Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Nicole has a background in marketing for non profits. She has been providing marketing and project management services to non profits for the past six years. Throughout her time working to grow non-profits and create successful campaigns and events, she had the opportunity to hone her networking skills and her community building skills.
Last year, when Nicole saw an opportunity to bring a product to market for improving women's health, she was excited to start Naturella Made to bring solutions to women suffering from poor feminine health as a result of a bacterial imbalance. Her company currently offers two products for women's health aimed at introducing good bacteria back into the body through an oral supplement taken daily.
After a year spent getting her company off the ground and learning the ropes of selling products for feminine health, she became very immersed in this industry of feminine health products and women's healthcare in general. She has had the opportunity to see up close all the challenges that are unique to starting this type of company and to selling products and services to women when they are sometimes deemed taboo or are surrounded by stigmas and regulations.
After seeing many founders of female health focused companies struggle with the same obstacles, Nicole decided to leverage her network of established feminine health companies, industry professionals, and leaders in the women's health space to develop a network of support for founders of female health focused tech startups. The collection of innovators she is assembling is called FemTech Collective and their mission is to shape the future of healthcare through technology that meets the needs of women.
Nicole is also Women of Wearables in San Francisco, US.
Nicole, welcome to our team! Tell us a bit more about yourself, your background and how you became interested in health tech and fem tech.
Thank you for welcoming me to the Women of Wearables team! I feel like I've been working towards supporting founders of health tech startups primarily in the Bay Area and I couldn't be more excited to connect the network I've been building to the global Women of Wearables community. After studying marketing and graduating with a degree in business, I began my career volunteering for a national service organization called AmeriCorps providing professional readiness services to underserved community members, and I believe the mentality I developed in this position has carried over to all of the opportunities I've pursued since. It was during my service that I also became very involved with the local small business and entrepreneurial center as I sought out guidance for the people who visited my office who were interested in starting a business. This experience instilled in me a passion for entrepreneurial pursuits.
Fast forward to December of 2016 and my passion for entrepreneurship finally aligned with a product that I thought was extremely important to bring to market. Since then, I've been working to provide a high-end probiotic product that helps improve women's feminine health through introducing good bacteria back into the body. My company is called Naturella Made. The journey of starting my own female focused health company immersed me in the world of women's health and introduced me to a network of other female health focused startups, industry professionals, and non-profits in the health tech and fem tech space.
How did you find out about Women of Wearables?
I've been very interested in the latest news and events surrounding fem tech globally and I found Women of Wearables through the Future is #FemTech meetup. There were a lot of synergies between what I'm working towards and what Women of Wearables is striving to achieve for women in tech and I am excited to see how Women of Wearables can inspire a community here in the Bay Area.
You are an entrepreneur yourself, founder and CEO of FemTech Collective. What is the idea behind that organisation? When did it all start and do you have other members in your team?
After attending a few networking events and conferences connecting female health startup founders, I began to see a set of common obstacles we were facing as well as the overall importance of the work that was being done by this specific category of innovators. It seems like there is such a wealth of resources for startups in the Bay Area, and yet for some reason, there is no established network of support for female focused health tech startups. After hosting a few panel discussions and networking events for FemTech, the benefits of creating a space dedicated to supporting female focused health tech startups became clear.
FemTech Collective was organized to be a network of support for not only FemTech startups, but also for women who have an innovative idea for a product or service that improves women's health. With FemTech, you have a unique opportunity for women to actually step up as founders because of their obvious authority on the subject. The problem here is that for too long, women have not made up a large percentage of founders, and consequently, most of the funding available for startups is controlled by men. So, founding a FemTech startup becomes very trialing for women. The majority of them are first time entrepreneurs, and then they have to figure out how to pitch about a solution to a female health problem to men.
In order to encourage entrepreneurs to start FemTech startups and to create a system of support that helps them thrive, I've connected with over 50 key players in the startup ecosystem who are uniquely interested in the future of FemTech, especially in the Bay Area.
FemTech Collective is a very new initiative, but I already have a great team of support: 15 volunteers, three board members and counting, as well as countless investors signed on to learn about the startups in the FemTech space. Although I've been working to put a name and space to this growing network, it really has been a team effort the whole way.
What are your projects you're working on at the moment?
Right now, I'm really focused on designing an incubator program for FemTech startups. I'm planning to launch this initiative by the spring. The day to day of this project calls for me to reach out to the professionals and leaders that can really provide a unique workshop that caters primarily to female founders and also to the special requirements of health tech startups.
Another project I'm working on is organizing a large conference for FemTech to connect everyone who is interested in the Bay Area and get people excited about the opportunity in the industry. I'm hoping the event will be a catalyst for potential founders to connect with FemTech Collective and consider utilizing our upcoming program to bring their ideas to market in the spring.
What was the biggest obstacle? How about biggest achievement?
The biggest obstacle for this project is the mentality of potential founders. It seems like every part of the puzzle for FemTech startups to thrive is in place, except for the founders. I have investors who are really excited about FemTech and always looking for more startups to connect with, I have established FemTech companies ready to mentor startups, and I have industry professionals ready to lead valuable workshops for bringing an idea to market, what I don't see enough of is entrepreneurs ready to start a female health focused tech company. I hear a lot of women who dream of starting a FemTech company, but are very afraid to try or believe that their idea is too niche.
The biggest achievement for FemTech Collective was a pitch night that I organized in July for FemTech. The feedback that I received has been my driving force for continuing the project. The pitch night was a catalyst for many to take their FemTech startup to the next level, and the feedback from attendees noted the approachable environment for female founders and everyday people interested in the industry. It was also great to hear investors praise the pitch event as a "breath of fresh air" compared to the typical Sillicon Valley pitch events.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?
I'm building a network around primarily the feminine health industry. Some of the topics that come up surrounding female health are deemed taboo in nature and are difficult for people to discuss. This can be a challenge when it comes to advertising, especially when advertising products for vaginal health. Many platforms and avenues sensor the word vagina along with a handful of other terms. This makes communicating with the right audience difficult. Another challenge in the FemTech niche is the historically stagnant track record for innovation. Period products, for example, have seen as little as eight major innovations in the last 1000 years. Although this reality leaves space for an infinite number of new products and services for period management, it also creates this mentality of overcrowding when there is any new company in the space. Founders shy away from innovating for tampons because they see three or four startups already in the space, but there really doesn't need to be this artificial cap on tampon startups.
As far as being a female founder, I would say that my biggest challenge has been my own self-doubt. I'm not sure that male entrepreneurs suffer from imposter syndrome as much as female entrepreneurs. For women, feeling like you're not cut out to be doing the work you're doing or that you're not as good as others seems to be an epidemic. I've talked with so many women I admire and so many of them admit to feeling the same way. Luckily, one of the perks of being a female entrepreneur is the amount of support available and especially the support from other female entrepreneurs. It makes a difference when we lift each other up.
Why is #WomenInTech movement important to you?
I think the #WomeninTech movement is important to me for so many reasons. Technology shapes the world we live in and it is a tool that we can leverage to shape a better future. In order to do so, I think that we need to include new perspectives in tech. Women think differently than men, they make decisions differently than men. Women are also the primary decision makers for their household, so really, creating technology that meets the needs of women has the ability to improve the lives of everyone. Encouraging more women to pursue careers in tech, and to pursue leadership roles, is the best way to create technology that meets the needs of women.
San Francisco is the heart of Silicon Valley tech hub, most famous one in the world. How does the fem tech and wearable tech ecosystem look in San Francisco?
To be honest, I still find myself explaining what FemTech is to many of the people I meet in San Francisco. It's very surprising to me that I am able to go to a networking event in the heart of the most famous tech capital of the world and have to explain a multi-billion-dollar opportunity in tech. I've also talked to FemTech startups who have left the Bay Area because of the culture and the lack of an established network of support for female health startups. Despite all that though, there are some very exciting FemTech and wearable tech startups attempting to raise funding and grow their company in Silicon Valley. The ecosystem is full of investors who are ready to invest in the future of health care and are very interested in the opportunity available in FemTech and wearables. I've also noticed that there are many investors and investment firms who are interested in helping female founders in the very early stages of their company to develop their pitching skills.
In response to the current administration in America and growing uncertainty around women's healthcare access and affordability, there are many startups tackling issues like birth control access, fertility literacy, sexual health and reproductive health education, STD testing, and even fetal stress monitoring. There is no doubt that many of these startups felt called to action by impending changes to the health care system here.
At the end of the day, I think things like AI and virtual reality are more popular here in Silicon Valley, and the tech ecosystem caters to these "sexier" trends. The funding, talent, and resources are here, but unfortunately, I think the mindset is a little off.
What will be your main goals in San Francisco and Bay area as Women of Wearables Ambassador?
My overall goal as the San Francisco and Bay Area Ambassador for Women of Wearables will be to find creative ways to inspire women here to connect with the local and global community for women in tech. I think that when we connect with one another, so many opportunities arise out of the strong network that is formed and the possibilities for innovation become limitless.
I also want to share the stories of the inspiring women in tech in the Bay Area with a global community, and highlight the unique types of innovation that are happening right here in the tech capital of the world.
Finally, I'd like to help facilitate partnerships and collaborations that further the mission of Women of Wearables here in the Bay Area.
What will be the key trends in the wearable tech and fem tech industries in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
I think the number one trend you will see in FemTech and in wearables in the next 5 years is a new consideration of women as consumers. I think the psychology of selling to women and of communicating to women has not been a huge consideration in creating products in the past. A good example of this was an innovation in fitness tracking wristbands that considered that female consumers were more interested in a holistic fitness tracker that not only tracked steps, but also tracked sleep and heart rate. Before, campaigns targeted to women consumers may have just played by the old shrink it and pink it rules, but actually understanding what women want will have a huge pay off for companies.
Another trend that goes hand in hand with this is considering previously underserved markets, and how to communicate with them and sell to them.
Finally, I'm all about bacteria and the role it plays in not only our gut health, but also our feminine health. I think we will be seeing more wearables and FemTech companies considering the vital role bacteria play. Examples of this would be in new fabrics for sportswear, underwear, and socks, as well as new materials for tampons and even tech enabled period cups. This will be an exciting trend to watch!
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and fem tech?
Oh really? Only 3! That’s hard because I know so many inspirational women working in these spaces and they are the reason I am doing the work I'm doing.
I have to say Ida Tin was a catalyst for innovation in the FemTech space, she was the first to coin the term FemTech and I think she has really been ahead of the times in all of her insights about female focused health technology and with her own company, Clue.
I'm also inspired by Chalisa Prarasri, she is the founder of Opter, a San Francisco based wearable startup offering a beautifully designed product to monitor posture, sleep, ultraviolet rays, and more. Chalisa gracefully navigates the Silicon Valley scene as a young female founder. She has put together an amazing team of engineers and led them to a successful round of funding via kickstarter. I'm excited to see more from Chalisa and from Opter.
One woman that really inspires me and who has been an integral part of my network for FemTech is Susan Hamilton, the founder of San Francisco based Care Better, an app for connecting and supporting the 16 million people who care for loved ones with Alzheimer's and Dementia. Susan, like many of us, has professed to being new to the world of entrepreneurship, but has taken on the challenges and I've watched her develop her confidence as a founder and in her product. Susan also inspires me because even though she is busy building her own company, she is always looking for ways to support others.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.