Pree Walia '10
Interviewed by Nora Peterson, '14
Pree Walia, ’10, is the CEO and cofounder of Preemadonna, and the inventor of its first product line, Nailbot, a robotic manicurist—and, more specifically, a smartphone nail art printer. Pree grew up in the South (Louisiana and Mississippi), went to college at Northwestern, and earned her MBA at University of Chicago. She started her career in politics in DC—getting people out to vote, building partnerships, and raising capital—and eventually made her way to Silicon Valley, where she founded Preemadonna. Preemadonna came out of Stealth Mode at Techcrunch Disrupt as one of the six finalists and in early 2018 she raised $1M in a funding round.
Tell us, how did you get the idea to create Nailbot?
My first job post-business school was at an LED lighting control startup called Lunera. My friends used to joke that I had a lightshow in the trunk of my car—I perfected the art of a live demo! Between working at early stage hardware companies like Lunera, my beginnings in fundraising for politicians, and my passion for building communities with girls, the idea around building Preemadonna started to take its roots.
More specifically, when the LED nail dryer kits for at home gel manicures hit the market, I took notice that women were comfortable using these small devices. While I was focused on LED technology and building automation at Lunera, this alternative use case for LEDs was fascinating and lucrative! I started to connect the dots with the emerging beauty and nail trends and wanted to use build small, portable “Nailbots” that would automate the nail decoration process for women and girls at home and on the go.
My vision is to create a whole family of Nailbots. Right now we're starting with art with our Lacey Nailbot, where you can decorate your nails with emojis and your own fun designs, but eventually we're going to paint the whole nail with our advanced generation Tess Nailbot.
3D printing has been around for some time now, and the use has been growing, but not at as fast of a pace as originally anticipated. How do you anticipate 3D printing will shape the market over the next five years?
Any technology that requires consumer education, coupled with advancements in hardware and software applications, requires a robust ecosystem to build around that technology. I believe that 3D printing and DIY customization is part of the larger maker movement. It’s not a niche segment of the market; instead 3D printing applications have shown us that the next five years will be used to transform consumers into creators.
Schools, nonprofits, tech camps, libraries are part of this ecosystem, providing communities with 3D printers and teaching young students 3D printing software to print their own creations on demand. I’m proud of MakerGirl (full disclosure: I am on the Board of MakerGirl, which is a partner of Preemadonna), a nonprofit that teaches girls (aged 7–11) STEM principles through hands-on 3D printing sessions). The girls use software like TinkerCad and Autodesk and leave the sessions with a physical print they created. The instructors are collegiate STEM women and men who also serve as mentors.
You have an all-woman staff at Preemadonna. Was this by design? And what has been your strongest recruiting tool as you build your company?
There is an old saying that the first ten people that believe in your venture define your culture, company, or movement. For Preemadonna, those people happened to be women, and most are under the age of 25. They are coders, hackers, engineers, artists, product managers, marketers, and MakerGirls. These girls also recruit their friends to work at Preemadonna, so it has been organic recruiting.
My best recruiting tools are mentorship and sponsorship. Mentorship is a reciprocal journey. It's not one-sided and it's not a static relationship. Girls and women need mentors who they can relate to and aspire to be. They also need champions and sponsors that have powerful voices that who will advocate on their behalf throughout their studies and careers. I ask each person who works at Preemadonna to commit to sponsoring another young woman. The network effect of this type of mentorship model will not only train the next generation of women as entrepreneurs and leaders in STEM fields, but it will also inspire a spirit of collaborative leadership that is authentic and unique to a new era gender parity. I have female sponsors—this includes Preemadonna’s lead investors and female mentors as well as my previous bosses who have all helped me build this company.
What did you find most challenging in raising your latest round of funding (for $1M+)?
There is always a long backstory behind any raise and it’s really about relationship building. I had searched for some time to find someone as passionate as me about this venture and I found it in Jesse Draper at Halogen Ventures. Jesse is a friend, investor, and partner and she led by my current fundraising round after seeing our progress. Her fund is focused on early stage female-led consumer startups, and that’s exactly what we are. She is my ultimate Preemadonna!
The majority of my early investors believed in my vision and ability to execute. The majority are women. In fact, my first investor was Diane Donald, my freshman year roommate at Northwestern. She believed in me from day one. I also have several business school classmates (also female!) that invested and I’m proud to have earned their support.
What experience had the biggest impact on you during your studies at Booth?
My lack of success at traditional recruiting at Booth influenced me the most. It may sound bizarre, but I never had a traditional or linear career before, during or after Booth. Initially, it was very frustrating, as I didn’t have a summer internship lined up in January after my first year. I tried the consulting, banking, and product marketing internship interviews and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) they passed on me. So I had to get clever, resourceful, and use my own network. Even my summer internship with Lunera (the LED lighting company) was anything but traditional. Many of these perceived failures or setbacks led to my resourcefulness—a trait that has served me well at Preemadonna, whether through recruiting talent, finding new forms of capital or even getting our product to the next stage.
If you could go back to Booth now and do it all over again, would you do anything differently?
I would have applied for the International MBA. I spent a chunk of 2015 in Shenzhen, China working on Preemadonna with a hardware accelerator (HAX), and that experience really shaped my perspective on making sure we have a global perspective early in product development and community outreach. While I did study abroad in India at Booth my second year, I wish I had formalized the process and even taken more classes outside of Booth (e.g., Law, Public Policy).