Beauty is one of the few industries with majority female representation. In the UK alone, 76% of hair and beauty businesses are owned by women, but across all industries, 81% are less likely to feel confident about accessing start-up funds. As cited in the Female Funding Futures report, globally women only receive 2.3% of funding, and 46% of women trying to raise capital in the US experience a gender bias, while investments in female-founded companies are less than half the average of those invested in their male counterparts.
This struggle takes on even more meaning in the femtech and women’s health realm, partially due to the fact that online censorship makes it very difficult to market these products, and even our own coverage on the subject was taken down in online spaces. With Meta making updates to its sexual health policy there is hope on the horizon, but what does the entrepreneurial journey of fundraising, advertising, and dismantling stereotypes look like behind the scenes?
BeautyMatter spoke to five female entrepreneurs to get their side of the story.
Sindhya Valloppillil, founder and CEO of Skin Dossier, founding venture partner (NY chapter), NextGen Venture Partners
The Investment Hurdle
“A lot of VC firms and family offices have vice clauses to avoid investing in certain sectors. It has been harder for feminine pleasure companies for sure. While femtech can have a loud voice and claim the DE&I point and the lack of equality in health, that's harder for pleasure companies. You can try the DE&I angle, but you might not change the mind of conservative outlets like LinkedIn, and VC funds that don't want to fund things like sex and porn and Juul.
"I think there's a little bit of an effort to change the industry right now and make it more normalized, and that is why they're trying to group vibrators into health and wellness. It’s not health unless you group it with self-care, but that's what people are doing to make it more mainstream. They have extended the definition of a vibrator to be self-care instead of self-pleasure. Historically, health was technically medical, and now that's getting more and more blurred and wellness is part of health. That’s the solution that companies are trying, and it’s working. Now you can find all these products at Sephora and Bloomingdale's because of the blurring of the category into the wellness category. That is the direct result of many of these brands and founders trying to normalize self-pleasure.”
Female Employee Rights
“Gaining female rights takes effort and funding to fix things properly. Most workplaces still don't have breastfeeding rooms. Most workplaces don't have daycare. Some tech companies are subsidizing one or two treatments of IVF, and female employees could get time off for pregnancy, but they don't get time off for miscarriages. Now, some companies are beginning to offer that. They're extending time off for adoption and foster care, but it's definitely not mainstream.”
Angeli Gianchandani, founder, Brand Marketing and Strategic Partnerships, Mobility Girl LLC
The Urgency of Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes
“This censorship is due to the lack of diversity in the tech and advertising industries. The lack of women who are in leadership roles. That lack of diversity is contributing to the narrow range of portrayals in what is expected, and when women are underrepresented, these companies are unable to determine that they have biases.
"These up-and-coming female entrepreneurs are having problems getting funding, and when we censor and suppress these advertisements, it affects their revenue stream. It's a vicious cycle. That's why we need to raise awareness on how damaging the impacts of gender stereotypes are. It's damaging for their business longevity, but it's even more detrimental to the health and wellness of men and women. Brands and advertising need to be able to make a positive impact in terms of promoting gender equality.
"When women are part of the conversation or have a seat at the table, we all benefit. When they are in executive positions, there's more innovation, greater opportunities, and we have a greater sustainable economic path.”
Rebranding Female Wellness
“This comes down to the cultural norms and acceptance. Talking about female wellness has been taboo. It's finally being normalized because of this vision of rebranding. We rewired people to say self-wellness is important. There needs to be a big advertising campaign that breaks the stigma on these types of products particularly. But when it comes to this censorship, it's not difficult to fix, it's a matter of somebody at these companies deciding that they're going to fix it. Perhaps they need to have somebody who's a woman's health policy advocate within their group to steer the company on the right path to change.”
Candace McDonald, Strategic Advisor, BlackOpal Agency
Need for a Female-Focused Lens
“One of the biggest parts [in the knowledge gap] is that women weren't in clinical trials until post-1993, so a lot of the treatments out there are based on men and around men. That's one piece that for the consumer is a bit shocking. When women really start to understand that, it empowers them on their own health journey.
"Now, with women being the predominant sex globally and having 80% of the spending power, we’re in the era where this evolution has to happen. We're at a place where women are starting to say enough is enough and the healthcare system has to change. Ten years ago, it was very different. Part of it's timing, which I think is fantastic for so many companies because they're able to be a part of, and get their products to, a market that so many individuals need.”
Key to the Flourishing of Female-Bodied Health
“Part of it is obvious, but it's not easy, which is to destigmatize the word vagina. Collectively, many companies in femtech are coming together to work at a larger level to change that narrative, that can impact each company at an individual level.
"We can look towards the UK because employers there have started to put in menopause policies. They also have started to put menstrual products in all the schools. In the US in the next year or two, if not four, we'll start to see some policy changes and key initiatives that are critical to women's health and their overall well-being.
"One of the social aspects that interests me personally is the [pink] tax, the fact that women continue to pay on products that aren't covered by WIC, while other items like sodas and candy and other prescription drugs are. When we're able to leverage what some of these great organizations are doing in a collaborative way, we can change that legislation in those other states. That is so important because four out of five girls have said that they've missed class because of their periods. When they're missing classes, they're not learning, and that's a compounding effect that later on impacts them financially in life. That is something that we’ll see resolved in the next couple years for sure.”
Naseem Sayani, co-founder and Managing Director, Emmeline Ventures
“In my angel investing to date, I have four or five different femtech companies that are built with feminine health in mind. They're all hitting the same problems. They create an ad unit, it speaks to something quite specific, and it gets pulled down because it's considered inappropriate. They've all had to otherwise change the images or the language that they're using to make sure the ad unit doesn't get censored. That is in contrast to a lot of other content that is otherwise more inflammatory and more controversial that doesn't get pulled down.
"The feminine health space because we haven't been able to openly talk about it, that that has just permeated into ad levels. That’s the change that we all want to see happen as we're getting much more aware and open about how we talk about our health—not just the basic stuff but the much more bespoke things, that the ad models need to flex so that is not considered inappropriate. That change hasn't happened, it's not moving fast enough.”
Challenges with Pitching Investors
“I've had more than one female founder tell me that they have had male investors back away, especially if they use the word 'vagina' a lot in their presentation or pitch deck. But then they get into a room with female investors and it's no big deal because you don't have to explain things the same way, and so they can convert those dollars faster. A lot of the founders spend more time cycling through early conversations that can often feel really hard, and then they finally, hopefully, get to a room of female investors and the conversations are entirely different, because you're not teaching and then talking about solution, you can just get to the solution.”
Male Domination of the C-Suite Feeding into Femtech and Sexual Wellness Challenge
“It absolutely does. At least half the time, it's quite unintentional, they didn't consider it or the question didn't come up—it’s just a matter of societal constructs. The awareness has to go up, the conversations have to change, the adversity has to shift, and then you start to have those conversations more naturally, but it’s an echo chamber.”
The Power of Community Building in the Face of Censorship
“What ends up happening is the female founders all know each other, so they're all sharing information because they’re co-marketing across their innovations off the platforms. They are cross-selling each other's products and reinforcing each other's marketing. If you start to see momentum behind advertising, you start to get a lot of groundswell around products, then you're going to be able to talk to investors and say, ‘I’ve got a thousand women knocking on my door who want this product. It doesn't matter if I marketed to them or not, I’ve built the community.’ They're having to do it without the benefit of the channels that are built to build community because of censorship, but they're finding other ways to get it done.”
A Need for Unified Coordination
“Part of the change is happening in the lending space—you're seeing more women in VCs making decisions to fund companies that maybe would have been overlooked before. There is more activity happening in the marketing space to actually expand the stories we tell and expand the diversity of stories. It's the coordination across these things that we aren't fully seeing, so even if a big CPG wants to market something and has the dollars to do it, the VCs are not talking to the CPGs. The VCs are not talking to the platforms. We're all solving these things in slightly different ways, but not necessarily coordinated across this. I don't know if that would happen, but at some point, one of these buckets of people will have to put a stake in the ground and say, 'This is how the future has to work and let's all get there.' Then everyone will run towards it, because it's going to be the right answer.”
Importance of Increasing Femtech Funding
“A lot of money has gone into the femtech space, but it’s still a drop in the bucket. When you take all of these investment dollars, broadly, only 2.1% of that is actually going to female founders, and some percent of that is going to femtech. There's a lot of energy behind it, but it's still tiny. Until we are funding more femtech businesses and it's closer to 10-20%, we're not going to be in a place where we can say that there's been enough investment to actually shift the needle on how advertising gets managed. We're just at the tip of the iceberg on making this better. But if we don't make it better, a lot of companies won't grow up the way they could, because they don't have the room to advertise the way the other 98% of the companies funded by VCs are able to advertise.
"It's still only 2%. That number has to get bigger, but that number can't get bigger unless we have more people funding companies and those companies can actually grow. But they cannot scale unless they can advertise, so we have to solve for the advertising problems so that these companies can scale and more money can go into the sector.”
Incorporating the Trans and Nonbinary Experience
“It is happening in some places. There's a handful of founders who are using words like 'birthing people,' 'people with vaginas,' 'people with uteruses,' or something where you aren't characterizing the gender but the physical attributes. That's going to help address some of this. Instead of saying femtech, because it gets characterized as a niche, let’s call it healthcare for the other half of the population that we haven't spoken about before. Some of that language is starting to happen already, so that we don't end up inadvertently putting ourselves into a corner that we never meant to be in.”
Angie Tebbe, CEO and co-founder, Rae Wellness
Data Gaps for Investment Pitches
“Our journey of raising the funds and starting a company in the marketplace, the entire female sexual health category revolves around what you can actually pull data for. What's the size of the prize? What's the total addressable market, all of that? What female sexual health revolves around right now is birth control, pregnancy tests, yeast infections, and the process of making children, so that unto itself doesn't give you very much data.
"Then, you think about the male sexual health side of it. You can understand very quickly how Viagra is selling. It's been government subsidized for almost 20 years. There's been zero conversations on the female side around desire. It is functional. Certainly nothing that's government subsidized. A lot of it was relying on instincts and other cues other than market data to start.
"Although we were holistic in our approach, we are a company that wants to take stigmatized topics and destigmatize them via conversation, it was really hard to convince investors. First, because the whitespace didn't exist and the data wasn't available. At the end of the day, we had no idea that In The Mood, which is our female libido product, would be one of our best sellers. As we started to fundraise, most investors understood the sleep and digestion aspects but asked why we were starting to talk about sex. I articulated that we believe in wellness from the inside out. The female needs are both mind and body. It's about stress, energy levels, and blood flow, all together in this territory, that we need to address. They’d be like, 'I don't think my wife or daughter needs that.'"
Female Spending Power
“As an investor, they should know that over 80% of consumer spending is directed by women. At the end of the day, it would make sense to invest in categories surrounding and supporting women as the nucleus of society. Everybody wants to relate to what they invest in, and when I did have conversations with women, they completely understand this thought process and product and how they're going about it. We'll talk more about the traction right away.”
“We are being censored as a company because we have this [one] product. For example, when we advertise our sleep products, because we have this other sexual wellness product on our website, they censor that product because the landing page includes all of our products. We have been flagged as a sex company, which we are not, because the technology that scrapes your entire website.
"[On social platforms] your ad gets rejected, you try to tweak it this way, and it gets rejected again. Then you try to do a different photo and you finally get one that passes through and the next advertisement is rejected and you don’t know why. It's this constant workload and support that the team needs to navigate through because it's important that we continue to push. It would have been easy to say it’s too hard, let's just move on. But for us, it is one of the categories that is so important to talk about because when we do, we create an awesome conversation.
"Every day we're pushing forward to find workarounds, but it is impacting the entire flywheel of the business. Another example is Google which does not allow us—as a company, not just on our In The Mood sexual wellness product—to retarget, period. Retargeting is one of the most efficient ways a company can acquire consumers. We can’t do that. We're constantly trying to remediate and figure out new ways in. The good news for us is Target and Amazon carry this product, and they can retarget. But we as a brand that carries these products have been censored.”
Pillars for Change
“I wish I could solve this for the world and all the companies that are trying to have the [female sexual wellness] conversation, but I don’t think there's a silver-bullet answer. The pillars [for change] are products, content, conversation, partnerships, and people coming together. It's research, there’s a whole host of things that should come together on a number of aspects of women's well-being, this included. If you look at all of the clinicals that have been done, it’s all on mice and men. So even that lack of research, for women runs deep.
"I'm not creating this company for me or for investors. We are creating this for our consumers. We’re continuing to listen and evolve, support, and take a multidimensional approach to women's well-being. We have such a tremendous responsibility in bringing younger, more diverse consumers into this category, to be inclusive in that conversation.”
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