10 Rising Tech Stars Who Are Fueling a New Wave of Digital Insights

Meet Adweek's Young Influentials

From breaking new ground in artificial intelligence to promoting digital advertiser transparency, these Young Influentials are shaking up the tech world. For more up-and-coming talent in media, brands and marketing, check out our full list.
—Emma Bazilian

Andrew Casale
President and CEO, Index Exchange 

Few established ad-tech entrepreneurs could claim that their careers started as a teenager. Index Exchange president and CEO Andrew Casale is an exception.

At 15, Casale started helping his father run Casale Media, designing websites and eventually building an ad network to make money from content. After rebranding as Index Exchange in 2015, Casale began constructing the tech pipes to power programmatic advertising for publishers including Time Inc. and Condé Nast while growing the company to more than 300 staffers.

“You can’t lose sight of the realities of being a publisher, and I think that’s something that a lot of ad-tech companies get wrong,” says Casale, 31. “The reality of our customer base is that they’re a little fed up with ad tech.”

Index Exchange’s focus on header bidding has increased revenue by more than 100 percent year over year for the past three years. Today, more than 3,000 domains use the company’s header-bidding technology. —Lauren Johnson

Anda Gansca 
CEO and co-founder, Knotch

Growing up in Transylvania, Knotch co-founder and CEO Anda Gansca was always a self-starter and problem solver—she even created her own interdisciplinary class in high school because she “felt like the educational system was too theoretical,” she says.

Fast forward to today and Gansca, 29, has turned her focus to addressing issues in digital advertising. She believes consumers deserve to have their opinions heard about brands, and advertisers need to listen. Plus, transparency issues with how data is collected and packaged back to brands complicates advertisers’ trust in their digital marketing spend.

Brands like Chase, Unilever and GE embed Knotch’s technology into their ads in exchange for collecting real-time analytics and research on how consumers engage with content. Knotch also offers a branded search engine that lets marketers compare those stats to their competitors’.

“I think it’s really easy in our industry to lose track of the fact that we’re ultimately serving people, not impressions,” Gansca says. “We’re in this industry because advertising pays for the internet to work, and we’re simply there to make the internet a better experience and give marketers the ability to listen to their audience’s voice.” —L.J.

Stephanie Horbaczewski
Founder and CEO, StyleHaul 

StyleHaul’s Stephanie Horbaczewski credits none other than Ashton Kutcher with giving her the aha moment that jump-started her career: in 2010, she happened upon an issue of Fast Company in which Kutcher, while talking about making branded content for Kraft, predicted that brands would need to build their own social networks in the future.

“I was like, oh my god, this is the future of everything. It’s video, it’s brand integration, it’s social content and making sure brands connect with their consumers on social platforms,” says Horbaczewski, 37.

She founded StyleHaul—a network of fashion-forward influencers with more than 275 million subscribers that boasts over 1.5 billion impressions each month—in 2011. Since then, the company has grown by 50 percent year over year for six years in a row. Last year, it launched a new product, Society, that gives the network’s creators access to a dashboard with data and analytics about the content they create and post.

“I am obsessively passionate about this. I live and breathe it,” Horbaczewski explains. “I’m also really proud of the people who work for me. They are out there grinding like it’s a startup every single day and it shows.” —Katie Richards

Ben Lamm
CEO and co-founder, Conversable 

Artificial intelligence has begun to take center stage this year, even as many marketers still grapple with understanding what it is and how to use it.

As CEO of Austin, Texas-based Conversable, Ben Lamm has been at the forefront of AI, using automated messaging to connect brands with users. A year ago, the company launched a “conversational commerce” platform for Facebook Messenger, Twitter and other messaging apps to build chatbots or human-centric services.

However, the serial entrepreneur (who sold his previous company, Chaotic Moon, to Accenture) knows that AI isn’t a one-size-fits-all fix. In fact, Lamm—who’s also worked on VR and IoT projects—sees AI as playing a role to both scale experiences and also personalize them.

“I always say that AI isn’t magic, it’s just work,” Lamm, 35, explains. “It’s about evaluating, choosing and strategically implementing these technologies in a way that makes sense for your business and marketing goals.” —Marty Swant

Aniq Rahman 
President, Moat 

As measurement and brand safety issues rock social media platforms and publishers, the relevance of companies conducting third-party audits for digital advertisers has skyrocketed this year. That, in turn, made measurement companies like Moat more popular than ever before.

Moat, which was acquired earlier this year by Oracle for a reported $850 million (per Recode), has been at the forefront of a number of hot-button issues in the digital world—and so has its president, 30-year-old Aniq Rahman. In addition to working with all of the major social platforms on better third-party ad measurement, this year Rahman’s team partnered with Storyful and CUNY to develop a list of fake news sites in the aftermath of the 2016 campaign to help readers separate fact from fiction.

“I don’t know if people fully understood that viewability was going to be something that was on every campaign, every impression moving forward,” says Rahman. “And it moved from a diagnostic capacity for understanding inventory, but now the industry has moved to saying, ‘Hey, this is a standard that everyone is adopting.’” —M.S.

Alan Schaaf 
Founder and CEO, Imgur 

With 150 million users viewing 6 billion pages per month, Imgur, the photo- and video-sharing app platform, has become a destination that combines the meme potential of GIFs with the voting aspect of Reddit.

The app, founded by Alan Schaaf in 2009, has in the past year begun to build out a niche among advertisers looking to reach geeky millennials. Since the native ads were introduced in 2016, Imgur has worked with more than 150 brands while expanding beyond its San Francisco headquarters to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

According to Schaaf, 29, Imgur’s goal is to democratize good content while also giving people a way to “lift the world’s spirits for a few moments every day.”

“When I think about [our users], these are the people that are influential,” he says. “They’re the people that their friends go to for advice, that are posting in forums and leaving product reviews. I don’t know if that makes us influential, but as a brand, I would certainly want to be in that influential audience.” —M.S.

Brian Stempeck
Chief Client Officer, The Trade Desk 

As The Trade Desk’s eighth employee, it was up to Brian Stempeck to start the California-based programmatic ad company’s first New York office—which he did, from his own Brooklyn apartment, in 2010. Since then, he’s grown the office to 150 employees (the company now has over 600 worldwide). And while the company had no revenue or clients when Stempeck began, media spend last year grew to $1 billion.

Stempeck, 38, says that while only $15 billion of the $600 billion global digital advertising spend is currently programmatic, the overall analog-to-digital transformation could be just “dress rehearsal” for what’s yet to come for programmatic TV.

“I think being influential in this space means being able to explain complex technology in a simpler form, so then others can buy into the idea,” he says. “It’s kind of like this big game of telephone and you can’t do that if you’re using really arcane, complex ad-tech terminology.”

Nithya Thadani
CEO, Rain

It’s been “a whirlwind of a year” for Nithya Thadani, 34. After being hired as president of digital consultancy Rain in September 2016, she was quickly fast-tracked into the CEO role, which she assumed this past January. Since then, she’s focused on “bringing tech and development capability to the forefront,” and evolving Rain from “a digital creative agency to an emerging tech-focused innovation company.” Her current role has been “eye-opening,” she says, as her team is “pushing the boundaries of where we can go as a company.”

Thadani is especially proud of Rain’s position as “one of the first players in the voice space,” creating over 30 voice experiences in the past year for brands including Marriott, Warner Brothers’ Dunkirk, Hellmann’s, Campbell’s Kitchen and Sesame Street (one of the first such experiences aimed at children)—a number that Rain hopes to double within six months. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of how this will impact marketers,” she adds. —Erik Oster

April Underwood 
vp of product, Slack 

As vp of product at Slack, April Underwood is the brain behind some of the tech world’s favorite work-messaging products.

Since joining the company in 2015 after holding prominent roles at Twitter and Google, Underwood has grown Slack’s product manager team from six to 22 people. Meanwhile, under her tenure, Slack’s daily active users have increased from 1 million to 6 million. (The company is currently valued at a mind-blowing $5.1 billion.)

Recently, her team rolled out a product called shared channels that allows two companies to work in the same Slack channel together. Agencies, for example, can work directly with a client within Slack to share ideas and files.

Underwood, 37, is also a board member at Zillow Group and co-founder of #Angels, a women-owned investment group that supports startups. Her advice for fellow female execs: take time to develop relationships outside of your day job and find a career that allows you to focus on more than one thing. “We talk about it as managing your career like a portfolio, similar to how an investor thinks—they don’t make just one investment, they invest in many things at any given time,” she says. —L.J.

Tiffany Zhong
Founder, Zebra Intelligence 

Photo: Joshua Chang

Taking her cue from some of the tech world’s most legendary figures, Tiffany Zhong didn’t wait until after college before embarking on a career. At just 18, she dropped out of UC Berkeley to pursue a full-time job as an analyst and associate at VC firm Binary Capital. Now, age 20, she’s already on to her next chapter, launching teen-focused research company Zebra Intelligence this past May.

“There’s no other firm run by and focused on Gen Z,” she explains. “No one has done Gen Z research to such an extent.”

When it comes to targeting the demographic, one of the biggest mistakes Zhong sees brands make is going after too broad an audience. “Brands can’t target Gen Z as one cohort; you have to split it up [into smaller groups] to actually get across to them,” she says.

Zhong calls her generation “entrepreneurial and independent,” and advises that “creating high-quality content that is authentic and relatable [is] the hard path brands must pursue in every campaign.” —E.O.

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This story first appeared in the Oct. 9, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.