Meika Hollender is the co-founder and marketing director of Sustain, a sustainable brand of sexual health products for women. Sustain empowers women to take control of their sexual health and wellness and helps communities understand how access to condoms impacts issues like hunger, health care, poverty and social justice. Ten percent of all proceeds benefit companies and organizations that support reproductive health.
Meika graduated in the spring of 2013 from New York University’s Stern School of Business, specializing in social impact and strategy. At Stern, she ran the Social Enterprise Association, where she worked closely with the administration and the career development office to help increase the focus on social impact and sustainability in the MBA curriculum and career development process. Meika previously worked at Sterling Brands, a brand strategy and design firm, where she focused on consumer packaged goods and pharmaceutical projects. During the summer of 2012, Meika worked in Johnson & Johnson’s consumer products division as a Sustainability Summer Associate. She is a co-author of the book “Naturally Clean.”
Meika Hollender, Co-Founder and Marketing Director of Sustain
What inspired you to start Sustain?
I actually started Sustain with my dad, who previously founded the natural products company Seventh Generation. My dad had an idea to create a sustainable condom company over 20 years ago, but didn’t pursue it at the time. Then a couple of years ago, when I was in business school, he and I revisited this idea. While we were putting together our business plan, we learned things like only 21% of single sexually active women use condoms regularly and we started to think about how we could create a business that removed the stigma around women buying and carrying condoms. We wanted to start a movement and a conversation among women around sex and sexual health in order to empower them to feel good about taking their sexual wellness into their own hands. By combining my family’s long history in creating better, safer, natural products and my personal passion for women’s sexual and reproductive rights, we created Sustain.
How would you describe Sustain in a few sentences?
Sustain is a sexual wellness brand that empowers women to take control of their sexual health. With all natural, organic products, aspirational content, and our 10%4women program, we enable women to get on top of their sexual health and wellness.
Sustain is marketed towards women. How did you decide to market towards females?
Here’s the reality: Only 21% of single, sexually active women use condoms regularly, 48% of pregnancies are unplanned, and 1 in 4 college freshman (female) will contract an STD. Yet 40% of condoms are purchased by women. In addition to that, society dictates that condoms, sex, and sexual health are still taboo topics for women. Because of this, we realized that there was a real opportunity in starting a conversation among, and creating products for, women in this space.
Why do you think there is a stigma around women having condoms?
For so many reasons, but one great example is that up until recently in New York City, a woman could be arrested for prostitution for carrying a condom and the condoms were used as evidence against her. We still live in such a patriarchal culture, where many ways women are still sexually repressed. Ask a woman why she doesn’t carry condoms and you’ll often hear, “Because I don’t want people to think I’m sleeping around.” First of all, if you’re being safe there’s nothing wrong with having multiple partners, and this is another example of how the stigma has influenced our mindset as women. Women have come so far when it comes to getting on top of their careers, and many aspects of their health, but when it comes to sex, society’s stereotypes still come into play.
What makes Sustain condoms different than other condoms?
Sustain is the only Fair Trade certified condom sold in the U.S. We are also only one of two brands that contain no detectable levels of a chemical called Nitrosamine. Nitrosamines are classified as a carcinogen and exist in tons of other products (food, personal care, etc.). Our condoms are also non-GMO, Vegan, and Bcrop certified. We’re also the only condom brand that lists all its ingredients on its packaging. We believe believe that consumers have a right to know what’s in their products and we’re committed to making the best condoms we can. I also think our packaging is pretty different!
What were the first logistical steps you took to start a business?
The first step was doing tons of research to understand the condom category and the supply chain.
Your co-founder is your dad. What advice do you have for other people who want to start a business with their parents?
I spoke with a lot of people who went into a family business and they all had very clear advice to never, ever do it. But I think it’s different for me because we are partners. He’s definitely the boss but we went into this together so we had to work out how to create a professional relationship and maintain a personal relationship to be business partners as well as father and daughter. That took work and we both stayed committed to keeping both of those relationships strong and healthy and evolving them. Because we made that investment up front, it’s definitely been more smooth sailing. Definitely more smooth than I ever expected!I’m a very impulsive person; when something goes wrong I want to fix it immediately rather than take a step back and look at the big picture. My dad has taught me the value of reflection and thoughtfulness.
What is a day as Meika like? Please walk me through a day!
Every day is different, especially because I spend a big chunk of time on the road. But when I am in NYC:
- Wake up at 7:00-7:30am
- Eat breakfast (Protein!)
- Exercise – Pilates, modelFIT, or Core Fusion (Preferably with a friend!)
- Head to the office – Spend a couple of hours glued to my desk and taking calls
- Afternoons – Usually packed with meetings
Whenever possible I love to go to Whole Foods around 5:30pm, head home, and then prepare dinner on the early side. I love and need this hour or so at the end of the day, (especially if I have more work to get to) so I can clear my head, and do something where I can’t check my email. Then I get back on my computer for an hour or two until my boyfriend gets home, and then I make him keep me company while I finish making dinner.
After dinner, I plug in my phone in my bedroom and spend an hour or two away from my phone so I can spend time with my boyfriend, watch TV, and just wind my mind down before I go to bed.
What has been your proudest moment from your career so far?
It’s the little moments for me, like receiving an 8 page handwritten letter from a young woman in Japan about why Sustain really resonates with her. That makes me extremely proud.
One moment in particular though that stands out. I was keynoting a talk at Sustainable Brands last year with my father. My dad is one of the people that founded the sustainability movement over 30 years ago. He is so respected in the space, and being on stage with him to speak together was something I am incredibly proud of.
What have you learned about yourself since founding Sustain?
Reflect, don’t react. I’m a very impulsive person; when something goes wrong I want to fix it immediately rather than taking a step back and looking at the big picture. My dad has taught me the value of reflection and thoughtfulness.
What is the most important characteristic that someone needs to be successful in your role?
What has been the biggest challenge and, on the flip side, the biggest reward of starting Sustain?
The biggest challenge for me has been constantly trying to manage my time in a way where I feel like I’m doing the most important things to help the business move forwards. As much as I love being out on the streets and in our stores talking to young women, that’s not always the best use of my time!
The biggest reward has been talking to all the young women who buy our products, and who are proud to take control of this aspect of their health!
Sustain has had such amazing press. What PR advice do you have for other business owners?
Have a real and authentic story. I wake up in the morning and do what I do because when I hear things like Planned Parenthood might be getting defunded, or a 13-year old couldn’t access an abortion clinic because she lived too far from one and now she’s becoming a mother, I believe that it’s best possible way I can contribute to changing these stories.
Sustain helps people make connections between condoms and social justice issues like hunger, health care, poverty, sustainability, social inequity. How is Sustain more than a business—it’s a movement?
Coming from Seventh Generation, we wanted create a product that had the most positive impact possible. So when you think about condoms: We can’t live without condoms, they’re a critical product. But they are also harmful: They can have toxic chemicals and casein which is an animal bi-product. Sustain’s condoms are made from natural latex, which is the back of the rubber tree and is a renewable resource. So we’re vegan, doing very little harm, and creating very little waste.
My dad had always thought about making more eco-friendly products. But he wanted to create a product that had a net positive impact. When you think about a condom, yes you have to use energy to produce it. Yes, you have to ship it to the U.S. And yes, they don’t biodegrade, they create some form of waste. But when you think about the power of the condom in preventing H.I.V. and STDs, and allowing women to plan their pregnancies, and helping reduce the speed of overpopulation, it’s just amazing.
If you look at the statistics around women who have access to, and use, contraception, their lives are just so much better than women who don’t have access. We were really able to reinvent the supply chain and invent the most sustainable condom. But the other aspect is, it’s really hard to think of another product that is so critical. We can’t live without these condoms – well, we could – but the world would be a scary place.
You’re passionate about women’s empowerment. What role does women’s empowerment have on Sustain?
We are trying to empower women in multiple ways. By providing women with safer more natural options packaged in a way that speaks and appeals to them, we are making safe sex more aspirational and accessible for women. We use our content, voice, and social media presence to have conversations about sex and sexual health in a way that is relatable, real, and always has a sense of humor. Content is critical in order for us to educate women about so many issues in this space that have previously been taboo. As part of founding Sustain, we also started 10%4Women, a program through which we give 10% of our profits to women’s health organizations in the U.S.
Please tell us about your 10%4Women Program.
10%4 Women was created by my mother Sheila Hollender, another Sustain co-Founder, when we founded the company. At Sustain, we understand that we cannot solve major issues like access to reproductive healthcare on our own. We need to enlist and support other established experts in this space in order to have the type of impact we want to have. 10%4 Women means a lot to me, especially right now. It is more important than ever to support organizations like Planned Parenthood in order to make sure all young women in this country have the access to the healthcare they deserve.
What is on your desk right now?
Our new packaging designs, tons of product, tulips, and my iPhone.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Reflect, don’t react.”
What are you reading right now?
“Purity” by Jonathan Franzen
What is your career advice for other young professional women?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and ask for help. Starting out, I thought I had to have it all figured out, otherwise no one would take me seriously. However, being humble and asking for help goes a long way.