Written by Kristin Palm
Kylee Guenther used to be so afraid of public speaking that she once hid behind her business development manager when a TV reporter approached her. As CEO of an advanced materials startup, however, she knew she needed to be a visible–and verbal–face of her company.
“I knew for our company to grow and flourish, I had to stop being afraid of people,” she says. “When it came to business, I think I just really felt inferior. I said some things that, when I look back on it, they were pretty silly because I was so nervous and that really affected my self-confidence. But I worked through it and I was like, ‘OK, how do I get over this?’” In 2017, she made a New Year’s resolution: “I decided to try to get speaking events. I told myself, ‘If you’re going to be afraid of this, why not get on stage in front of a bunch of people and face the music head on?’” Her first speaking gig? The Ignite Detroit conference at Ford Field.
Anyone who knows Kylee realizes this all-in approach is her M.O. She was only a few years out of college, where she majored in political science and completed a master’s in Management as a University Fellow at Eastern Michigan University, when she left a county government job to launch her own engineering and design firm, Innovium. She then started to focus on sustainable materials, later founding Pivot Materials, which specializes in manufacturing composite plastics using natural fiber bamboo or rice hull fiber. The company’s main focus is the packaging industry, but also has a presence in the home and housewares and automotive industries.
Not the most traditional path for a political science major, Kylee realizes. But plastics are the family business. “I’d always been part of the plastics industry because that’s what my dad did,” she explains. “We talked about blow molding at dinner. It wasn’t a great way to make friends as a kid, but it worked out as an adult.”
Even more than the technology–and the fact that working for someone else makes her feel “stifled”–Kylee is motivated by ecological concerns. A self-professed hippie, she holds herself accountable for creating waste and for educating others. She plans her grocery shopping list and family food menu carefully every week, going for long stretches of time with zero food waste. “Waste just pisses me off, especially when so many people go without,” she says. Plastics are a particular concern, with their exponential growth in the market, their short life expectancy and the fact they don’t biodegrade. Kylee notes that half the plastics created were manufactured in the last 20 years.
Pivot Materials is developing its own proprietary completely biodegradable compound in an effort to disrupt this disturbing–and destructive–trend. Meanwhile, Kylee’s newfound assertiveness is paying off. She’s booked speaking events in front of hundreds of people. She monitors her heart rate while on stage and has gotten to the point where it no longer increases.
She also recently graduated from the TechTown Business Incubation Center, where she had the chance to work with entrepreneur-in-residence Gerry Roston. “Working with Gerry was a big deal for me,” she explains. “He’s like the Justin Bieber
equivalent for nerdy people.” Last year, she was selected as a Sephora Accelerate fellow after meeting a representative from the retailer at a conference and, yes, talking him up. “They took a pretty big risk,” Kylee observes. “I was the first sustainable packaging solutions company in the program.”
Since graduating from TBIC, Pivot Materials has added an operations manager to their staff, and they are working with four Forbes Top 100 companies on pilot projects and material trials. On top of all this, Kylee was recently accepted into the Silicon Valley accelerator Plug and Play, where she hopes to expand her network and learn more about attracting investors.
“I’m looking forward to meeting new startup companies,” she says. There aren’t a lot of materials startups out there. Most of the materials work is happening within very large companies.”
Kylee is also working on a book about her experiences as a millennial woman tech founder–a project she undertook because she wasn’t finding any writing that spoke to her experiences. True to type, she decided she’d write one herself. “Every book about entrepreneurs and successful women in business makes them look like overnight success stories, and I don’t believe in that. I also don’t believe in that lone founder genius thing,” she says. “I really think it takes a village. I think that needs to be brought to people’s attention. You don’t wake up one day as the next Bill Gates.” Showing how far she’s come, she adds: “I’m willing to share my own personal stories, if that helps someone else. It still isn’t easy for me, but I’m going to do it.”