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.”
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.”
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.