%, Gugnani has seen first-hand the many challenges that face female founders and has long recognized the need for change. “There are already so many obstacles for women and especially women of color so it’s imperative that people who have raised money or have built, scaled, and sold businesses take the time and energy to mentor and help others to have the same success in their careers,” she adds.
And one of the best ways to do that, Gugnani believes, is to build a strong network. “I’m constantly building a network of people that would mention each other in a room of opportunities,” she says. “I had seen so many of my male colleagues advocating for each other, and I became a huge proponent of doing this amongst women, especially women of color.” While market competition has historically pit these founders against one another, the Wander Beauty CEO thinks providing help and guidance to newcomers is crucial. “There are already so many obstacles for women and especially women of color,” Gugnani notes. “So, it’s imperative that people who have raised money or have built, scaled, and sold businesses take the time and energy to mentor and help others to have the same success in their careers.”
Throughout the last 21 years, Gugnani has invested in over 70 companies across a wide range of industries, either personally or through her investment fund Concept to Co, and she even closed an impressive six deals last year despite the obvious hurdles brought on by the pandemic. “In the early years of Wander Beauty, I was an advisor for only one brand at a time,” she explains. “But as I scaled and built out our management team, I’ve had the opportunity to take on an advisor role in a few more brands.”
These days, Gugnani is a passive investor in most, but she’s able to actively advise a several brands at a time, including Tower 28, a popular beauty brand founded by Amy Liu in 2019. The two founders met shortly after Tower 28’s launch, at an intimate dinner in Los Angeles where Liu, who had long been an admirer of Gugnani and her work, introduced herself and gladly accepted the Wander Beauty CEO’s offer to take a call and give her some advice. “Honestly, I have always considered Divya a mentor even before I met her!” Liu says. “She is forward facing as both an investor and a founder, and whether it’s a podcast, her Instagram, or Clubhouse, I think she is an amazing thought leader and does a great job putting out info for everyone to hear.”
Over the last two-plus years, Gugnani has assisted the Tower 28 founder in myriad ways—be it sharing her network and connecting her with people who would help her grow the business, making a monetary investment during the second round of fundraising, or simply offering advice from her own experience in the space. “Representation matters, and seeing women of color like Divya in positions of power and lending support in real ways (not only being a voice for change but literally putting her money where her mouth is) is the way change happens,” Liu adds. “I am inspired by Divya and hope to do the same in my own small way!”
Olamide Olowe, the founder and CEO of Topicals, another rapidly growing beauty brand that Gugnani has invested in and advised, has had a similar experience. “We started working together in June 2020, and she has been instrumental in Topical’s success,” Olowe says. “Divya held my hand through the process of launching at Sephora, from inventory delays to negotiating terms, and she’s always a text message away.” And beyond the practical help Gugnani has offered the Topicals founder, she’s been a real-life manifestation of the kind of success that can be possible for female founders. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Olowe explains. “For women of color who grow up feeling like outsiders, it’s inspiring to see someone who looks like you succeed in the industry. It’s even more inspiring to know they want you to succeed just like them.”
For Gugnani, investing in like-minded founders will always be a huge part of her work and her life, but more than that, she hopes it ushers in a wave of change for women, and particularly women of color, in business. “We need to work together to create more opportunities and build the ecosystem of female entrepreneurship,” she says. “There are still so few seats for women and women of color at the table, so we have to band together to help each other. We have to share ideas and opportunities. We need to build each other’s networks and help each other solve problems to grow our businesses and our wealth.”