Cindy Whitehead On Sex, Drugs and Her Billion-Dollar Acquisition

Cindy Whitehead On

Sex, Drugs and Her $1B Acquisition

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For Cindy Whitehead, looking through rose-colored glasses is a way of life.

Known for her liberal use of the color pink across her businesses as well as her wardrobe, Whitehead is passionate about equalizing the playing field between genders when it comes to sexual health.

“There’s a narrative in society that really thinks that all [problems] in the bedroom for men are biology–as witnessed by all the drugs that have been approved–and all the [problems] in the bedroom for women are psychology,” says Whitehead, who brought to market the first female libido drug, Addyi in 2015. “The truth is both genders bring both things into the bedroom, and women weren’t having their needs met in terms of biological dysfunction.”

It was precisely this issue which got Whitehead, a lifelong pharma-tech entrepreneur, thinking about the disparities in the sexual health industry, and how she could effectively address them with a pink-hued pill she launched via her parent company, Sprout Pharmaceuticals.

“There were 26 drugs approved by the FDA for the male libido and not a single one until last year for women,” says Whitehead. “I didn’t care about having the next blockbuster drug. I cared that women didn’t have a choice for a medical condition that we’d known about since 1977. I thought if someone can break the door open, many treatments would come.”

After studying the drug on 11,000 women, Whitehead was convinced that it would help women with low sex drive get in the mood to be with their partners. The greater medical community, however, wasn’t. Whitehead says that despite the medical results, she kept hearing “no” from pharmaceutical companies.

Keep funding until you find the double bottom line investor who is not about the financial return but about the social aspect of what you’re trying to achieve.

“Watching this great science emerge in terms of our understanding of desire in women but watching company after company turn and walk away, it was very clear to me that it wasn’t on the basis of science, it really was the narrative,” says Whitehead. “The average new drug approval is [dependent on studies involving] 760 patients and of those 26 drugs for men on the market, none of them had a data set as large as we did at the time they got their approval.”

“It doesn’t always work out”

Once she finally received FDA approval in August, 2015, Whitehead decided to sell her company to Valeant Pharmaceuticals for $1 billion, with the hope that her brand would be built into a women’s healthcare platform, which she says “didn’t end up happening.” According to various medical sources, Addyi has been disappointing in terms of sales, attributed in part to a lack of support from Valeant.

“The original idea [was] to keep all my team, and we would get to build it and add more things in women’s health, but it doesn’t always work out,” says Whitehead. “A decentralized organization where we would be a division ultimately became centralized and that was philosophically different than what we agreed.”

Unapologetically Pink

Just a few months after the sale of Sprout, Whitehead decided it was time to help other women making a difference through entrepreneurship through her newest venture, The Pink Ceiling.

“Either through strategy, consulting, or investment, we look at [female-founded] businesses that are really propelling breakthroughs for women, and particularly those that may change the social conversation, those are things we get really excited about,” says Whitehead, who is particularly focused on female scientists and engineers.

Among the businesses that the Pink Ceiling is investing in is Undercover Colors, a unique wearable nail polish technology company, whose products change color if the date rape drug is detected. The accelerator also works with a female sleep scientist, and a mechanical engineer who is developing a biometric sensor for athletes.

“My biggest takeaway is when you are on the side of right you will win,” she says. Ultimately science won in my case and so did women.”

“Entrepreneurship is here to stay,” says Whitehead, who adds that she plans to open a ‘pinkubator’ community outpost for networking. “You should always have a mindset to disrupt. We have not established a culture and it will continue to grow.”

According to Whitehead, one of the biggest issues plaguing female entrepreneurs is the lack of honest feedback from investors and advisers.

For entrepreneurs when you hit the rough points you got to remember the ride,” she says. “If you laugh it off and chock it up it will become part of the folklore and the fun of the ultimate success.

“There needs to be this candor right now with women entrepreneurs,” she said. “It’s so great we’re having a moment. It’s so great that there are so many resources going there but we must be honest with each other. We must say ‘sugar doesn’t sell for a billion dollar.’”

She’s also unique in her view of mentorship.

“I’m a little bit of the anti-mentor,” says Whitehead. “My idea is we talk about mentorship like ‘find the person who did something’ and just look to them. I think mentors are all around you all the time, to your left and to your right. People can teach you every day from a lot of walks of life.”

To that end, Whitehead explains that throughout her career she had a multidisciplinary approach to her businesses, looking to various industries and companies (like Zappos and QVC) for insight and inspiration.

“You find mentors in different disciplines. You find mentors who are younger than you, so along the way I think it was the curiosity that kept me finding people who would teach me.” she says.

She also believes that the “Shark Tank Silicone Valley” culture of startups paints a misleading picture in terms of what female founders can expect. “It’s not to be a unicorn it’s to be a workhorse,” she says. “You have to show up every day and do the work.”

Belisa Silva

Belisa is an editor with more than 10 years of experience. Prior to SWAAY, she worked as freelance writer, covering lifestyle, fashion and beauty industries. Belisa was a Market Editor at Women's Wear Daily for five years, where she interviewed rockstar business women like Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez and Iman. Belisa also contributes to Cosmetic Executive Women, where she highlights female executives making an impact in the beauty industry.

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