Women’s Health is Taboo in Corporate America – Let’s Change That
Today on the podcast we talk with entrepreneur, business builder, marketing strategist and femtech expert Rachel Braun Scherl about why women’s health is taboo in corporate America and how women can find their leadership voice.
Rachel became an entrepreneur because she wanted to be more in control of her financial future. She wanted to have the choice to work only with people she likes on content she likes. Today, Rachel still loves the thrill of running her own business. Since co-founding SPARK with her longtime business partner, Mary Wallace Jaensch, she has built an international client base that includes multiple divisions of Johnson & Johnson, Allergan, Pfizer, Merck, Bayer and Church & Dwight, among others. With her passion and commitment, Rachel has successfully launched, built and revitalized companies around the globe, based on the belief that sustainable, profitable growth starts with a sound strategy and is continually driven forward by connecting with customers, building partnerships, and creating revenue.
Rachel spends a great deal of time speaking publicly, loudly and passionately in an effort to drive the conversation around the business of female health. Today’s industry leaders need a language for the complexity of female sexuality, to destigmatize pressing health and aging concerns for women. With that common vocabulary, companies can grow businesses in historically taboo areas.
Rachel is the recipient of numerous business awards: SmartCEO’s BRAVA Awards honoring top female CEOs, Ttop 25 Entrepreneur in New Jersey, Best Fifty Women in Business by NJBiz as week as JWI’s “10 Women to Watch” in 2016. Rachel serves on the board of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation for Fuqua School of Business at Duke University and the boards of several female health and wellness companies. Rachel mentors students and entrepreneurs building female health companies. Rachel earned an MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business in 1992 after graduating Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Duke.
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Connect with Rachel
Check out Rachel’s best-selling book, Orgasmic Leadership: Profiting from the Coming Surge in Women’s Sexual Health and Wellness on her website!
Learn about the amazing entrepreneurs and Vagipreneurs creating products and services that women need and the creative ideas they are using to bring them to market. Discover what is happening in the female health education space, new business models and companies offering solutions AND making a huge social impact. And all of this is coming directly from the mouths and brains of the people on the front lines making things happen.
[0:01] Alex: Alright, here we go, okay, welcome to the entrepreneur podcast, I’m your host Alex Oliveira today, I really do have such an exciting guest different than our previous guests, Rachel Braun Scherl is known as the valley entrepreneur, so you can type that into google and you’ll see what comes up. She is the founder of Sparks Solutions for Growth, an author of the Orgasmic Leadership book, you can read about that, I read one chapter on amazon, very interesting and she also has a podcast, she’s a public speaker, I mean she speaks at SXSW (South by Southwest) and everywhere, so exciting to have you here, we’re gonna go in a bunch of different directions, but ultimately I think you have a lot of great things to say, that would be awesome for this audience Rachel, so welcome to the podcast, thanks so much for that generous introduction, I’m thrilled to be here.
[0:54] Rachel: Yeah, absolutely!
[1:00] Alex: I was looking through the list of clients you’ve worked with all these Fortune five hundred’s from chopstick to Coppertone, Centrum, I mean the list goes on and on and on. What an amazing career, so tell us about you early on because I know you weren’t the entrepreneur from day one, you talk about that in the book.
[1:17] Rachel: Yes, for sure, and in the book I also referenced, you know, I don’t think most people, you know when they’re little say oh I want to be in the vagina business, so I did not say that, so I have built my career around, you know creating and growing brands and businesses both for myself and for other people, I had the good fortune to be an employee at J & J. And that spawned decades of relationships and clients that are still people in my life today and I’ve had the opportunity to work with, you know, some real iconic brands.
My first job out of business school was on the Tylenol brand and I really thought I was in health care, but I had amazing training at J and J and I’ve been lucky enough as those people left and when other places they’ve taken me with them. So I have had the chance to do work for all kinds of companies and consumer wellness, OTC (over the counter) products, pharmaceuticals and devices and the focus is always the same. It’s on driving top line growth, how do you get people to buy the product or service you’re selling?
[2:37] Alex: It sounds like you’re the relationships that you build over time really are still sort of really not,not only helping, I’m sure them, but you as well talk to me about that as an entrepreneur Rachel. How important is that, to nurture those relationships in the in the professional world?
[2:45] Rachel: It’s incredibly important,I wish I had learned that lesson earlier in my career, you know, I put it on hyper speed probably in the,
in the last 15 or 20 years, but I’ve been working a long time, it is so important and everyone uses the word authentic, which you know,
I happen to not like either, but our relationship is supposed to be reciprocal. So it can’t just be you asking. It also has to be you offering people know when someone is is feeding them a line. And my dad had this great expression to great expressions he said always keep your nose clean meaning behave in a way that you can have respect for yourself. And other people will respect you and don’t burn any bridges on the way up because you might meet those same folks on the way down. So just a fundamental principle about treating people with respect, being direct, saying what you mean, meaning what you say, owning what you’ve done when you make a mistake, doing what you say you’re gonna do when you say you’re gonna do it.
So for our company, one of the things we we didn’t realize at the beginning was a strategic advantage was delivering products and services on time on strategy and on budget. I thought well isn’t that what you have to do to build a business? And it turns out not everybody does that you’re still able to build businesses with all kinds of different models. But really just being a person whose word means something I think is important and delivering good work and staying in touch with people. I am constantly I read hours a day in between client meetings anytime. I see an article of current client past client friend neighbor that I think would be of interest.
I send it. It’s a way to stay connected. It’s a way to constantly keep me engaged in conversation and it’s been a real benefit to me throughout my career.
[4:37] Alex: That’s great advice! Especially for all the young people out there who I think grew up at a different time than you and me where we didn’t have social media and all those things and tools help us today. But I think at at a certain point it’s a little bit of a disadvantage for the ones that like especially Gen Z. I know I hired them. I I trained them and you have to really explain to them the the face to face and certainly over the last almost three years with Covid, it’s been very tough! So I feel like they’re they’re at a disadvantage. So hearing from people like you who you’ve been in a leadership position for so long, it’s great for women who are young and and need to know about how important it is to build those relationships. But talk to me about your mission today because obviously like any entrepreneur in their journey, you’ve had successes. You’ve had failures and you were talking to me about that in the beginning how your success and failure was sort of one and the same.
[5:37] Rachel: So, full disclosure. So many many people in the space that I focus in right now is, you know, women’s sexual reproductive health. So I talk about it like the space between menstruation and menopause. So trying to get pregnant, trying not to get pregnant, sexually transmitted disease, incontinence, hot flashes, menstrual care, fertility, you know, The whole the whole gamut. And about 15 years ago I was presented with a company, an opportunity to buy a product with my business partner Mary to build a business with a product that improves arousal, desire and satisfaction for women. What’s amazing is as a marketer, as a business builder, you’re always looking for categories that are emotionally engaging. You know, it’s easier to entice people, it’s sometimes easier to communicate with people.
So selling sex or pleasure has a lot more emotional content than maybe selling, you know, new candlesticks. So when I got into it it was purely seeing the opportunity. It was almost a perfect storm at the time. There were very few products that had any clinical efficacy um either pharmaceutical or over the counter for arousal desire and satisfaction. There was really no vocabulary. If you searched online,
you saw two extremes, you saw porn and disease. So one extreme might not make some people comfortable. The other would have horrible things like, you know, my vagina is falling off. You know, what do I do now? And there was there was very little vocabulary and content for I won’t even say the middle anybody who wasn’t at either of those ends. And there’s nothing wrong with being at either of those ends, but it just doesn’t cover the whole landscape. So I got into it really because I saw a huge, huge opportunity from a business building and a growth perspective, what has come to be and what you’ll hear over and over again from the people I work with in space.
And folks I know is many, many people in this space come to it because they had a personal problem, they looked around for a solution,
they didn’t see anything acceptable. They said, well, it doesn’t exist. I’m gonna create it. And oh, by the way, there are millions of other people who have the same problem. I’m going to build a business. And once you’re in the space, even though I came in for capitalist reasons, because there’s so many idiosyncrasies and challenges that are specific to this space. You wound up, you wind up really becoming like a cheerleader and an advocate and you have to be full of passion because there are regulatory hindrances. There are legislative hindrances, There are blocks to what you can put on social media, There are all the same old. They we talk about it so much,
it’s boring that, you know, the discrepancy between the percentage of dollars that go to women trying to start businesses and the majority of people who start businesses in this space are women. So it’s a combination of it’s a huge, huge, huge, huge business opportunity and there are a lot of other benefits. One of the things you see when you get into women’s health is that it’s not a singular thing.
You know, historically, marketers would speak to people. This is a menstruating woman. Let me sell her menstrual products.
This is a woman who’s trying to get pregnant. Let me sell her a pregnancy test kit. But the conversation is much broader and much more holistic in the sense that any condition, whether it’s a disease or a stage of life, which is not a disease or an experience affects her in many different ways. It’s not just physical, it’s emotional, it’s it’s contextual, it’s psychological, it’s physiological. So there’s so much greater understanding with all these companies and voices in the space that we have to think about her in all her complexities and that just doesn’t mean her biological complexity.
[9:27] Alex: I think, you know, when you’re talking about that, it what I’ve seen in this space, just as an outsider, looking at some friends who own products in this space, doing e commerce is that they’re building communities, right? And you talked about authenticity just as a professional. But I think the companies that are doing it well selling products in that space and you’re the expert. You feel that they are truly authentic. They truly care about the women. They talk to them like a human being, the images of in the marketing and the branding,
our aren’t also just something that you would see out of a Victoria’s Secrets catalog or something like that, right? It’s like more real and,
and I think it it just, it makes it where I think maybe women are more comfortable to to embrace a new product like that, right?
[10:15] Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the way people, not just women because they’re not the only ones who buy these products,
but I think people in general have the ability to really communicate who they are and what they are. Now I understand that just as likely you can make up this whole image and make your life Instagram worthy. But for the businesses who truly are authentic and the and the and the leaders who are the business follows. If they have found a problem that other people need solved and they have a better mousetrap and they’re communicating about it in a way that’s accessible. That’s not scary. That’s not uncomfortable. That creates a conversation.
And my focus in this space has always been around creating that conversation because before you have a conversation and vocabulary,
there’s no way to think about it. Talk about it or search for solutions.
An example, a woman who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with started a company because when she was 21, her name is Polly Rodriguez and the company is Unbound, she was diagnosed with a very serious cancer, the result of which was menopause and infertility. Now her doctor had prepared her for the part about infertility in the sense that she could take um steps in advance but to be 21 and thrown into menopause with no peers with no vocabulary was really unpleasant and lonely. So she went into a store to try to see what she could learn, you know, a traditional if you will sex shop.
And in that moment she came up with this idea, she just had this vision that what she wanted to create. It was something that was 1000 degrees different from this experience that wasn’t dark and spooky and where you felt like you were making a mistake and there was no lighting and she wanted to have a conversation that was funny that was human that was accessible, that was light, even still talking about important stuff, but a conversation that she could have related to and when she saw that that didn’t exist, she created it. So she’s a really good example. She walks the talk, she wants to offer solutions in a way that’s entirely different than how they were offered to her.
[12:39] Alex: That makes sense. That’s a great example right there. You know, in terms of being innovative and the trends that you see, I I noticed you had a tweet today and I’m sure it’s your team who’s doing it. So I won’t hold you to it. But it was a tweet about some of the apps that are out there, a couple of the names were Coral and Kindu. These are like intimacy apps. Um, there’s so much in the technology field that is trying to solve some of these, these problems. Is there anything that jumps out at you that you think is like really, you know, very innovative in the field.
[13:15] Rachel: There’s so many things and this could, I could speak about this for days. But one of the areas that I’m really, really excited by is all the work in menopause that has been happening for a long time and now just by sheer volume, the number of voices and the number of companies we’re seeing, these companies get funded and even more importantly we’re seeing companies start to offer benefits. So I’m sure you remember back in the day when apple and Google and Facebook started offering egg freezing and fertility benefits as a way to keep attract and retain the best and the brightest and not losing a whole group of people because the family planning piece was just difficult with the demands of those kinds of jobs. And they have proven to be successful in terms of keeping and attracting talent, not 100%.
Um, and giving people options and making those places more desirable to work. So now what we’re seeing little by little and more in the UK than here is that I think of the average woman in menopause, she’s probably been working 20 years or 25. She’s at the top of her game. She has more wisdom than she’s ever had before and she has maturity. Why wouldn’t you want to keep her when you’ve probably invested a lot of money in helping her get to the point, That she is. And so you’re seeing companies offering menopause benefits,
which is a complex idea. But people measure and value what people value what you can measure. So if I start as a company to say,
I want to make sure that I’m retaining women 45 plus and here are some of the things I’m gonna do to do that.
Being able to look six months a year later and saying, did these accomplish the goal? So the idea that this is even part of the conversation, Let’s keep people who are valuable at different stages is so exciting to me. And there are lots of companies, technology companies, care companies that are really focused on how do we make this journey easier, fill in the blank pregnancy, fertility infertility. How do we make this journey easier? That not only is a better experience for the person who’s going through it, but oh, by the way, is less disruptive to his or her financial life, their employment, their emotional life and their family and with the real numbers, we were seeing companies report things that are report statistics that are working with some of these condition management or lifecycle management companies where you’re reducing absenteeism, you’re reducing turnover, you’re reducing miss days.
These are things that aren’t just nice to do. They have huge economic benefits for the companies that are doing it right. So for me that idea that it reflects an understanding, as I said earlier that certainly women and I wouldn’t say, I would say the same for men are not only one thing. You’re potentially an economic engine, you are potentially a mother, you’re potentially an aunt, you’re potentially a volunteer, a doctor or physician. You’re someone with special needs children. You’re a lot of different things and there has to be an understanding and products and cultures that have an awareness of that and not just lip service.
[16:30] Alex: I love it! I mean inclusivity, I think in general we’re seeing a lot of companies especially Fortune 500’s who are adopting that and obviously it always comes from the leadership down.
[16:43] Rachel: And it has to be real. It’s not just a policy or a program or one Zoom webinar, you know, people believe what they can see if you’re about inclusivity. That means there are people in these communities. However you define it whether it’s gender or color or nationality or age that there are people across every spectrum that are represented and it’s not just a discussion and I’m not saying this stuff happens overnight and there are plenty of people who spend their entire days studying inclusion and diversity but going back to what you asked me earlier employees know when it’s just lip service and they also know when there’s a true effort even if it’s not successful immediately.
[17:26] Alex: I think that the work from home movement remote work mostly caused because of Covid and clearly we’re in a moment where things are changing and for many companies it will be forever obviously for the employees as well. So what do you think about that Rachel? Do you think that being that so many companies now are going to offer hybrid or 100% remote, does that make it better for women then.
[17:50] Rachel: It has the potential to because if you think about what is involved in getting to another place other than where your children are and the pandemic exacerbated it. I had never thought of school as a big part of our child care system. So it wasn’t just the pandemic, it was that the kids were home because anyone who has kids and you have four, you know, you can work from home if there are four kids running around. I don’t care how good your concentration is, it is not the same. So I do think it matters. I think people are getting time back that they spend commuting or they spend traveling. You know you draw you fly to California, you know, for a cup of coffee now I think we’re being more thorough and how we evaluate and everybody isn’t just jumping on a plane whose lives involved that, that being said there’s been a number of studies that have come out recently that and, and some of which I’ve experienced myself the days just got longer. You travel less, you know.
But it says the statistics say that women are doing still the lion’s share of whatever is needed at home, which isn’t a criticism necessarily. It could be a reality. It could be a social contract that partners make. But working from home without the other support won’t work because your kids get sick, you get sick, Things happen out of your control. So it’s not just by virtue of working at home or being hybrid, that your life is dramatically perfect. It has the potential to get better, but it clearly requires people to have child care and health care that they can afford and manage. So, you know, hats off to I I work with some clients who, 1 woman in particular was home working from home, her husband was working from home and they have five year old and two year old twins. You know, Houdini couldn’t have done magic to figure out how you get a whole day of work in when you have a five year old and two year old twins, even if they’re the best behaved children. You know, in the galaxy.
I do think it has become a decision making criteria for people picking jobs. There are people who just won’t do a job other than from where they live. And there are people who absolutely require a hybrid because of the personal interaction, what I keep hearing and when I’ve been experiencing is it makes the in person almost exciting. You know, it’s become the exception where being in front of a zoom camera is the rule. So I think there will be lots of variations, but they’re all here to stay, there will be businesses that have and will continue to require five days a week in the office, but if nothing else, the pandemic demonstrated that people can be productive.
I’m not saying every person, I’m not saying every company and it depends what your function is, but the world was shut down and collapsing, but business still marched on even without people in the office.
[21:00] Alex: I did hear about that report to and I said to my wife, you know, look, don’t worry, I’m not gonna pile on more work on top of you. Although we’ve worked from home together for more than 10 years, but it’s like you said Rachel, it doesn’t get any easier, you know, working in the same place as your kids for many years, we had an office where we could get a way to and from again, it’s never gonna be perfect so far away at the office, then you feel like you’re missing out at home and vice versa. So everybody has their challenges, but I definitely can attest to. It’s very hard to to sometimes get things done whether it’s myself or my wife and you’re hearing the kids, they need this, they need that, and of course we’re at summertime where it seems like it would be easier, but it’s actually even more challenging right?
[21:47] Rachel: In certain ways because you have to find if there’s not a set schedule with school, you know there you have to figure out other things to do. One benefit of all the zoom zooming that I happen to really like, and it reminded me when you mentioned your kids is I love when a baby is crying in the background or a dog jumps in, I just think it makes everybody more human humanizes and I always had babies, I would never have had it, maybe this is my mistake and maybe people would have been responsive, I would never have had a baby on my lap because it just wasn’t okay and it didn’t look professional to me and in the environments that I worked in, but now it’s just part of being a human, it’s part of working from home, it’s part of having to integrate your personal and professional life, you know, that’s the good part, the bad part I think is that and maybe you’ve experienced this Alex is it’s hard to draw a line between personal and professional, it’s not like one chapter closes, you know, you used to leave the office when you couldn’t be reached 24/7 and there would be some separation from your professional life and your home life. That separation at least in my experience has disappeared, there’s no separation.
[23:04] Alex: I’m with you, I can attest to that there is no separation, so you’re right, it does. So as I was mentioning to before we do RV and whatnot and I find that for me getting out there in the middle of the woods and just connecting to nature is about the only way where I can separate the two or when we we live here in Florida and go to the beach and things like that. So I always try to tell people, you know, entrepreneurs who are, who have kids grown or little like listen the way you get disconnected a little bit and just kind of breathe the air is, you gotta get away from all the like electronics, you know, because like you’re saying whether you’re at the office at home, if a client of mine calls me, doesn’t matter what time it is or what day I’m going to connect to that zoom and get in front of it and and you’re right, it kind of muddies the water. So let let me shift gears here with you, I want to talk about sort of your own professional experience, of course mentorship is very big, I think it’s a big deal, not only for women, but for young men as well. I’m sure you’ve mentored many and you’ve been mentored as well throughout your career, who would you say is your biggest hero and why?
[24:18] Rachel: this is easy. So the person I’ve been asked this question a number of times, my personal hero was my dad and I say was because he um passed away and he was my mentor And hero for a lot of reasons. He was 100% present. You always had his attention, which if you think about now how difficult it is to get someone’s devoted attention. He was so ethical and so trustworthy and so reliable and funny and honest and dedicated and hardworking and he really modeled so much of what I feel is important for me and what I hope I’ve been able to translate to my kids. I mean he, he lived full on, he, he was there and you know, I’ve told this story before, but our favorite movie we watched all these sports movies to watch was Roller Ball and this was the classic 1976 violent roller derby where grown men are on motorcycles with spikes and gloves with spikes and you play to the death. So not exactly, you know, a nice game to play outside on the summer day and before each match, the referee would restate the rules, no time outs, no substitutions. And it just became something my dad said and something we live, not that he expected us to live to the death, but that you go in whatever situation you’re in, you work as hard as you can, as long as you can, as efficiently as you can, as productively as you can as honestly as you can. And then you, when you’re tired, you come back and do it again. And he just modeled that sort of no time out, no substitution as a human being, not just as a professional but as a dad and as a friend and as an uncle and as a husband and that was what was so inspiring and you know, he’s gone 6.5 years. I still mentioned his name and I tear up every time. I quote something he says at least once a day, you know, so many of his, you know, our kids called him granpy So many of the granpyisms are things that we use every day. So that one’s easy and lots of people say that.
I really, really mean that the professional person for me is Oprah and people often always say, well that’s a giveaway to me. It’s not just because she’s successful,obviously it’s exceptional. What she’s accomplished and how many industries she’s transformed. Um what’s also fascinating is where she started, you know, if you have looked at her childhood, which she’s talked about so much,you would not have predicted a straight line from even a jagged line from where she started to where she is. So that’s one piece. The second is she is literally masterful at balancing these two things, which I consider content and context. So what I mean by that is she is just as comfortable sailing around the world on a yacht with other billionaires as she is having a conversation with someone who experienced traumatic childhood experiences and is revealing into her and the idea that that same person can also start a school and can start a station and could revive book reading and could create a magazine because she understands what version and what variations to bring into play in different situations to me is astounding. Yes, she’s smart and yes, she’s driven and yes, she’s made a lot of good choices, but all of those don’t explain how many spheres she’s been able to be successful in.
[28:00] Alex: Those are great ones. And I love of course love Oprah too. And but the stories of your dad, that that that always gets me the parents, the mom or the dad and I like you. I hope to do the same for my kids. Hope I’m doing the same. And when you were talking about the ISMs of your dad, I was just thinking about my son, my my 12 year old when we go out in the driveway and we play Rachel. He knows that at the end when I shoot my last basket, I always want to make it kind of gets back to what you’re saying with your dad about the time out. That’s right. And it’s funny because I didn’t impose it on him. Right. I try to make sure I’m not, I want them to be themselves, right. I think it’s a, it’s a hard balance for all parents out there. So you give them the room to grow. And recently, as recent as maybe like 3-4 months ago he started to do that same thing where before he leaves the driveway even if I’m not there, he’s shooting that last basket to make sure that he can make it right. It’s just a mental thing. It’s a mindset and, and because I’ve told him what it means to me, I’m not saying anybody should do it. It’s just for me that’s how I want to end every game on the court. I gotta make the last basket. So it’s so cool when um, obviously on both ends where, where there are things that I do that. I think back to my mom and dad as well, just like you and then you pass on and so it’s so good to have a hero that is the parent there.
So yeah, definitely. Well listen, it’s been such a great half hour here with you today and I’m, we’re gonna add the links, all your website and your book and your podcast, which I listened to a couple of episodes. You have some incredible women on that podcast, you and your co host as well. And men as well. I listened to the last three which were women. But yes, no, I will definitely put the, put that in the show notes. But anything you want to leave us with here today, Rachel?
[29:57] Rachel: Well, there’s so much we wound up going in quite a different direction, but you know, I would say, I’ll tell you, I’ve heard people say to students and I have the chance to speak to a lot of students. If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. I love what I do and I just think that’s setting an an unrealistic bar. I think it’s important to love what you do, which is what I was going to share and I do love what I do, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have bad days and there doesn’t mean you don’t have things that you fail at that you thought you could succeed, but it’s really a long game. And you know, I I’d like to say that, you know, a career looks linear in retrospect, but I can assure you for lots of people, I know you’re just doing the best you can making the best decision at at each stage. And if there’s one thing that my dad always said to me, it was don’t make decisions that take away other options and you know, when I was growing up, there were terrible instances of drunk driving all the time. We’ve now educated people out of that and we have Uber and he would use that as an example, you do that once and you’ve made a decision that could have irrevocably changed your life and somebody else’s. So this idea that your decisions are important but be really mindful of the ones that could have long lasting negative and positive consequences and and make sure you think about that.
[31:33] Alex: Especially today with for young people with social media and they’re being watched every, every minute of the day or they themselves are posting it out there so it makes it easy to make mistakes that you can’t take back, right?
[31:44} Rachel: And I would also say have people in your life whether they’re family or friends who energize you, who understand you, who might judge you because I think it’s hard to be 100% non judgmental, but you need to have a safety net or a soft place to land. Otherwise the journey is just too hard and way too lonely,
[32:02] Alex: Well, inspirational words and just overall great advice and we enjoyed the stories that you shared with us, Rachel, thank you so much for being here with us today.
[32:12] Rachel: Thanks so much. We barely touched sexual health, but maybe another time, another time.
Alex: It was great to talk to you!