Strona główna Sextech Revolution: The Future of Sexual Wellness

Sextech Revolution: The Future of Sexual Wellness

Sitting between Planned Parenthood and Pornhub, sexual wellness is the next blue ocean for tech entrepreneurs and investors alike—and nobody is talking about it.

This recession-proof industry will be worth an estimated $122 billion by 2026, yet no one is prepared for this wave of innovation. But after years of being ignored due to shame and stigma, the sexual wellness revolution is upon us at last.

If you ask Andrea Barrica, it's embarrassing it took this long.

As an entrepreneur and former venture capital investor, Andrea is uniquely qualified to guide a new generation of business leaders ready to seize the opportunities in sexual wellness. Sextech Revolution is a firsthand account of how you can build a company and raise money in this space. Andrea shares how she's tackled the financial and structural challenges sex tech startups face, and provides unparalleled insight into how investors and entrepreneurs can navigate and understand the nuances of the sexual wellness industry.

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			Copyright © 2019 Andrea Barrica

			All rights reserved.

			ISBN: 978-1-5445-0492-6

For my Lolas, Pacita and Mila



			1. A Brief History of the Industry

			2. A Closer Look at Sexual Wellness

			3. The Sexual Miseducation of America

			4. Who Built the Internet?

			5. Moving Beyond the Orgasm Gap

			6. The Next Generation


			Bonus Guide


			About the Author


			When I pitch investors, I place a 3D-printed model of this on the table and ask:

			Do you know what this is?

			Can you recognize the structure? I’ll give you some hints: It’s an organ in the human body. It’s inside roughly half of the population. It is densely distributed with nerve endings, and its only job is to experience pleasure. In fact, it’s the most powerful pleasure organ in the human body.

			It is the clitoris.

			Did you recognize it? Don’t worry. Most people don’t.

			None of the venture capital investors I’ve shown it to have had any idea what it is. Neither have many of the medical doctors I’ve met. (Perhaps that’s because most medical students receive fewer than ten hours of sex education during their entire four years in medical school.1)

			Until relatively recently, the clitoris and other major aspects of human sexuality were largely ignored by the scientific community. The 1948 edition of Grey’s Anatomy went so far as to omit the clitoris completely, but even today information on pleasure, especially female pleasure, is barely touched on in medical textbooks.2 For years, the clitoris was regarded as having no reproductive role whatsoever, and in the nineteenth century, doctors even recommended removing it to prevent “hysteria.”

			When the clitoris is discussed today, it’s talked about as a 1-2cm external tip, rather than the fully formed, comprehensive 10cm organ pictured above. It’s thanks to researchers like Dr. Helen O’Connell, who produced one of the first fully realized anatomical depictions of the clitoris in 1998; , that we have a sense of its true scope and importance.

			As HuffPo’s Cliteracy project so aptly observed, we put a man on the moon in 1969, invented the internet in 1982, and didn’t fully understand the anatomy of the clitoris until 1998.3

			That’s some seriously powerful stigma.

			People don’t like to talk about the concept of a powerful organ that solely exists to experience pleasure. The concept of pleasure itself is difficult for people to talk about—particularly with family, partners, or medical professionals.

			Most of us are taught that sex is shameful, that pleasure is indulgent, and that using your body for one of its naturally designed purposes is somehow abuse. As a result, parents don’t talk with children. Lovers don’t communicate with partners. And medical providers often ignore the subject altogether.

			Why is sex not a basic, normal part of wellness—and why has over half of the population been ignored?

So Many Questions

			As an entrepreneur and the owner of a clitoris, this baffling question pushed me into the industry known as “sextech”—technologies, products, and services that seek to innovate and improve the human sexual experience.

			There are 7.7 billion people on earth, and with the exception of babies born through in vitro fertilization and other procedures, each exists because two people had sex. We talk about sex all the time—in magazines, blogs, television series, jokes, sermons, movies, ads, fashion, podcasts, and porn. We’re obsessed with sex, but who are the major brands that shape our daily experiences with sexuality? Where are the reputable, trusted voices?

			As I researched this question, I found that for all our fascination with the subject, there are very few that provide an answer—and the ones that do tend to sensationalize it, rather than strip it down. Sexual wellness is like a huge meadow—a vibrant ecosystem carpeted in small plants and grasses, but no major trees.

			Two years after launching, and countless venture capital meetings, speaking panels, product development meetings, interviews and conversations with activists, entrepreneurs, doctors, and nonprofits in the space, I’m still learning. But I’ve realized that just as sex has no central place for information, neither does sextech. So many of us are working independently, siloed in our own corner, with few networking events or shared resources.

			I’m writing this book for people who have the desire to push forward sexual wellness. I want to share what I’ve learned in my conversations with investors, founders, activists, policy makers, and educators.

			Why is a market so large so behind in innovation, tools, resources, and solutions? Why are there so few places to talk about sex honestly and accurately—offline or online? What are the hurdles that have stopped the previous generation, and how can we begin to get around them? How can so many people have so many progressive ideas about sex and sexuality—and still fall short of creating mass change in our culture? How can the need be so great, and yet the market be so unfulfilled?

			In short, what’s the future of sexual wellness?

			In this book, I’ll talk about the growing sexual wellness industry, the problems, and challenges in the market for both customers and entrepreneurs. I’ll lay out both the progress we’re making and the roadblocks we face. I’ll tell you about the trends that augur well for us, and where the market might take us. I’ll lay out my vision of what the future of sexual wellness looks like, and some of the challenges we will need to overcome to get there.

			I think I echo the sentiments of many of the leaders in the sexual wellness space who want it to be much bigger. Those of us in this space seem to understand that if, together, we can begin dismantling stigma and improving access, we all stand to benefit—as entrepreneurs and as a world community.

The Revolution Is Happening

			I am but one of a number of innovators in sexual wellness, from reproductive rights and pleasure activists, sex educators, feminist writers, sexologists and researchers, nonprofit innovators, sextech founders, and countless beacons of sex positivity serving their friends and communities with peer-led support and education. It’s on their shoulders that I stand.

			There are other books about the recent developments in sexual wellness worth calling out specifically, like Emily Nagoski’s groundbreaking book, Come as You Are, one of the best modern books about the science of sexuality and desire. Esther Perel’s book State of Affairs has shifted the way we think about infidelity, intimacy, and desire in modern relationships. Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body Is Not an Apology is a gem in the body positivity movement. Lynn Comella’s Vibrator Nation covers the history of sex toy education and feminist sex stores. Adrienne Maree Brown’s Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good is an important read in the intersection of pleasure and activism.

			Anyone working in this space needs to understand that sextech is like the clitoris itself—the visible part, the part getting all the attention, is actually just a small part of a much larger structure. To succeed, entrepreneurs and advocates in this space need to understand the contours of human sexuality, to understand the politics of inclusion and the history of this movement. While I can share my experiences and what I’ve learned, I’m at best a cluster of nerve endings.

			In fact, one of the things we will cover is the evolving use of language around gender and health. Just as I’ve learned to code-switch my use of language between speaking with my parents in our Filipino home and speaking to people differently elsewhere, and using venture capital lingo and translating these terms to other communities, I’ve chosen to code switch sometimes between mainstream binary terms for gender and the new, inclusive language used in sexual wellness spaces. This means sometimes referring to industries like “femtech” and speaking in terms of “men and women.” I will also sometimes use the new language of inclusive sexual wellness, which you may see when we talk about “people with vulvas” and “reproductive health.” In chapter 5, we will dive deeper into why this is important.

			This book is ultimately born of my experiences, and I’ll focus on my expertise—accessing capital and power. Within that, I can talk about the gatekeepers who control it, and what they have taught me. I’ll talk about the structural issues that have hindered our sexual wellness, from the politics of education to the foundation of the modern internet. And I’ll share what I’ve learned, in hopes it can help others.

			I’m betting on a world where sexual wellness is a thriving market for a healthier generation. I’m betting on a sextech revolution.

			What’s your money on?

* * *

			 				 					1	DS Solursh, “The human sexuality education of physicians in North American medical schools.” Int J Impot Res. 2003 Oct;15 Suppl 5:S41-5.

				 					2	Ibid

				 					3	Carina Kolodny and Amber Genuske, “Cliteracy,” Huffington Post, May 2015.

Chapter 1

			1. A Brief History of the Industry

			The category of sextech is not entirely new, though it is making new strides. Make a visit to the Antique Vibrator Museum in San Francisco, and you’ll see plenty of early attempts in the field. Later on, sex was used to push forward technology from the early film cameras to the VCR to the internet to VR—thanks to the driving force of porn.

			But as an investment category, as a market sector worthy of innovation, the idea of sextech is quite new.

			Entrepreneur Cindy Gallop is credited with coining the term sextech, following her groundbreaking 2009 TED talk on the effects of hardcore pornography as default sex education—and her answer, the social sex videosharing platform MakeLoveNotPorn.4

			Even before there was a name for the category, entrepreneurs like Wendy Strgar, Rachel Braun Scherl, Karen Long, Amy Buckalter, and Ti Chang were building companies and developing products like Good Clean Love (the first organic personal lubricant), Semprae Laboratories’s Zestra (a topical product to increase arousal), Nuelle’s Fiera (FDA-cleared personal care device to help increase arousal), Pulse (personal lubricants delivered by a warming device using a patented induction heating process and clean delivery system), and Crave (tech-savvy sex products like vibrators), respectively.

			Of course, what makes headlines today are more often sensational topics—futuristic lifelike sex robots, virtual reality porn, crypto sex worker payments. Journalists assume that if it’s about sex, it has to be sexy.

			While the idea of a fully realized AI lover makes for a compelling read, much of what has been written about sextech is incredibly narrow. Many sextech entrepreneurs—myself included—see a much larger opportunity in addressing sexual health and pleasure, closing the orgasm gap between men and women, and addressing the needs of populations whose needs have never been the subject of serious innovation.

			But this can be hard to do when we barely teach that the clitoris exists. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still so far to go.

Sextech vs. Sexual Wellness

			While the “sextech” label is generally applied to technology and innovation, you’ll often hear it paired with another term—“sexual wellness.” Sexual wellness encompasses all companies serving people’s sexual needs, including medical, pharmaceutical, healthcare, mental health, media, and other innovations, technologically based or not. Sexual wellness and sextech generally refer to products and services that focus on pleasure rather than just reproduction.

			It’s hard to overestimate the market for sextech—or the difficulties in getting past the stigmas that come with it. As I’ll discuss later, sexual wellness entrepreneurs face an uphill battle in bringing products to market.

			The sexual wellness market is fragmented and—shockingly for retail—still significantly offline. There aren’t any public companies in sextech, and I have spent years tracking down reliable sources of information, combing through industry reports, and speaking to executives and other insiders to get a better picture. Industry insiders that I have spoken to have estimated that Adam and Eve and LoveHoney, two of the biggest e-commerce brands, do about $100M–$150M each in annual online sales. Amazon, who notoriously keeps their data under wraps, did a reported $339M in online sales in 2014.5 It is the biggest e-commerce provider of sexual wellness products, with approximately 60,000 products. And yet, today, I’d estimate that they still likely sell just over $1 billion in sexual wellness products, about 1/20th of total global sales.

			There are very few dominant brands or established marketplaces, and Amazon isn’t poised to win the space.

			But make no mistake—the market is there. In 2019, the market for sex toys alone is valued at $27 billion dollars globally. If you consider all sexual wellness products, including lubricant, erotica, and out-of-pocket contraceptive costs, globally sexual wellness is valued around double that at $50 billion. Some experts predict the sexual wellness market to grow as high as $122B by 2026, with a 13 percent CAGR (calculated annual growth rate).6

			My investors may not know the structure of the clitoris, but they sure understand those numbers. And nearly every investor I speak to is intrigued by the space. Many are wary of missing out on what may be one of the last great untapped retail markets in the world.

			Honestly, they’re nervous. Investors are largely older men, which means they sometimes don’t understand the problems to be solved. Or they answer to more conservative institutions that won’t invest in “vice.” Stigma keeps them from sextech.

			The struggle to recognize the importance of sexual wellness is in some ways akin to the struggle that mental health faces. As with mental health, sexual wellness asserts that our relationship to sexual health has direct connections to our overall health, and needs to be taken just as seriously.

The Emerging Future

			Unfortunately, nearly every aspect of society today—public health organizations, school-based sex education, financial institutions, investment and venture capital, major social media companies—still rejects this very basic reality. At best, it’s considered indulgence. At worst, sexual wellness and technology are routinely grouped along with pornography, illegal drugs, weapons, and gambling. Society has deemed what sexual wellness companies do as “immoral” and therefore demands it to operate underground and in the dark.

			For entrepreneurs, innovators, and investors in the space, this makes the work especially tough. Those of us who work in the space do it because we’re passionate, we’re driven—and we know that if the gamble pays off, the rewards, financially and societally, are immeasurable.

			As a millennial entrepreneur, I realize how quickly the world is changing. Another sexual revolution is on the horizon—one that’s more inclusive, more diverse, and more challenging for older companies to navigate.

			Ten years ago, investors in the private sector were barely willing to fund menstruation care, breast pumps, or fertility apps, products in a space referred to as “femtech.” In 2012, femtech companies had only raised $62 million. However, companies in the femtech space have broken records, with a projected funding of $1 billion in 2019.7

			Sextech is not far behind. While stigma about pleasure and sexuality still forms a formidable barrier, experts and researchers point to an opening mindset and shifting sexual needs. For the first time in American history, single women outnumber married women.8 Increased access to pornography means that subjects that were once taboo are now openly discussed. From Fifty Shades of Grey to Broad City to Grace and Frankie, we’re slowly and steadily getting more accustomed to acknowledging—if not discussing—sexual pleasure. People who stay single longer have more sexual partners and buy more sex toys—and studies show that younger women are trying sex toys in droves.9

			From gay marriage to trans awareness, society is steadily becoming more aware that there are mental, emotional, and physical downsides to denying, hiding, or silencing our sexuality. To me, this signals a major turning point. Since the Sexual Revolution of the late 1960s, society has been willing to talk about sex for titillation or laughs—finally, we’re talking about it in terms of health.

			Think about this: Millennials are twice as likely to identify as LGBTQ as previous generations, and one-third of Gen-Z people know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns like they/them. For these newer generations, shame-based views about sex and sexuality are increasingly outdated.10

			Even Boomers are embracing their sexual lives. Online dating and advances in hormonal and erectile dysfunction therapies have helped put to rest ideas that seniors are sexless. Even though the average frequency of sex decreases as people age, menopausal aged women are reporting higher levels of sexual satisfaction.11 We’re seeing more attention around menopause and painful sex, which means more attention on lube and other sexual wellness products. Every generation with purchasing power is getting more and more ready for sexual wellness and sextech industries to meet our changing needs.

			At the same time as we’re expanding our notion of who can be sexual, we’re increasingly left without the resources to deal with it. Public health agencies struggle to address sex outside of the context of STIs or pregnancy, sex education in schools is at an all-time low, and online access to porn—often to kids as young as nine years old—is at an all-time high. Conversations around sexuality, gender, reproductive rights, and consent often reveal that we lack a common language for communication.

			For those of us who work in sexual wellness, who see the potential for sextech, this is our moment.

			We have the power to change this. To create a world, empowered by tech, public health advocates, and innovation—that serves the needs of all genders, all sexualities, and all ages. To integrate sexual wellness into our medical system. To be able to talk about sex and sexual pleasure without embarrassment, euphemisms, or guilt. We owe this to the next generation to fix what was broken in ours—their safety and well-being are more important than our shame.

			I know, because when it came to sex, fear and shame were all I was taught.

How Did I Get Here?

			My mother was seven months pregnant with me when she immigrated to the United States from the Philippines to join my father in Sacramento, California. Soon after, my little brother and sister were born. We were raised in a very loving, but strict, traditional church-every-Sunday Filipino Catholic home. The only thing I was ever taught about sex was not to have it—at all—until marriage.

			I was taught that men would try to get sex from me, and that my job was to refuse them at all costs. During Sunday school, I learned the sacred importance of virginity, and I was taught that homosexuality was a sin against God. In public school, I was shown graphic photos of STIs, a long video of a live birth called The Miracle of Life, and also simulated social experiments to teach us the dangers of having multiple sexual partners.

			As a result, I spent most of my adolescent years and early twenties in the dark about sexuality, in denial about my early attraction to women, ashamed of my desires, completely shut off from my body, and, consequently, shut off from much of my power. I coped by focusing all of my repressed energy into school and work.

			At the age of sixteen, I enrolled at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and after transferring, I graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in linguistics and a plan to move to China. Then, my freshman roommate, Jessica Mah, called me out of the blue. She had just raised over one million dollars of investment from YCombinator and other well-known Silicon Valley investors. She was calling to ask me to be her right hand, and help her build an accounting software company called inDinero.

			I was incredulous; at twenty years old, I knew absolutely nothing about business, accounting, or technology. But something about Jess’ guts—and her huge mission—inspired me. I dropped everything and joined her in Mountain View, California, in the late summer of 2010. From accounting operations to sales psychology to management, I spent the next three years learning every day and helping hundreds of other companies manage their finances and accounting. Today, inDinero is one of the leading financial solutions for growing companies. I am where I am today because another woman dreamed bigger for me than I dreamed for myself.

			In 2014, I was tapped to join a venture capital seed fund named 500 Startups as a venture partner. At inDinero, I operated a single company with one specific business model. 500 Startups exposed me to hundreds of technology startups, business models, and gave me massive insight into the inner workings of the venture capital ecosystem and culture. In addition to expanding my worldview about technology’s impact on the world, positive and negative, I helped deploy millions in venture capital to dozens of startups, heard over a thousand tech startup pitches, coached founders to raise many rounds of venture funding, and I invested all over the world, including West Africa, Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the Silicon Valley.

			On the outside, it looked like I had everything going for me, but privately, my repressed sexuality started to take its toll. I was struggling with my identity and mental health. No matter where I looked, it seemed like there was a huge gap in resources. It was so ironic that I spent most of my days talking about the internet, but the problems I was struggling with the most weren’t being solved online. My experience learning about sexuality on the internet was full of harassment, toxic comments, and being sent unsolicited pictures of penises.

			The first time I had a positive, empowering experience was the first time I visited the Good Vibrations in Berkeley, California, a popular Bay Area retail chain that sells sex toys and other sexual wellness items in a clean, open, unashamed space, with knowledgeable salespeople and an on-staff licensed sexologist. Joani Blank’s vision of what a sexuality retail experience could feel like would inspire a movement of education-first sexual wellness retail stores all over the country, as well as my own vision for the future of sexual wellness.

It All Started with Good Vibes

			If you want to know where sextech started, it’s worth a visit to the Antique Vibrator Museum in San Francisco. Managed by Good Vibes staff sexologist Carol Queen—the Museum is actually attached to a Good Vibes location—the Museum teaches us a lot about how the sextech industry came to be in the years before Joani Blank.

			Clitoral stimulation tools, like vibrators, have a surprisingly long history. The first were actually invented in the 19th century—before even the vacuum cleaner. In fact, the first vibrators were steam-powered. They were not marketed as masturbatory aids, but medical ones. They were meant to relieve “hysteria” in women. (Previously, doctors had done the job with their hands.)

			George Taylor, an American physician, patented the first of such devices in 1869, but it would be decades before their usage would extend to the general public, once electricity became a common fixture in middle-class homes. Battery-powered vibrators and electricity helped fuel the popularity by 1900. Perhaps not coincidentally, women were the biggest consumers of electrical appliances in the home.

			Over the next few decades, ads that could today be described only as tongue-in-cheek bombarded publications that targeted homemakers. According to these ads, vibrators were “invented by a woman who knows a woman’s needs,” and “…furnish every woman with the essence of perpetual youth.”12

			Sadly, once vibrators became seen as the domain of sexual pleasure—particularly the use of vibrators in erotic media—mainstream publication would no longer carry vibrator ads. Ads for “massagers” returned in the 1950s, but weren’t openly marketed as sex aids until the 1970s, when adult media like Penthouse and Oui developed to take them, and adult bookstores to sell them. By 1976, pornography distributer Reuben Sturman partnered with traveling salesman Ron Braverman to establish Doc Johnson—a sex toy company that would become one of the largest in the world. But the intended market for those toys was often men, purchasing them on behalf of women, and the quality left much to be desired.

			It was Joani Blank who opened the first Good Vibrations store in San Francisco, serving as a safe space and bastion of sex-positivity for the modern woman—and an inspiration for me and many others in sexual wellness.

			When I visited Good Vibes for the first time in 2008, I was struggling with my sexual identity and eighteen years of accumulated shame. The first thing I noticed was the store lighting. Unlike other adult stores, the space was well-lit. Vibrators, lube, condoms, and other items were showcased unapologetically, curated with care and pride. The store also had a dramatically different vibe—the other patrons were overwhelmingly women and queer people and the staff was helpful with a positive demeanor. I was too shy to ask any questions directly, but I overheard cheerful, highly trained explanations of how one could safely choose a butt plug and patient demonstrations of clitoral vibrators—all from people who seemed to emanate safety and acceptance. It was a healing experience, and it also showed me what could be possible for me, not to mention the sexual wellness space.

			That first purchase helped me learn more about my body, and more about who I was as a person. I understood how integral my sexual identity is to my overall identity, and realized the toll that denying it or hiding it takes. Over the years, this nagged at me. Here I was, a millennial in progressive San Francisco, lucky enough to have a resource to help me explore safely and without shame. Surely people all over the country, and all over the world, facing even greater hurdles, were suffering as well. What would have happened to me if I had been born in a state without a Good Vibrations or another safe space?

			On July 25th, 2016, a few days before I resigned from my venture partner role at 500 Startups to build something in the sextech world, I wrote Joani an email:

			Dear Joani, I am a huge fan of yours. Thank you for bringing Good Vibes into this world. It’s truly an inspiration for me.

			I’m writing because I am starting a technology company in the sexuality space, and I would love to meet you for coffee. Are you free next week, maybe the week of 8/8?

			Joani Blank passed away from pancreatic cancer on August 6th, 2016, just a week after I reached out for coffee.

			I doubt she was able to read my email, but if I could have met her, I would have thanked her for paving the way and designing a space so transformative for me and many others. Humbled and inspired by Joani’s passing, I started my own journey and set out to build a sextech startup that could reach billions.

The Space between Planned Parenthood and Pornhub

			As I prepared to launch my next company, I became consumed with curiosity and determination, and saw a market opportunity that no one around me seemed to see. I became a power consumer of everything sexuality related, online and offline. I discovered a content company called OMGYES which produced high quality, nude demonstrations of clitoral stimulation videos; a controversial organization called OneTaste in San Francisco that taught “orgasmic meditation” courses; an Ohio-based “Tupperware party”-esque multi-level marketing company called Pure Romance employing tens of thousands of party consultants; and a huge swath of online websites and resources, spanning from respected sites like Scarleteen to a plethora of sex blogs and podcasts.

			There was little online that wasn’t overly medical or outright misinformation—very little between Planned Parenthood and PornHub. There needed to be a space online where people could learn about sexuality from curated, high-quality experts who would not judge or shame anyone and who would be inclusive of people of all sexual identities, genders, and backgrounds.

			The first question that I had was, how?

			There were at least four million sex-ed YouTube videos when I started researching the problem. I discovered that curation was a big problem, because what the algorithm recommended wasn’t necessarily what you needed. There was very little quality control and, besides, recorded video didn’t feel as transformational. I wanted to mimic what worked in offline settings: participating, even silently, in groups of people who shared your same problem. These were the types of places I felt my own shame melt away, and I was bullish that scaling the feeling of a judgment-free space was a big opportunity.

			At 500 Startups, I studied business models like Udemy, Coursera, Netflix, Etsy, and tried to think of the audience I wanted to serve. Twitch—an online streaming and chat platform that built its success on gamers—was also a model I knew very well coming from a family of gamers. What was the best way to disseminate accurate information about sex, pleasure, and sexuality, and create transformative experiences? That’s when I decided to start seriously exploring live streaming as a possible solution.

			My first step was reaching out to sex educators. I met with the most dynamic sexual health educators, spanning many topics and community problems. I met an amazing educator named Latishia James, “Reverend Pleasure” on, who had just completed her Masters in Divinity from UC Berkeley. She taught me about sex education at the intersections of race, religion, and reproductive justice, especially through the lens of sexual and religious trauma. I learned about consent from Eva Sweeney, a disability and sexuality expert who was non-verbal due to cerebral palsy. From certified sex and dating coaches I learned about navigating modern dating apps, former professional dominatrices taught me about relationship boundaries, Good Vibrations educators showed me the nuances of sex toy safety education, and ex-Planned Parenthood educators detailed for me just about every flavor of sex education. I learned from kink professionals and adult performers, and immersed myself in the world of sexuality.

			It was a foreign world to me, and after a few conferences, I was vexed to find that much of the education happened offline at spaces, usually without any online components. I was also disappointed that none of the sexual influencer brands seemed to break through to the mainstream. I wondered if creating a space for this live education was how I could contribute.

			In order to recruit a team and start building the live experiential model, I needed to raise some money. In Silicon Valley, the first round of funding is often called the “friends and family round.” Coming from a lower middle-class immigrant family, I didn’t know anyone whom I could ask for money. Actually, my family at the time was pretty perplexed at my decision to leave my stable venture capital position. So, I started taking my friends to coffee. All I had was a pitch deck and an idea, and many people told me it would be near impossible to raise traditional funding in this sector. However, after about eight weeks, I was able to raise a few hundred thousand dollars from individuals like Lars Rasmussen, the co-founder and inventor of Google Maps; Cyan Banister, one of the best angel investors in the Silicon Valley; and my previous employer, 500 Startups. That was the first step—proving there were great investors who would back this.

			Next, I built a prototype with a designer and an outsourced engineering team in Serbia. We signed up our first group of educators and began running experiments. During this stage, a few of our investors and advisors took notice. One of them joined the company as one of our engineers. Another joined as my co-founder, Kelly Ireland, a serial founder and engineering leader at WebMD. This was another important step—proving there were talented people who would want to work on this project with me.

			Our initial livestreams were everything I had hoped—engaging, informative, and positive. We were soon attracting users from all over the world. Some spent up to three hours a day interacting with us through live chat. The demand was there, but the model we built, a livestreaming network with live sex educators streaming over forty hours per week was a huge lift for the team. The proof of concept was there—we were helping people—but it was hard to keep it constantly staffed, and to make it work financially for the educators, who were dependent largely on tips. The biggest problem we also encountered was the difficulty growing an organic audience. It was my introduction to the biggest challenge of any sextech venture: customer acquisition. We went back to the drawing board.

			My first year of building, I was obsessed with how to help people transform their lives. Live streaming proved to be highly engaging, but failed to organically attract new users. So while we got press attention, that word-of-mouth customer acquisition did not grow the way we needed it to. It was clear that we needed to build content and community that existed anytime you needed it—not just when someone was streaming.

			But we noticed something happening organically—our sexual health content was beginning to rank on Google. The search engine had determined that, at least on some topics, we were reputable—or even the most reputable.

			We began to shift directions to focus on building medically accurate sexual wellness content—to be the best and most trusted sexuality brand in the world. We have a long journey ahead to reach 8 billion people, but we have a path. And a couple more million dollars in investment funding to build a brand in the wide open space between Planned Parenthood and Pornhub.

			And we are just getting started changing the way all people, especially young people, search for and experience sexual wellness content online.

* * *

			 				 					4	Cindy Gallop, “Make Love, Not Porn,” TED Blog, December 2009.

				 					5	Kline, “Sexual Wellness: U.S. Market Analysis and Opportunities,” 2014.

				 					6	Reuters, “Sexual Wellness Market 2019 Global Analysis, Opportunities And Forecast To 2026,” February 2019. Estrella Jaramillo, “Investing in Sextech: Two Founders Breaking Barriers Internationally,” June 2019.

				 					7	Dana Olsen, “This year is setting records for femtech funding,” PitchBook, October 31, 2018.

				 					8	Rebecca Traister on Fresh Air, “Single By Choice: Why Fewer American Women Are Married Than Ever Before,” NPR, March 2016. Rebecca Traister, “Single Women Are Now the Most Potent Political Force in America,” The Cut, February 2016. Shamard Charles, MD, “Teens Are Having Sex Later, Using Contraception, CDC Finds,” NBC News, June 2017. Joyce Abma and Gladys Martinez, “Sexual Activity and Contraceptive Use Among Teenagers in the United States, 2011–2015,” CDC, June 2017.

				 					9	Bella DePaulo, “There’s never been a better time to be single,” CNN and The Cut, March 2018.

				 					10	GLAAD, “New GLAAD study reveals twenty percent of millennials identify as LGBTQ,” March 2017. Kim Parker, Nikki Graf, and Ruth Igielnik, “Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues,” PEW Research, January 2019. NPR, “The New Sexual Revolution: Polyamory On The Rise,” February 2019.

				 					11	Dr. Pepper Schwartz, “Baby Boomers Getting Older But Not Giving Up on Sex,” American Sexual Health Association, Accessed June 2019.

				 					12	GoodVibrations, “Antique Vibrator Museum.” Accessed online, August 2019.

Chapter 2

			2. A Closer Look at Sexual Wellness

			In the past five years, I’ve spoken to thousands of students at colleges and universities across the country, from massive auditoriums at state schools to small, intimate gatherings at liberal arts colleges. I’ve spoken at tech conferences, like TED Unplugged in Vancouver, SXSW in Austin, and the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York City. And, of course, I’ve hosted livestreamed classes on No matter what the venue, the reaction I get when we talk about pleasure and sex education is incredible. When we’re able to solve a problem, the results can be life-changing.

			But it’s not just in formal settings. Whenever I talk about what I do, people confide in me.

			I’ll never forget a fifty-six-year-old woman at a business networking event telling me that she finally had her very first orgasm—after learning how to use a Hitachi Magic Wand, a mass-market massager beloved by multiple generations.

			Or the Lyft driver in 2016 who burst into tears trying to communicate to me the shame she felt around sex. She’d had four children, she told me, but her husband didn’t care about her pleasure. Desperate to have someone to talk to, she finally asked me through tears if it was okay to buy her fifteen-year-old a vibrator—she wanted a different life for her daughters.

			Or the law school student at an Ivy League university who came up after a talk who told me she had no idea that women could really experience sexual pleasure. She’d seen it on TV, of course, but assumed it was a myth because it had never happened to her.

			Or the disabled veteran in Kansas City who cried to me about his inability to please his wife due to post-traumatic stress disorder that affected his marriage and relationship to intimacy.

			Or the sorority member in Los Angeles who thought she was broken. She’d had sex with many men but never had an orgasm.

			Or the Muslim trans man seeking help about coming out to his family. His older sister had been kicked out of their house for coming out as a lesbian, and he was desperate for insight as to how I managed to reconcile with my own religious parents.

			We tend to internalize our sexual shame. I’ve had women in their fifties—CEOs and leaders in their fields—approach me after a business meeting to confess that they fear they’re failing their husbands, because they feel disconnected from their bodies.

			The unifying thread in all of these stories is shame. Shame can have many causes, but I frequently find religious upbringing, sexual trauma, miseducation, and lack of education to be the key drivers. People are very often ashamed about their lack of knowledge, despite the fact that we as a society have failed to educate them. In place of education, we’ve created an ideal of a sexually-realized woman from Sex and the City to Broad City to Cosmopolitan to porn, we’ve created an ideal—progressive in some ways—that can paradoxically leave women feeling like sexual failures.

			So when I talk about sexual wellness to strangers, when I talk about the ways in which we’ve failed to educate, and how the path to pleasure is different for each person, it can be hugely validating and start a process of healing for these deep wounds.

			People think sexual wellness is about sex, when it’s really about wellness.

			We’re going to talk a lot about sexual wellness as we get into sextech, so here is what I believe are the core principles:

			Sex is natural and normal. Sex, masturbation, and sexual pleasure are regular functions of the human body. Pleasure is not dirty or shameful, indulgent or harmful, nor to be shrouded in mystery.

			It is okay not to have sex, too. For some people, sexual wellness means not being sexual. Celibacy and abstinence can be valid, healthy choices, especially for individuals who identify as asexual, about one percent of the human population.13

			Sexual wellness is part of health and wellness. As such, it should be in the domain of evidence-based public health—not religious, political, or morality-based institutions.

			Sexual wellness is not “sexy.” We should be able to address it without sensationalism or “hot” models. You don’t need to act sexy to educate people about sex.

			Sexual wellness is holistic. It uses mental health, spiritual health, physical health, and sexual health to connect people to their own sexuality.

			Sexual wellness is not about performance. There’s not one way to be a sexual being. We don’t have to meet others’ expectations about what a fulfilled sex life looks like.

			Sexual wellness products are not “novelty” or “niche” products. Vibrators, cock rings, lubricant, and other products should be treated the same way as a leg brace or a back massage.

			Sexual wellness is about access. We deserve education and the freedom to make informed choices about the sex life that is right for each of us.

Sexual Pleasure Is Good Health

			As we will explore in the next chapter, most of us are taught about sex in negative terms—dangerous STIs and unwanted pregnancies, ruined reputations, and legal liabilities. As kids, we’re taught the “why not” of sex, but rarely the “why.” Not only is that confusing, but for many of us, it has lasting impact on how we approach sex as adults. After all, most of the sex that people have is not for reproduction, but because it feels good. Because we’re attracted to someone, or because we want a more personal connection, or because our body is craving sexual release. But it has a host of other benefits as well.

			For most people, sex reduces stress. In addition to just feeling good, pleasurable, consensual sexual activity releases oxytocin, a hormone which creates feelings of well-being, facilitates social bonding, and helps block certain stress reactions in the body.14

			Sexual pleasure also releases endorphins—the same hormones that kick-in with exercise. Sex helps with sleep, which can in turn affect everything from mental health to longevity.15 It has even been shown to strengthen immunity.16

			We face an epidemic of stress-related illnesses, from anxiety to heart disease, and have become used to doctors scolding us about what we eat and if we work out—but when was the last time a doctor asked about your sex life, or if you masturbated regularly? In most cases, such a discussion about sex—one of the key drivers of human behavior—would be entirely off the table.

			Sexual wellness challenges that model. Sexual wellness seeks to strip away the prescribed versions of sex that society has given us—what we should or shouldn’t do, who we should or shouldn’t be—and to integrate it back into our everyday lives.

			Sexual wellness companies understand sex is a source of energy, power, and self-care. A sexual wellness company incorporates sexual health, mental health, and general wellness in order to help someone feel at home in their body, free of psychological and physiological issues around sexuality.

			We celebrate finding out the diet that works for you and doing the exercise that’s right for you. We remind each other to get our water intake in order and to sleep eight hours. But how often has the medical establishment told us to get your sex life and sexual identity in order?

			That’s what sexual wellness calls for. It’s bringing sexuality back into the experience of being human.

Erectile Visibility, Vaginal Shame

			Turn on the Superbowl, and you’ll see ads for Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra, all drugs treating erectile dysfunction (ED). Ever since former Senator Bob Dole appeared in a Viagra ad, it’s been acceptable to talk about ED on television.

			In general, this is a good thing. All sexual problems are valid and should be respected, and I’ve seen firsthand how people struggle with ED and the emotional toll it can take. We want more discussion about sexual problems, not less.

			However, the near-singular focus on ED is representative of how the medical industry addresses sex: in terms of performance, rather than pleasure or satisfaction.

			With the generic form of Viagra now available, ED advertising has exploded seemingly overnight. And with it, the idea that erectile performance is a performance sport.17 Erectile dysfunction is a serious condition, but the barrage of ads—on radio, on bus stops, on social media—not only focus entirely on one gender, and one form of sex, they focus only on one solution.

			We’ve all heard it in ads: “Call your doctor for an erection lasting more than four hours.” In a culture that pushes men to last longer and perform better, even the warning of “side effects” is a form of marketing.

			But many doctors and sexual health experts recognize that ED is often more complicated than a lack of blood flow to the penis.

			Stress and anxiety, and other mental health concerns, are a big factor not only for ED, but premature ejaculation, the other even more common penis-related sexual concern. This means that the pressure that these ad campaigns promote—that good sex must include an erect penis that lasts for a long time—can actually exacerbate the problem.

			Men under thirty are increasingly reporting erectile dysfunction, but some experts believe that this is less an increase in incidence, as much as an increase in expectation that erections must be unwavering.18 Part of the issue is the failure of our sex education system, which we’ll talk about more in chapter 3, and expectations set by porn, which we explore in chapter 4.

			Where the medical establishment seeks to pathologize and prescribe, sexual wellness recognizes that sexual performance is a complicated issue that involves not only physical reactions but mental and emotional ones.

			But selling that business model to an investor is a bit more difficult.

			It should come as no surprise that funding for pharmaceutical solutions to sexual issues have outpaced every other segment of sexual wellness, and sextech more specifically.

			As of 2019, the only unicorn—a company with an estimated market value of over $1B—in sexual wellness is Hims, a company that is known for providing generic ED prescription via chat-based consultation, and its companion brand Hers, which provides prescriptions for Addyi, the recently approved but somewhat controversial “female Viagra.”

			A business model based on the easy sale of drugs like Viagra and Addyi is not the answer to sexual wellness, unfortunately. They may be part of the solution, but without more holistic attention to the problem, they may pose public health risks.19

			But here’s where sextech entrepreneurs can take heart: the erectile dysfunction market may be easier to access, but it’s still small in actual size. ED is projected to be just under $3 billion in the next decade, according to some estimates, while sexual wellness, including vibrators and other pleasure-related products is projected at a staggering $27 billion.20

			Ironically, companies like Hims may be quicker to erect, but they may not have the size or staying power of a more holistic approach. And as we’ll see in future chapters, the playing field is much more open.

Beyond Novelty Items

			So why is an industry valued at $27 billion globally being ignored in favor of one nearly ten times smaller? Because we don’t take sexual wellness seriously.

			Historically, vibrators, dildos, and other sexual devices were referred to in the retail trade as “novelty items.” They were sold in the back of “dirty” magazines, or in adult bookstores, near crotchless panties and French maid outfits. In some states, the sale was illegal. In others, it was merely hidden. How could anyone take them seriously?

			Yet ask anyone who has relied on a vibrator in order to climax during sex, or as a trusted masturbatory aid, and they will tell you sexual wellness is far from a “novelty” in their lives.

			People who have struggled with pleasure and orgasm have shared with me how their a-ha moments around orgasms, masturbation, or a new fulfilling sex life helped them unlock confidence in their careers, overcome traumatic experiences, improve virtually every kind of relationship, save marriages, and build a better quality of life.

			Andy Duran, education director of Good Vibrations, often shares stories about customers who, at first, come in the store, quiet and dressed to hide their identities, only to return with completely changed demeanors and effusive gratitude to the employees who helped them with their purchases. He told me, “I’ve been helping people find pleasure through sex toys for almost half of my life. Having conversations with complete strangers seeking support in one of the most intimate aspects of their lives has honestly been one of the most rewarding experiences of mine.” How many other types of purchases can cause customers to return to thank the employees who helped them?

			Not everyone has an interest in or need for a sexual wellness product like a vibrator or dildo, but as they’ve become less stigmatized and as women’s sexual pleasure is more recognized, more people are finding them to be a key to sexual pleasure. From Fleshlights to Magic Wands, I have met many people who have held ceremonies to retire their trusted companions.

			As our bodies change, so can our need for products like vibrators and lubricants. As Amy Buckalter, the founder of lubricant company Pulse, says, the latter can become a hugely important part of sexual life when “the faucets dry up.”

			Amy bemoans the use of the term “sex toy.” She says it reinforces the idea that sexual wellness products are frivolous gag gifts found next to the fake puke and sexist T-shirts in a strip mall Spencer’s.

			The idea behind Pulse was born while Amy was herself approaching menopause but was dissatisfied by the quality of products out there. Pulse has developed its own silicone and water-based lubricants paired with a warming device “that uses a patented induction heating process and clean delivery system.”

			In an Italian restaurant, Amy pulled out the warming device to demo the products for me, and women on both sides of us stopped their dinner to talk to us. I watched Amy beam with pride when the women praised the sleek design of the warming device. Moments before, she explained to me that she wanted to design something as elegant as an Apple product, which she felt was missing from sexual wellness products.

			Everyone has to learn what feels good for their body. Unlike what we’re told by Hollywood, an orgasm does not have to be the goal during sex, but everyone who is sexually active should be given access and support needed to orgasm. Upwards of 70 percent of clitoris owners need or prefer clitoral stimulation to experience orgasm21—the dominant depiction of intercourse, penetrative penis-in-vagina sex, will not result in a climax without additional stimulation—but you wouldn’t know it from most mainstream media.

			In Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski describes libido not as a “sex drive,” but rather as a gas pedal and brake. There are forces, internal and external, in our control and out of it, that affect how we perceive sex, and our desire for it. It changes according to age and partner and time of life. It is not linear.

Sexual Wellness Is Not “Sexy”

			“They aren’t hot enough,” an investor tells me. Again.

			“Who?” I ask, knowing I’ll regret to hear the answer.

			He could be talking about the educators at (all of whom were beautiful, but were not white, young, or thin) or those we’ve included in an educational campaign. He expects supermodels.

			“But women don’t always want to learn about having their first orgasm, body shame, or having sex after giving birth from supermodels,” I tell him. He listens but doesn’t understand. But sex sells, you can see him thinking.

			I’ll get into the gender gap in venture capital later in the book, but the desire for “hotter models” isn’t new. After all, that’s how it’s done everywhere from Carl’s Jr. to Hustler Hollywood. The traditional “novelty” business still sells sex toys with porn star packaging.

			This may have been an effective strategy to attract male consumers—those who traditionally made the purchases in adult bookstores and through mail-order—but sexual wellness is more and more driven by women consumers.

			Except…sex doesn’t sell sexual wellness. In fact, it limits it. If you look at the leaders in the high-end sexual wellness product space—companies like Maude, Dame, even Hers—the marketing isn’t particularly sexy. It doesn’t shy away from sex, but it’s not…breathy. There are no fake orgasms or arched backs, just innovative, sleek solutions to a wide variety of needs.

			As Rachel Braun Scherl—a self-described Vagipreneur, the author of Orgasmic Leadership and innovator behind Semprae Laboratories’ Zestra topical product for arousal—joked to us in a conference audience, “Ask anyone who has had ‘vaginal dryness’ and they’ll tell you it was the least sexy thing imaginable.”

			While it can be tough to communicate to an investor accustomed to Victoria’s Secret, sexual wellness is different. Women don’t need, or even necessarily respond well to, nudity or sexy images when they are buying sexual wellness products. Women are too often desexualized or hypersexualized according to age, body size, sexuality, gender presentation, or race. Using a thin, light skinned, twenty-three-year-old woman only tells a sexual wellness consumer that this isn’t for her.

			Presenting a range of beauty, bodies, and desirability to a consumer isn’t just ideologically sound—it’s better business.

First Yoga, Then Meditation, Now…

			One day soon, buying a vibrator will be viewed like buying a yoga mat.

			Ten years ago, few people would have believed you if you predicted there would be massive, venture-funded companies dedicated to meditation and mental health. Meditation was seen as a niche space. Mental health was something dealt with by prescription, not a computer. And yet the success of companies like Headspace, Calm, and Talkspace have all stunned investors.

			In the past twenty years, wellness has moved into the mainstream. Once fringe ideas—yoga, pilates, juice bars—are now huge businesses.

			Our puritanical moral standards make it hard for many to see how sex can move mainstream, but wellness offers a lesson. By shifting the message away from prurience and toward wellness, it allows us to access a much broader market.

			Think about CBD oil, the non-psychoactive (and legal) cannabis derivative that is said to treat everything from anxiety to pain. Five years ago, only dedicated potheads knew the letters. Marijuana wasn’t short on stigma—after all, it’s still a Schedule 1 drug, and possession carries a one-year prison sentence. But medical hemp and CBD products are expected to reach $27B by 2026.

			That’s the power of wellness.

			As we’ll get into later, the generation that grew up with meditation apps and a focus on self care has also learned how to bring sexuality into their overall health. The more awareness and acceptance people develop, the more empowered they feel to take care of their sexual wellness as well.

			We’re not new, but we’re the next frontier.

Ending Shame

			Shame is the single most powerful force holding back sexual wellness. Shame spirals into fear, which in turn keeps people from talking about these subjects altogether. Fear, in turn, begets stigma—and keeps people from wanting to participate, fund, support, and partner in these spaces.

			But stigma isn’t invincible, and neither is fear or shame.

			We can overcome the counter forces of shame, fear, and miseducation. We can find ways to deny conservative forces the ability to dominate public policy. We can fight for evidence-based science, sexual health experts, and public health professionals.

			By proving the market, sextech entrepreneurs are beating a path to success. We’re showing that it’s not just sustainable, but hugely profitable. And if there’s one truth in America, it’s that public morals are no match for private equity. I’m not saying market forces are always good—far from it—but from Prohibition to PornHub, the easiest way around conservative forces has always been a clear profit.

			In order to get there, we need to know what we’re up against. In the next chapter, I’ll explain what’s keeping us in shame and what we need to do to fix it.

* * *

			 				 					13	AF Bogaert, “Asexuality: prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample.” J Sex Res. 2004 Aug;41(3):279-87.

				 					14	Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg et al, “Self-soothing behaviors with particular reference to oxytocin release induced by non-noxious sensory stimulation,” Front Psychol. 2014; 5: 1529.

				 					15	Michelle Lastella et al, “Sex and Sleep: Perceptions of Sex as a Sleep Promoting Behavior in the General Adult Population,” Frontiers in Public Health, 2019; 7: 33.

				 					16	Carl Charnetski, Francis Brennan, “Sexual Frequency and Salivary Immunoglobulin A (IgA),” Psychological Reports, June 2004.

				 					17	Ian Crouch, “Viagra Returns to the Bob Dole Approach,” The New Yorker, October 2014.

				 					18	Rastrelli Giulia and Mario, Maggi, “Erectile dysfunction in fit and healthy young men: psychological or pathological?” Transl Androl Urol. 2017 Feb; 6(1): 79–90.

				 					19	I explored this topic further in, “Warning: The Sex Drug Startup Revolution May Have Side Effects,” Forbes, December 2018.

				 					20	Jackie Rotman, “Vaginas Deserve Giant Ads, Too,” New York Times, June 2019.

				 					21	Debby Herbenick, “Women’s Experiences With Genital Touching, Sexual Pleasure, and Orgasm: Results From a U.S. Probability Sample of Women Ages 18 to 94,” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, August 2017.

Chapter 3

			3. The Sexual Miseducation of America

			Every time I give a sex education talk or workshop at a university, I put out a box where the audience can scribble down questions anonymously and submit them for me to answer. The questions are incredibly telling, often more so than the questions asked in public.

			The questions people ask out loud are often advanced, and sometimes performative—perhaps dealing with polyamory or the ethics of porn. If you were to sit in on one of these, you’d be impressed with the nuance many young people bring to discussions about sex. But the questions in that answer box are different.

			Some questions I’ve gotten recently:

			 				Will I go to hell if I am not a virgin?

				Is sex supposed to hurt?

				How do I masturbate?

				Do I have to shave my pubic hair?

				How does gay sex work?

			These are incredibly basic questions, but the students aren’t stupid. In fact, some of the questions above have been submitted to me by students at Ivy League universities.

			As sextech entrepreneurs, we tend to concentrate on the people who ask the questions out loud. The bold, the progressive, the kinky. But the vast majority of our audience, the ones who really need us, are the ones who submit the questions in the box.

			The issue isn’t intelligence—it’s that we don’t teach about sex.

			At smaller state schools, the questions I get asked are a direct window into the quality of sex ed that a region provides. Once, after a talk at a small school in Kansas, a young Indian student stood and explained that a nurse had told him not to masturbate—that it could lead to erectile dysfunction.

			The educator I was with explained to him how wrong that nurse had been—that masturbation is a healthy practice, that pleasure is a natural physical reaction to stimulation, that the nurse’s advice wasn’t rooted in medical science at all, but instead moralistic stigma.

			He sprinted out of the auditorium.

			His story isn’t unusual. Across the country, students are routinely taught regressive, harmful, medically incorrect information in schools. Most states don’t require that schools provide any sex education to students, meaning it’s left up to the school districts.

			As I’ve discovered first hand, it’s a major crisis.

			We now have a system in which your knowledge of sexuality and sexual health is based on where you are born. If you are born in a state that is abstinence-only until marriage, you’ll likely get a textbook that is not only medically inaccurate, it may be accompanied by moral lessons that are sexist, homophobic, or just plain wrong. You might get a nurse who teaches that masturbation will lead to erectile dysfunction. In the past two decades, the federal government has spent two billion dollars teaching students information that is not evidence-based. As a teen in a conservative suburb in California, I was given a virginity flower demonstration during Sunday School which generally goes something like this:

			A teacher shows the class a fresh flower bud. They pass it around, letting the class admire it. The flower, they tell you, is your virginity.

			Then, they take the flower back. They crush and bruise and mangle it. “Who would want this flower now?” they ask.

			Once you have sex outside of marriage, they tell you, you are ruined sexually. There’s no going back. No one will want that flower.

			Over the years, I’ve heard multiple versions of this demonstration. There’s a piece of gum that the teacher chews up and then offers back to the students. There’s a white sneaker version that becomes trampled and dirty. There’s one where the students pass around a Snickers bar until it’s melted and gross. They all end the same: No one will want you after you’ve had sex. More specifically, your future husband—because this is often directed to girls—will be disappointed.

			I often think about how I felt limited growing up in a Catholic family, but at least I had access to San Francisco and its progressive resources. There are states, like California, that now have comprehensive sex ed including mandated LGBTQ education, but most do not. This is unacceptable. If I’d been born in Oklahoma or Texas or places without those educational opportunities, where would I be now?

			There are so many passionate, talented people who believe in sexual wellness in the public sector, but our states limit what they can teach about sex, or even the questions they can answer. In many schools, a teacher who was approached by the young student I met in Kansas would not be able to discuss the topic with him at all, or could face sanctions if they did.

			Even when they are able to talk, there aren’t many resources. The Federal government has stripped funding for nearly all sex education besides abstinence-only. Their goal? To push sex out of the public sphere—out of schools, out of research universities, out of clinics, out of public health—to the private sphere, where it can be guided by conservative, religious institutions.

			Sexual health advocates want better public sex ed, as do I. But as sextech entrepreneurs, we know that until the laws change, our best opportunity for educating the next generation may be in the private sector.

The Path to Abstinence

			We currently have lower levels of sex education in America than we did twenty years ago.

			Back in 1995, during the Clinton administration, 80 percent of students learned about birth control in schools. But that changed in 2000, with the election of George W. Bush and the elevation of the evangelical movement. Today, fewer than half of the schools in the US teach any sex ed at all, and 75 percent of those that do, only teach abstinence-only programs.22

			That means the generation of students entering college today haven’t been taught about birth control or STIs, let alone more controversial issues like masturbation, sexuality, or consent.

			In fact, nearly twenty states require that educators teach students that sex is acceptable only within the context of marriage.23 Seven states prohibit teachers—under penalty of law—from even talking about gay people, unless it’s to condemn them.24

			The sad thing is, we know these programs don’t work. The CDC and National Institutes of Health say that abstinence-only programs increase teen pregnancy and the rate of STIs, and yet—under both President Bush and President Trump, those are the only programs that get funded. (The current administration slashed more than $200 million from teen pregnancy prevention programs that had been funded during the Obama administration.)

			Is it any wonder that we’re at an all-time high rate of STIs?25 At the federal, state, and local levels, there has been a sustained assault on sex education in schools, and yet the government still actively pushes abstinence and fights comprehensive sex ed.26

			Within the government-backed school system, we have to fight for even the most basic information. No one talks about pleasure. No one talks about consent. No one talks about masturbation. How can we expect them to answer the types of questions I get from first-year college students?

			For all the public conversation about consent and sexuality, we have generations of Americans completely unequipped to advocate for their bodily autonomy, that are extremely ashamed about any sexuality that they’ve experienced. We’ve failed those generations of women when we set them up to be hurt, and we failed those generations of men when we fed them toxic masculinity instead of teaching them about consent and pleasure for all bodies.

			Without an accurate education and healthy perception of sexuality, it’s no wonder sexual wellness has so few entrepreneurs, fewer investors, and a market that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself.

			Imagine what our financial system would be like if we didn’t teach math.

What Happened to Free Love?

			When I talk with people from older generations about, they’re often confused. After all, they tell me—“we fought for this fifty years ago.” They had consciousness-raising sessions and marches and “free love.” Today, there’s much freer discussion of sex on television, gay marriage is legal, and women are speaking out about #MeToo. How can it be that people coming of age now are still in the dark?

			Most don’t realize that as they’ve gotten older, they’ve lost touch with what students are being taught. They confuse conversation with education.

			In many cases, they’ve also segmented themselves into progressive bubbles—like San Francisco, a bastion of “free love.” It can be hard for them to understand that in other states, or rural areas, generations are coming of age, getting married, and having children with much less information about sex than they had.

			Many may remember the freedom granted by the availability of birth control in the 1960s, which decoupled sex for pleasure and sex for reproduction, and allowed women to have sex without fear of pregnancy. They may remember the striking down of adultery laws, and the freedom to have sex outside of marriage.

			These were, of course, huge accomplishments.

			For heterosexual women born between 1933 and 1942, 93 percent reported having sex for the first time when they got married. About twenty years later, between 1963 and 1974, only 36 percent of heterosexual women reported waiting until marriage to have sex for the first time; the majority of women didn’t wait.27

			The Summer of Love birthed a generation empowered to take on its own sexuality, but we never educated them about it. They were left—like generations before them, to figure it out for themselves. The ‘60s and ‘70s birthed pioneers like Joani Blank, who started Good Vibrations; the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which published Our Bodies Ourselves; Carol Queen, who started the Center for Sex and Culture; and Susie Bright, better known as Susie Sexpert, who co-founded On Our Backs.

			These pioneers—mostly women and queer people—helped change the conversation through grassroots educating. Many of us can thank them for our own personal revelations. (I know I can.)

			But sex and sexual pleasure education have rarely come from institutions—it’s too difficult to fund and too vulnerable to political change. So when I look to the future, I look to pioneers like them, and try to imagine what they would do if they were millennials. What could they do to understand the system and prove to the tech bros and banks and legislators that sexual wellness isn’t just the right thing to do, but that it’s a huge untapped market.

			That’s what sextech is.

The Limits of Nonprofit

			There are, of course, places other than schools where people learn about sex.

			Planned Parenthood is the behemoth that gets the most attention, but it isn’t alone. We’re lucky to have organizations like Siecus, Advocates for Youth, the Healthy Teen Network, and Power to Decide, as well as countless other smaller organizations doing community-based work.

			But because so many depend on government funding, most focus on teen pregnancy prevention or STI reduction.

			And with teen pregnancy prevention funds being cut, many nonprofits have had to refocus their efforts on advocacy rather than education. At the same time as funding has been cut, we’ve seen a sustained attack on reproductive rights across the board—many organizations are facing a war on two fronts.

			Take Planned Parenthood. While it’s a health provider at its core, it also has grant-funded sex ed programs—Planned Parenthood Online is one of the best providers of sex ed online today. But because of their government funding, and because they provide reproductive rights services, like birth control and abortion, they are vulnerable to the whims of legislators. Everything they do is under the microscope.

			In 2014, anti-abortion activist Lila Rose went to a Denver Planned Parenthood Clinic posing as a fifteen-year-old asking about BDSM. The healthcare provider spoke to her about safe BDSM play and resources, unaware that she was secretly being filmed. When a selectively edited video was released to conservative media, it spurred the Colorado Attorney General to investigate the organization.

			Even when private funders like Hewlett Packard and the Ford Foundation back organizations, their scope is limited—and further limited by the cautious nature of the large foundations that back them. Continued funding often depends on a measurable bottom line—stats like teen pregnancy and STI reduction—rather than broader education about consent and wellness. As much as educators might like to talk about consent and pleasure, their mission statements don’t allow it in any measurable way.

			Nonprofit and social impact organizations who want to focus on pleasure as part of comprehensive sex education or part of an activist cause often must rely on crowdfunding and community support.

Less Room for Risk Means It’s Always a Side Hustle

			But it’s not just conservative funders or limited missions—in many of these organizations there are massive disincentives for risk-taking.

			In the startup world, you’re supposed to take risks. A venture fund wants to make a profit, and as such encourages you to find the best people and understands that often, you must compensate them competitively. It’s a risk, sure, but it’s one investors are willing to take for such a large payoff. Nonprofits, which depend on incremental success for continued funding, are berated for any increases in “overhead”—how much you pay your staff. We expect the people who are trying to make the world a better place to do so for almost no money.

			That’s not to say these people don’t want to take risks. I once met with a large organization in Los Angeles that provided healthcare, housing, counseling, and a host of other services for the LGBTQ community. We sat for hours talking about the innovative and potentially program-altering changes that could bring. The conversation was electric—there were so many possibilities that the staff raised.

			But at the end of the conversation, they conceded that there wasn’t really a way forward. Their funders depended on very specific metrics, and they were already so stretched for services that they couldn’t afford to take risks when that money could be used to keep a trans teen off the streets, or provide HIV meds for an elderly gay man on disability.

			I understood completely—but it made me that much more dedicated to making a space where risks could be funded. Where there is room to experiment with new ideas.

			When you’re a private company funded by venture capital, there are stages. The more money you raise, the more that you have to prove. In the pre-seed stage, it’s understood that you’ve only got an idea and you’re allowed to not have things figured out. By the time you get to the next stage, Series A funding, you’ll need to be able to really show measurable traction. There’s still room to experiment and change, of course, but investors start wanting to see results.

			There’s very little risk capital available in the nonprofit space. For a nonprofit to get the amount of grant money a startup might get from a pre-seed round, it would have to provide Series A level metrics. That means most new nonprofit organizations merely follow the path of existing successful programs, rather than striking out on their own.

			Nonprofits have to prove so much more before they can raise a dime.

			Nonprofits have access to capital but aren’t allowed to take risks. On the other hand, sexual wellness entrepreneurs can take risks, but have very little capital. We can’t get nonprofit grants, and many big investment funds are wary of us. (I’ll talk more about this in the next chapter.)

			There have been success stories, for sure—but for the most part, sexual wellness and sextech entrepreneurs have been individualists that use crowdfunding or personal equity to start businesses that they hope will make it to sustainability, if not runaway success. They are content creators, online educators, sex therapists, or sex toy designers. Their ideas may be brilliant, but they have to fight for every bit of growth—like an ambitious plant on the side of the rock face of a cliff.

			The lack of money diverted to us often means no one—even those with tremendous ideas—can get to scale. As a result, most founders and creators, no matter how ambitious and innovative, stick with a nonprofit mindset, always dying for money, doing the work for nearly free, because they believe what they’re doing is important and vital—what other option do they have? Many devote their lives to it, but usually as a second or third job. Talk to most sexual wellness entrepreneurs and you’ll hear the same thing. It’s like art, music, activism. You can’t not do it—it means too much to you.

			As long as so little funding goes to these sectors, this is where we’ll stagnate, with everyone scrambling for scraps and hoping it’s enough to keep their ideas alive.

			But what would it mean to think about sexual wellness on a huge scale? What would a legitimized sexual wellness space look like?

The Private Sector Is Essential

			The market for sexual wellness is like women’s sexual pleasure in general—the world knows it exists, but doesn’t like talking about it, doesn’t really know how to achieve it, and is uncomfortable investing in it.

			Our schools are failing to teach even basic anatomy and reproduction, let alone pleasure. Our public health organizations are stretched for even basic funding, and our corporate nonprofits are so focused on narrow goals that even innovation risks loss of funding. And with conservative legislators ascending, it’s only getting worse.

			And yet, there are eight billion people who are radically underserved in terms of sexual wellness. The toll, physically, emotionally, and socially is immeasurable.

			We are slowly growing more and more aware of the costs, individually and collectively, but the shift we want won’t happen without the private sector.

			The activists, thinkers, and movements throughout have made a huge impact—but until we connect them with private sector investment, until we find a way to reward and finance them, until we connect what they do to a market, their impact will remain stunted. As an entrepreneur, I believe that the risk-tolerant culture of tech has the ability to effect widespread massive cultural change in one generation.

			I don’t want to wait until the government permits us to learn about consent and pleasure—if we’re not all dead by then, the sexual wellness potential of countless lives will have been squandered. There’s no appetite for a government-funded program to address sexual wellness, and structurally it’s near impossible to execute. Imagine if we could do with sexual wellness what Twitter did for political activism.

			To move quickly, we need capital. To get capital, we need support for private sector innovators and to prove the viability of the sexual wellness market. And we owe it to the next generation to move quickly.

* * *

			 				 					22	More on sex ed in America (or the lack of it) in my New York Times opinion piece, “How to Make Sex More Dangerous,” March 2019.

				 					23	State Laws and Policies, “Sex and HIV Education,” Guttmacher Institute, August 1, 2019.

				 					24	Research Brief, “Laws that Prohibit the “Promotion of Homosexuality”: Impacts and Implications,” GLSEN, Accessed online, August 2019.

				 					25	Ibid

				 					26	Megan Donovan, “The Looming Threat to Sex Education: A Resurgence of Federal Funding for Abstinence-Only Programs?” Guttmacher Institute, March 2017.

				 					27	Brian Alexander, “Free Love: Was There a Price to Pay?” NBCNews,, June 2007.

Chapter 4

			4. Who Built the Internet?

			I’ll never forget the moment I realized the true scope of this problem.

			I’m at one of my first investor meetings with one of the funders of my previous company. He knows my track record. He knows I’m serious. Over sparkling water at the St. Regis, I make my pitch for—I explain the near total void of sex and pleasure education, especially for women. A market without a dominant voice. A $27B retail segment that major tech companies like Facebook and Amazon probably won’t—or can’t—touch.

			As I go through the deck, he blushes at first, then looks confused, and then…pity. He sort of half-smiles, patronizingly, prepared to drop a major truth bomb on me.

			“Andrea,” he says, “I’m confused why you plan on focusing on educating women? If you want women to have more pleasure, then you should educate men. After all, men are the ones who give women pleasure.”

			There are biological realities of the world, he continues to explain. Women aren’t as biologically interested in sex as men. Any internet space like would just degrade to porn.

			I stay calm. He does lay out some core truths, but they’re not what he thinks. Rather than dissuade me, in my head he’s proving my point. People like him are the very reason I needed to build I end the meeting as quickly as I can.

			I laugh about it now—the fact that one of the men who helped fund major internet companies could have such outdated views of sexuality. But it’s no laughing matter. Men and like-minded organizations continue to be the gatekeepers of funding for sextech, without understanding the basics of sex.

			Sextech founders balance all of the immense struggles all founders face, but with the added burden of stigma. It’s one of the last frontier markets, and few people outside our community acknowledge that. Many of us feel unhinged from the dissonance of experiencing the demand for our products every day with everyone we meet—from strangers overhearing conversations at coffee shops, Lyft drivers, and even the investors themselves—only to be passed over again and again by investors.

			I recall being held up for fifteen minutes in a women’s bathroom by a partner of a well-known investment fund, who had just had a baby and wanted to talk about her current difficulties having sex with her husband. That fund also passed based on the “lack of opportunity” they saw in the blue ocean $122B projected market opportunity we educated them about.

			If we can’t trust investors to be greedy, what can we trust?

			We don’t have the old boys’ club to pass down knowledge or connections. We don’t have an established market or a course at Stanford. We’re a massive multibillion-dollar market, and we barely have a Wikipedia page.

			We need to fix that.

			In this chapter, I’m going to lay out the structural problems we face in funding, as well as the double-edged sword of stigma and sexuality in today’s market. Much later in the book, I’ve included a quick how-to guide for anyone willing to join us in tackling these massive, man-made problems.

What Gives, Private Sector?

			Most founders have the same tools available to them. The same payment processors. The same website builders. The same tech conferences and advisory boards and venture funds. Silicon Valley is filled with startups, all driving down the same stretch of 280, often looking to be bought by the same publicly traded companies. It’s the mainstream ecosystem.

			But try to do something in sextech—or even the most anodyne corners of sexual wellness—and you’ll suddenly see barriers that you never knew existed. Moral clauses buried in Limited Partner agreements. Banks who will shut you down and tell you to take your money elsewhere. Payment processors that charge exorbitant rates. Social media platforms that won’t let you advertise. And all the while, you’ll likely find well-meaning mentors and investors who will give you advice for hours and gladly go to endless coffees and dinners (especially to address their own personal problems)—but won’t write checks.

			Sextech isn’t the only market that’s denied access to this ecosystem. Startups that work in cannabis and cryptocurrency are similarly locked out of traditional banking and advertising. I don’t have anything against those categories, but in some ways you can see the rationale—under Federal law some of what they’re doing is still illegal.

			Sextech and sexual wellness are not illegal. And yet, the restrictions can be even more aggressive. People love to talk about blockchain and cannabis. Despite the dangers, investors can at least understand these markets.

			So why hasn’t the sextech revolution happened yet? I can tell you the answer:


			Despite the size of the total market, there’s been no unicorn for sextech. There’s been no “a-ha” moment for investors. Until this happens, there’s no incentive for these gatekeeper companies—or investors—to break down the doors.

			We’re going to do it. But in order to do that, we need to unpack the reasons those doors are closed. I need to take you several steps back in the process, and show you where the real money is, and how the decisions are made.

			Because if the person saying no is a well-meaning investor or the founder of one of those NASDAQ elephants, the blockage is more structural than personal.

What is Venture Capital?

			Esteemed professor, startup expert, serial founder, and author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany, Steve Blank, defines a startup as a “temporary organization in search of a business model.”28

			Venture capital is the way that tech startups fund this search. Entrepreneurs engage in rapid experimentation until they find out how to make money, essentially buying themselves time until they unlock and create a business model that didn’t exist before. When a startup finds its business model and establishes monetization, it becomes a company. Until that time, they need venture capital to survive throughout their idea (or “seed”) stage—and then more capital to grow and capture market share.

			Venture capital is a bizarre concept if you aren’t familiar with it. As a founder, you’re given a pile of money to experiment and to try to build a dominant business model. It’s not a bank loan that you have to pay back. Venture capital is, and should be, risk-friendly capital—the same capital that nonprofit organizations do not have access to, that we covered in the last chapter. About 75 percent of all venture-backed startups fail, and early stage investors expect to lose their money most of the time.29 They understand that in order to maximize success—and return on their investment—we need an ecosystem in which the vast majority of ventures fail.

			Rather than demanding small returns on each company, they are betting that one of their investments will be a billion-dollar or more win, often called “unicorns.” These unicorns form the lifeblood of the venture capital industry. One “Uber” or “Facebook” is all they are looking for. Venture capital firms may have different value systems, also referred to as “theses”—but this big payoff strategy is the mindset of venture capital.

			There are only four outcomes to every startup venture: death, IPO (the “initial public offering”—which means raising funds in a public market like a stock exchange), acquisition by another company (say, Facebook or Google), or operating as a self-sustaining business. The last one is not particularly favorable to investors, since it scales slowly, and the capital they invested is stuck in the business.

			So the key to understanding investors? Maximize greed and reduce risk. However, as massive as the sextech opportunity is, greed has not motivated the best venture capital funds to jump on it. Rather, it has remained underfunded until even 2019. Let’s dive into the decision-makers to understand how this could possibly be.

Limited Partners: The Funders at the Top

			Limited partners have a major impact behind what gets funding, what doesn’t, and the internet ecosystem we have today.

			When a startup founder fundraises, they raise money from investors, like angel investors, who invest their own money, and venture capitalists—also known as VCs—who invest other people’s money. VCs make money themselves when they make other people money. Those other people—the ones with the money to invest—are called Limited Partners, or LPs. LPs can be wealthy individuals, other venture funds, a family foundation, or they can be large, institutional funds. Typically, the larger the fund, the bigger the check. Eligible institutions can be huge, from the Vatican to venture arms of big corporations to even countries. LPs set the ground rules.

			Occasionally, you’ll meet with a VC who is also an LP—perhaps it’s a small fund, or they take a more hands-on role. But mostly, LPs are behind the scenes.

			What LPs believe—financially, strategically, politically, morally—matters for the rest of us. They can influence what a VC can fund, from the sector of the market, to the risk profile of the startup.

			While LPs come in all shapes and sizes, for the most part, they’re looking for a return on investment. They may have broader ideas about how they want the world to look, or what types of startups they want to fund. There are LPs and smaller funds, for instance, that focus on gender diversity. But even those with a social message are not to be confused with charities.

			The DNA of LPs gets passed down to VCs, and ultimately down to the founders of the startups they invest in. So while much attention has been paid to diversity in the workforce, until it’s a priority of the overwhelmingly white, overwhelming male LPs, founders won’t feel much pressure to diversify their own companies.

			Most LPs want to fund companies with the potential to become the new Facebook, Google, or Uber. They want companies with the potential to define a category.

			More important than the LPs themselves are the LPAs—“the Limited Partner Agreements”—the agreements LPs sign with the funds into which they plan to invest. Many of these agreements can have clauses that specify investment sectors that are off limits—most commonly guns, drugs, and, unsurprisingly, “adult” businesses. This was originally meant to keep funds from investing in porn. But as I learned early, LPAs regard “adult” as a slippery slope—“adult” has come to mean anything that involves sex.

			Given the vagueness of “adult,” these restrictions can be enforced inconsistently. While investors in tech are not generally risk averse—most plan to lose on most investments, but make it up with a few outsized returns—it’s simply not worth it to violate the LPA. But even without a legal LPA in place, or one that prohibits “adult” investments, all it takes is a concerned phone call from another partner, or a negative reaction in an LP meeting, and the deal is dead.

VCs and Incentives: Who Watches the Watchmen?

			Venture capitalists are the next rung down from LPs, and are the ones who most often sign off on the investments. They have to answer to the LPs, ultimately, but are largely empowered to go out and source potential investments and make the deals.

			Like LPs, VCs are overwhelmingly white and male. Want proof? Look at the team page of any VC firm’s website. Patagonia vests galore.

			Fewer than 10 percent of all decision-makers in venture capital are women. And nearly three out of four VC firms in the United States have no women investors at all.30 Zero.

			VCs focus on the probability that the business will generate an outsized return to the fund, based on pattern matching of founders and rate of growth. Investors especially love the “stickiness” of a product—how ‘addicted’ someone can get to a product. Think of how many times you scroll Instagram, or how much time you spend on Netflix.

			VCs back founders who “match a pattern” that might indicate they’ll be the next Mark Zuckerberg. For example, that pattern might be a Stanford pedigree, or a history of smaller, successful companies…or someone who “seems” like a founder. Think of all the CEOs in hoodies or black turtlenecks, and you’ll get a sense of what signals they send to investors.

			Of course, this creates a huge bias against founders and businesses who don’t fit this pattern. Women. People of color. Older people. Queer people. Parents.

			Numerous studies have found that teams with at least one female founder perform better than teams with an all-male makeup, but little has changed. In 2018, female founders brought in only 2.2 percent of all venture capital that year. Women of color got an even tinier fraction.31

			Not only is this bad for those of us who don’t match the profile of what a founder “looks” like, it’s bad for investment. VCs talk a big game about finding untapped markets, discovering explosive financial potential, but when it comes to their pattern-matching predilection, it can produce cookie-cutter founders.

			Confirmation bias in their pattern matching and the limited lived experiences of a VC can block innovation in entire sectors.

			It also means they miss major investment opportunities, like the breast pump. The breast pump, which extracts breast milk for later feeding, sucked for generations. While the technology was invented in 1854, it wasn’t until women began entering the workforce in earnest in the 1960s that it became an essential component of motherhood. But comfort, convenience, speed, and dignity weren’t really concerns. Neither was the tech.

			Major investors weren’t interested in the market. Maybe it was because we have a fantasy of what constitutes traditional motherhood. Maybe it’s because investors didn’t view it as a real problem—at least not one they’ve experienced. Markets ignored it, because women were ignored.

			The situation was so bleak that in 2014, women even came together for a “Breast Pump Hackathon”—desperate to find some tools that would give them freedom.

			It took a woman-led startup, Elvie, to take the matter seriously. Today, with Elvie’s wearable breast pump, the women’s health company announced it had raised $42 million dollars. CNET said the pump “feels like breaking out of jail.”

			Babies weren’t invented in 2019, of course, or even 2014. Billions of people have struggled with breastfeeding—it just took investors and innovators until now to start taking the problem seriously. If more people who lived through breastfeeding with a crappy pump sat at VC tables, this would have been solved long ago.

			For a VC to invest in a company, they need to comprehend the problem and the market—not just as numbers on a spreadsheet, but like a lightbulb going off. They love nothing more than to have a founder pitch them with an analogy to an existing “unicorn” or billion-dollar company—an Uber for cleaning! The Airbnb for camping. Tinder for mating cattle. (All of these exist now.)

			When it comes to modern sextech, sexual wellness, and femtech, much of the market is led by women. Most of the founders are women. But most of the VCs are men. It’s hard for VCs to take problems seriously when they’ve never experienced them. “How hard can it be to pump breast milk?” they wonder. They look on Amazon and see a market with plenty of products. In many cases, they don’t see the potential, because it doesn’t affect them.

			Meanwhile, during the early 2010s, there were a plethora of laundry startups. Why? The biggest problem in a young Stanford graduate’s life is hating laundry. Regardless of inanity, it was something that founders and VCs could understand.

			This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply scrutiny to the founders of companies—but who and what gets funded starts with the VCs and LPs.

			A more diverse venture capital ecosystem, with a broader range of investors and lived experience, could be the solution to reaching these other markets. But that takes time.

			Arlan Hamilton, the founder and visionary behind Backstage Capital, has dedicated her career to giving access to capital to underrepresented, or who she calls, underestimated founders. There are more diverse funds, but the issue is that most of these funds are relatively young, and still struggle to raise money from LPs. Just as interest compounds on capital, the funds that were established early in the internet have compounded their reach and experience. For some, there hasn’t been a sufficient amount of time for their investments to prove themselves, and they struggle to raise from LPs without the success that an older, more established fund might have.

			In other cases, they have different values beyond maximizing returns. This is great for society, but can cause large, established LPs to look elsewhere. LPs more often go for the VCs who can maximize their returns—and thus look for those with proven track records.

			Maximizing returns is an understandable goal, and it‘s driven much of the internet so far. There are, however, other metrics that we should think about applying. For example, what would tech look like if VCs valued the effect a company might have on society? It’s a longer-term view, but one that arguably has a higher payoff.

The Diversity Dilemma Mirrored Online

			Could Facebook have avoided the democracy damaging flood of fake news, or the siloing of communities? Could YouTube have started addressing abusive comments, or stopped spurring the explosive growth of conspiracy theories? When your goal is keeping someone engaged as long as possible, you tend to feed them what they want to have, what makes them feel good, what bolsters their own opinions—rather than what is actually valuable.

			Twitter is one of the best examples of how lack of diversity plays out online. For many of the cis white men who founded, invested in, and ran Twitter, it is a bastion of untrammeled free speech. A marketplace of competing ideas. There’s a strong theoretical argument for platforms to be free spaces, blind to race or gender or sexuality or ideology, but in reality it doesn’t always mean equal access.

			As a queer woman of color, I knew how uncomfortable online spaces could be. One of the reasons I started was because like so many women and gender non-conforming people, I had been harassed online. At times, going online wasn’t so much a free exchange of ideas, as much as target practice for racists, misogynists, and homophobes. For many people, merely offering up an opinion results in comments about their looks, their weight, their intelligence, their reproductive capacity, their race. It means being bombarded with rape threats, death threats, and other harassment.

			I’m not saying that white cis men don’t get attacked, but it’s rarely the swarm it is for women and minorities. A staggering 81 percent of women experience sexual harassment in their lifetime, and the internet isn’t any safer than the offline world.32 Of the 40 percent of Americans who have experienced public bullying, trolling, and harassment online, women are twice as likely to experience gender-based harassment than men.33 Without being in the decision-making spaces, we can’t contribute to making those platforms safer and more inclusive.

			What if, instead of maximizing “stickiness,” Twitter had engaged with social scientists? What if their executive staff were more diverse? Could they have seen this coming? Could they have built in better moderation and allowed less toxic behavior? Jack Dorsey recently talked about how beneficial for the platform toxic behavior is—and is now thinking about how to change Twitter’s incentives.

			VCs love addictive systems. Hooked by Nir Eyal, one of the most influential books in tech, explains how apps on our phones keep us engaged—and the effect it has on users. More importantly, it details how to accomplish this. VCs use the potential ‘addictiveness’ to evaluate startups, without much concern as to whether those effects are positive or negative for the end user, let alone society. No matter what aspect of tech, most potential investors will ask you for these metrics—stats like daily active users, time spent in the app, retention rates after three, seven, or thirty days. If you can keep someone hooked, you can likely get funded. In Silicon Valley, addictiveness is a virtue.

			This drive for stickiness imbues the whole ecosystem. Even if a founder felt concerned about the effects of their product, they would have to keep in mind the opinions of their investors, lest an investor stop funding them.

			For new companies, it can often feel like a deal with the devil. VCs are relentless about growth. If you’re not meeting those metrics, you risk losing your funding, and your company dies. It’s not enough to grow. VCs push startups to grow extremely fast. Twitter was a classic example of this. The team thought they were building a bottle rocket—then watched that rocket to go to the moon as popularity surged, and investors pushed for more. The social media directive has been growth over everything; pausing to understand how that growth might affect users, or whether safeguards might be built in, aren’t even secondary concerns. They are barely concerns at all.

			Most of the social media platforms we use today grew too quickly, with too few experts or social scientists. Founders have an idea—an experiment—but by the end of the process they’re more like mad scientists. It’s no longer about finding out what the experiment will produce, as much as it is constantly manipulating it to produce the results the VCs want.

			This is a big failure of modern capitalism in Silicon Valley. On one hand, the process lets people take risks, allows entrepreneurs to innovate at a massive rate, and empowers visionaries to build at an unforeseen scale. On the other hand, it leaves havoc in its wake. We measure the edifice by the height of the spire, not by the cost of the build. We only look at the profit, at the capitalization, at the growth, without looking at the costs to society or the people using it.

			I don’t believe most tech founders set out to hobble democracy or foster harassment or any of the other social negatives that have come in their wake. I believe that the tech ecosystem and incentives pushed them at breakneck speed, and created the internet that we have now.

			Much has been written about the need for more diversity and inclusion in the tech world. Emily Chang’s Brotopia is a searing review of Silicon Valley today and talks about the issues that arise when we don’t include stakeholders.

			Many organizations, such as Project Include, Change Catalyst, Tech Inclusion, and others—have invested billions to diversify tech, but the reality is that, online as it is offline, the structural bias of tech is massive and was formed long ago.

The DNA of the Internet

			There’s a dictum in Silicon Valley that founders should identify a problem in their own lives, and design the solution. Silicon Valley has largely been the domain of straight, white men—it’s not surprising that what they built solved the problems effectively for them.

			Take Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg first designed the platform as a way to more effectively rate the attractiveness of women at Harvard. As it grew, it became a way to find out more information about these women and his other classmates. While its scope has grown, many of us still use it that same way—to snoop on ex-lovers, family members, potential dates, employees. Companies—from Apple to Cambridge Analytica—use it the same way. That feature is built into its DNA.

			It works terrifically well for straight white men like Zuckerberg. Its addictive nature compels people to post highly personal information. But straight white men are less likely to face harassment online. They’re less likely to have to deal with stalkers. They don’t need to worry about being “outed” as gay. They are less likely to be surveilled by law enforcement.

			Founders shape the DNA of their entire organization. When you l