Portrait of a Girlboss: How Meika Hollender is making sex healthier for everyone
On the list of dream jobs that started to formulate in your head when you were a kid, fair-trade vegan condom-maker probably didn’t crack the top 10. Unless, of course, you are Meika Hollender, raised in a household run by the co-founders of the ubiquitous sustainable household product company Seventh Generation and your very first job was modeling organic diapers, in which case, that seems like a pretty natural trajectory.
In the years since she was rocking those ultra-absorbent wood-fluff skivvies, Meika has never not been a full-throttle devotee of natural products; after taking a particular interest in Seventh Generation’s foray into organic tampons and helping get that product developed, she created her own sustainable-business major as an undergrad at NYU. And while she branched out briefly after college (per her dad’s suggestion) and got a job at a big branding and marketing agency in Manhattan, she knew pretty quickly that she wanted to be back in the ethical, sustainable-goods business: “I grew up in this bubble where I thought all brands and products were created to do the right thing and be as safe as possible and make the world a better place. I realized very quickly that that's not the case.”
And so in 2014, after getting her MBA at NYU’s Stern School of Business, Meika and her parents, Sheila and Jeffrey Hollender, co-founded Sustain, a company dedicated to all-natural, products that enable you to have sex that’s safer for you, your partner and the environment. In addition to serving as the Marketing Director, Meika has also started the Get On Top campaign, an initiative aimed at getting 100,000 women to pledge to practice safe sex and start the conversation with their friends and family (check out the video with Thinx founder Miki Argawal and Refinery 29 co-founder Piera Gelardi here). Fifty percent of Sustain is owned by women, and the company has integrated an initiative called 10%4Women, wherein 10% of the company’s pre-tax profits are donated to organizations supporting women’s reproductive health.
Meika chatted with Girlboss recently about why talking about sex and buying condoms is still a cultural taboo for women, how to handle trolls, what it’s like working with mom and dad, and what the prospect of the first female president means for our culture.
You were subjected to the same sex-ed videos that I was in the ’90s and 2000s, I’m guessing. Where did your interest in women's reproductive health come from when the information and culture we were been brought up in was still pretty awkward about all of it?
Well, my family has been in it for the long haul. [Seventh Generation] existed way before natural and sustainable products were all the rage. Now you can find an organic tampon every place you go, but at that time, people weren't talking about it. I helped them launch that piece of the business about 10 years ago and that really exposed me to two things: the first was thinking through what is in the product going inside the most intimate parts of our body and second, really dealing with taboo subjects. Periods are not super easy to talk about, although people are talking about them and sex and sexual health more now.
So Seventh Generation tampons, and now Sustain condoms. How did you make that jump?
What we realized quickly was really two things: One was that with condoms and other special wellness products, a lot of them are made with ingredients that actually harm rather than help bodies. That was important to us, as was driving the sustainable aspect of the business. Then secondly, I looked at this category from a female perspective and I learned some pretty scary statistics, such as only 20% of single sexually active women are using condoms regularly, and one in four college freshman gets an STD their first year at school. But 40% of condoms are actually purchased by women, so what's going on there? Seventy percent of those women will tell you that they hate buying condoms and it's a horrible, awkward, uncomfortable experience. And I could certainly relate to that. So we really saw an opportunity to create the first brand of female-focused condoms and sexual wellness products that were better and safer and can help you.
Those stats are really interesting. Like, for all the progress we’ve made, for everything that our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations accomplished, we still have a long way to go in terms of our society being comfortable with women being sexual. What’s the next step forward from where our culture is now?
I think that we do live in this, like, #girlpower, #feminism time, and I think that's amazing and critical. I think that is just a little bit harder in the sense that, sure, we're obsessing that a women is running for president, but we will still, for the most part, consider a girl who's buying a condom a slut and a guy who is buying a condom a hero. I think that's just a really good and clear example of how we are struggling as a society to accept women as sexual beings. When you have that challenge, people don't talk about it as much.
I just read some statistics around [the number of] women who actually go to the doctor when they are having a problem with their vagina or having sexual problems. Nobody wants to talk about this, nobody wants to deal with this. I think that stems from not having enough real, open and honest and educated conversations about sex among women. We've made a ton of progress, even though Planned Parenthood somehow seems to be getting threatened to be shut down every other week, but we're talking about it, we're getting there. I think that when we, as a society, accept women as sexual beings, everything else follows. That's something that's really important to me and that's been a challenge in building my business.
You mentioned the repeated attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, and women’s health is constantly being leveraged in politics. This election season, of course, has been a doozy. As someone who is working to promote women’s health to the extent that you are, you must have to face a lot of that noise. How do you process all of that? How do you deal with it and move forward and keep focused?
So there’s something that happened to me right when we were launching that really shaped how I was going to approach everything that you're describing. We got our first really big piece of press and I was, obviously, thrilled and super excited; it was a really great piece, very positive, I couldn't be more excited. Then I started looking at the comments.
Yeah. I have a really big dark freckle on my lower lip and the first comment was, "What's on her lower lip? She should be using condoms, not selling them."
Wow. That’s horrible.
I was really devastated that being a young women launching my business, like everything just has to go back to my gender and my appearance and really getting slut shamed. That experience is, obviously, for me, defining and tough, but it was nothing compared to what other women experience every single day. Something that my mom said to me at that moment was that nothing changes without controversy, and although it can feel like an uphill battle, how amazing is it that Donald Trump can say something so disgusting and offensive [as bragging about sexually assaulting women] and it inspires sexual assault survivors and all survivors who have never shared their stories to share their story?
Is that the way that I would have thought and dreamed that we would all come together and talk about this thing and talk about sexual assault? Obviously not, but you have to look beyond and above what's happening and see the bigger picture. I think the bigger picture is that we as a generation and as a gender have said—and hopefully will say on November 8th—"This is unacceptable." We're going to come together and not put up with that anymore, because it's really backwards and it's ridiculous. I have seen many doors close in my face because of what I sell and what I'm doing, but that’s what inspires me to keep going, because if not me, who?
Sustain is very public about its advocacy efforts; 10% of your sales goes towards women’s health organizations. Of course, in order for all of that to be effective, you have to sell a bunch of condoms to a bunch of women. From a business standpoint, what’s been the most effective strategy in getting that word out to your target demographic?
When we launched the business, it was like us girls talking about these issues, and now, thankfully, there are many other women standing up for sexual and reproductive health. But there is a bigger picture here. We need to get women feeling confident and comfortable and empowered by taking control of their sexual health and just practicing safe sex. Talking about sex.
So in other words, before you could really talk about condoms and why it even matters that you use something all-natural, you had to talk about sex.
[The Get on Top] campaign came about because of what you're talking about. I had been talking to so many other female entrepreneurs and other female sponsors who were comfortable talking to me about sex and I was like, "Can we harness that altogether? Can we all just get out there and say yes for women? Yes, you have sex and yes, safe sex is important?” Because I think it’s just about hearing that this is okay and this is healthy and it's normal and it's great and it's something that should be a celebration. That campaign was a labor of love—all the stuff that I've been learning while growing the business.
There are obviously smaller things that we've done, like with our packaging. I think that just creating something that looks really great, that looks accessible, that looks modern, that women want to buy and feel good about buying and throwing in their bag is really important. Because buying a big black neon boxes of condoms is just not something I feel particularly good about. It’s not something I want to pack in my suitcase. Those small things are not really that small.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as the co-founder of a startup?
Obviously, like, being on a plane every week and not getting enough sleep all the time—all those typical founder problems. I think it's really important before you start a company to really take a step back and make sure you fully believe in what you're doing, because it comes with those challenges and you need something to hold on to throughout them. I think creating and building something that you care about and really believe in and really believe is helping other people makes that possible.
...and what’s it like working with your mom and dad?!
I grew up, like most people, dreaming of starting a condom company with my dad [laughs]. But really, it is a special, special thing. [Starting a business] is a very different thing than just going into a family business, just in terms of the dynamic, so it's been great.
We invested a lot of time in the beginning establishing professional relationships and boundaries and how are we going to interact. I don't call my dad “dad” when I'm talking to investors. I mean, just stuff like that. Both of my parents are so incredible for totally different reasons. My dad, obviously, built a hugely successful company and is so incredibly experienced and wise and cares so much still, like 30 years later. I will always trust them, they'll always trust me. There are some things where it’s easier that these are my parents, and then there are certain dynamics between parents and kids that don't escape you even when you're working together. It's mixed, but overall, I feel really fortunate that I get to do it.
Any advice you’d like to share with aspiring entrepreneurs or social activists?
I think something that I struggled with early on is that it’s really important to admit that you don't know everything and surround yourself with people who do know the stuff that you need to know. Because when you start a business, especially as a female founder, you already feel like you have to be overly confident and really prove yourself to a much higher extent. That worked a little bit to my disadvantage at first; I didn't want to find other people who had done what I needed to do better or faster or whatever. I was really defensive. Obviously, it's a balance, but I think that asking for help and surrounding yourself with really smart people and learning from them is really important.
interview by Deena Drewis