By Saira Khan
Polly Rodriguez was 21 years old when, after undergoing treatment for Stage III colon cancer and being kicked into early menopause, she went to a sex shop to buy a vibrator. “It was a horrible experience,” she told me. The store she went to in St. Louis, Missouri was full of older men perusing pornographic magazines. There were bright sex toys displayed on shelves, with no information on how to use them or even why to use them. Polly found a void wherever she looked. “It’s one thing to be in New York City, but I was in St. Louis, and we just didn’t have any information for us out there,” she told me. The experience stayed with her.
Now, nine years later, Polly is the co-founder and chief executive of Unbound, which she bills as “an online sex shop for rebellious women.” It’s a way for her to rescue other women from going through what she did: feeling embarrassed about wanting to learn about and explore her sexuality.
Unbound has a quarterly subscription box, in which people receive a number of sex toys and products. The company also offers themed boxes for different events in a person’s life: a Period Box, a Menopause Box, a Pregnancy Box, and there’s even a Rebound Box for people who are going through a breakup. The point of all of this is to give women the information they’re seeking about their sexuality and wellness, in a way that isn’t embarrassing for them.
It’s only in recent years that sex toy companies have started considering women’s needs, and the reason for this is clear: most sex toy companies are owned and operated by men who could care less about what women want. This is where startups like Unbound come in: CEOs like Polly are working hard to fill this void that has existed for far too long. And while she’s seen success with Unbound, getting there hasn’t been easy.
The same problem that exists in sex-toy companies exists in venture capitalism: men. “There’s an image of what a startup CEO should look like, and it isn’t usually a woman,” Polly said. “You walk into those investor meetings feeling like you don’t belong. I had to learn quickly how to be resilient.” To add to this, listening to conversations about sex can be awkward and often people’s first instinct is to laugh. “I’ve been laughed out of rooms and it ends up creating this sense of imposter syndrome where you feel like you aren’t good enough,” Polly said. “But you are good enough and you should be there! It’s just easy to forget when you’re in that environment.”
I asked Polly if she could go back in time and give her 16-year-old self some advice, what would it be? “Don’t compare yourself to others. It’s fine if you go to a state school. What really matters is that you do well and work hard,” she said. Oh, also, “Go to the doctor early because you have cancer in the butt!”