“Women’s sexuality has been used to sell products, but they’re blamed and shamed for actually being sexual.” It’s before 10 on a Wednesday morning in a bustling West Village cafe, and Sustain Natural’s Meika Hollender is giving me some real talk at a time when many Manhattan dwellers are likely still mustering their coffee-fuelled energy for the day.
Hollender, the cofounder of the New York-based feminine hygiene and sexual product brand that sells vagina- and environmentally-friendly items (from period underwear to condoms to lube), launched Sustain with her father, who also founded the eco-minded company Seventh Generation. My first question for her is about starting a sex-related brand with her father, and it’s one Hollender is used to hearing. “When we started working on the business six-and-a-half years ago, we weren’t thinking, ‘Oh, this is so weird starting a condom company together,’” she says. “It was when we started going out into the world and raising money and going to talk to retailers and the media, and people were like, ‘That’s so weird, tell me about that.’ Because it hasn’t been a taboo subject in my family, we didn’t think about how funnily interpreted it would be, and how shocking it would be to people.”
She points out that now the societal discomfort around conversations about female sexuality and reproductive rights are being blown open thanks to “unfortunate circumstances” driven by the current U.S. political administration and its polarizing actions. I muse that her undertaking makes me think about my time working in the cannabis industry, and how breaking the stigma around women’s use of marijuana was of utmost importance to me. “It’s funny that you mention cannabis because when we started the business, it was really like I was a drug dealer,” Hollender says. “Especially being a young woman talking to other women about sex—[it’s like] I was encouraging bad behaviour. I was really treated like I was doing something wrong even though I was selling condoms. That definitely lasted for the first few years, but there’s been a pretty dramatic shift towards a much more open and celebrated conversation about sex and female sexuality and reproductive health. A lot of that has come on the back of all of these things becoming more threatened. Women have found their voice and realized that they have to be their own advocates—and that society at large doesn’t have their best interests in mind, or at least hasn’t in the past.”
Surely being an advocate and entrepreneur working on a business that’s at the intersection of some majorly hot topics like sustainability and sexual health is taxing on Hollender, so I ask how she feels like she’s doing when it comes to taking care of herself and managing the myriad tasks of her day-to-day. She recalls that an illness a few years after launching Sustain gave her pause to recognize the signs her body sends her when it’s time to take a step back and tend to herself; this more recently included going on a four-day Ayurvedic retreat a few days after receiving some tough business news. “As an entrepreneur you always tell yourself, ‘I’ll deal with this after this deal closes or this thing happens,’ and it’s just such a lie that we tell ourselves, because there’s no downtime,” she says. “There’s always going to be something. So, you have to force yourself to create downtime.” Easier said than done, but important all the same.