“I go for things that I’m curious about—if I have a question, I’m going to investigate it and keep going.”
—Elise Maxwell, Carlson Full-Time MBA student
What do six-eyed sand spiders, public education policy, and menstrual cups have in common? They’re all topics that piqued Elise Maxwell’s curiosity.
And through investigating these seemingly disparate subjects, she blossomed into a leader whose start-up has earned numerous accolades from the entrepreneurship community.
The study of spiders
As an undergraduate student, Maxwell studied biology at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. She helped manage a lab that performed research on the Sicarius spider—a species that buries itself in sand.
“When I’m curious about a topic, I pursue it,” she says. “In the lab, we were researching biogeography— why some spiders are on one continent and others are on another?”
But while the pursuit of new knowledge in the lab appealed to her, Maxwell realized she wasn’t the typical scientist.
“I knew I really liked managing programs and putting systems in place, but those skills weren’t valued as much in the hard sciences,” she says.
A start-up mentality
After graduating, Maxwell moved to the Twin Cities and got involved with education policy. She carried out a mandate from the state and superintendent to design a teacher and principal evaluation system for Minneapolis Public Schools.
“I was very passionate and curious about education equity and the achievement gap,” she says. “I was promoted from entry level up to working on one of the top initiatives for the district. With a lean team, I was able to help take a concept and make sure that we were meeting the state’s requirements, while putting something in place that incorporated the voices of teachers and that supported the improvement of student outcomes.”
Reflecting on the project, Maxwell says it was like launching a start-up within a large bureaucracy: the team created something from scratch, with only a vision to guide them.
Her role at Minneapolis Public Schools proved to Maxwell that she was capable of bringing ideas to life—and she began the Carlson MBA Program with aspirations to pursue her own vision.
“I gave myself time between MPS and Carlson to really think about what I valued, and I kept coming back to women’s health,” she says.
In her first year in the MBA program, she participated in STARTUP: a course that empowers students to reach out to potential customers and refine their business idea. By interviewing hundreds of women, Maxwell discovered that stigmas and taboos were preventing consumers from accessing the products and information they needed.
She launched Ova Woman to spur a revolution in women’s intimate health. The platform hosts dialogue and provides products to ease the discomfort that can accompany menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, and more for women.
“Elise has done a phenomenal job applying entrepreneurial best practices,” says Toby Nord, director of the Carlson Ventures Enterprise, and STARTUP instructor. “She is out with customers every day, knows the market intimately, and puts a ton of passion and effort into building Ova Woman as both a business and a movement.”
Most recently, Ova Woman has launched a podcast—The Speculum—to open up dialogue on topics that women feel uncomfortable talking about or seeking support for.
“We’re sharing stories and bringing in the voice of practitioners to make sure listeners are getting medically sound information. This can be anything from a yeast infection to vaginal tearing during childbirth,” she says.
The venture has earned top prizes at the Acara Challenge and the MN Cup, and second place at the InnovateHer competition. Maxwell was also awarded the Sands Fellowship—a $5,000 fellowship that supports Carlson MBA students launching businesses with impact on the Twin Cities community.
“I am incredibly grateful for all of the people in my life that have supported my growth and development. My team at MPS, my advisors at Carlson and my current Ova team inspire me every day to be bold and think big,” she says.
She continues to draw lessons from her classes, soak up advice from professors, and participate in entrepreneurship programs at the Carlson School to further grow Ova Woman.
“I’ve always identified with the idea of bringing things to life,” she says. “Having exposure to the classes and community at Carlson led me to identify with the term ‘entrepreneur."