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When the pandemic first began in the spring of 2020 and the impact of lockdown was hitting, people found lots of different ways to occupy their time. Some got into knitting, some became sourdough breadmaking aficionados, and some used the time to reflect on their place in this world and how they can make it a better, safer place. Cierra Valor and Ashley Pradhan were in the reflecting category, but what they did while looking inward was extraordinary. The two seasoned data analytics consultants decided to found IN BOLD PRINT., a startup with a technology platform that adds interactive product sustainability scorecards to brand and retailer websites. MenLiving’s Patrick McKenna got to speak with Valor and Pradhan about their inspiration for founding IN BOLD PRINT., fighting imposter syndrome as two young CEO’s and the legacy they hope their company leaves behind.

Patrick:
I’m curious how you both met and began working together.

Ashley:
Cierra and I have been friends for about seven years now. We actually both went to Loyola University (in Chicago) and studied Information Systems. We were in the same program and in several classes together, but we didn’t really know each other. In one of the classes that we were in together, the professor was very hands on. He knows the students very well, and he grabbed the two of us one day and was like, “You two, come with me. You’re going to be friends. You guys are going to go compete in a data competition. You’re my people, so I need you to represent the school and go to this competition in California and bring home a win for us.” And we were like, “Okay, sure. Whatever you want, that’s fine. A free trip to California. Why not?” So, we decided to go ahead and do that.

Going into it we weren’t particularly fond of each other, but we really bonded during that week over the chaos and the stress of presenting. Our team was also really stressed, as were the presenters. There were a lot of tears involved and a lot of picking people up. I think in that time, we really realized how similar we were and how much we had in common. We really connected during that time.

And then Cierra was –and is – an overachiever and went ahead and graduated early. She was looking for what her next step was going to be career-wise, and I had just signed a contract to work with a data and tech consulting company after school. We were talking about it because it was so cool and new to have unlimited PTO and all the benefits that they were offering. Cierra and I got a little too excited and, well, she decided to work there too. So, we both went on to work at the same tech consulting firm for about five years. And then we went separate ways and went to different startups, but I’ll spare you all the details of that.

Patrick:
That’s like friendship forged in the fire from that first experience. I feel like that’s on par with a lot of people’s first work experiences if it’s an intense environment.

Ashley:
It was. It was super intense. But during that first year of work even, things changed so fast. I was a bride’s maid in Cierra’s wedding, and my fiancé was a groomsman in their wedding for her partner. We grew very quickly in our relationship.

Patrick:
Wow, that’s awesome. Where did the inspiration come from for creating IN BOLD PRINT.?

Cierra:
Along the quarantine journey, we had sincerely tried to be better about where our place was in the world. When lockdown happened, you had nothing to do but look inside your house and say, “Well, what is my place in the world? What have I done to better the world around me?” At the same time, you’re locked inside, and you have to online shop all the time. You can only leave your house to go buy groceries. That means that we’re not only looking inside at what it is that we have already bought and what we have in our lives, but we’re starting to look externally and have time to research things fully.

So we’re looking at these products and saying, “Well, okay, one small way that I can make a difference in this world is that I can start figuring out what products are better for the planet. But then it begs the question, “What does that mean? What does sustainability mean? How do I begin to evaluate that? How do I then look at the products and brands that are producing these products and start to understand how to make those decisions?” That created a tailspin of trying to figure out what sustainability meant, but there’s so much to it. There’s so much about the ingredients and the products, the packaging around them, the transport that they have to go through to get to you — especially in those times when they’re buying everything online.

Patrick:

Absolutely. It all can seem a little overwhelming.

Cierra:

Right. All these questions started swirling. Ashley and I just started trading ideas back and forth while saying, “Hey, I’m starting to buy products that are made out of recycled material because I think that means it’s better because it’s coming from a landfill or we’re pulling it out of there. That way, we’re reducing our waste. How do we evaluate these products to make better choices? That really grew.  We have a data analytics background, so we’re saying, “This should really be easier. There’s no way that when we go back to real life and we’re running around and we’re busy that we’re ever going to be able to make these decisions with this amount of time.”

So, we decided to automate those decisions and make it easier for the everyday consumer. Now, we work directly with brands and with retailers to score those products using our platform. That way they can display our scores directly on their website, and the everyday consumer can decide in a moment if that product is sustainable or not and how sustainable they are.

Patrick:
On your website, you stress the mission of making conscious living so simple that it becomes unconscious behavior. If I was a consumer who doesn’t have a lot of knowledge on how to make more sustainable purchases but wants to, how or where would you recommend that I start?

Ashley:
That’s exactly who we were and are building this for. I mean, it’s really for everybody, but we want you to be able to go to a retailer or brand website that is working with IN BOLD PRINT., check the box and say, “I care about sustainability in my products. I care about the impact that my products have on the planet.” And then you would get this planet impact score. We think the score is important because it quantifies what is actually happening. It’s not just an organic seal that says something good; it’s not a check mark. We want those types of consumers to be able to explore a little bit. What does that mean? What is a seven out of 10? Is that a good score? It’s high but, what exactly went into that score?

So, besides the score, we have a score card. For those that are curious, you can click on the score, and it opens a whole score card, still simple. We want everything to be digestible, very actionable, easy to read. You don’t want big bodies of texts that you have to do research on. We lay out the whole life cycle of the product. From sourcing and manufacturing to transportation, at use when you’re holding it, and then at waste, at the end of life, what waste does it create? A lot of the things that Cierra touched on. It is a way for you to align your values with the products that you’re choosing, but also to educate yourself.

Patrick:
That makes sense. So, can you speak on a little bit more on how exactly the software works?

Cierra:
If you think about an organic sticker, for instance, the historical process is that, as a brand, you actually send all this paperwork to an agency. That agency reviews all the paperwork with a bunch of humans, and it takes months. What we are trying to do is automate that process. We can actually go and scrape a bunch of data off of any public facing information for a product.  They can list their ingredients. They have the images, and you can see what packaging they have. They have FAQs that usually say things like, “I have carbon neutral shipping.” So, there’s all this information directly on the website.

We actually scrape all of that data. We run it through our platform and there’s a database that’s part of this platform. In that database, we’re actually running a scoring engine that’s going to say, “Okay, given all of this information that we’re able to pull from the website, what is that one to 10 score? What are the scores for each stage in the life cycle (that Ashley was talking about) on the scorecard?” We’re able to produce that answer. And we actually take that data directly to a brand or retailer and say, “Hey, for this product, here’s all the information that we could discern on our own from your public facing materials.” This is what your consumers are seeing. This is how your consumers are evaluating your products, but there might be a lot more information behind that you haven’t disclosed. For example, there might be things about where you source your ingredients. Is it made from coconut or palm oil? What are the implications of that? Is there more information about your manufacturing?

Patrick:

Right, that makes sense.

Cierra:

All that information the client can fill in. So, we get that 80, 20 rule. We can get about 80% of the information directly from the website, produce the score and then 20% they fill in to give a more complete score. Really in the end, that sometimes helps these brands learn how to communicate with their consumers some of the things that they’re already doing but just not publishing.

That’s how it works. And then the presentation on the front end, they’re plugging in a little widget directly to their website. That widget is going to automatically reflect the score. Then as the industry changes, the supply chain changes, and the brand changes, the new things that they’re doing can automatically be reflected all the way through. We’ll pull all that data back into our database and show it right on the brand website. The consumer’s always looking at the most up-to-date information possible. Then the brands get all information back to figure out, ” Well, how do I keep innovating my products? What are my consumers asking for? Do I need to go buy more recycled material to make my packaging out of? Yes, because my consumers are buying the products that are made out of that recycled material.” That’s how that system works.

Patrick:
Wow. That’s really, really fascinating. How do you both best play off each other as co-founders in your partnership with the roles and responsibilities that you both have for the company?

Ashley:
We get asked that often, and we know that people are often expecting, “Well, she does sales and marketing and I do product and finance.” We split things more horizontally than that. It’s just the two of us doing everything, sales, marketing, finance, building the tech, writing the code…all of it. So, it really depends on the day who’s on what duty. We do things like, “All right, you’re on social media this week. And while you’re doing that, I am going to make sure that the cash flows and QuickBooks are looking organized enough for the accountant.” Cierra got a contract yesterday, did a full review while I made sure that we were delivering to our clients. That’s why we’re co-founders and co-CEOs. It just really depends on what’s needed of us that day.

Patrick:

My next question was specifically for you Cierra about the piece that you wrote on LinkedIn. You talked a little bit about imposter syndrome in the piece, which I feel like is something that impacts a lot of people, but especially a lot of younger people who are leaders in their industry. ow do you challenge or overcome those feelings that come from imposter syndrome?

Cierra:
It’s an ongoing journey and there’s not one answer. My gut reaction is that I surround myself with great people. I’m really bad at taking compliments. If someone says something nice, and I’m like, “Okay, thanks. Great, let’s move on.” It’s not exactly the same thing as imposter syndrome, but it presents in very similar ways. One of the things that Ashley’s challenged me to do is just take it. If she says something nice, just stop and accept the compliment; say thank you and move on. I think it’s very small touch points and interactions on a daily basis that make such a big difference.

Likewise, I try to remind myself of things that other people have told me in my past. There are so many moments where, even working beside Ashley, she’s a star and great at so many things. Sitting beside her sometimes I’m like, “Am I a worthy partner? Am I bringing to the table an equal amount of knowledge or background or any of these things?” It just takes re-reminding myself that we have such complimentary skills. We are both bringing different things to the table. I think over my career journey, I really just learned that people are very different. Smart isn’t a binary thing or great isn’t a binary thing. Everyone is smart in such different ways. And as long as you keep surrounding yourself with people that are smarter than you in different ways, you are also that person for them.

Patrick:
Absolutely. Ashley, do you have anything you could add on just the topic of imposter syndrome?

Ashley:
Yeah, Cierra sums it up well. I think that we started our careers in consulting and it was in the technology space, and that was really hard. It was a very male-dominated field, and we were young and looked young. So, there’s just this little perception that comes with it. You’re supposed to just walk into a room and act like the expert because you’re the consultant and they’re paying consultant rates, and consultant rates mean expensive rates. And in the background I felt like, “I did this one time in school, but I don’t exactly know what I’m doing here.” And my boss would be like, “Act confident, march in there and it’ll be fine.” The overused “fake it until you make it” was forced on us. It was a small company that we joined at the time. So, we had the opportunity to take on leadership roles very quickly. That pressure helped us grow, but it doesn’t mean that we didn’t feel the pressure. We walked in every day and felt like we had something to prove, or that we weren’t like the people around us were and that we needed to be more. I think the beauty of it is that it drove us.

As we’ve gotten a little bit older, I’ve gotten more comfortable saying that I don’t know something. And I’ve also gotten more comfortable realizing that I know more than I think I know. Having a conversation and just saying, “Well, can you tell me a little bit more about what you’re asking for? What your perspective is?” That feels easier. Absorbing and just being honest and a little bit vulnerable helps so much. People are okay sometimes with you saying, “Well, I’m not sure, but I do know this part that you don’t know. Maybe you can help me here, but I can help you here.” I’m not saying that imposter syndrome goes away. It’s still there, even while I’m doing a different thing now, but it does get a little bit easier to manage.

Cierra:
I think that’s such an important point though that Ashley said. It’s almost normalizing that it’s okay to feel that way on a continuous basis. It’s just starting to let that sit with you.

Patrick:
Totally. You can have a day where you walk in and you’re feeling boss energy, and then four hours later, something just goes a certain way and then it’s a totally different mood switch. What are some of the challenges or adversities that have stood out to you as women striving in a male dominated industry that perhaps your non-female identifying colleagues don’t experience or aren’t aware of?

Ashley:
I will say first that we had a very warm welcome in our transition to this field. Tech is still tech, but working more on the retail and brand side, we had a lot more interactions with women in leadership than we expected or had before. I think we’re definitely growing, but there’s a different style of working that we’ve been feeling lately. It’s the two of us in a room all day, and we love it. We’re friends and we enjoy that time, but we’ve grown to talk to each other a certain way and used a certain sensitivity and a level of compassion that we’ve grown to accept as a norm.

I am not in any way saying that men lack those things as a general whole. But sometimes, it’s a different style. Those are things that we take for granted when we’re talking to each other and to the other women that we’re working with. It’s definitely something that’s growing, and we are adapting our own styles as well. Figuring out what is too much and when, instead, are you supposed to say, “No, I’m not going to soften my language because that’s what I’m asking for. And I deserve what I’m asking for.” It’s a work in progress.

Patrick:
That makes sense. what legacy do you hope IN BOLD PRINT. leaves?


Cierra:
My first reaction is about the company itself, and it really goes back to our vision statement. I think that there’s such a disenfranchisement with this concept that small every day actions can make a difference in the world. I think that we are trying to conquer that narrative a little bit and trying to educate and show why it is possible for you as an individual to make a big difference. Our vision is to make conscious living so simple that it becomes an unconscious behavior, and unconscious behavior is the key. We think that if  we can make it easier for people to make decisions on the fly, then we think that we can, I mean, it sounds cool, but save the planet that we’re on. That we can make this place safer for people and their loved ones.

If we truly change the way that we behave and change the way that we relate to the world – even if we’re not super conscious of how that’s creating this big overarching change – those little actions matter.

Ashley:
I think a thing to add to that, Cierra captured the most important part of the change that we’re trying to make. Especially when earlier on, even in past years, the subject of sustainability and climate change has had different temperaments. It has come up sometimes as even a taboo topic, a political topic about what side are you on. We are all people living on the same planet. And the reason we went with IN BOLD PRINT. is because we want it to be clear. We want it to be in big letters on products. This is a good product, and we’re talking about sustainability. We’re talking about your impact on the planet. We are showing you your impact as a consumer, as a brand, as a retailer. So, I think if we can just level-up that transparency and the boldness of that information and the topic, I’ll be happy.

 

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