Let's talk about sex, baby. Nora Henick sat down with Polly Rodriguez, CEO and Co-Founder of Unbound. Unbound is a quarterly box, online shop and magazine that's here to revolutionize women's relationships with their sexuality. We met with Polly in their busy New York City office, which is, coincidentally, the home of all of the amazing Barbie Instagram stories you've come to know and love them for. Polly shares the inspiration behind Unbound, where she hopes to see the future of women in business, and of course, sex and sexuality.
Nora Henick: As a woman who created a sex toy subscription box company, can you start us off by telling us a sex story about yourself?
Polly Rodriguez: I think the most obvious story is the core story as to why I wanted to start Unbound, which was buying a vibrator and lubricant for the first time as a twenty one year old going through a cancer diagnosis. I had been diagnosed with colon cancer, had radiation treatment as the first step in therapy, coupled with chemotherapy. Basically, the radiation treatment, due to where your colon is located, impacts your ovaries—which meant they were essentially in the line of fire, if you will. My doctors sat me down before we started treatment and were basically like, look, you’ll never have kids if you go through the radiation treatment. I didn’t really have much of a choice. It was very late stage; it had spread to my lymph nodes. I had a 30 percent chance of survival; my oncologist had told me in theory I could harvest my eggs, but I didn’t really have the time. That was all that was really said about it to me. So I found myself online googling, trying to figure out what all of this meant. It’s a weird thing, to be told you’re never going to be able to have children.
Through my googling, I found out that I was going through menopause at a very young age. I had a friend who was a nurse who told me to go out and buy lubricant and a vibrator because going through cancer in general really wreaks havoc on your libido and sense of sexuality. Which, in itself is interesting because who’s job was it to tell me this? In the world of medically pertinent information, this was definitely not my doctor’s first priority, but at the end of the day it is something that is going to change my life and I should know about it. With cancer, you’re constantly triaging.
So this was in 2008, I was searching for where I could buy these products and the only place in my hometown of St. Louis that sold them was Hustler Hollywood, on the side of the highway. I remember pulling up to the store and being so embarrassed and intimidated to walk in. Then, once I walked in, I felt even more mortified because it is so trashy. I felt so embarrassed by the products, which was exacerbated by the way the store was laid out, and the people that were shopping there, who were mostly men. The whole experience made me feel so uncomfortable. The older I got the more I realized that female sexuality is really repressed. Now, being in the industry, I see why: there are so many companies owned and operated by men. Their brand approach, the way they sell the products, the way they depict the products - it all very much reflects that. So my introduction to this industry definitely wasn’t a positive one.
NH: It’s really amazing that you’ve taken your story, learned how to share it, and turned it into something that can change the lives of so many women across the world.
PR: It’s definitely taken time. The first time I got up and told this story, I was in front of this group of women, and I remember I had never even uttered the words out loud to anyone that wasn’t one of my best friends. I just broke down in tears. I was sobbing because It felt so embarrassed. Then this Teen Vogue story came out that I was proud of, but I don’t think I realized how many people would then have access to the most intimate details of my personal sexuality. It was really hard. My parents, my grandparents, everyone all of a sudden knew. I still struggle with it sometimes; I’ll go on first dates for example with someone that I met on Bumble or something, and if they google my name, they know the most intimate details about me. So it is hard, but on the other hand, there are so many women that write to me telling me that they’re going through cancer or their mom just went through it, and that my story helped. The stories that I hear from other women make it worth it.
NH: That’s amazing. It’s really special when you are able to break past your own barriers to help other people through something. I really commend you for that. Your ability to make people feel less alone while also making them feel empowered is part of the reason I wanted you on LFC in the first place! In my opinion, sex is, for some stupid reason, still a really taboo subject. People don’t want to talk about it. I want to talk about it; I think we need to talk about it way more than we do. However, I do not run a venture capitalist firm. So how has that been? How has your product and industry impacted your conversations with VCs, investors, and even potential customers?
PR: Like I mentioned earlier, it took me awhile before I was able to stand up in front of a group of people. When I go into these meetings with investors and it’s a room full of pretty much just middle-aged white men. The first couple of times, I wasn’t at a place where I felt comfortable telling my story. I was too nervous, too embarrassed. It took a lot of gumption to get to a point where I was comfortable up there. I had to tell people that this shopping experience is awful for women. There was an interesting thing that happened where when I took a moment to be vulnerable with the investors—we got a lot more comfortable talking. I really believe in my heart that vulnerability is one of the greatest strengths anyone can have. The willingness to share something that people can relate and react to gives other people permission to be vulnerable, too. There were definitely some investors who made sexually inappropriate comments; but the majority of them were very respectful. The thing I found most frustrating was actually a lot of the older, female investors. They really weren’t okay with talking about it. The female investors were very polarizing, actually. Either they were young enough, had vibrators themselves, and knew how awful the shopping experience is, or they were older and really believed that this is not appropriate to be talking about. Their minds seem made up about their own sexuality and how they feel about the product category as a whole.
Also, sometimes people open up a little too much when they find out about what we do and who we are. But for the most part, people were pretty appropriate. I think for us, it’s just about constantly being aware that we have to be twice as professional, twice as on top of the game. It’s definitely harder to get people to take you seriously due to the product category. But in reality, it’s a multi-billion dollar market that’s growing rapidly yet has a really terrible shopping experience with products that are not that well made. And that’s what makes investors listen.
There’s so much that needs to change. It’s not the top talent that’s coming to work for these companies due to the taboos around this industry. Unbound is really amazing because it feels like the complete opposite of that. We’re young, brilliant women who alternatively would have gone to work for finance or tech companies. These are women who want to work for a company that is working to change something important for women. It’s cool to see the talent and the caliber of the people that work here compared to past employees in this field, historically.
NH: I’m currently living in the Valley in Los Angeles, so I’m surrounded by the history of this industry. Every two feet there’s a sex shop. It’s definitely not female friendly for the most part, and the products are shit. So if you ever need a place to open a brick and mortar store…you should come meet me out in LA. So, your website says you donate 6.9% of your profits to nonprofits that support female sexual health and wellness. You follow this up with the line, “Because we don't just believe that women should be empowered when it comes to their sexuality, we fight for it.” Let’s discuss why this is important to you and your business.
PR: When we first started, I didn’t want us to have a political stance. We had our values, but they didn’t have to be particularly political. And then that fucking tape of Donald Trump came out and watching our nation elect someone who is literally caught on camera bragging about sexually assaulting women, we realized we can’t not be political anymore. This is an assault on women. Going after Planned Parenthood is an assault on women. We decided that if a customer doesn’t want to shop with us because we support Planned Parenthood, we don’t want their money anyway. It was a really hard thing to tell investors. But for us, the attack on Planned Parenthood is inexcusable. Women need birth control and mammograms and to be able to see a doctor. The fact that the Republican Party claims that they’re fiscally responsible and therefore don’t want to support Planned Parenthood boggles my mind. Statistically speaking, every dollar you put towards reproductive health care saves seven dollars in Medicaid expenses. So for those Republican businessmen in the room, the financials and economics of it just make so much sense. Even if you don’t care about the person that’s in the actual doctor’s office. The economics of it work in their favor.
So this year, we’ll probably end up donating over $13,000 to Planned Parenthood. I wish it didn’t take people like Donald Trump and Mike Pence and Mitch Mcconnell and Paul Ryan and so on but if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.
I just got an email from the girls who run Bulletin (@bulletin.co) and they just donated a $13,000 check to Planned Parenthood as well. It’s amazing to see women like this come together. But it’s sad that the institutions that are put into place to protect other institutions like Planned Parenthood aren’t doing their jobs. But if they won’t, then we will.
NH: Hell yes we will. This past holiday season I had just moved out to LA and I was still feeling sad from the election. In lieu of gifts, I asked my friends to tell me organizations that they would like me to donate to in their honor. Pretty much all of my male friends chose Planned Parenthood. It was really heartwarming to hear. It felt even better to make those donations in their honor. It was so great to see a group of young men care.
PR: That’s historically been the problem, right? For women, it’s a no brainer. But it’s getting men to care about things like Planned Parenthood, too.
NH: Right. And it’s sad to have to put it into perspectives like “this could be your sister, your mother, your daughter, etc.”, because at the end of the day we are people, no matter what our relationship is to you. But taking steps in the right direction, even if it using rhetoric like that for now, is somewhat encouraging to see.
Now let’s talk about sex and tech. Talk to me about the combination of the two.
PR: I do think that technology has infiltrated our lives in a way that, in twenty years, we’ll look back on it and say holy shit what were we thinking? Generally speaking, so many technological innovations have taken up so much of our brain power that fundamentally, we are disconnected. I love thinking about it in the lens of the word intimacy. NPR did this great Hidden Brain episode on hookup culture. This woman did a study where she surveyed all of these college kids and the data showed that the majority had lost their virginity, but the vast majority had also never held someone’s hand before. To me it was a poignant example of how we’re still animalistic in nature and sexuality, but technology has taken away a lot of the intimacy. We’re so focused on the gamification of sex and instant gratification of everything that the special part of human sexuality that technology has erased is that intimate nature. I’m just as guilty as everyone else - I am on my phone all the time. But I do think that there are other ways in which technology is bringing people a lot closer together. It’s just evolving and changing. Fundamentally, humans are a clan culture and need to have a sense of community and identity as defined by their connection to other people.
NH: I did a lot of reading over the years about mental health and our relation to ourselves and our society and a lot of the conversations circled around the idea that we do better when we are reminded that we are not alone. Our battles are not ours to face alone, our victories get to be supported and celebrated by others as well. So it’s interesting that we’ve taken such a “robotic” stance on something that has in the past been so intimate. Since we’ve started discussing the importance of community and feeling like you a part of something larger than yourself, what are some of your goals for the community you’ve created, Women in Sex Tech?
PR: I want to see more female entrepreneurs. I think historically you look at the people that dominated this industry, the people that dominated the lingerie industry, etc., they were all men. The biology behind female sexual stimulation and the female anatomy shows that 70% of women need clitoral stimulation in order to orgasm. That doesn’t happen for the vast majority of women with regular penetrative sex. So these bright pink, plastic, penis-looking products are not what women want. But they’re what men think women want. So for me, it’s championing other women in the industry to build the companies they want to see in the world.
If you look at the parts of the brain that are active during sexual arousal, it’s totally different for men and women. Men tend to release adrenaline and testosterone whereas women have a decrease in anxiety and fear during sexual arousal. Everything leads me to believe that there needs to be more women trying to understand what women need when it comes to sex tech.
NH: Have you ever heard of the show The Bold Type? If not, you need to watch it. One of the writers was given an assignment where she was asked to write about the best orgasm she’s ever had. The plot twist: she has actually never been able to have one. So throughout the episode, she explores her sexual identity through calls with her gynecologist, visits to sex doctors, and challenging herself to step out of her comfort zone. She starts off the episode extremely uncomfortable, not telling anyone except her two best friends about her issue. But the episode ends *spoiler alert* with her realizing women’s sexuality has so often been dictated by what men want and what men think women want. So she takes a stand and writes a piece on the reality of women’s sexuality, in hopes to make other women feel less alone. It was so amazing for me to see something like this on television. Something that can reach younger women who are starting to learn more about themselves and their sexuality. Something that can reach women in their 20s and 30s who may have thought they weren’t allowed to be “selfish” in bed. The end of the episode had me in tears. Twenty years ago no one would have thought there would be a television show even talking about issues like this, and now there’s a show that’s on a family-friendly channel, addressing real issues and encouraging women to care about their sexuality, instead of putting it on the backburner to men’s.
PR: Yes! And female masturbation is something that is seen as so taboo, which blows my mind because with men it’s just taken as something they do - there are jokes in pop culture, it’s just taken as a fact of life. But for women it’s something that nobody talks about, nobody acknowledges it. We wanted to do a college rep program, and we went around to all of these universities and they said absolutely not. It blows my mind because they have consent programs on campus. Because 1 and 4 women are sexually assaulted on college campuses in America, which is an epidemic in and of itself. How can you have consent programs but refuse to educate women? They can say whether or not it feels good, or I would like to do this or I would not like to do this. I just think it’s ridiculous that we can acknowledge that two people have sex, but that women can’t masturbate. How are you supposed to ask for what you want if you don’t know what you want?
NH: Exactly. Or if you’re being shamed for asking for it. It’s so normal for men. People just assume. But you know what, women masturbate too! Surprise! And a lot of the times it’s because it feels better than what men are doing.
PR: I know! If I were a guy, I would be thinking oh shit we gotta get our acts together. We need to learn how to be better. Don’t you want to be better? Don’t you want to be the guy who knows what he’s doing? But anyway, it’s unfortunate that so many issues like this are taboo in our society. And it’s a shame because it’s something that brings happiness to someone’s life. It’s not like every time you orgasm, somebody dies. It’s not a Tinkerbell scenario. I just don’t understand why people are so afraid to talk about it.
NH: Could you imagine? Even if that was the case it probably wouldn’t stop some people from doing it anyway. Okay so as we’re wrapping up, let’s blow people’s minds. What is one of the biggest myths you want to shatter about sex?
PR: One that we constantly get asked about and it’s interesting - will I get addicted to my vibrator? The answer is no. You won’t. If anything, vibrators serve as a really good mechanism for women who put the female orgasm on this pedestal. A vibrator can serve as a really good tool for you to feel more comfortable and more confident and more aware of what you like and don’t like. So that’s one myth shattered - you will not get addicted to your vibrator. Despite that stupid Sex and the City episode where Charlotte gets obsessed with her vibrator, the rabbit. Which, fun fact, the reason why it’s called the rabbit is because the manufacturers wouldn’t allow it to be sold unless it looked like an animal so it would be considered cuter. So it’s called the rabbit to get around regulations because if it just looked phallic then you weren’t allowed to sell it.
NH: We’ve coined the term #entrefemmeur for women who are changing the rules and changing the conversations. What does being an #entrefemmeur mean to you, as an entrefemmeur yourself?
PR: I’m a very data driven person. If you look at the core numbers - only 17% of startups have a female CEO, only 4% of venture capital goes to women, and less than 2% of female-founded companies hit the one million dollar marker in revenue. To me, female health and wellness is the thing that I’m most passionate about. Number two is changing the landscape of entrepreneurship and supporting all women in their pursuit of starting companies. When you are 50% of the population but such a minority in a segment, it’s really hard. It’s really hard to feel like a minority and then statistically speaking you look at the world around you and you’re not. I think being a female entrepreneur is really important and I think we need to encourage more women to do it. Other women will then hopefully think, if she can do it then I can do it. And you know, I wish it didn’t take that. I wish women just thought “of course I can be an entrepreneur.” One of my favorite quotes, something that Sarah Hagi says, is “Lord give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.” It’s true. I’ve sat in on so many pitches to investors and I would see women get up there with ideas that are revenue-generating, cash flow positive, unbelievable growth rates and then I would see a bro get up there and do his pitch for a product he hasn’t even launched yet, it’s some app, he doesn’t know how it’s going to make revenue, and the male investors are like yeah let’s do it. My mind is just blown. This woman has money and she knows how she’s going to make money. This guy does not. Why are we picking him? So for me, being an entrefemmeur is about supporting more women. Especially in fundraising. We got turned down for fundraising from one VC because they said we had the most amount of traction and revenue than any other company that has ever pitched to them before, so they said we didn’t need it. So I told them, we actually desperately need it because we’re a working capital company and we’re growing 75% month after month, and we can’t get a loan to save our lives because of the category so we actually desperately need funding. They ended up just repeatedly saying, “we just don’t think you need it.” So I just want to see more and more women supporting other women.
Read Nora's interview with the Unbound team about being an Unbound woman and use code NORA to shop the Unbound site 20% off.