Georgetown undergrad navigates business world as a young CEO

February 16, 2021

Illustration by Deborah Han

Ava McDonald (COL ’24) arrived at Georgetown balancing her academics and career goals as CEO of her own social media marketing company. During the pandemic, she is growing her business and advocating for women leaders in entrepreneurship.  

After taking issue with social media influencers, McDonald founded Zfluence, a platform that connects brands with their Gen Z consumers and brand advocates, in the fall of her junior year of high school. As a young female CEO in the social media marketing industry, McDonald was the youngest panelist at the Women in Business Conference at Harvard University on Jan. 31. 

McDonald is entirely self-funded, using the money she earned at a summer theatre job to kick-start her business venture. “I really wanted Zfluence to be something that I, as a young female founder, was in charge of and backed financially as well,” McDonald said. 

Although the company grew steadily since its founding less than two years ago, Zfluence’s prominence in the social media marketing industry soared in the past few months. There are now over 2,300 Gen Z ambassadors, or “Zfluencers”, from over 850 college campuses across the United States, including Georgetown. Zfluence serves over 65 companies, including Unilever, Sperry, and Benefit Cosmetics. McDonald’s platform helps these companies reach over 17 million Gen Z consumers on social media.

After growing up during the advent of social media, McDonald believes that Generation Z will change the way companies market their products. “Generation Z is a critical generation, and as is the case with any generation,” Juliette Morris, CEO of TuneIn and member of the Zfluence Advisory Board, said. “There are differences in how they spend their money, how they spend their time, and how they look at social issues.”

When McDonald found herself remaining at home at the beginning of the pandemic last spring, she decided to dedicate to growing the business. “I had a lot of time on my hands to focus on Zfluence,” she said. “Even though I wasn’t able to connect with a lot of Gen Zers in person, I was able to do so online.”

Switching between the roles of a college freshman and a CEO, however, is just as taxing as it seems. “There have been times when I’ve been really stressed because everything was too much at one time,” said McDonald. “But remembering why I started and why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

Despite her success, McDonald faces barriers in the business world because of her gender and age. “People would tell me all the time that I was too young—didn’t have the expertise,” McDonald said. “As a young female CEO, I’ve overcome a lot of doubt from others.”

McDonald believes her age in no way hinders her abilities but provides her a unique voice missing in the business world. “Gen Z is a demographic that so many big companies are trying to tap into right now,” she said. “Having access to that firsthand insight has helped me to be more confident in meetings and on panels where I’ve been with people who are significantly older than me.”

McDonald credits her position as a young CEO as useful in understanding Gen Z marketing—what they want, and more importantly, what they’re willing to offer. “Interacting with other people my own age helps me become a better CEO because every day I gain a better understanding of Gen Zers,” said McDonald. “To me, understanding people is one of the most important facets of business.”

Women in U.S. Technology Leadership released a report in 2020 indicating that only 14% of startup CEOs in the U.S. are women, with more than half of startups having no women in leadership at all. To help change that statistic, McDonald volunteers with The Loop Network, an organization supporting women in the earliest stages of their startup journey. She’s also collaborated with numerous other organizations that empower high school students to explore entrepreneurial careers and develop leadership skills, including Generation She, Girls Who Start, and BETA Camp.

“I’ve experienced such a sense of empowerment through these organizations, and I’ve not only met other young female entrepreneurs, but I’ve also gained new confidence in myself,” said McDonald.

Her work with Zfluence and nonprofits has not gone unnoticed. In 2020, McDonald was recognized on Ad Age’s “40 Under 40,” becoming the youngest ever on the list at only 19-years-old. She hopes her place on the list serves as some inspiration for young girls who are interested in entrepreneurship or starting their own businesses.

“Ava helps demonstrate that if you have a smart idea, and the dedication and the fortitude to pursue it, then you can be successful and grow,” Morris said.

As McDonald continues to navigate a business world dominated by men, she urges other young women with entrepreneurial aspirations to do the same. “Yes, it’s difficult, and yes, you will probably be questioned or doubted,” said McDonald. “But in hindsight, creating a successful business from scratch is one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done.”

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