Rachel Braun Scherl, Co-Founder, Managing Partner & Chief Vagipreneur® at SPARK Solutions for Growth
Can you introduce yourself and tell me a bit about your current role?
My name is Rachel Braun Scherl, I have spent my career building brands and businesses, both for myself and other people. After graduating from Stanford Business School, I started my career at Johnson & Johnson. I mentioned this as that experience, skills and and relationships and skills are fundamental to what I’ve done since; including selling, consulting and building relationships.
Over the course of my career, I have focused on driving top line revenue growth; focused on insights, better understanding of customers, new products, innovation, new geographies, among others to drive transactions. Today I focus those skills primarily on sexual and reproductive health as Co-Founder, Managing Partner and Chief Vagipreneur® of SPARK Solutions for Growth.
SPARK, my marketing strategy and business building consulting firm has been solving business problems for several decades, during which I have the opportunity to have completed hundreds of projects for leading companies including 200 projects for Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Merck, Bayer, Church & Dwight, and Allergan focused on health issues that affect women from “the tops of their heads to the tips of their toes.”
In 2008, a venture capitalist approached me with a business plan for a product that was a patented blend of botanicals and extracts that is clinically proven to increase desire, arousal and sexual satisfaction. Along with my long-time business partner, we bought the asset, raised venture capital, and built a company around women’s desire, arousal and satisfaction.
In my role as President and Co-founder of my first sexual and reproductive health business, we had identified a real business challenge which was that no one would take our money for ads. We approached 100 outlets, cable, network, digital, radio – and 95 of them said no. So, we built a strategy around if they won’t let us buy media, we’re going to own it. We really got ourselves on the map in the way that many companies subsequent to us have done with the strategy I call “fighting City Hall”.
Disparities between men and women’s advertising
We started with the disparity between men and women’s advertising. I’m not suggesting this happened overnight, but when we got the right PR partner and we got the campaign going, we appeared in the New York Times, and the next day we were on Good Morning America and The View . The following week, we had a long interview on ABC News with Ashley Banfield. And we were off to the races.
As a result of our communications and public relations, I wound up becoming the face of the company, doing a great deal of media, interviews and public speaking. When we sold the company in 2013, I capitalized on my thought leadership and experience to . work with companies for menstruation to menopause and everything in between! I work with both large and small companies, both venture backed and Fortune 500. I now spend a great deal of time in the intersection of those businesses – identifying companies that I think have delivered a solution or have a creative approach that consumers will be interested in and connecting them to strategic partners. .
Becoming and author
In 2018, I wrote Orgasmic Leadership: Profiting from the Coming surge of Women’s Sexual Health and Wellness. During quarantine, I started the zoom series in the void left by cancelled meetings and conferences (and the collaboration that is critical in this space) to understand how some amazing leaders and thinkers were surviving and thriving during COVID. Initially, I thought I might conduct 12 interviews and wound conducting 120 interviews with entrepreneurs, investors academics and healthcare practitioners.
All the data from this is now being analysed and being turned into an academic paper by a leading business school. In May of 2021 along with my co-host, Dr. Alyssa Dweck, I launched a podcast called Business of the V, about the intersection of patient care, unmet needs, unanswered questions and the businesses being created to respond to those concerns.. I am energized by the opportunit to work with a large range of companies as well as share their stories.
Is the issue you had with advertising a common theme with these types of products?
It’s a very common theme! Whether it’s that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s overseeing NYC subway advertising won’t accept your ads or its Facebook or Instagram applying disparate standards to women’s businesses, the challenge of gaining access to media channels is real.
To give you a very specific example, the algorithm that evaluates erectile dysfunction advertisements on Facebook, runs through a “family planning” algorithm, whereas anything around women’s sexuality is tagged as “too sexual in nature”. In one instance, a wellness was trying to get approval to advertise a product for vaginal dryness, and Facebook said that product was too sexual in nature. But a rising tide raised all boats and slowly but surely, through effort, funding, success and funding, companies are making inroads and developing workarounds to successfully advertise where their buyers are.
What inspired you to work in the women’s health industry?
When I saw a product that was clinically proven; a solution that actually worked -in a space that people didn’t talk about but for which there was great need, I was hooked. In addition,dozens of active clinical programmes had all been abandoned – not because of need or size of the prize, female sexuality, health and wellness are complex. The current model for female sexual response as well as many other concerns that women experience, reflect aminterconnected maze of physiological, psychological, social behaviour and contextual factors. So, it is very difficult to find a one switch solution to respond to all those systems.
You’re always looking for a category that is emotionally engaging. For me, having spent a lot of time in women’s businesses, this was the perfect storm. I don’t think I knew how controversial it would be or that I would be on the road to becoming a Vagipreneur.®
Each year we are seeing more progress. We are seeing more funding, more creative sources of capital, many more entrepreneurs entering the space as well as interest from large corporations. All of these things help to reinforce, is just how big the landscape is and the business opportunity.
If you just look at the statistics, 43% of women have sexual concerns at some point compared to 31% of men who have an erectile dysfunction for which multibillion dollar brands exist. By 2025, there will be over a billion women in menopause. The opportunities are endless
What advice would you have for women wanting to work in this industry?
I give the same advice to everyone who wants to enter the system. There are a lot of conversations, and this is a big and vibrant ecosystem – so do your research. You don’t have to jump into this space blindly, there a lot of communities and a lot of resources. I would find entrepreneurs and people in the space who interest you. Reach out and ask for a 15-minute conversation. As I said previously, I think the people in this space are quite generous, so do your homework!
You have to get to a much more precise definition than “FemTech”, to figure out wjhich aspect of the space you want to focus on . Femtech is a category descriptor not a business; and it encompasses so many different things.
You always need to figure out the problem that you are trying to solve. And, at least from my perspective, you have to have a solution that is some sort of “er”; so better, cheaper, faster, more reliable and relevant to solving problems that need solutions. What often happens in Women’s Health is that a personal problem that sparks the creation of the business.
How do the larger companies you have worked for, differ to the smaller start-ups?
There are a couple of big differences. First of all, their approach to the space is quite different. You would be hard pressed to find a multibillion-dollar company that is overtly focused on multiple easpects of women’s sexual health, reproductive health or menopause. The smaller companies make decisions faster. They move more quickly, they are more capital efficient and they’re willing to take more risks.
What do you think you have learnt from, from the public speaking that you do?
I am all in. Every day I learn something new, meet someone inspiring and hopefully provide some guidance or inspiration as well. What I have loved about doing these speaking events, is that there is a true interest in learning more; understanding more and collaborating.
My experience has been that if you can present the content in a way that is digestible AND entertaining, great conversation ensue!
When I’m speaking to an investor, I need him/her/they to understand that solving challenges in this space is big business. One of the things I often say is this this doesn’t have to be only a social endeavour. You can make money and do good things for the world.
I feel strongly that if I can share some experience about times when I ran into a proverbial brick wall, that maybe I can prevent the next person from running into that same brick wall. Maybe the learning curve can be quicker and the growth more rapid, as a result of learning what worked and failed before.
What would you like to see happening in women’s health, over the next few years?
I would like to see an exponential increase in the capital raising for businesses in this space. The most important thing for me is to raise more capital and to raise it in a much quicker way. You see these financing situations that happen all the time that are huge. But one of the patterns I see in this space is that fundraising is slower, funding is often smaller, the combination of which It makes everything slower. It makes growing slower, it makes expanding your footprint slower, it makes getting the next round of capital slower
No one should be giving capital to businesses that don’t make sense, so the onus is 100% on the entrepreneur to have a disciplined, clearly thought-out strategy and approach to what they are doing, the kind of people they’re going to have on board, the steps they’re going to take, all of that is critical. But often with that, it is still extraordinarily challenging and time consuming to raise capital.
Now in any category in Women’s Health there are at least a few; if not dozens of competitors in this space. So, timing is important. Right now, the narrative has become much broader. We are looking at people who identify as women or have the biology of a female with a broader lens. It is the interconnectivity of it all – you can’t talk about sexual health without talking about mental health, you can’t talk about cardiac health without talking about bone health.
Women’s Health is an overnight sensation that is centuries in the making. The timing is now, the timing is right, there are lots of people making enormous progress in this space. The fact that companies like Procter & Gamble have identified menopause as a category that they are interested in sends important signals to the financial community that this is an opportunity to make real money.
Advice to others
I would say for any business, don’t re-tread old ground. Have a reason that someone might substitute what they are currently doing, with your solution. There are many categories where you’re fighting against inertia or inactivity. Give people a reason to reconsider or purchase what you are selling. We are making huge progress!!!!!
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