Fueling Women to Run the World
By Sara Baier and Grace Collins
Linda Alvarez and Stephanie Schrauth didn’t set out to cofound Levelle, a startup dedicated to empowering female athletes by providing fuel formulated to meet their physiological needs. In fact, the two Cornell Executive MBA Metro NY class of 2021 graduates were essentially strangers when they were tasked to collaborate on a project in their Innovation and New Venture Creation course. The assignment? Identify a problem through numerous interviews with a clearly defined customer group—and the product would follow.
The pair began their customer discovery journey focused on non-sponsored marathon runners. Although Alvarez and Schrauth found plenty of individuals to interview, no concrete problem emerged until they compared their notes along biological sex.
The male athletes they interviewed were nonchalant about their training and nutrition regimens, while the female athletes consistently mentioned the struggle to find fuel that worked for their bodies. They complained that the sports nutrition products they used, such as endurance gels and powders, didn’t provide them with the energy needed—or worse, they made them ill.
“These women, who were accomplished athletes running multiple marathons and some qualifying for the Boston Marathon, mentioned trying boxes upon boxes of different products to find something that worked or didn’t make them sick, because that’s what all their female friends had to do,” said Alvarez.
“They couldn’t see that the problem was nutrition, or they treated it as an immovable problem. Many thought that the problem was with themselves.”
A systemic problem
Having identified a glaring problem, Alvarez and Schrauth focused their customer discovery efforts solely on women and their fueling needs. They began to conduct research into sports nutrition and the almost $20 billion market surrounding it, leaning into their own unique backgrounds.
Prior to enrolling in the Cornell Executive MBA Metro NY program, Alvarez, an MD, served as a national treasurer and organizing strategist for the largest physician union in the country. Schrauth brought her career experiences in project and product management to the table, as well as a background in women’s studies.
As the pair continued their customer research, they found there was very limited research being done on sports nutrition for women. In fact, when looking at the field of athletics as a whole, they discovered a pattern of women being systemically underrepresented. Despite women making up over 40 percent of participants in organized sports, just 3 percent of sports performance studies include female athletes, and there are virtually no nutrition options designed with female bodies in mind.
“When we looked at a popular competitor company’s website, they had five pages of products. Only one product was directed for women, and it was on the fifth page,” said Schrauth.
As they dove deeper into the experiences of female endurance athletes, an even more startling pattern emerged. Even though they train year-round, running multiple marathons and qualifying for races like the Boston and New York City Marathons, most of the women they interviewed—many of whom are also mothers and working professionals—didn’t consider themselves to be athletes because endurance sports wasn’t their full-time job.
“A whole group of accomplished women kept feeling that they were the problem, instead of the sports nutrition industry. That lack of representation within the field also meant they never considered themselves as athletes,” said Alvarez. “Levelle is not only designed to be provide products specifically for female athletes, but also to empower them to acknowledge that they are powerful female athletes and deserve to have a voice within that space.”
The emergence of femtech
Femtech, defined by the FemTech Landscape Report 2021 as “innovations that improve women’s and girls’ health and wellness by addressing conditions that solely, disproportionately, or differently affect them,” is a rapidly emerging industry expected to reach a valuation of $1.19 trillion by 2027.
Femtech startups are growing exponentially, and with its a line of sports nutrition products for female athletes and plans for research studies on female sports performance and nutrition in the works, Levelle is one of them. According to a recent Crunchbase report, to date there have been 105 femtech startup exits with an average valuation of $301 million. This goes to show that investing in women’s health isn’t simply catering to a niche market; it’s good business.
“Women’s health and bodies are not ‘abnormal,’ and they aren’t ‘problems.’ Women are half of society and deserve half of society’s efforts and attention,” said Schrauth.
From strangers to startup cofounders
Since officially launching their startup, Alvarez and Schrauth have been gaining attention and accolades as they capitalize on the opportunities available to them through the Cornell entrepreneurial community.
Levelle took first place when Alvarez and Schrauth pitched it to venture capitalists and angel investors, who served as judges, in a case competition-style event at the culmination of their Innovation and New Venture Creation class. Next, they won the Executive MBA Metro NY Case Competition. They were recognized as role models when they participated in W.E. Cornell, a program administered by Cornell’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement that empowers and educates female entrepreneurs and guides them through the process of commercializing their innovations.
“Women represent 50 percent of the population, but beyond that, women make 70 to 80 percent of consumer purchases in the U.S., so supporting women founders isn’t philanthropy, it is just good business sense,” said Andrea Ippolito, program director of W.E. Cornell. “Levelle was an incredible member of the W.E. Cornell cohort and dove in to tackle this important problem and [Alvarez and Schrauth] were great role models for the students that came after them in the program.”
The founders also completed a successful $20,000 crowdfunding campaign, and Levelle was recognized by Poets & Quants as one of the Most Disruptive MBA Startups of 2021. Additionally, the startup won third prize in the 2021 Food and AgTech track of the New York State Business Plan Competition (NYBPC) and received the Best Companies award at the Food 2.0 Conference in April 2022.
Looking to the future, the pair is continuing to develop their pilot product—Strawberry Jams, a berry-flavored endurance purée—and hope to have the product ready for market by fall of 2022. They are currently testing the product with potential customers and implementing feedback from athletes. The founders have received valuable production support from the Cornell Food Venture Center Pilot Plant and business advice from the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, an incubator based in Ithaca and supported by Cornell University.
“Our experience has been so special because of Cornell,” said Alvarez. “Without that foundation and support, it wouldn’t have been the same.
“I also think it’s amazing how much entrepreneurs want to help other entrepreneurs. At Cornell, we found a huge community that is excited for us and eager to help. I would tell other entrepreneurs to not be afraid of trying to do it alone, because you will find the community to help you.”