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May 9, 2018

Cindy Whitehead is an American entrepreneur who built and sold two pharmaceutical companies. She subsequently founded The Pink Ceiling which invests in companies founded by, or delivering products for, women. The Pink Ceiling’s incubator - dubbed The Pinkubator - is based in Raleigh, NC. Cindy recalls her journey from working in Fortune's most admired company to building Sprout Pharmaceuticals, creator of “female Viagra”. She shares her top tips on how to be successful as a female entrepreneur and founder. Tune in to the latest episode of Wonder podcast!



Timestamped Show Notes:

01:14 Built and sold two successful pharmaceutical companies.
The last being Sprout pharmaceuticals, which was known for bringing what the media called female Viagra to market.
It wasn’t the female Viagra at all, actually it works on the brain, but what was the first ever drug for sexual desire in women.
The drug caused quite a public conversation to get there and ultimately ended up in a billion dollar transaction.

03:00 My two big brothers who would say I was going to be an entrepreneur because from the time I was little, I used to play games in which I started companies because it was my only mechanism to get my older brothers to play with me. So I would start in businesses, one of which I think I delivered things from the refrigerator to them on the couch -- not much of a business, but certainly, a good, a good opportunity to interact.

03:53 Choosing to work for Merck pharmaceuticals, fortune's most admired company at the time -- if I go and learn from Fortune's most admired company, I can take those skills anywhere. And the lesson to me in getting into that environment is I didn't fit in.

04:52 One of my big brothers had been very successful in the dot com era and had told me go smaller because they're gonna ask you to do things you will have never done before and you're going to say yes and you're going to learn along the way. And I think the curious mind can be fostered in those environments, I was given the tools and in fact the ability to spot people like me, the misfits, if you will, in classic cultures to come join me and start from scratch.

06:48 When I ultimately got this drug approved for women, a concept that no big Pharma had been able to do--I think it boiled down to this in its most basic form. I listened to women and when I listened to women it inspire other people to listen to women and all of the value judgements that were being made about how important it was to treat this dysfunction, a female sexuality. It started to go out the window when there was empathy. We in fact looked at the data before there was that lens of empathy. Nobody was looking at the data.

08:05 Why do people break rules, they break rules because of self gain, or some kind of power/status. I think the real game changers break rules on the basis of empathy.

09:29 How did you grow your business? So you first came up with this amazing idea because you listened. What was the next step?

09:39 So my, I'll give you a one word answer and my one word answer of how did you build your business is unconventionally...I think there are many paths in which you can get money. Money is available, money is out there for you. What they're doing is finding their way to you. You are actually the more unique asset, if you will, because people aren't investing in ideas alone. Ideas don't execute themselves. People execute ideas. And so that's really what they're making the decision on. And I think as I built mine, it was finding folks who understood me, understood the kind of culture that I was going to create in my organization and the mission that I was very deeply passionate about. So in an industry which is incredibly capital intensive I've built my businesses with Angel Investment and I did that with intention because I couldn't afford short term decision making and decision making just based on a spreadsheet, not with the kind of social mission that we were all about at Sprout. We talk about this term all the time, double bottom line investors who obviously were in there ultimately for me to deliver financial gain and value back to them, but also really cared about what we were trying to create.  

11:44 I believe that a super power that women have is intuition.

13:16 I disputed the FDA. Is that the road less traveled? It was such an important piece for me because patients had to be the center of the conversation. Women had to be the center of the conversation science, in fact, in pure data by pure numbers we had the answer, but we were sort of clouding it with all of this judgment.

15:07 What I tear my covers off for in the morning is fighting the injustices. That's what gets me going. And you know, we were fighting for healthcare and justice. I think at the ceiling we fight the injustice of women's lack of access to capital and the percent of venture funding that went to women last year based on pitchbook data. I think the unspoken truth and one of the other things that are holding up women entrepreneurs is lack of access to mentors.

15:50 There is no way that half of the population had just two percent of the good ideas and it is a construct of the folks that are sitting on the other side of the table that are dominantly men. I don't think these are bad guys with bad intention or bias. I think human nature is, if I can't relate to you or what you're pitching to me, I am less likely to invest.

16:38 I wouldn't invest. Said to me, he, Cindy, go and talk to, you know, all your friends who were, you know, passionate golfers. Tell them about the technology and see if they would. It would change their game. And they all said to me, oh my gosh, I would buy it tomorrow. I'd started to do the math. It would add up. I would say, holy cow, it's probably a smart investment, but somebody would actually have to ask me to do that for me to consider it that way. And I think that's what's happening often with women or men pitching email focused products is just that lack of relate, relate ability is causing a disconnect in terms of their funding.

18:46 My tip for female founders always is -- prepare to be underestimated. And you know, I think the tip isn't to prepare for it and then show up and kill them with competence, you will be underestimated. That is for sure by all of the data you can expect this. And I think you have two choices. It's either going to completely cripple you with self doubt and frustration will start to inform your decisions or you can harness it and use the element of surprise.

19:33 By the data, eighty percent of women wish they had a mentor. Having a mentor today. Ninety percent wish that mentor was a woman. I get that because there's a different conversation that will be had. I think that there is a candor that can happen in a female to female conversation and that needs to happen right now because we're having such a great moment in terms of talking about women entrepreneurship.

22:32 You can learn from basically anybody and everybody every day. And as I haven't had traditional mentors over the course of my career I've sought out places of excellence to learn from. That's been a constant looking to who's doing this well and how can I have a conversation with them so they can teach me. I encourage all entrepreneurs to really foster that creativity. And that curiosity every day.

23:36 Send your pitch in to -- We are @thepinkceiling for social media. I'm @CindyPinkCEO. Women deserve power. Money is that power, and I know that when they make it, they will pay it back not only into their communities but actually into other women doing great work, but 90 percent of their money will be invested back. So I think the ripple effect is what we're trying to create.


Cindy Whitehead's Website
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