Pree Walia grew up in the back of a Baskin-Robbins. Two of them, actually. And in a video store, and a doughnut shop. Sort of.
Her mom, says Pree, is a born salesperson; her dad, an engineer, making them a great "hustler-hacker" team. As immigrants to the United States, both saw small business as the opportunity to build a dream.
Years ago, Pree worked for an LED technology start-up. As an early employee of a start-up, you do it all — help create a product, sell it, fix it, and invent new product lines. If you're curious, willing to be mentored, and are okay with falling on your face, it can be invigorating. That was Pree.
Her company, Preemadonna, is the explosion that occurs when you mix growing up as a girly-girl daughter of entrepreneurs, an education in gender studies, experience in the start-up technology sector, know-how for mobilizing resources, and a desire for impact.
Pree knew that women and girls like to decorate their nails. And they don't mind sticking their hands into a device. So she pondered: Is there a way to use my LED technology background to improve on a market full of static, analog nail decoration kits and dryers?
The Nailbot, from Preemadonna, prints unique art, emoji, pictures and a user's custom designs directly onto fingernails, from a smartphone, in less than five seconds.
It operates wirelessly over Bluetooth and comes with an augmented reality app for iOS and Android. The first time you use it, the app sizes your fingernail in real-time and will print the art of your choice, whether your own, from your camera roll, or from the app itself.
Using the smartphone as a controller makes the Nailbot accessible and affordable to budding "Preemadonnas," and it has the Internet of Things (IoT) at the core.
Because there are no other at-home kits quite like it on the market, Pree believes that by leveraging the power of mobile and allowing users to share designs via the app and over social channels, they can create network effects and a moat that comes with first-mover advantage to dominate their corner of the accessories space.
Investors, especially women, like the idea. Living in the Valley, Pree is aware of the scarcity of funding given to female founders. Preemadonna’s earliest support came from the inner circle of women in Pree's life, with her first check written by her freshman year college roommate, and subsequent backing coming from sorority sisters.
Actress, talk show host, and Halogen Ventures founding partner Jessie Draper is an investor, board member, and fan. It's essential for any entrepreneur, Pree says, to find someone who wants to go all-in on the ride, and who understands you and loves the product. Helen Greiner, a cofounder of iRobot, the technology company that created the Roomba autonomous vacuum, is also an investor.
In 2017, Laura Callanan, founding partner of Upstart Co-Lab, was a judge for the MIT Solve business plan competition, where she identified the Nailbot as the top submission. With a mandate from the Spanx by Sara Blakely Foundation to find early-stage creative economy companies, led by women, to receive impact investment capital, Preemadonna was Upstart's first recommendation. The investment came with the condition that Preemadonna complete the quick diagnostic for B Corporation certification, which got Pree and her team thinking about more ways the Nailbot could make a mark in the world.
Pree is unfazed when it comes to female founders, herself included, raising less funding than male counterparts.
"We've done more with less, and we own more of our own company. We are unstoppable".
Meanwhile, there is a growing ecosystem of female founders funding each other, and more millenial-led funds and entrepreneurs who continue to steer the game toward gender equality.
Pree wants to lead girls toward careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), starting with helping them understand how the Nailbot was made, and by creating a community of coders, artists, thinkers, and hackers.
The development and sponsorship of young females is at Pree's core. She also sits on the board of MakerGirl, an organization that introduces girls to STEM through 3D printing and other activities. She implores emerging professionals to pay attention, learn a ton, and embrace the opportunity that comes with getting up after failure.
To get comfortable with ambiguity. To pivot and to do stuff that conventional thinking says you’re not "qualified" to do. And to give back.
In the meantime, as far as the future of Pree's overall business is concerned, nails represent only one segment within a very broad accessories category, and she sees the potential to expand into other categories that might appeal to a more grown-up demographic.
"We can offer women many experiences with accessories — maybe wearables, tattoos, or decorating other parts of the body. I'll leave that to your imagination."