#SWAAYthenarrative

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

People

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.”

5 Min Read
Culture

Black Wall Street: The Story of One Black American Superhero

Like so many millions across the globe, I deeply mourn the loss of one of our greatest real-life superheroes, Chadwick Boseman. To pay tribute and homage to him, my family rewatched his amazing performance in Black Panther. T'Challa was one of Boseman's most important roles both on and off the screen, as his portrayal of the heroic warrior and leader of the people of Wakanda inspired viewers of all ages.

Re-visiting the futuristic city of Wakanda on screen caused me to reflect on how Blacks in America once had our own version of Wakanda: Black Wall Street. Black Wall Street was the name given to the wealthy, thriving, Tulsa, Oklahoma neighborhood of Greenwood in the early 1900s. The nearly 40 square-block neighborhood had more than 300 businesses and over 1,000 homes, including several stately mansions. Like Wakanda, Black people in Greenwood built their own hospitals, schools, theaters, newspapers, churches, and everything needed for their community to flourish.

Tragically, he lost everything he built, as did the entire district of Greenwood, in the largest, government-sanctioned race massacre in U.S. history.

With only 42 years separating the moment Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and Greenwood's founding, the amazing feat of Blacks building Black Wall Street is something that required supernatural acts of real-life superheroes the likes of which we see onscreen in Black Panther.

One of these real-life superheroes and leaders of Black Wall Street was my great-grandfather A.J. Smitherman, owner and editor of the Tulsa Star. The Tulsa Star was the first daily Black newspaper with national distribution and was a source for Black people to stay informed about issues affecting them throughout the US. A member of the first generation of Blacks born free in the late 1800s, Smitherman attended La Salle and Northwestern Universities. After receiving his law degree, A.J. began his career in community activism, politics, and the newspaper business.

A fearless leader in the Black community not just in Tulsa but throughout the nation, he dedicated his life to empowering his race in all categories of life in every way: morally, economically, physically, and politically. A.J. fiercely and courageously used his newspaper and the power of the press to end a myriad of corrupt operations and develop his community. As one of the most influential founding fathers of Black Wall Street, his contribution and investment in Greenwood was and is immeasurable. Tragically, he lost everything he built, as did the entire district of Greenwood, in the largest, government-sanctioned race massacre in U.S. history.

Unlike Wakanda—the fictional land hidden in the mountains of Africa, mostly invisible to the outside world and protected from foreign threats—Greenwood was exposed. Greenwood was not only visible, but the 11,000 residents and their luxurious lifestyle were a constant reminder to their poor white neighbors across the tracks that Black people had surpassed them in economic empowerment and success. Eventually, the jealousy, greed and contempt for the growing Black economic and political power ignited a horrendously evil act of domestic terrorism by white Tulsans.

A.J. fiercely and courageously used his newspaper and the power of the press to end a myriad of corrupt operations and develop his community.

On May 31st, 1921, thousands systematically looted and burned down Greenwood in a 36 hour-long massacre resulting in the murdering of over 300 Blacks. Thousands more were detained in concentration camps where they remained for months through the freezing Oklahoman winter.

In a recent interview, I was asked what goes through my head when I see the racial unrest taking place today and compare it to what was happening 100 years ago leading up to the Tulsa Massacre. The short answer is that I am incredibly sad. I'm sad for so many reasons. One of the things I am saddest about is knowing that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother sacrificed everything for the betterment and empowerment of their race. And after all of these years, the struggle continues.

I believe that now, more than ever, it is so important to maintain not only our hope but our faith.

A.J. Smitherman's writings in both the Tulsa Star, and thereafter in the Empire Star, a paper he founded later in New York, reveal a man full of hope and ambition to make a difference and contribute to his race and his country as part of the first generation of Blacks born free. He worked tirelessly to this end until the day he died in 1961. Tragically, A.J. died still a fugitive of the state of Oklahoma, having been unjustly indicted by a grand jury for inciting the massacre. This is another point of tremendous pain and grief for me and my family. It is a travesty that he never saw justice in his lifetime, and he furthermore never saw his dream of racial equality.

But perhaps what saddens me most is the fact that I truly believe that in his heart, he still had hope that America was on a path to find its way out of its dark past and into the light of a new dawn. He hoped that the nation would one day become a country where his descendants would no longer be subject to racial hatred, discrimination, and economic disenfranchisement. And I'm certain that he believed the days that Black people would fear being lynched would be long gone by now.

One of the things I am saddest about is knowing that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother sacrificed everything for the betterment and empowerment of their race. And after all of these years, the struggle continues.

I can feel A.J.'s blood in my veins, and I feel a responsibility to carry the torch of the light of hope. I believe that now, more than ever, it is so important to maintain not only our hope but our faith. I'm very grateful for the attention being brought to the legacy of Black Wall Street and A.J. Smitherman. Knowing their story of success and triumph and how it tragically turned to massacre and destruction is vital to insuring history doesn't continue to repeat itself 100 years later.

One thing I know for certain is that building a brighter future will require all of us to summon our own inner superhero, like A.J. Smitherman and Chadwick Boseman before us, and work together to continue to fight for our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.