In the 1975 cult classic Rollerball, premised on a fictional sport that could be described as a spiky, no-holds-barred roller derby, the rules, in toto, are simple: “No timeouts, no substitutions.”
Replayed countless times growing up, the line is seared into the brain of Rachel Braun Scherl, becoming a mantra that’s emblematic of the grit that’s long put the multipronged marketer, author, and frequent keynote speaker at the intersection of all things #femtech, #sextech and #orgasmicleadership.
“We’d always been in the business of building brands and businesses, and you’re always looking for a category that’s emotionally engaging,” she says. “It turns out, there’s very little that’s as emotionally engaging as people’s sex lives.”
As co-founder and managing partner of SPARK Solutions for Growth, a strategic consultancy now 20 years strong, she’s been in the game long enough to see that in women’s sexual health, a new playing field is emerging—and with it, perhaps, new rules. One thing is clear: There’s no stopping now.
We caught up with the self-described Vagipreneur to talk about the whirlwind moment in women’s health and what makes her tick.
Women’s sexual health can be a wild biz. How does it differ from other industries?
There is so much societal discomfort with the complex reality—the complex beauty—of women’s health. Last I saw, fewer than 25 states in the country require sex ed, and a subset of those don’t require it to be medically or factually accurate. So we don’t have the education the way we used to, which means we don’t have the language. At the same time, we have ubiquitous access to porn, which is becoming the de facto sex education, and we have people from many cultural backgrounds have different feelings about the role of intimacy and sexuality, so we’ve created this environment where it’s very difficult to have a conversation. Add to that, we’re becoming more and more knowledgeable about the spectrum of sexual identity, so what we’re working with is a little bit antiquated.
What makes the space especially challenging?
One of the big issues has been access. It’s still quite difficult getting advertisements on the content channels you want. When I started in this space, we went to 100 outlets—network, cable, website, radio—and 95% of the time, people essentially said, “No, we don’t want your money to advertise this product.” So here we’re saying it’s fine having every kid on the planet know what it is to have a four-hour erection, but we can’t say anything about a vagina or sexuality or orgasm or lubrication. For example, back in the day we couldn’t even get ads on Lifetime, yet somehow we’re totally comfortable watching the Superbowl on CBS and seeing those ads. So there’s a huge disparity between men’s and women’s advertising.
Similarly, so many female health companies cannot get their products approved on Facebook, and especially the ones targeted to women 35-plus, where it is a primary source of where they get their information. And when you look at the way Facebook classifies its advertising, erectile dysfunction is placed under family planning. So while the algorithms are perhaps applied with discipline, the underlying thought process behind the algorithm shows a disparate attitude.
You’ve seen tons of sex products for women. Where does Vella fit in?
Let’s start with the fact that it’s a clinically proven product, which is something very few products can say. It has CBD that was designed by a brilliant scientist who’s as well renowned in sexual health as anybody on the planet, so it’s not just someone slapping some more CBD into another product. It’s an extension of the personality and gestalt of the company, whose DNA is based on creating incredibly well-designed, scientifically proven products.
The work of an entrepreneur in a burgeoning industry never stops. What keeps you sane?
I spend a lot of my weekends watching my kids play college squash. I also love cross training and watching classic comedies, movies, and Broadway shows. I’ve seen Chorus Line 11 times, and I could see Wicked every day. I don’t sing or dance, so I’m always amazed at the level of talent, and the production behind telling a story on stage—it’s an incredibly complex business I’m always blown away by. And with a lot of the things I like to do, I like to be taken away and focus on something else.
The other thing is, my mother always said when I was growing up, if you need to recharge, go outside yourself and do something for somebody else. So I also like to volunteer or help somebody out who needs help. But I don’t do all of those every day obviously. I don’t want to pretend that I wake up, save the world, exercise, and then run businesses. But laughter and exercise are the two primary things I do to keep myself on track.
What do you wish you knew?
I wish I had a magic wand.
Over the course of my career, I’ve seen hundreds of businesses, and sometimes I see things and say, I wish I understood what was motivating about that. Right now we’re in a market where every day, people are being inundated with new products, and not all rise to the top. And sometimes it’s better marketing, and sometimes it’s a better product, and sometimes it’s better management, and sometimes it’s a combination. But sometimes there are these products where I just say, I don’t get it. What did those people know? So I guess I wish I could predict what’s going to happen many years from now. It would’ve been amazing to have been a part of the team that said the internet is going to change the world, or to be Steve Jobs when he predicted we’d be in a world where devices were all connected. He had a vision into the future that, in my experience, very few people have. So to be hyper prescient, to be able to see things not years in advance, but decades in advance.
Magic wand pending, what would you say about the future of this industry?
I think there will be a lot of shakeups, as with any industry that’s growing, and I think it’s the same with CBD. Not all the businesses are going to survive. What I think is the most important, and what is really relevant, is you really do want to know products that work. CBD is in everything, which may be good, it may be terrible. But what really differentiates Vella is it has science behind it. People know CBD works for a lot of things, but it hasn’t been proven for all those things.
One of the great things about being in this space is that it attracts interesting, dynamic, hard-working people. It’s incredibly collaborative. Competitors work together to get important messages out about access or about the right language, or about advertising. It’s an exciting space to be in.