I think many people can be leaders but think that they’re not cut out for it because of their mental illness, upbringing, education or lifestyle. When I share my truth AND kick butt in the startup world, it has other people asking, “Well, heck why NOT me?! If she can do it, maybe I can too.”
Disrupting the dating industry by championing human connection, Dr. Brittany Barreto has a vision to open doors and hearts through science as the co-founder and CEO of Pheramor, a DNA-based dating app. A decade before the genetic testing market was accepted by the mass market, Brittany was an undergraduate student at Baylor College of Medicine where the first genome was ever sequenced. It was during her college career that she first thought of the idea of sequencing attraction genes to help singles find true love, an idea she shared with a professor who shrugged it off and didn’t encourage her to follow her vision for a company that is evaluated at $6M today.
Her tenacity for the idea that would become Pheramor didn’t dissipate as she continued to study Molecular Science she groomed the idea and pitched it as often as she could. A natural speaker and outgoing advocate for science, Dr. Barreto’s presentation at Bioventures caught the attention of Dr. Bin Huang, Chief Technology Officer at Pheramor. Together, they have built the darling of the dating app world, known for the most 2nd dates.
Confident in Pheramor’s ability for growth from B2C to B2B, Dr. Barreto successfully raised $1.275 million in her first round, launching in 2017 alongside Dr. Huang, and the accolades for both co-founders and the app itself quickly gained momentum as Dr. Barreto gained the illustrious 40 under 40 acknowledgment by the Business Journals, HYPE Impact winner, VCIC’s Startup of the Year, InnoStar’s Best in Show and Startup Grind’s Top 2 Startup of the year globally.
As a conscious leader, Brittany makes time to mentor founders of new startups and hosts entrepreneur dinner parties at her apartment in Houston, where she resides with her rescue dog, Trypsin.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I was born and raised in New Jersey and survived a tumultuous upbringing by keeping my head in the books. I became the first person in my family to attend college and definitely the only one to get a PhD! I have a love story that began in the 8th grade when I learned about cellular biology. I could NOT believe that so much was going on inside me and that four letters: A, T, C and G, in a string of 3 billion letters long made me who I was! I finished my PhD in Molecular and Human Genetics at the number one genetics program in the world, Baylor College of Medicine, where the first human genome was sequenced. I studied how stress leads to cancer and even discovered a small RNA in E. coli that was involved in stress-induced mutagenesis (Barreto et al. 2017). During my undergraduate career in 2012, I was in a genetics course learning about DNA-based attraction. I asked my professor if I could make a DNA-based dating app, he scoffed and shrugged, and voiced a mediocre response: I guess you could… The idea never left my mind! During my last year of my doctorate in 2016, I pitched the idea to an accelerator program where I was accepted and met my cofounder, Dr. Bin Huang.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Most entrepreneurs make products trying to solve their own problems. My problem was being an independent, busy, confident woman who couldn’t find a relationship! I was on the bad-first-date merry-go-round! I was still single during the whole first year of Pheramor’s existence, so when potential prospects asked me what I did for a living, I told them that I owned a DNA-based dating app. I was ghosted SO OFTEN because everyone thought I was just doing market research! It was so weird to own a dating app that wasn’t live yet and to be using dating apps trying to find love. THAT was definitely an unexpected experience.
What was your biggest challenge to date either personally or professionally and how did you overcome it?
My biggest challenge was learning to thrive with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I experienced early childhood trauma, which resulted in severe PTSD. I have struggled with anxiety, depression, flashbacks and nightmares consistently during my teenage and young adult years. During my doctoral work, my PTSD symptoms came to a head and I honored myself by taking two months off from school. It was such a hard choice, but I’m so grateful I did it. I went to inpatient treatment for PTSD and learned a lot about how my mind and body stored trauma, and how I could regulate myself to not let PTSD get the best of me again. It is still a challenge, but I overcome it by honoring quiet time, providing self-love and surrounding myself with supportive and safe people. To this day, I’m a firm believer that the best leaders have PTSD, as this allows them a keen awareness to emotional process, when it’s time to unplug for the greater good of your work and your team, you don’t question it, you do it.
What does leadership mean to you and how do you best inspire others to lead?
My vision is to open doors and hearts. Leadership means acting in line with what you preach. It’s about empowering people to succeed. I inspire others to lead by telling my authentic story and being an example of a conscious, strong and successful leader. I think many people can be leaders but think that they’re not cut out for it because of their mental illness, upbringing, education or lifestyle. When I share my truth AND kick butt in the startup world, it has other people asking, “Well, heck why NOT me?! If she can do it, maybe I can too.”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Yes, there has definitely been so many people along the way who have helped me get to where I am now. I am grateful for each and every one of them. The story I’ll share is about Dr. Jack Gill who is a prominent angel investor in Houston and a professor of Life Science Entrepreneurship at Rice University. When I took Dr. Gill’s course, I learned that entrepreneurship was the career path I wanted to follow. I excelled in the class and he asked me to be the lead T.A. the following year. Dr. Gill encouraged me to apply for programs, such as Ignite, where students from the Texas Medical Center go to Silicon Valley and hear from successful startup founders.
He was my first investor in Pheramor, which opened the doors to many other investments. Dr. Gill continues to provide me with speaking engagements around the country, including Lamar University, UC Berkeley, and UC Davis. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities he has provided me. People have faith in me and my work when he vouches for me and that has made the world of difference as a young, female founder in the south.
Was it difficult to fit your life into your business/career and how did you do that?
This was extremely difficult throughout 2017. I was not only the cofounder and CEO of Pheramor who raised $1.275M, launched market research campaigns, started building the Pheramor dating app and submitted patents — I was also a PhD student at the number one genetics program in the world! I published my research in a first author paper in spring 2017, submitted my 400 page thesis in September, and defended my PhD successful in October, and graduated in November. My social life was extremely limited. I slept 6-hours per night consistently.. I took investor calls in between lab work, ran experiments until 3 am, and always worked weekends. My friends started to pull me aside telling me I was a workaholic. I could see their point, but I knew this was a temporary condition. I was very passionate about finishing my doctorate AND starting my company. That passion pushed me to finishing one and beginning the other at the same time. My life is still pretty packed today, but I am so grateful that the only thing that keeps me up at night is Pheramor. My friends, family and new boyfriend (yes, we’re DNA compatible!) all know how much Pheramor means to me, so they are very understanding with the type of work hours I keep and understand when I have to unplug from everyone to prevent burn out.
Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life?
There are definitely things that have taken a backseat due to my increased time commitment and brain power to Pheramor. These include not fostering as many dogs as I used to, not running 3 times a week and meal prepping. My life is still very dynamic and I think for the most part balanced. I continue to attend church, recovery groups, go to dog park with my pup Trypsin and have coffee with girlfriends.
Can you share five pieces of advice to other leaders about how to achieve the best balance between work and personal life?
What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment and pride?
I get the greatest sense of accomplishment and pride when people with ideas for companies come to me for advice. I am a geneticist! I don’t have an MBA. Yet these folks respect my opinion and want to hear my ideas and suggestions regarding their companies. My favorite is when they take my advice and come back with an update and looking for the next step. I get a lot of joy and pride from seeing others following their ‘crazy ideas’ and that my advice helped make it happen. Some people say I should be charging for giving advice, but for now my compensation is gratitude for the experience to inspire and mentor others. One of my personal values is to be generous with advice and frugal with criticism.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger?
The movement I would be honored to inspire is getting underprivileged tribes of people to ask ‘Why not me??’ and have them go for their dreams of further education, starting that company, traveling the world or whatever their goal is. The underprivileged communities I’m most passionate about are women, people with mental illness, people in recovery from addiction and people who identify as LGBT. I find these folks are the ones most often feeling discouraged about being able to accomplishing the unthinkable. Mostly because we do not see people that look, behave or act like us in extremely successful positions. I want to be a successful woman who’s honest about my PTSD, recovery and identifying as bisexual to inspire these communities to see themselves in me and go for their own dreams like I did mine.
About the author: Jacob Rupp is a coach, author, speaker, podcaster, and rabbi. He is the founder of Lift Your Legacy, a community that helps people live a more authentic life. He has a regular, syndicated column that appears in ThriveGlobal and Medium magazine. To learn more about him or to listen to the Lift Your Legacy podcast, search iTunes or visit his site: liftyourlegacy.live