Making Sex Safe + Sustainable: Meika Hollender, Founder of Sustain
WHAT WAS THE JOURNEY TO SUSTAIN?
I grew up sort of as Seventh Generation baby, which was my dad's former company. Seventh Generation was the first brand of eco-friendly cleaning and personal care products. I grew up in this very entrepreneurial family, especially in a natural product space. All of that was super ingrained in me. As I got a little bit older, something that affected my life, was when Seventh Generation got into the organic feminine care space of tampons and pads. I was 18, and I started thinking about, not only products that are going inside of your body, but what the ingredients are that make them up.
I also got really interested in reproductive health, and reproductive rights. I took another path for a few years, then ended up going back to business school. I stayed really interested in the reproductive space. My dad, Jeffery, had had this idea for sustainable condom company twenty years ago. While I was in business school, he ended up leaving Seventh Generation, after twenty-five years. He and I were then on this parallel path of like, ‘What are we going to do?’, at very different points in our life. What ended up happening was Sustain. It was sort of his thought process and idea for creating sexual wellness products like condoms and lubricants that are totally natural and safer than anything out there. My interest in reproductive health and reproductive rights sort of informed why we decided to ultimately focus on woman.
We wanted to make this a brand, and a space, that's been only talking to men for decades. We really wanted to start talking to woman. Over the first six to twelve months of starting the business, raising the money, and figuring out the supply chain, the business was evolving in terms of a concept. But a moment that really stands out for me, that I have been thinking about a lot recently, is when we got a little bit of press before we even launched: there was a photo of me, and I naturally have this dark birthmark on my lip, that I really don't ever think about because it’s always been there. The photo of me was in this article, and I was super excited because it was like ‘Oh my God, something we've been working on is real! People are writing about it and we haven't even launched yet!’
Then, all of these people started commenting about how I shouldn't be selling condoms, but should be using them, because of what's on my lip. It was an insulting mix between slut shaming and gender dynamics. Obviously, if I was a guy, that would never happen. It sort of fueled me with this passion for making the Sustain brand what it is — a brand that empowers women to embrace sex, and safe sex. And to not be ashamed to talk about it or practice it.
That was a big point for me. There had been many other points along the way that have been pushed back or controversial that continued to fuel what I'm doing. Especially everything that's going on with Planned Parenthood and their restrictions that are getting put around womens' bodies, particularly in their reproductive and sexual health space. That’s sort of how my journey evolved. That's really when I felt like, ‘This is what I really need to be doing.’
WHAT WAS IT LIKE GROWING UP WITH A FATHER WHO WAS SO OPEN ABOUT SEXUAL HEALTH?
I love that you ask that question a little differently than most people, because they’re usually like, ‘Is it just so awkward to do this with your dad!?” Which is obviously a fine question, and it’s definitely something I talk a lot about. It’s this boundary between sex, and safe sex. My dad was like a friend growing up, that always treated us in a way that he wanted us to feel comfortable talking to him openly and honestly about drugs, partying, relationships, anything. Sex and safe sex just falls into one of those — it’s just another topic.
I have two younger siblings. My brother is now 26 and he’s a designer, and my sister is in college. I think what my mom and dad did, was create this environment where we felt comfortable going to them if we felt like we were in trouble or uncomfortable. Naturally, as we started dating and thinking about sex, it became something I was talking about. I didn’t go to my dad and say that I didn’t want to have sex — I felt comfortable saying, ‘I think I want to go on birth control, let’s talk about that.’ His questions weren’t in judgement, there was no shock, there was no criticism. It was just, ‘Do you really care about this person? Are you being respected? Do you feel good about yourself? Do they make you feel good about yourself?’ Just all the questions that we should be asking when we’re going to have sex with somebody.
I think if you go into any relationship feeling like you can check off those boxes, in terms of what's important to you, then you want to be responsible and you want to be safe as well. My dad allowed for this open dialogue, and my mom was really critical in not making me feel bad, and explaining to me that the pill is just one option, and using condoms is another. And now there’s the IUD. She was like, just make sure you always, all throughout your life, choose the option that’s right for your body.
I always said that when I get into a serious relationship — and I think a lot of woman do this too — that I‘d get into this mindset of, ‘I have to go on birth control because it's the right thing. I don't want to use condoms because I want them to be happy.’ But I actually don't mind using condoms. And I actually don't like hormonal birth control. My mom sort of ingrained that into me early. I'm all for it being open dialogue between the man and the woman. You can make the decision somewhat together, but in the end, it's going to be affecting my body. So I should be really empowered to feel like I can make that decision myself.
Having that, and being able to communicate that with both of your parents can be weird at first, especially for girls as we reach a certain age. But then we reach another certain age, and we become a woman, and all of a sudden we feel like we have to close the dialogue of sex communication with our parents. Maybe it’s okay to do with your mom, but with your dad…
Sex is a part of our relationship with people. Whether you’re talking to your mom, your dad, or your friend, you’re talking about your relationship, and sex is a part of a relationship. But not addressing it, you’re in my opinion, leaving out a big piece. That is, in terms of talking about that big piece of health and wellness for women that gets left out all the time. We’re getting very good at talking about diet, fitness, mental health and meditation. There’s such a wellness craze, and I think that sexual health is a really critical part of that.
There was an article a couple weeks ago in the Huffington Post about what it’s like dating with genital herpes. [That] isn’t really the direction of my brand, and writing those kinds of stories, but it does affect you physically and mentally all the time. It affects you socially. So it’s like, first of all, let’s de-stigmatize these diseases. Also, let’s not ignore this piece of our health and wellness because it really has ripple affects.
DO YOU GET MANY WOMEN COMING TO YOU WITH QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS?
People feel very comfortable — across the board in every age, every type of person, men and women — just talking to me about their birth control methods or STDs that they've had, and why they use lube or why they don't use lube. I think it's great. I'm obviously putting myself out there as someone that's totally comfortable talking about all this stuff. It's all the time, and it's really good for me, not only just as a person who is interested in the space, but for the business to be able to have all those dialogues. A lot of it informs decisions that we make from a business stand point too.
CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND AND INTEREST IN WOMEN’S REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH?
Basically, the timeline was: Seventh Generation when I started college, I went into femcare and they decided to launch organic tampons, which now are getting all the rage, which is a wonderful, but has take way too long. I started thinking about all that and while I was in school. I was working with them on launching femcare. I was getting involved with different reproductive health and rights organization through that, that we were partnering with. Then I sort of detoured and decided, you know what, people had said, ‘Don't just go work right with Seventh Generation. Go do something else, then you'll add more value…’ So, I went and did something else. Then decided to go back to school.
While I was applying to school, my dad left Seventh Generation. I was so interested in women’s reproductive and sexual health, so we started to figure out what we wanted in order to start Sustain, and revisited all those ideas my dad had. My mom has been a long time supporter and very involved with Planned Parenthood. I always felt very connected to that organization, and obviously a lot more so now, just because I am more involved myself. It’s been a sort of multiple step path. It wasn’t like I woke up when I was 16 and was like, ‘I just really want to sell condoms.’
The activist stuff and all the political stuff that's going on in this space definitely fuels me. Sometimes, I'm like, ‘What would I do if I wasn't doing this?’ I don’t know, but I would definitely still be working in this space. This is my what-gets-me-up-in-the-morning thing.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT SUSTAIN’S PACKAGING?
People ask why we decided to focus on women, and from my passionate activist standpoint, there’s so many reasons why we’re focusing on women. From a business standpoint, which goes into the packaging, we learned that 40% of condoms are actually purchased by women, and so we looked at the shelf and looked at the all the other brands out there and looked at the marketing, and I just felt like nothing personally appealed to me. I had no loyalty to any condom brands, and I've been buying condoms for years and years before starting this.
I knew there was an opportunity and like a lot of white space here. I wanted to create something contemporary and beautiful and meet the same packaging aesthetic standards as all other great brands today that I look up to. That was what inspired us. Obviously, we want to stand out on the shelf and look very different, but also, I just wanted to create something that looked nice that women would want to carry around and feel less awkward about if it fell out of there bag or when they were checking out.
The natural piece is just part of our DNA. We would never create something that wasn't as safe as possible and natural as possible because I think, especially with this stuff that’s going inside your body, it's even more important. Especially with the lubricants, and it's crazy what they use in regular lubricants!
WHAT IS REALLY IN MOST LUBRICANTS?
Most lubricants are either petroleum or silicone based. They also have parabens and glycerin and all of these hot words that we've been taught to not put on our bodies, let alone in our bodies. With a petroleum based lubricant, what ends up entering your body damages the cell tissue in the area it’s going into. It creates this situation where you can have an overgrowth of bad bacteria, called bacterial vaginosis. 1 in 3 women have it, but 84% don’t know that they have it. It has tons of different symptoms, but one symptom in particular is that, because it’s this overgrowth of bad bacteria, it makes your vagina sick and it makes you more likely to contract and transmit an STD or HIV. It also has bad side effects. I personally haven’t had it, but I talk to so many women that have had it who didn’t even know what it was and took so long to get diagnosed. It can look and feel very different for different women. And some people have it chronically. Apparently, it really sucks.
That’s one thing that petroleum based products can cause, and another is just burning. It can really irritate your body, because your vaginal ecosystem has a very specific pH level. The pH level is so, so high in regular lubricants that it really throws you off. It can cause a lot of issues. Sustain’s are water based, and they have no parabens, no glycerin, no petroleum, no silicone, no fragrance. They’re natural lubricants, and a sort of complaint is the they don’t always work like regular ones, because the slickness won’t last as long as a silicone or petroleum base, but in actuality, that’s a very small margin. People have been very happy with our lubricant, and a lot of women don’t even use lubricant because they’re like, ‘What even is this stuff?’
Coconut oil can be good too, but a lot of people don’t use it because you can’t use it with latex. It makes the latex disintegrate. We, as a brand, don’t promote the use of it just because you can’t use it with our condoms. I don’t think there’s been tons of research around the long term effects of putting it inside your vagina, and what that does. But I do know a lot of people who use it.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
I think what’s been really exciting now, is that we’ve been around for almost two years and we’ve had really good traction in retail. We’ve gotten a lot of distribution. We have our e-commerce business and we’ve gotten really good publicity. The brand launched and just sort of went crazy. I’ve now personally had a little bit more breathing room to think about what I do want as a part of the business, but also personally.
I now have a platform to talk a lot about these issues and how I want to approach them, and what’s really important to me. I think there’s so many different self-reflective moment as an entrepreneur, whether you’re going out to raise money, or just through the whole process. I went through all of it. And that’s another reason why I feel like, ‘Okay I can now take a step back for a minute and just think about what’s the most effective way to get women to start talking about and practicing safe sex.’ And right now, we’re working on something special that will get large amounts of women committing to — in addition to everything else that they’re doing for their bodies — practicing safe sex.
Right now, only 20% of single sexual active women use condoms regularly. There’s still some cities where women can get arrested for prostitution because they’re carrying condoms, and they’re used as evidence against her. Personally, I still get pulled from speaking engagements once someone finds out what I’m doing. Our product gets pulled from shelves. We’ve shipped thousands and thousands of units of product to various different things and we’ve gotten them sent back at the end of the day. Big picture, my dream is to just make these products and these issues de-stigmatized and create a successful business around them. We’re launching a new line of products this year and we want to really, through all of these products, help women feel good about doing what’s natural. I’m excited about the next few months!
WHAT ARE SOME TOP THINGS THAT WOMEN SHOULD CONSIDER BEFORE (SAFE) SEX?
First, it’s really important to figure out what works best for your body. I think for women, and for single straight women and married straight women, their number one concern is preventing pregnancy. Most people are thinking about it as just, ‘What can I do to not get pregnant?’ Disease or irritability and all of this other stuff is very secondary. 70% of single women will say, ‘I just want to prevent pregnancy. That’s the number one most important thing.’ And that’s why condom use is especially so low among single women, because they’re on the pill or they have an IUD. All of which is fine, but they leave out this secondary barrier which is really important. And in terms of figuring out pregnancy prevention, what’s the best method that works for your body? Is it birth control? Is it IUD? Is it condoms?
The second thing is making sure that you’re preventing STDs and HIV. In the last decade, we’ve never seen STDs increase, particularly among women, like they did from 2013 to 2014. Last year, the CDC released their last report, and we’re seeing more women using the IUD, which is great, but with that condom usage goes down.
We’re also seeing all these dating apps out there, which is allowing when to feel like they can be more in control of dating and having casual sex, or whatever they’re doing on there, but then they’re not using condoms. I think it’s this interesting moment of like, we’re feeling empowered and we want to take control, but we’re leaving out the part of protecting ourselves from disease.
And lubricant use. What’s been really interesting, is that I wasn’t a lubricant user before Sustain. And lubricant can be really important for people trying to get pregnant. For people who have dryness issues, a lot of women experience early onset menopause. There’s so many great benefits of lube. Also, in the gay community, it could prevent condoms from breaking.
And talk about it! Whether it’s with your partner, your doctor, or your parent. It’s interesting, my doctors never really talked to me about sex, even my gynecologist. Now, I always want to talk about it because I feel like I have questions just because I’m talking to so many people and doing so much research. Talking about it is really important, and also getting tested!
WERE THERE TIMES GROWING UP WHEN IT WAS HARD FOR YOU TO TALK ABOUT ALL OF THIS SO OPENLY?
Yeah, and I think there's still times that are hard. I wrote an article last week about talking to my dad about sex, and I’m not going to lie and say there wasn’t a piece of me that was uncomfortable before it went up. I think, ‘How is this going to be perceived? What’s my boyfriend going to think? What are my friends going to think? Did I reveal too much information?’ It’s obviously a really personal subject. As much as I want to normalize it, there are still boundaries and I’m still learning them.
DO YOU IDENTIFY AS A FEMINIST?
I think that feminist and sex positive things get thrown around a lot. I’m very self-identified as a feminist. For me, feminism is just about equality. My dad calls himself a feminist. My boyfriend’s a feminist. You can be a woman and maybe not be a feminist. I don’t know a lot of them, but there are women who aren’t. My boyfriend said that he once went on a date a few years ago with someone who actually said, ‘Yeah, women shouldn’t make as much as men.’ I think there are women out there that are maybe not self-identifying feminists. I think there are probably a lot more of them than we think. But I’m girl power all the way! I think guys can be on the band wagon too, and a lot of them are.
With sex positive, it's even trickier. Like this whole thing that Kim Kardashian posted of her body — there’s a lot of criticism about that. And again, it’s like, why are we trying to set other people’s definition of beautiful and boundaries for them? I think she’s a feminist, but it’s also like, who knows why she did that and who cares? If that’s how she wants to express herself, I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t know the long term societal effects of what’s going on in the media right now — with how Instagram is going to affect body image ten years from now or anything. But being sex positive is about being safe, and being responsible and being comfortable in your own skin. If some people want to express that in certain ways, then good for them. I’m not going to post a photo of myself like that, just because there’s this line I’ve drawn for myself, and for this business. I shouldn’t reveal too much of myself, which is probably ridiculous, but it’s something that I personally haven’t been able to get over. I hope I will at some point, but it’s my own boundary. Kim can have hers too.
WHAT’S YOUR IDEA OF LEGACY?
I want my legacy to be a part of the ways in which we start to live — we’ll live in a world where women will carry condoms just as they carry tampons, credit cards or make up. For women to carry condoms very tactically would be so awesome. Right now, we can’t even get large numbers of women to post photos of what’s in their bag with condoms in them. It’s so funny, you’ll see all these make up brands launching and just getting their friends to post, but I remember when we launched — and it’s easier now that we’re more established — but I just couldn’t get anybody to do it. They were like, ‘I’m not posting condoms or lube or whatever.’ I want for one day, people to be taking selfies with condoms.
And bigger than that, I would be so happy to be part of this movement in making womens' reproductive right legal and accessible. I think that I get this from my dad’s thinking. Obviously, I come from a generation of parents who care about climate change and sustainability and how it’s all interrelated. What we don’t realize, in terms of feminism and gender equality, is that if women don’t have the ability to choose if and when they have children, then we’ll never have equality. We’re always going to be at this disadvantage, because a child’s impact on your life is so great. Women need to be able to choose.
Even the economic, societal and environmental cost of having unplanned pregnancies is at such a high rate — I think we’re still at 40% of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned. It affects poverty, it affects everything. It's so crazy. Obviously, I would like to see condoms everywhere, but also, I just hope that by the time I do, we’re not still fighting this same fight.