These Bay Area residents use their personal and professional acumen to change lives, improve business and alter our communities.
Michelle Zatlyn’s company, Cloudflare, is the internet’s digital bouncer.
Co-Founder, President and COO
For groundbreaking cybersecurity entrepreneur Michelle Zatlyn, innovation is in the air—at least in the Bay Area. “The culture here is to dream big. We think about where things are going, dream up ideas, become intrigued and then, together, make it,” she says. “All of a sudden, you’re putting these ideas into the market that are new, solving real problems, delivering real value to your customers and to the societies that they operate in.”
She should know. Zatlyn, a veteran of Google and Toshiba, has seen her publicly traded company—which employs more than 3,100 people—help make the internet safer, faster, more private and more reliable. The products Zatlyn and her team build stop billions of cyber attacks on behalf of their customers. Cloud-flare is, quips Zatlyn, the ultimate digital bouncer.
All of this might seem slightly unbelievable to those who knew Zatlyn when she wanted to be a doctor. But to the native Canadian, who also earned an MBA from Harvard, what she’s doing now makes perfect sense in her life’s trajectory. After all, like practicing medicine, she’s helping people in a tangible way daily. “I wanted to do something that was bigger than myself—I was just attuned to that, and innovation with technology can help people at a real scale. That’s truly motivating.”
Where does she see her company’s work heading, now that internet usage has doubled since the pandemic and companies have digital teams more distributed than ever? “Ten years from now, if we keep doing our jobs really well, cybersecurity will be something that you’ll start to read more about in history books—it’ll be something you don’t have to worry about, since it will be baked into the internet and ubiquitous,” she says. “I’ve met so many entrepreneurs recently who’ve told me they’ve built their companies 100% using Cloudflare workers. Which means it allows them to build their company on the internet everywhere without having to pick a region of the world.”
Talk to Zatlyn for five minutes, and it’s clear she’s one of the most genuine people in Silicon Valley. “At the end of the day, life and business are about relationships,” she says. “The people I know who are the happiest have great relationships at work and in their personal lives. And that’s not something I ever heard in business school or read in a business book.”
Zatlyn says one of the best pieces of career advice actually came from a basketball coach, who told her to think beyond perceived limitations. “Advice like that breaks down assumptions that people create for themselves. You start to think about the universe of jobs and paths available.” It’s now clear she chose the right one. And those watching Zatlyn know there will be many more that change her life—and ours.
SOON, created by Cora Kyler and Alena Titova, launches on Valentine’s Day.
Co-Founder, Head of Design
Some ideas are so good that putting one’s life on hold simply makes sense. Such was the case with Cora Kyler, who was pursuing her PhD in mathematical logic at UC Berkeley, and Alena Titova, who was working on a master’s in architecture at MIT, when they both decided to create SOON—a dating platform that dramatically disrupts first-gen apps that promise romance. Kyler codes. Titova designs. It’s Gen Z brilliance in motion.
Kyler explains that SOON, which launches on Valentine’s Day, is about immediacy. “Alena and I were in our respective graduate programs thinking about really serious things, but at the forefront of our minds, we were looking for connections that we desperately craved but didn’t have,” says Kyler, who began at University of Virginia at age 16. “We thought we could do dating apps infinitely better. Unlike other platforms, SOON actually values your time. Initial messages come with an intentional invitation to meet—to actually get off the app and in front of one another and make a personal connection.” SOON’s approach to tech allows users to have a strong sense of belonging and to feeling known.
What does innovation mean to this dynamic duo? While Titova says it elicits the response, “I can’t believe this doesn’t exist yet,” Kyler says the easy part is reevaluating first principles. “Crafting reliable structures to propel novel ideas, which elegantly interact with the inherited bygone structures, is what birthing innovation actually looks like,” she says.
Lest anyone think the co-founders have lost sight of their mission amid deadlines and major investors, Titova says the heart wants what it wants. “SOON started as a passion project, and it remains that way. Yes, we’re building SOON for everyone, but we get to gut check every decision with questions like, ‘Would we use this?’ or ‘Does this speak to us?’ It’s never left the passion project phase, and I can’t stress enough what an asset that is to the company and to us personally—building something we love.”
Michele Colucci, who is the managing partner at Digital DxVentures, believes that corporate innovation isn’t limited to production.
Founder, Managing Partner
Michele Colucci, a serial entrepreneur, lawyer and VC, believes in impacting the health field by investing in companies that enable doctors to make better diagnostic decisions by applying AI and big data. “For me, innovation means being open to new ideas and taking the time to see a solution from a different point of view,” says Colucci, who earned both undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University. “At DigitalDx Ventures, we invest at the intersection of technology, biology and chemistry, creating an entirely new field of study. It’s not unlike my favorite college philosophy classes, where all of our ground truths were questioned, and we had to get our minds around thinking differently to truly innovate.”
On a personal level, Colucci says she’s excited about the world her four children are entering. “As a single parent, they’ve watched me have to solve problems constantly in innovative ways. I love passing on that message to them and to the more than 120 fellows we’ve put through our DigitalDx Ventures fellowship program,” she says.
Colucci also believes corporate innovation isn’t limited to production. “Companies that are proactive and engage in a more meaningful, personalized way with their employees will win the war on talent,” she says. “As the chief people officer of Carbon Health, Uzair Qadeer, recently said at the SHRM Visionaries Summit, ‘Diversity is a fact, inclusion is an act, belonging is a pact.’”
“I grew up in a very traditional household where both sets of parents and grandparents started their own businesses without any investor capital,” she says. “I explained this to my mentor and investor, Steve Bennett, and he said, ‘Michele, you’re not asking me for money. You’re giving me an opportunity to invest in a business. I’m an adult and can make my own decisions. If I think the business has promise and you’re a good CEO, I’ll invest. Don’t overthink it.’ After that, I realized people offered me opportunities, and I never found that uncomfortable, so I got over it, and, well, here we are!”
Michelle Li founded Clever Carbon to help consumers become aware of a company’s carbon footprint.
While the world is aware of climate change in both real and anecdotal ways, Michelle Li founded Clever Carbon to help consumers become aware of a company’s carbon footprint by making carbon labels on products the norm. This will allow us to make informed purchasing decisions—in much the same way as labeling for nutritional content—to increase transparency and accountability for all.
“Innovation means finding better ways to do traditional things,” says Li, who was recently a TEDx and SXSW 2022 speaker. “Through the lens of the work I do at Clever Carbon and on a personal level, composting is an innovation. When food waste goes to landfill, methane—a potent greenhouse gas—is created, contributing to global warming. Garbage also typically travels further to landfills. Composting, on the other hand, results in carbon dioxide production, which is a less potent greenhouse gas than methane. Food waste also travels a shorter distance because composting stations are more local. Compost can also go back and fertilize plants. If composting isn’t an innovation, what is?”
Li says that carbon literacy is simple and easy to implement. “While cities are looking at retrofitting buildings to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, everyone can learn about carbon footprint today and start making smarter decisions about their commute, diet and other lifestyle aspects,” she says. “When it comes to climate change, we need as many people to take action as quickly as possible, from small actions like turning your monitor off overnight to larger-scale changes like moving to a more plant-based diet.”
Christophe Georges, who is now in his second stint as CEO of Bentley Motors North America, implemented a Beyond100 corporate strategy and carbon neutrality by 2030.
Because Bentley is, well, Bentley, Christophe Georges surely must feel a little pressure to tweak how his company operates. Innovate or wither on the vine, right? “We must constantly innovate in order to deliver extraordinary customer journeys through product and luxury experiences,” he says. “This can be a challenge to stay consistent with our 103-year-old roots. This blend, however, is what we call the magical fusion of craftsmanship and innovation and a sweet spot for where technology, luxury and performance all blend.”
Georges, who has been at the Bentley helm since 2018 (his second stint as CEO of the company)—overseeing 60 dealers across America—has been a driving force behind Bentley’s Beyond100 corporate strategy, supporting the goal of achieving end-to-end carbon neutrality across the business by 2030. Seven years isn’t terribly long for such a lofty goal. Which is why he leans on philosophy related to innovation. “To me, innovation is all about improving. It could be about processes to make an organization—or products, services and experiences—better to fulfill customers’ needs. It’s also about stepping outside what’s expected and what is anticipated to ensure consistency in growth.”
Lily Geiger recently launched Figlia, a nonalcoholic beverage. She says the secret to her success is never feeling too important to do every job.
For Lily Geiger’s new aperitivo, Figlia, the tagline (“for moments you want to remember”) is laced with heartfelt meaning. The Bay Area founder launched the nonalcoholic beverage company to honor her father, who died of alcoholism. The experience led Geiger to explore society’s relationship with alcohol, as well as her own. “I think the secret to success is never seeing yourself as too important when it comes to the work that you do,” says Geiger. “As a small business owner, I’ve had to do pretty much every job under the umbrella of this company and have no problem getting my hands dirty when I need to. I think many are surprised when they find out how small our small but mighty team is.”
Above all, Geiger believes the payoff professionally comes from diligence and never losing sight of a core mission. “Innovation to me means really never taking no for an answer and continuing to creatively think outside the box when it comes to problem solving,” says Geiger, who notes that the best advice she ever received was simple: Everyone has different measures of success. “I can’t remember who told me this or if I read it somewhere, but it always stuck with me.”
Claire Tomkins, founder and CEO of Future Family, launched her company to be the first to offer monthly subscriptions for fertility services.
“Innovation goes beyond just coming up with a new product or company. It’s about developing a solution that changes and improves people’s lives,” says Claire Tomkins, whose company, Future Family, is the first to offer monthly subscriptions for fertility services that combine financing and concierge care. “Many people are surprised to learn how big of a problem fertility is in this country. “It’s far more complex and costly than people believe, and it puts many people at risk for credit damage and even severe debt. Only 2% of babies in the U.S. are born via IVF versus other countries worldwide, which are getting closer to a 10% birth rate because they make it less complex and costly.”
Tomkins’ company has helped thousands of families, and the entrepreneur says the secret of its success is the passion her team feels about the mission. “Many at the company, myself included, have been through IVF, or have supported a friend or family member through the journey,” she says. “We’re patientled innovation and that means we have intel to inform a best-in-class product design. Our mission goes beyond developing a successful fintech and telehealth platform; it’s about fundamentally changing an industry that has large gaps and lacks inclusivity and accessibility.”
Future Family recently launched the first family-building and family-care financial benefit for employers. “The employer benefit plan is filling in the many critical gaps in current medical insurance and financing options for family planning, including everything from abortion through to childcare, oncology and menopause treatment,” she says.
Dr. Shuvo Roy, founder of The Kidney Project, wants to disrupt the $35 billion kidney treatment industry.
Dr. Shuvo Roy
The Kidney Project, UCSF
School of Pharmacy Microsites
The world is about to learn what happens when an engineer takes a Silicon Valley approach to a major health issue. Dr. Shuvo Roy is working on making an implantable bioartificial kidney with The Kidney Project. Its goal is to dramatically disrupt the $35 billion kidney treatment industry, where roughly half a million patients a year rely on dialysis. Roy’s kidney prototype is the size of a smartphone and constructed from semiconductor silicon wafers—combining a hemofilter and bioreactor to replicate many functions of healthy kidneys.
“Innovation means using my engineering training to create new technology that helps patients in dire need,” says Roy. “Kidney disease has not seen significant medical innovation in almost 50 years, which makes my work developing an implantable artificial kidney with The Kidney Project so crucial. When I was describing our work to patients during the early days of The Kidney Project, one refrain I heard over and over was, ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.’”
Roy says the secret of the success of The Kidney Project is that it brings together a multidisciplinary group—engineers, scientists, clinicians and patients—all working together on a singular mission. While it’s still too early for the organization to receive industry support or venture capital, Roy notes that it relies upon philanthropic support to scale the device up to clinical-grade prototypes. “We’ve already achieved a major milestone: a proof-of-concept device that filters blood and creates urine, powered not by batteries but by blood pressure. The Kidney Project offers philanthropists a chance to do something amazing in the world.”
Ingvar Helgason, the co-founder and CEO of VitroLabs, is finding ways for the fashion industry to replace leather. The solution is better for the environment, animals and customers.
Fashion has always been a passion for Ingvar Helgason. After all, the entrepreneur left school in Reykjavik, Iceland, at 16 to become a fashion designer. From there, he founded his own high-end fashion brand (Ostwald Helgason) and scaled distribution to 23 countries over the course of a decade. This adoration for fashion led to tech startup VitroLabs, which is creating a replacement for leather that is better for the environment, animals and customers. Helgason believes biotech companies have the opportunity to lead the way in changing how clothing materials are created and sourced, building better—and more environmentally friendly—supply chains for fashion brands.
The company has turned heads since its inception several years ago. It’s supported by investors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Kering, Khosla Ventures and Agronomics. Media, including Vogue Business, Forbes and the BBC, have gushed over VitroLabs’ approach to solving a critical environmental issue via fashion. “The modern movement toward better leather started over 60 years ago and is accelerating,” Helgason said recently on a videocast. “We’re at a critical turning point.”
Linda Yates, founder and CEO of Mach49, partners with global businesses to create a pipeline and portfolio of new ventures and investments.
Linda Yates says she founded Mach49, which partners with global businesses to create a pipeline and portfolio of new ventures and investments, for two reasons. “First, people are living longer due to healthcare and technology. That means they’ll be working longer and longer,” says Yates, who’s the author of the new book The Unicorn Within: How Companies Can Create Game-Changing Ventures at Startup Speed (Harvard Business Review Press). “As much as we celebrate startups, most people are employed by large companies—and they need purposeful, meaningful work for their ever-longer careers. Innovation and growth in the form of launching new ventures is one way to allow people inside organizations to be entrepreneurial, creative, to feel alive and, yes, to have fun.”
Her second reason? “Because of the big, hairy challenges we face on this planet: climate change, education, disease, racism and bigotry, poverty, hunger, water, disappearing species and other challenges—they need our big companies to be leaning in, willing and able to experiment and innovate to disrupt them.”
Amid all of the heady startups in the Bay Area, Yates says there’s one crucial element of innovation and success to never overlook: empathy. “The best companies—whether a Global 1000 or a brand-new startup—always exhibit radical customer empathy. They understand customer pain,” she says. “Reid Hoffman interviewed me for his Masters of Scale podcast, and he asked me a great question: What is a metric you use with your team that I might not have heard before? I said it’s the number of our clients who remain friends of ours long after we’ve finished working with them professionally. You don’t get to that level of relationship without serious empathy, compassion and gratitude.”
Ruben Harris, CEO of Career Karma, helps people navigate their careers through advice and coaching. The company has raised $52 million in capital so far.
For Ruben Harris, innovation has two manifestations, personally and professionally. Regarding the former, he notes that “innovation is taking time to use your imagination and create something that’s truly unique in the world to help others. And professionally? It’s using technology to constantly solve a problem in a large market in a way that creates a category and positions the company in a league of its own,” says Harris, who leads Career Karma, which helps workers navigate their career through advice and coaching. He has built the company from the ground up, raising $10 million Series A in 2020 and a $40 million Series B in 2022.
“CEO doesn’t stand for chief executive officer; it stands for creating every opportunity, and that truth is a stressful requirement for most people to handle—which is why the CEO seat isn’t for everybody,” says Harris. “As a CEO, managing your psychology is one of the most important things to do. Whenever I’m feeling lost or searching for answers, I just remind myself: pray or worry; don’t do both.”
As for the best career advice he’s ever received, Harris says it arrived from two sources: influencer Jason Mayden and a graffiti wall in San Francisco: “The wilderness is a place of separation, preparation and revelation,” he says. “Trust your struggle, and remember that startups don’t die when they run out of money; they die when founders run out of energy.”
Jim Eagen, head of school at Synapse, says “what if” questions need to be part of any innovative organization’s DNA.
Head of School
Jim Eagen works daily to impart innovation to children at Menlo Park’s Synapse School, a one-of-a-kind TK-8 learning institution with a project-based curriculum. The school even partnered with Stanford for its Brainwave Learning Center during the pandemic, embedding neuroscientists at the school to research teaching and learning. “I see innovation not so much as a product but as a process that comes out of a mindset,” he says. “Many innovators agree that most transformative companies, concepts, gadgets or schools like Synapse come alive after a huge amount of iterative and creative hard work.”
Eagen also believes innovative endeavors need focus through questions. “When looking at doing innovative things at Synapse, I ask myself a series of questions: Is what we’re attempting atypical or leading edge? What are we trying to solve here, and is the problem even worth solving? Will others see value and inspiration in what we’re working on? Does it capture people’s imaginations and make people want to ask more questions?” he says.
Big “what if” questions also are part of the school’s DNA, and it impacts everything from the curriculum to organizational structure. “At Synapse, kids and adults know questions matter, ideas matter, and we take them very seriously,” he says. “With a ‘what if?’ question, our brains typically have no previous mental model to grasp onto, so the answer isn’t obvious. You’re going to have to imagine or create, and this is hard work, which means you’re going to need people’s help. We’ve learned that bright and engaged people seek out hard and meaningful things to do. The easiest way of changing the world is not worrying too much and to try new and novel things out. We expect our people at Synapse to be authentic, embrace positivity and to take risks.”
Photography by: TRACY EASTON; COURTESY OF SOON; AARON ALVAREZ MENDOZA; COURTESY OF BRAND; COURTESY OF BRAND; COURTESY OF BRAND; DREW BIRD; SUSAN MERRELL; BRANDON PATOC; COURTESY OF BRAND; COURTESY OF BRAND; AARON ALVAREZ MENDOZA;