Helping Women from Menstruation to Menopause: A Conversation with Vagipreneur Rachel Braun Scherl
When you plug the word “entrepreneur” into Google you get 791 million results. Rachel Braun Scherl has carved out a unique and gutsy category within this mammoth realm. She calls herself a “vagipreneur™ —an entrepreneur focused on the business of female sexual health and wellness.
By Sue Tomchin
Being a vagipreneur is definitely not for the faint of heart. Society is accustomed to hearing frequent ads about male sexual dysfunction, yet Scherl and others in this space often encounter uncomfortable silences, skepticism, off-color quips and even hostility when they pitch investors and the media about products addressing women’s sexual concerns, difficulties and disorders. Yet, as Scherl demonstrates in her bestselling book: Orgasmic Leadership: Profiting from the Coming Surge in Women’s Sexual Health and Wellness, there are dozens of hardy and dedicated vagipreneurs who are busy building companies in an industry that Technavio predicts will be worth $32 billion this year.
Scherl is the Managing Partner and Co-Founder (1998) of SPARK Solutions for Growth, a consulting firm advising businesses on strategic growth and partnerships, product development and marketing. She entered the world of vagipreneurship in 2008, when she and her business partner collaborated to create Semprae Laboratories, a company that developed and marketed sexual health and wellness products for women. Semprae attracted significant media attention and industry interest, and was sold to Innovus Pharmaceuticals in 2013.
Rachel’s current work includes growth strategy, operational support and business development for companies in all aspects of women’s health, including birth control, menstruation, disease prevention, fertility, pregnancy and arousal. A frequent speaker on leadership and entrepreneurship, Rachel writes and blogs frequently about issues on women’s minds—the recent Gilette commercial about sexual harassment; the halftime hypocrisy at the Super Bowl, and “Are We There Yet,” an assessment of #MeToo, how far we’ve come and the work that remains to be done.
A JWI Woman to Watch in 2016, she spoke on March 14, 2019, to the JWI Young Women’s Leadership Network in New York. We spoke to her recently about her book and the challenges and rewards of working in the field of women’s sexual health.
Why did you decide to write Orgasmic Leadership?
I have always worked in women’s health and focused on businesses that affect women. When I got specifically into female sexual health, however, I found myself experiencing all kinds of things that I had never seen before, in terms of reactions to requests for fund raising to the ability to have access to media channels. It struck me that [learning about] my experience as well as that of many other people in the space might be helpful to others who are trying to grow businesses especially when you have an uphill climb for one reason or another. Generally, building businesses is very hard, but it’s even harder when you must contend with all kinds of societal pressure. My objective is to talk about people who are figuring out how to lead and make things happen regardless of the challenge.
How do you define “vagipreneur”?
A journalist gave us that title and we asked her if we could keep it. Now I’ve trademarked it. A vagipreneur is really an entrepreneur focused on the business of female health. That could be sexual health, reproductive health or wellness, anywhere on the spectrum of “menstruation through menopause.”
When you describe yourself as a vagipreneur are surprised or shocked? Or has that diminished?
[This attitude] has diminished, but hasn’t disappeared. When I was looking to do some media for my book, I was told by a number of folks, “We’ll talk about the book, if you change the name.” This was in the last year. Are we making progress? Absolutely. There are more businesses, more financing, more people focused on investing in this space, more organizations supporting people building businesses in this space.
That being said, I would say, thirty percent of the time, or maybe more, it still makes people really uncomfortable. They hear the word vagipreneur and they have a visceral negative reaction. They hear female sexual health and say this isn’t for me. It’s happening less. The people who are having the opposite reaction are becoming greater in number and more powerful.
What motivates the women who are building businesses in the realm of women’s sexual health?
A lot of it is driven by personal experience. They have a physical problem of some sort and they look around at the available solutions and say, “That’s not good enough.” Then they start looking for their own solutions.
I profile a woman in my book by the name of Polly Rodriguez. She started a company called Unbound. She is an amazing, dynamic entrepreneur in her early 30s. When she was 20 she was diagnosed with Stage IIIC colorectal cancer. Treatment rendered her infertile and sent her into premature menopause. Her doctors prepared her for the infertility part but they didn’t prepare her for the symptoms of menopause and what that would do to her sexual drive. The creation of her company was the result of her own search for solutions, for what would work for her and make her feel good.
Another woman I profile is Suhani Jalota. She grew up in relative comfort in India. She was really concerned and interested in how to make the lives better of the women who live in the slums of Mumbai. She was aware that many women and girls in developing countries miss three days to a week a month of school or work because they don’t have access to the appropriate sanitary protection. How do I provide a solution, she asked. Women in the slums of Mumbai don’t have access, so she couldn’t just import products made elsewhere. So she essentially created a company, the Myna Mahila Foundation, that helps women make sanitary protection products, which means they have solutions, and then she teaches them how to sell them. So, in addition to having a solution that hopefully prevents them from having to miss work, they now have an economic engine to change the trajectory of their lives. That’s an enormous vision and it grew out of Suhani’s experience and her desire to do something meaningful and important.
Suhani was named a Glamour college woman of the year in 2016. At the time, Meghan Markle, who was not yet a duchess and was very interested in social causes, took a particular interest and went to visit Suhani. Later, at the time of the royal wedding, Meghan and Prince Harry announced that they wanted people to donate to seven organizations rather than buying wedding gifts. Suhani’s organization was one of them. She was invited to the Royal Wedding and went!
Is being passionate about your products and the problem they are solving enough to make a business successful?
Everybody in this field has a passion, a true concern for women and for the betterment of their situation. I think passion is required because it’s a very difficult space and an uphill battle. You need to stay the course until your business gets to where you need it to be. But, in addition to having passion, you still have to run a business. You have to make money. You have to make products with appropriate margins. You have to communicate with a board of directors. There are many things you have to do. I think it’s easier when you care deeply about what you are working on. Most, if not all, of the people that I come in contact with in this space feel passionate. They have a drive to make their business successful. Some of that drive is personal passion but a lot of it is business passion.
When you talk to aspiring entrepreneurs, what advice do you give them about identifying potential products?
To start with, you need to have a problem that someone will pay to have a solution to—or at least a better solution to. You can have all kinds of great ideas, but if you can’t demonstrate that someone is willing to pay for the privilege of buying or using your product or service, then it’s not a business. You need validation that your product is of value to someone.
It’s a hard field to be in, what do you do to gain strength and fortitude to keep going, despite the inevitable setbacks?
Every day there is something amazing. Every day I meet a fascinating person. Every day I hear of an interesting idea. Every day I pick up the phone and hear about someone who is doing important work in the business or social space of female health. It’s the passion and perseverance of the people I meet in this space. It’s also getting to see the benefit to people when they‘re using and buying these products.
When I was running my first company in this space, we all took turns answering the phone for customer service. One day I picked up the phone and this woman shouted excitedly: “This stuff really works; Thank you, God.” Or the phone would ring and they’d say: “You saved my marriage.” Or, “I haven’t had an orgasm in 22 years.” It’s those kinds of things that inspires me to keep going, because what I’m doing makes a difference.
There’s a lot of talk today about women’s growing economic power. Is this helping women in your field to raise the necessary investment funds?
Yes, over the past couple of years there are a number of investors or investment vehicles focused on financing businesses that are started by women or minorities. There are many more angel investors, angel groups, and funds focused on supporting women’s businesses. But I still think there is still so much work to do in terms of women really harnessing their economic power. Just look at the amount of wealth that will be concentrated in women’s hands in the next 15 years and the fact that 85 percent of the purchase decisions for a family are made by a woman. We are absolutely moving in the right direction, but like with everything else, there is still a fairly long way to go.
In your book, you write about transformative leadership. How would you define it?
To me, it’s people who are defying odds and getting something to market that seems impossible. Transformative leadership is getting people to listen, whether that means listen so they buy, listen so they invest, or listen so they hear. It’s getting people to pay attention so that an entire new range of solutions is available.
There are extraordinary women in this space. Compared to any other category I’ve worked in, there is such an enormous desire to be supportive, and I don’t mean that women are sitting around, holding hands and singing “Kumbaya,” but absolutely women are helping women, not just in this space but in a lot of other spaces.