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“It is okay to be real and vulnerable with your team”, With Douglas Brown and Allison Watkins-Conti

It is okay to be real and vulnerable with your team. I think that most CEOs have this idea that we must play a certain role as a leader. Be strong and bold and don’t take any crap from people, which in some ways is very true. But I also believe that the human part, being […]

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It is okay to be real and vulnerable with your team.

I think that most CEOs have this idea that we must play a certain role as a leader. Be strong and bold and don’t take any crap from people, which in some ways is very true. But I also believe that the human part, being completely real with your team is very important as well. It is OK to let your guard down sometimes and show your team that you are a real person. They then become more comfortable sharing themselves with you and the working relationship grows into something meaningful where everyone wants to win a little more, because at the end of the day — you’re in it together.


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Allison Watkins-Conti, an award-winning inventor and platform women’s healthcare executive dedicated to bringing progressive, innovative personal care products that address common, taboo issues to women. She founded her company and earned her first patent after solving the debilitating issue of involuntary urine leakage, which affects one in three women worldwide. Currently, she is developing additional products for quality-of-life-related issues and employs some of the top industry leaders in the United States.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

At 29 years old, I went to boot camp to get back into shape after my son was born. We did several burpees, jumping jacks, etc., and I was wearing light grey sweatpants. Why do I remember this detail? I’ll never forget, after the workout I was deep into my stretch and when I looked down, pee was running down both sides of my legs! I had absolutely no clue that I had leaked all over myself — I was so embarrassed. I stood up, tail-tucked and ran to my car. I never went back to that boot camp; and worked out from home from that point forward. I slowly started to gain weight as a result and noticed that when I sneezed or laughed too hard at book club, a little urine would leak. Little did I know that this was a chronic problem that would continue. Five years later, I gave birth to a beautiful 11+ lb. baby — no that is not a typo. Even though I did not deliver her vaginally, my leakage brought me to the point of depression. I was ashamed, concerned with odor, uncomfortable in bulky pads, and constantly covering my body in baggy clothes. I went through pelvic floor rehabilitation and spoke with several doctors. The therapy was not effective for me, so my other options at the time were either pads or surgery. I had seen all the transvaginal mesh surgery lawsuits on television commercials, so there was no way in hell I was going that route. With this massive gap in the marketplace, I started staying up all night studying and realized I had to create the solution I was so desperately seeking. So, I created Yoni.Fit — a 100% medical-grade silicone vaginal insert that gently places pressure on the urethral sphincter, which prevents leakage. Easily inserted like a tampon, the device can be worn all day or during exercise. You do not have to remove it to urinate and it’s super comfortable, because you don’t know it’s there.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Honestly, the most interesting part for me has been the personal journey … this whole “leaning into my vulnerability” bit. Who wants to be the urine leakage lady!?! I do not have a college degree, so when I started raising money for this ridiculously ambitious product idea and start a medical device company, I knew the success of my product depended on me telling my story — the personal part — to the world.

I have always had body image issues, and never felt comfortable in my skin. Shame with this stigma of urinary incontinence can be unbearable. Can you imagine being in a room full of people, and all of a sudden basically having to deal with a bunch of urine, whether it’s all over your clothes or soaking a giant pad in your nether region? Gross. However, when I realized that an estimated ONE in THREE women deal with this, I knew I had to do something about it. I always say it was an argument with God in the beginning, which basically means this is a 100-percent, faith-driven project.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I made a funny mistake while trying to raise money: I went to a conference in New York City and presented to about 250 investment bankers — I was so nervous. I had never spoken to that many people, much less about such a vulnerable subject. I cried during my presentation while discussing my leakage issues. When I announced that I had a solution, the room erupted in applause. Several of those bankers professionally courted me following the presentation, and I received multiple offers. I was so thankful my brother accompanied me on that trip because one of those investment bankers took me to dinner at his country club, and repeatedly asked me to give him five percent of my company for pledging to introduce me to important people. When you are novice and working on such a taboo, personal product, you’re simply in awe that they want a piece; it’s hard to decipher peoples’ intentions. This leads me to the lesson learned: Not all money is good money.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

The toughest thing that I have faced during this journey was divorce. There is something safe and insulating about being in a marriage. With the divorce, suddenly not only am I the “urine leakage lady” scarred with body image issues after having an 11+ lb. baby, but now I am single! EXCELLENT (insert sarcastic tone). I’ll never forget: The final threat of divorce happened the day I was leaving for the most important meeting in my career. Interestingly, on my flight to New York that day, I knew I had to pull myself together because my meeting was that evening, so I just started talking to the man sitting next to me on the airplane. I never mentioned a thing about my personal drama that day and ended up closing a 500,000 dollars commitment with him months later. I thought to myself: If I can do that, I can do anything. I have not considered giving up because I simply have too much skin in the game. I have children that are completely dependent on me and close friends and family as investors — and of course don’t forget my deal with God! This is my calling and my purpose.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I first began this project, I spoke to my mom and brother about it at the Thanksgiving dinner table. They were the first to support me and are still my rocks to this day.

Then I started talking to doctors under an NDA, which felt super egotistical asking them to sign. I saw the lightbulb go off in their heads after sharing the prototype though, and it gave me the confidence that I was onto something. The one thing the doctors kept saying is that I would need FDA approval, which was difficult and costly. With the help of my beautiful and supportive mother, we flew to D.C. and she stayed with my then one year old while I attended a public conference at the FDA. I was an hour early to that conference the first day, which is where I met Gina Ferriere on a bench in the waiting room. She told me that she was shown how to get regulatory clearance by a very generous woman, and that if I promise to give back what she has taught me, she would help me. She has been with me for almost six years and we have developed a strong friendship and working relationship. You never know who God will drop next to you in the waiting room.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The same God that made you made me. Fear no one.”

When you have an ambitious, personal idea, it can be hard to speak to people about it. Especially experts who could either validate or crush your concept. It was strange for me to ask doctors to sign an NDA so I could present this concept when I literally had no background or formal education in medicine. I kept reminding myself of a line from an old Elvis recording, “the same God that made you made them too,” and somehow that made it feel okay not to know everything. That is how we learn and collaborate — work with people more educated than ourselves in sectors that apply to our project. If you don’t ask for help, how can you advance? Don’t be scared, be humble and willing to learn and team up in a mutually beneficial manner, and all will work out.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address? What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Most medical device and direct-to-consumer product companies develop solutions based on market size and profit margins. They may capitalize on existing assets and focus on segments that make the most sense for their existing models, etc., approaching things with intentions to drive revenue.

However, this was not about the money for me; this was about solving my own debilitating problem. I painstakingly searched for a solution for myself, and when I could not find one, I developed my own. It was only then that I learned about the market and its massive size. It was a relief to know that so many (one in three) women experience the same leakage issue, and it also became a enormous responsibility at the same time. Since I am personally impacted by the problem that my product solves, quality and efficacy came far before the money. Addressing the opportunity from this perspective is where true innovation happens, and in turn, a disruption in the marketplace that is sure to drive revenue.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are working on some fun new projects. Having this first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to deal with taboo subjects, I am expanding our portfolio into other taboo pain points. For example, we are developing an at-home sexually transmitted infection diagnosis kit, a product for the treatment of yeast infections, menstrual care products, a vaginal pain product, and other diagnostic opportunities. We are always working to think of ways to improve the consumer experience.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

This may not be the most popular answer to your question but of course I am not satisfied with the status quo … I am also not ok with constantly talking about it.

To disrupt the status quo, we need to stop reminding everyone how disadvantaged we are and stop complaining about unfairness. We need to start living in the power that we do have. “Present yourself as an equal,” is what I say. Rather than complain, be bold and represent your worth unemotionally and unapologetically, and get your business done. Focus on how people in the room can benefit from whatever you’re doing. If they treat you differently because of your gender, race, sexual orientation, or age, then move on. Those people are not meant for you. Be a bulldog and partner with those that care. There are plenty of us to join forces with — and we are making progress every day.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I think that we are often categorized as being overly emotional and unable to handle our responsibilities as a gender, and it is amplified when we have families. I believe the only way to combat this misconception is to prove them wrong by action, which speaks so much louder than words. If we all support and lift each other up, we can do anything! Women have been competing for years for the board seat or promotion. Ladies, we need to realize that we should not be competing with one another. Let’s change the status quo by joining forces — in our own good ‘ol girls club.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

My advice is to step away for a moment. Leave for the weekend and try to meditate on the present. You would be amazed at what comes to you if you take a moment to nurture your mind and body. Focus on your own mental stability and health. Breathe some fresh air and don’t think about work. When you come back to your professional focus, you’ll be amazed at how letting go propels ideation and stamina.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

I do not have experience at creating a high-performing sales team, but I am preparing. I was recently speaking with a brilliant friend who currently runs a team of about 400 people, down several hundred sadly, due to the coronavirus. When I asked him how he does it, his advice was this, “You find a high-level management team that you trust, and approach them with the mentality that they do not work for you, but rather you work for them.” It trickles down through the company and that is how you build a successful team. I have started to implement this mindset for myself with my own tiny team and I do feel like the morale has improved, and everyone is more motivated to get things done. I look forward to seeing how things progress with the company as a result.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

In my industry, the vulnerability that comes with the problems we are solving is definitely the most impactful facet. We are fortunate to have very brave women sharing their stories about urine leakage, coupled with the positive impact our product has had on their lives, both mentally and physically. These genuine, authentic stories have resonated the most with the public and attracted the right people to our project.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Research, research, research.

1. Do not assume that you know what your customer wants.

2. Listen to them and develop your products and marketing lexicon accordingly.

3. Pay attention to all facets of the journey your consumer goes through.

In healthcare, it’s the entire journey — from the indication of a problem, to the thought process when making a decision, to the moment that they convert to purchasing our solution, to why they keep coming back. Focus on all of it, making sure to ask a diverse population — as we are all so very different in reality.

In the beginning, because I was personally impacted by this issue, I assumed that everyone was like me. Now that I have listened to my customer and the physicians that treat them, I have been able to modify the go-to-market plan, packaging, instructions and content to be inclusive of as many leaking women as possible in a manner that is most meaningful to the consumers journey as a whole.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

We are not there yet being pre-FDA approval, but my plan is to continually innovate for a diverse population, and never stop. Even when you have a great product, the world and the end user continue to evolve. We have an array of ancillary products under development to positively impact the consumer experience when using our products. We are developing these for consumers ranging from highly affluent to those on a tight, fixed income. This is where listening to customer feedback is the most beneficial from a retention standpoint. This also creates multiple recurring revenue streams which is valuable for our business model.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. If you wait until you are ready, you will never begin.

I think that most entrepreneurs are passionate, and a bit perfectionistic. The thing is, that as soon as you put the last period on your business plan, it changes. If you wait until you think it is perfect, you will never start — because it will never be perfect. The market is constantly changing, and we must also adjust accordingly. Which leads me to number 2.

2. You must be malleable.

I think that all entrepreneurs have an authentic hunger for learning. We focus on hiring people that know more than us. We are always willing to learn and grow — that makes the most successful leaders, in my opinion. As result, we are constantly changing, growing and improving. It takes a certain mindset to be the one in charge knowing that you do not know everything — and that’s okay.

3. When fundraising, not all money is good money.

When you are working on a passion project, and you are ALL IN — and you’ve been continuously pitching to companies and individuals that say they are interested but then never move — and you FINALLY have an offer — be careful not to just take the money out of desperation. Consider the people with which you are working. Do you work well together? Do you trust them? Are they difficult and demanding? When you accept an investment for your company, it is essentially like a marriage. You are tied to the investor and will be answering to them for the life of the company. Make sure you are good with where the money is coming from and that it’s a mutually beneficial deal before signing on the dotted line.

4. It is okay to be real and vulnerable with your team.

I think that most CEOs have this idea that we must play a certain role as a leader. Be strong and bold and don’t take any crap from people, which in some ways is very true. But I also believe that the human part, being completely real with your team is very important as well. It is OK to let your guard down sometimes and show your team that you are a real person. They then become more comfortable sharing themselves with you and the working relationship grows into something meaningful where everyone wants to win a little more, because at the end of the day — you’re in it together.

5. You work for your people, not the other way around.

This came from a friend and I really think it is profound. I have found myself saying, “oh yes — she works for me” and looking back there actually isn’t mush that is further from the truth. My team and I work together, and if I am not working for them, then they are much less productive. It is my responsibility to provide the team with the resources that they need to be successful while ensuring that they are comfortable coming to me with their needs. The reality is that I work for them if we are all going to be successful.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could change anything about this world it would be our definition of beauty.

When did wrinkles become a negative thing? How did grey hair suddenly become something to be ashamed of? Why isn’t wisdom and aging sexy? Why aren’t stretch marks badges of honor? We earned them! Why does our society have a youth obsession? The ridiculous standards that we have set for what true beauty is makes me sad. I think that the filters on our phone and on social media alter our perception of beauty. For hundreds of years, the world has been obsessed with youth. Who said youth is the only form of beauty? Who said skinny is beautiful? I am all for healthy living and feeling as good as we can for as long as we can, so please don’t get me wrong. I also wear make-up to enhance my natural features and I love a good dress and sexy high heels; but the truth of the matter is that our body is simply the vessel of the soul. Can we please just focus on the soul as the definition of beauty? The person on the inside.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Without a doubt it would be Oprah Winfrey. The fact that she was raised into poverty by a single teen mother, molested as a young girl, having lost her own child as a teen, and has still managed to become one of the most influential people in the world is astounding to me. The strength she must have in her soul is beyond my comprehension. She defines the word trailblazer. I have admired her my entire life. I have many memories of watching her on the television as a little girl and into adulthood. It is remarkable how she has managed to do so much good in the world despite her hard-hitting upbringing. Oprah is a true a hero to me and it would be an honor to meet her.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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