I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Braun Scherl, business builder, marketing strategist, public speaker and author. Rachel is the Cofounder and Managing Partner of SPARK Solutions for Growth, a strategic consultancy focused on driving revenue growth for Fortune 500 and venture-backed startups.
In addition to SPARK, now in its 20th year of business, Rachel built Semprae Laboratories, a company that developed and marketed sexual health and wellness products for women — creating a new category in the process. Semprae attracted significant media attention and industry interest and was sold to Innovus Pharmaceuticals in 2013.
As a nationally-known Vagipreneur®, Rachel’s work includes a wide range of women’s health and wellness companies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
In my family, we have what is called a summary rule — which means that the retelling of a story can’t take longer than the actual event. Given that I have been working a long, long time, that gives me about 25 years to tell my backstory, but I will be brief.
When I graduated from Stanford Business School, my objective was to run J&J. My first job was in product management on the storied TYLENOL brand. I adored that job. I felt as if I was working on the crown jewel of the company. And I was quite certain that I was working in healthcare. In fact, I have worked for or with Johnson & Johnson and alumni from there for 20 years. The relationships I formed there have been foundational to my entire career in terms of mentorship, business-building and clients, who have hired SPARK over and over as they move to new roles at other companies.
I moved from product management to consulting first for a large company and then a boutique — always parlaying the corporate relationships into client work. I learned a few core lessons very early on — I was great at building relationships, I loved to sell, and I was energized by solving complex problems.
I founded SPARK 20 years ago and built an international client base that includes multiple divisions of Johnson & Johnson, Allergan, Pfizer, Merck, Bayer and Church & Dwight. And then a decade ago, I had the opportunity to buy a product that improved arousal, desire and satisfaction for women. My partner and I raised venture capital, created a company, and a vagipreneur® was born. A NY Times journalist coined that term and since then it stuck to provide a great descriptor for a person in the business of female health.
Why did you found your company?
When I was working for a consulting company and worked on projects with Johnson & Johnson, I had my first child and traveled to Europe once a month for a week for 7 straight months with a baby at home. I remember thinking that if they were paying me $10M, the job still wouldn’t be worth it. I stumbled into entrepreneurship because I wanted to be more in control of my financial future. I wanted to have the choice to work only with people I respect on content I like. And today, I still love the thrill of running my own business.
What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
I focus on female sexual health, reproductive health and women’s wellness. I do growth strategy, and business development — and take operating roles in companies in all aspects of women’s health. This includes birth control, menstruation, disease prevention, fertility, pregnancy and arousal. As my now 19 year old son who has grown up with his mom in business of vaginas famously said, “for the love of God, can you work in a business, any business that is not in the underwear.” I spend a lot of time speaking publicly, loudly and passionately in an effort to drive the conversation around the business of female health in all of its complexity. We have been inundated with the words around male sexual health for decades — bigger, longer, stronger. And women do not think of sex or intimacy as a performance sport. For these businesses to grow, we need to be able to talk about them in language that is meaningful to women.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?
My dad’s voice has always been the voice that I hear in my head — even years after his death. His example guided me how to live, how to love, how to care, how to be kind, how to do good, how to build relationships, how to work hard, and how to make people laugh.
He faced life with a core set of unbreakable principles, and was the kindest, most loyal, smartest, brave person I know. He took the best scenes from every great sports movie and comedy and turned them into the ultimate reel of encouragement. He taught me to have “the eye of the tiger”, “to go the distance”, to not pick the “wrong day to give up sniffing glue”, and how to find the life applicability of literally any scene from Animal House.
How are you going to shake things up next?
I will keep fighting the good fight. I continue to connect start-ups with strategic partners. Ideally, I would love to merge a number of these smaller, fast-growing companies to provide the newer approach to women’s health we are moving towards by looking at women in their totality as opposed to a menstruating women, a women trying to have a baby, or someone entering menopause.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey?
Neither a borrower nor a lender be. Whenever I was going to embark on a new challenge or was going to do something I was scared of, my father would give me what came to be known as a Polonius. Polonius was chief counselor to the king in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As Polonius’s son Laertes, heads off to Paris, his father wants to impart words of wisdom as to how he should conduct himself in the world — how to listen, be responsible, be accountable for your actions and behave ethically. He wanted to arm his son with the tools to be a successful adult. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and “To thine own self be true.” He never let me embark on a new adventure without your version of a Polonius.
No Time Outs. No Substitutions: Growing up, movie night at my house was not only for Disney princesses or heartwarming, soft-focus, family-friendly, G-rated fare. No; our entertainment coordinator was my dad, and he was a huge fan of come-from-behind, dig-deep, take-all-comers sports-training movies — think Rocky (I-V), Rudy, Breaking Away, and Brian’s Song. His favorite, by far, and the one that most informed our life view was a film that starred James Caan — the brutal 1975 cult action/horror classic, Rollerball. Now, I am quite confident that this film is not appropriate family-bonding viewing for many families. But we were, and are, a competitive bunch.
In the film, the premise of Rollerball (the game) is simple and insane: men on roller skates, wearing spiked gloves, race around an inclined track, sometimes towed by other burly men on speeding motorcycles, engaging in a brutal, gladiatorial, deadly version of roller derby. Anything goes, including maiming or killing other players. Teams score by taking possession of and shooting goals with a solid, injury-inflicting silver ball. In fact, victory is not declared until the other team is entirely maimed or dead. (OK, I said it wasn’t The Sound of Music). And before every match, the rules of engagement are declared: “No time outs; no substitutions.”
Loosely translated by my dad? There is no quitting — period. There is no one on the bench to take your place. People are counting on you. Your success and the success of those around you depends on your efforts. You have to be 100 percent in the game. You have to play hard, and even more importantly, you have to play until you can’t play anymore. So, how does Rollerball apply to business and specifically, my experiences as a person in the business of female sexual health? My dad would say, “Once you’re in the game, you’re in it to win it. You have to be 100 percent in it, you have to play hard, and even more importantly, you have to play fair. You have to go to work every day, work as hard and as smart as you can until you can’t work anymore — and then get up the next day and do the same thing.”
3) Never, ever lose your sense of humor or sense of perspective. Business can be hard. Life can be hard. You will face challenges that seem insurmountable. You might find yourself on the receiving end of demeaning, sometimes even insulting remarks about you, your product, and the future prospects for your business. When that happens, you will need to dig deep and find your own coping mechanism. I always choose humor — anything that makes me laugh out loud, hard, and puts me at risk for a little accident. I often think of several famous lines from one of my all-time favorite movies, Airplane. As events start to go terribly wrong and it appears a plane crash is imminent, the chief air traffic controller, masterfully played by Lloyd Bridges, says, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop smoking.” And he lights up. At the next crisis point, he says, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop drinking.” Commence the pour. Finally, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.” Many were the days when that sentiment described how I felt during my own journeys, and tapping into humor kept me from becoming discouraged.
What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking?
I have a couple of go-to sources that I like to read or listen to everyday. I like to be inspired by people overcoming personal and professional adversity. I admire total guts and lack of fear. I have a few favorite TED Talks which motivate me to challenge myself — for example, Simon Sinek’s Start with Why. I try to challenge myself to always have an answer for that question for my business and my choices. What is the goal? What is the benefit to the company, customers or me? I also enjoy Cindy Gallop’s Ted Talk Make Love Not Porn which turned out to be the catalyst for the launch of her business. Cindy has a take no prisoners, fearless approach to her business and her life. Sometimes when I am in a challenging situation, I ask myself What Would Cindy Do (WWCD), dial it back to fit my style and then go.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
That is an easy one. I worship Oprah.
In fact, one of my favorite articles and one I speak on often was titled, “How To Find Your Leadership Voice Because Oprah’s is already taken.” Sure, she is extraordinarily successful and self-made. She has single-handedly revived entire industries and companies. She persevered through a childhood fraught with traumas and tests of will. But above all else, what I truly adore about Oprah is her ability to fit her content to her context. Oprah takes her real self everywhere she goes — and she goes a lot of places. She was and is just as authentic celebrating birthdays with her famous friends on their yachts as she is sympathetically hearing the painful stories that people share with her and an audience of millions, or as she is when she is opening a school in South Africa and changing the lives of girls, or sharing her lifelong struggle with weight. She has the Midas touch because she is insightful, smart, courageous, driven, and so totally human.
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Originally published at medium.com