It’s been an interesting year for entrepreneurs. One that saw the costliest venture-backed acquisition ever when Facebook paid $19 billion for WhatsApp. Google took a page — or at least a player — from the Apple playbook when it paid $3.2 billion for iPhone executive Tony Fadell’s Nest Labs venture. There was plenty of scandal. Tinder CEO Sean Rad was brought down by cracks in the corporate culture. and video game developer Brianna Wu stood up to cracks in gamer culture. Startups were the focus of an HBO hit, Silicon Valley, and an excellent South Park episode.
While many entrepreneurs stood out in 2014 for their product, their personality, or their potential, there were some that seemed particularly interesting, for better or worse. Here are the 11 entrepreneurs who entered our consciousness in 2014.
1. Travis Kalanick
No one says the year you make it big is going to be a good one for you. Just ask Kalanick, the 38-year-old CEO of uber successful cab company, Uber. Many people first heard of and turned on Kalanick around February, when GQ published an article about the company, in which Kalanick, #190 on the Forbes list of 400 richest Americans, actually referred to his appeal with female billionaire groupies as “the boob-er.” It wasn’t the worst thing he would say in 2014 (or, for that matter, in the article). Even after Kalanick apologized for another Uber employee, Emil Michael, who suggested the company should dig up dirt on journalists who were critical of the company, many were convinced Uber’s culture was built on just that type of behavior. After all, Kalanick has had to take on the taxi business around the globe. By November, entire cocktail party discussions were centered around whether Kalanick should be canned. And you know you’ve made it big when Seth Meyer talks about you on TV, even if it is to call you Axe body spray in a suit. Kalanick has pretty much become the poster boy for Silicon Valley douche culture. Just remember, “It’s douche as a tactic, not a strategy,” according to one VC quoted in Vanity Fair.
2. Shiza Shahid, Cofounder, Malala Fund
Most of us first heard of Malala Yousafazai, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning education activist, through the publication of her 2013 autobiography, I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. Shiza Shahid followed Malala’s story from the beginning, and was beside Malala’s hospital bed during her recovery from a gunshot wound. The meeting changed both of their lives. Young Shahid left a cushy first job consulting at McKinsey to back a cause she believed in and help turn the inspiring Malala into a brand. (And, not incidentally, a Nobel Peace Prize winner.) Neither woman is done yet. Along with Malala and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, Shahid co-founded the Malala Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports empowering girls through education, and investing in early stage companies that can provide local solutions in Pakistan, Nigeria, Jordan and Kenya.
3. Palmer Luckey, founder Oculus VR
Before his 22nd year, this virtual reality genius had raised $2.4 million in a Kickstarter campaign. In 2014, he turned 22 and sold his first company, Oculus VR, to Facebook for $2 billion. His story is the stuff that myths are made of: home-schooled kid building a clunky prototype virtual reality headset in his parents’ garage. He’s described by all accounts as a charming pitchman who is also a brilliant engineer — could he be the standard Startup culture’s anti-douche?
4. Debbie Sterling, CEO, Goldieblox
Here’s an interesting trivia question. What is the first small business ad to air during the Super Bowl? The answer is Goldieblox, with the 2014 spot “Come On Bring the Toys.” A commercial all about giving girls better toys may seem an odd choice amid a sea of beer and boob commercials, but it’s just the type of disruptive thing that founder and CEO Debbie Sterling wants to see more of. The Stanford-educated mechanical engineer founded Goldieblox through a Kickstarter campaign, with the goal of encouraging girls to think beyond pink and play with toys that develop skills in science, techonology, engineering, and math. Look for the company’s first kid-engineered (and kid-powered!) float in the 2014 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
5. Rob Rhinehart, Creator, Soylent
In a May article in The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo called the nutritional drink mix, Soylent, “the most joyless new technology to hit the world since we first laid eyes on MS-DOS.” Soylent may be the opposite of fun, but it is still one of the most innovative things to happen to food in since long before sliced bread. Rhinehart, the engineer who invented the drink and founded the company based on claims that he ate nothing but Soylent for 30 days and became healthier, hopes his creation will reduce global hunger and health disparity. Despite (or perhaps because of) a brand that evokes bad Charlton Heston imitations, a growing army of DIY Soylent chefs seem ready to help Rhinehart’s invention make an impact.
6. Emily Weiss, CEO, Glossier
The former Vogue and W magazine styling assistant is a fashion darling who built the popular Into the Gloss online beauty magazine. In 2014, Weiss managed to style a sweet business deal, bringing in VC funds upwards of $8 million to help her company, Glossier, put a shiny new face on beauty products. With its first product introduced in October, Glossier promises stylish basics at an affordable price point.
7. Shubham Banerjee, Founder, Braigo Labs
The award for most adorable newcomer goes 13-year-old Banerjee, who was not only an entrepreneur at 12, he was an entrepreneur who at 12 closed a funding round with Intel’s VC arm, Intel Capital. We’ve heard stories of young tech minds making it big in the past, but the founder of Braigo Labs is the youngest. The low-cost Braille printer he invented began as an after school project.
8. Jamen Shively, VP of Global Marketing, Plaindai Biotechnology
What list of 2014 successes would be complete without at least one ganjapreneuer? Shively, a former Microsoft exec and ancestor of successful hemp growers, has been promising to push his company, Diego Pellicer, Inc., into the first retail brand of weed. He’s been called “The Bill Gates of cannabis,” but some in the burgeoning industry wonder whether Shively is crazy genius or just cray. In 2014, Shively got a new platform, by joining the board of Plaindai Biotechnology, a company that could help Shively realize his global goals.
A personal favorite tale of innovation and success this year is the story of the enigmatic DisneyCollectorBR, a faceless female YouTube star who does nothing more than open toy packages and talk about the toys inside. Apparently, doing this—known as “unboxing”—is like crack for toddlers. At last count, the DisneyCollectorBR channel has received nearly 4 billion views and has more than 3 million subscribers, making it one possibly the largest unaffiliated channel on YouTube. Buzzfeed estimates that DisneyCollectorBR could rake in as much as $13 million per year. (Or, as the article put it, this unknown reviewer is making as much money as the average S&P 500 CEO.)
10. Alex Blumberg, founder Gimlet Media
A podcast startup about starting a podcast startup? Newcomer Alex Blumberg is the most meta member of our list, with his Startup podcast that’s all about starting his own media company. The NPR journalist worked on This American Life and co-founded Planet Money before founding his own podcast provider, Gimlet Media. His experience starting the company will be broadcast… er, podcast… Tune in to hear if he can build a sustainable business model.
11. Mick Ebeling, CEO Not Impossible
Looking to end 2014 on a more hopeful note? Ebeling will make you feel better about what startups are capable of. A serial entrepreneur with all kinds of success under his belt in the world of tech and film, Ebeling recently founded Not Impossible Labs, which uses innovative and cost efficient solutions to solve human problems. For example, its latest Project Daniel uses 3D printing to create prosthetic arms for Sudanese children. For his work, Ebeling received the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2014. A book and film about his life will be out in 2015.
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