Leading the health and wellness industry

Meet Rachel Braun, Co-Founder of SPARK Solutions for Growth

Meet Rachel Braun, Co-Founder of SPARK Solutions for Growth, a leader in the health and wellness industry and expert in the business building for female health companies, she has led global consulting engagements with multinationals such as Johnson & Johnson, Allergan, Bayer, Church & Dwight, and Pfizer, among others, author of the best-seller, Orgasmic Leadership: Profiting from the Coming Surge in Women’s Sexual Health and Wellness.

Who is Rachel Braun? Define yourself

I am a mother, daughter, wife, aunt, sister, sister in law, business builder, marketing strategist, entrepreneur, Vagipreneur®, lover of travel, Broadway fan, author, speaker, and friend.

How were you as a kid? 

As a kid I was fun loving, energetic, social, competitive, sensitive and emotional. I loved playing on teams, practicing gymnastics, figure skating, reading and going to sleep away camp.  I was in constant motion, and boy could I talk.

“Sustainable, profitable growth starts with a sound strategy and is continually driven forward by connecting with customers, building partnerships, and creating revenue”

You hold a BA Psychology and Human Development at Duke University, from which you graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, and an MBA at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, why did you choose those courses of study?

My mom was a therapist so we spent a great deal of family time talking about feelings and relationships. Having grown up familiar and comfortable with that dynamic as well as a strong emphasis on communications and relationships, I thought that I also wanted to be a therapist.  When I delved into the coursework at Duke, it became clear that human behavior was a fascinating and complex integration of the brain, the body and the environment.  I liked the idea of trying to understand the impact of each of those factors – and how one might/could intervene to improve quality of life.

My desire to attend business school resulted from a yearning to truly understand the complexity of business as if it were a puzzle, and how all of the key functions interacted to strengthen the whole.  From my pre-business schoolwork experience, I felt that I had an understanding of marketing, communications and sales.  As I entered the program, I wanted to build a knowledge base in operations, finance, supply chain and HR which I felt were critical to achieve my goal to lead an organization.   The experience turned out to deliver far and away above and beyond my expectations.  I loved the case method, the vibrant discussions with people with very different perspectives (culturally, experientially, functionally).  I built lifelong personal and professional relationships which have been critical to my career, and probably most importantly, gained confidence in my ability to make sound decisions with limited information.

 You previously co-founded and served as President of Semprae Laboratories, a venture-backed company engaged in developing and marketing women’s sexual health products and you sold the company, how did you jump from the point to found another company SPARK?

We founded SPARK in 1998, years before creating Semprae.  I became an entrepreneur at that time, because I wanted to be more in control of my financial future. I wanted to have the choice to work only with people I respected and on content I liked. Today, I still love the thrill of running my own business.

Since co-founding SPARK with my longtime business partner, Mary Wallace Jaensch, over twenty years ago, I have built an international client base that includes multiple divisions of Johnson & Johnson, Allergan, Pfizer, Merck, Bayer and Church & Dwight, among others. With passion and commitment, I have successfully launched, built and revitalized companies around the globe, based on the belief that sustainable, profitable growth starts with a sound strategy and is continually driven forward by connecting with customers, building partnerships, and creating revenue.

A decade ago, Mary and I had the opportunity to buy a product and create a company that improved arousal, desire and satisfaction for women. We raised venture capital, created a company, and built a category in female sexual and reproductive health. A New York Times journalist coined the term Vagipreneur® to describe people building businesses in this space and it stuck – providing an easy shorthand and a great descriptor for a person in the space.

During the time that we were running Semprae, we just pressed the pause button on SPARK as we focused on building a new category and company. When we sold Semprae to a specialty pharmaceutical company, we immediately reactivated SPARK to continue to focus on driving growth.  Today, I still work with large and small companies that offer products and services for female sexual health, reproductive health and women’s wellness solutions, from menstruation to menopause.

“Never, ever, ever take “No” for an answer. You may hear “No” a dozen times. You may hear it a hundred. But somewhere out there is your “Yes,” and if you stop before you get there, somebody else will hear it — not you”

Tell us what does SPARK make unique?

At SPARK, we work closely with each client to develop customized business growth plans based on strong insights combined with an emphasis on driving transactions (revenue).   When “business as usual” is no longer sufficient to achieve planned or desired results, we help businesses shake up stagnant growth, eclipse their competitors and drive business growth.

We focus on marketing, operations, brand-building and growth—but more importantly, we focus on client needs and their business goals.  We deliver projects on strategy, on time and on budget. Our clients continue to come back to us as they migrate into new roles and new companies, because they know they will receive customized attention, flexibility and care.

You are the author of the best-seller, Orgasmic Leadership: Profiting from the Coming Surge in Women’s Sexual Health and Wellness, what is the book about and where can people buy it?

Orgasmic Leadership tells the story of what drives, inspires and sustains entrepreneurs in the rapidly growing global women’s sexual health and wellness space.

The business book reflects a wellspring of deep personal experience in pharmaceuticals, consumer products, women’s health as well as in-depth interviews with dozens of leaders in the sexual wellness field. I take on women’s long-neglected needs and satisfaction with a strategic business focus, humor, insight, passion, and in the process, exposes an incredibly complex tangle of outdated barriers and challenges that stand in the way of the successful commercialization of women’s health products and services.

The book can be found at major retailers:

“We all invariably face setbacks, adversity, challenges, pain, trauma – to name a few. The difference between success and failure is what you do when you “get up.”

Through SPARK Solutions for Growth, you have driven innovation and created revenue growth for leading pharma, beauty, and consumer health companies, including Allergan, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Bayer, Merck, and Church & Dwight. Your brand experience includes Advil, Aveeno, Botox, Carefree, Centrum, Chapstick, Coppertone, Johnson’s Baby, Listerine, Neutrogena, ob, Splenda, Stayfree, Trojan, Tylenol, and Zestra, you have been recognized as one of the Best Fifty Women in Business by NJBiz, recipient of SmartCEO’s BRAVA Awards honoring top female CEOs, as one of JWI’s 10 Women to Watch. What´s the recipe for your success? 

  • Don’t Give Up After the First Few Tries
    Never, ever, ever take “No” for an answer. You may hear “No” a dozen times. You may hear it a hundred. But somewhere out there is your “Yes,” and if you stop before you get there, somebody else will hear it — not you. Many of the vagipreneurs I have worked with describe doors slamming (both literally and proverbially) in their faces — until they finally met the right funder/partner/savior who “got it,” who took a chance on them and their businesses.
  • Learn from Watching Others
    It’s not only OK to ask for help from people who have fought the same battles — it’s a best practice. You can preserve sanity, time, and precious resources if you can turn to others in your network or industry as a business brain trust. Find leaders or advisors in other industries who faced years of pushback before they made progress against older, prevailing ways of doing things against strong headwinds.
  • Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
    No matter what challenges you face, never, ever lose your sense of humor or sense of perspective. Don’t let the naysayers get you down. I often think of several famous lines from one of my all-time favorite movies, “Airplane.” As events start to go terribly wrong and it appears a plane crash is imminent, the chief air traffic controller, masterfully played by Lloyd Bridges, says, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop smoking.” And he lights up. At the next crisis point, he says, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop drinking.” Commence the pour. Finally, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.” Many are the days when that sentiment described how I felt during my own journey, and tapping into humor kept me from becoming totally discouraged.
  • Don’t Focus on the Bumps in the Road…Focus on Your Big Finish
    You will hear inappropriate observations. You will hear disparaging and discouraging feedback. You will find yourself in meetings that only the Harvey Weinsteins of the world would feel comfortable in. You might find yourself on the receiving end of demeaning—sometimes even insulting—remarks about you, your product, and the future prospects for your business. You may even be attacked by online trolls about you or your business. When that happens (and it will happen), you will need to dig deep and find your own coping mechanism. Some people enjoy humorous books, comics, and essays; others may have favorite go-to, laugh-out-loud, stand-up comedians they can turn to in times of stress; yet others may be able to rely on a solid lineup of bookmarked websites or a streaming queue full of reliable programs. For me, when I’m experiencing a momentary aggravation that I know I can’t respond to in kind, I think of my favorite funny scenes and quotes from classic slapstick movies (“Wedding Crashers,” “The Hangover,” “Animal House,” whatever). It does help, in my case, that I literally can laugh at the same scenes endlessly. Regardless of your own coping strategy, you must have one — to get through the journey in one piece, to keep you grounded and to keep you smiling through the pain and pleasures of forging a new path through this unexplored forest of opportunities.

What does a normal workday look like for you?

In the days of COVID-19, the days look quite different.This is the first time in my career where I am not on planes, trains, and automobiles meeting with clients, delivering presentations or selling.  Today, my day is literally filled from morning ‘til night (like most people I know) with lots of phone calls! I like to exercise early to clear my mind and start my day energized. When I am not working (and clearly not traveling), I am focused on my extended family and making sure everyone has what they need, whether it is company, food, medicine, or a phone call.

What do you love most about your job? & what is the most difficult part?

I get to work with incredibly smart, driven women and men every day and continue to connect start-ups with strategic partners. I love being part of the conversations that help investors, consumers and businesses look at women in their totality as opposed to a collection of individual needs or life stages – not just a menstruating woman, a woman trying to have a baby, or someone entering menopause… women as a whole. Too frequently, we are entered into categories and the idea that a woman can have more than one need seems foreign to mainstream media, funders or advertising platforms. I still can’t grasp the idea that we’re in 2020 and running ED ads on every existing media platform, but female sexual arousal or vaginal dryness products are not nearly allowed to advertise on a similar scale.  But the battle keeps me going. 

What is one strategy that has helped you to grow your business?

When I graduated from Stanford Business School, my dream was to run Johnson & Johnson; my first job at Johnson & Johnson was in product management on the iconic TYLENOL® brand. I adored that role, the relationships I formed there have been foundational to my entire career in terms of mentorship, business-building and clients who have hired SPARK again and again as they move to new roles at other companies. I transitioned from product management to consulting; first for a large company and then my own strategy boutique. I learned a few core lessons very early on: I was great at building relationships, I loved to sell, and was energized by solving complex problems.

You are a very busy woman and still, you have served and continues to serve on numerous boards, including various for-profit companies in the women’s health subsector, what does it drive you?

I am now many years into what has become a passion project for me, which continues to grow, expand and motivate me: to build female health businesses (broadly defined as reproductive health, sexual health and wellness); to share the lessons I’ve learned along the way as well as the mistakes I have made; to learn from others who are bravely building companies in this space; and to encourage other vagipreneurs to enter the void. There’s a wide-open playground in the female sexual health and wellness marketplace, and it’s growing and maturing every day. The excitement is there, the customers are there, and for sure, the money is there.

“I am outspoken, curious, hard-working, and driven. I try to change things that don’t make sense to me. I like to come up with solutions not problems.”

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else does?

Exercise and creativity are essential to my work every day. I make it a point to schedule an hour a day to learning something new and read something I’m interested in.  I also make time to exercise which helps clear my head and re-energizes me.

Everybody has had dark moments in their lives, what have you done to get out of that phase?

In the words of World and Olympic Champion figure skater, Scott Hamilton, “I calculated once how many times I fell during my skating career — 41,600 times,” he said. “But here’s the funny thing: I got up 41,600 times. That’s the muscle you have to build in your psyche — the one that reminds you to just get up.”  I really try to live by that idea.  We all invariably face setbacks, adversity, challenges, pain, trauma – to name a few.  The difference between success and failure is what you do when you “get up.”

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I adore spending time with family, love reading, seeing Broadway shows and enjoy watching character-driven TV dramas. 

Many authors say women can and must strive to have everything – a shining career, a blossoming family life and a perfectly balanced lifestyle all at once, others point out that– then women are placing unrealistic expectations on themselves if they believe they can have it all, you are married and have kids so according to your experience, what do you think about these statements? 

In my experience, the reality is that you might be able to have it all, but not necessarily at the same time.  I feel very lucky to have the life that I do.  I’ve been happily married for 30 years and have two young adult children. My husband and I are both the founders of multiple companies, are very much involved in our communities, and are each other’s biggest supporters. I have great days as a business person, wife and mom.  But I also have days where it feels like everything is out of control.  With maturity, what I have learned is that neither state is permanent.  I just try every day to keep the wheels on the wagon and continue to move forward.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m on a mission to contribute to the effort to normalize the taboos we have around the conversations of women’s health, sexual health, and sexuality as well as to continue to create opportunities for women to ask personal, historically deemed frowned-upon questions without fear of stigma. And I believe that entrepreneurs, educators and health care practitioners will be critical to creating that change.  Imagine what that kind of world would be like!

There is still the glass ceiling for women in the world: Fewer opportunities, jobs underpaid just for that fact of being a woman, etc. Have you experimented with the glass ceiling? If yes, what are the biggest challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?

I really like to pragmatic, not pessimistic, when it comes to talking to female entrepreneurs. To that end, I believe that knowing what you might face and being prepared for it will be one of the keys to success.  We are all too familiar with the stats about the percentage of investment dollars that go to women or the number of female decision makers. And I think much of that is exacerbated when it comes to anything female-health related.

Eleven years ago, when I started speaking publicly about the disparity between access to advertising for men and women’s sexual products, people were aghast. They couldn’t believe that we had approached 100 media outlets – from network to cable, radio and websites, only to be rejected for over 95% of those. Obviously, challenges remain, but I am optimistic. I truly believe that a rising tide raises all boats. Hundreds of businesses in the space have been created in the past several years and many have raised significant funds. Numerous sources of financing, beyond traditional venture capital, have seen the value and the opportunity in these businesses.

What tips, can you give to young girls who want to become an entrepreneur like you?

There are so many things I have learned along the way – through on-the-job training, from generous co-workers, colleagues, friends, and thought leaders, but a few always rise to the top.

  1. In order to be successful in my mind, you must know how to sell. Whether it is an idea, a business, a solution, an approach, so much relies on one’s ability to convince others to buy, invest, collaborate, participate in what you are trying to accomplish.  You need to be able to compel others with the strength and appeal of your ideas, your story or approach.
  2. Know how to negotiate. This concept covers so many different situations – fundraising, partnerships, your salary, someone else’s salary, equity stakes.  The answer is always no if you don’t ask. So, come armed with the facts, the data, the key points whenever you enter a negotiation. At least, when a negotiation works out – when both parties have come away with something of value, I literally feel a rush of endorphins (the same feeling you get after a strenuous workout). In my mind, negotiating is never about decimating the other side, but finding solutions that are mutually beneficial, the proverbial “win win”.
  3. Be prepared that whatever business you are trying to build will likely take more time, money, resources of every kind than you anticipate. Unexpected challenges will block your path. You will need a support system – find one, create one, access one and use it. Make sure to take care of yourself physically – whatever that means in your personal case.  And never, ever, lose your sense of humor. Many were the days when finding a way to laugh in the face of enormous challenges not only kept me from becoming totally discouraged, but also gave me the lift I needed to keep moving forward.

 I think in your position, many people may have the wrong idea of who you are, and what do you (professionally), with this idea in mind, what is being Rachel and what´s not?

I think “what you see is what you get.”  I am outspoken, curious, hard-working, and driven.  I try to change things that don’t make sense to me.  I like to come up with solutions not problems.  I am passionate about being a force for change in the space for women’s health and wellness spaces – and “vagipreneurship” overall. 

Who is the woman you admire the most and why?

That is an easy one. I adore Oprah. In fact, one of my favorite articles and one I speak on often was titled, “How To Find Your Leadership Voice Because Oprah’s is already taken.” Sure, she is extraordinarily successful and self-made. She has single-handedly revived entire industries and companies. She persevered through a childhood fraught with traumas and tests of will. But above all else, what I truly adore about Oprah is her ability to fit her content to her context. Oprah takes her real self everywhere she goes — and she goes a lot of places.

She was and is just as authentic celebrating birthdays with her famous friends on their yachts as she is sympathetically hearing the painful stories that people share with her and an audience of millions, or as she is when she is opening a school in South Africa and changing the lives of girls, or sharing her lifelong struggle with weight. She has the Midas touch because she is insightful, smart, courageous, driven, and so totally human.

Name: Rachel Braun Scherl

Sector:   Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health

Company:  SPARK Solutions for Growth

Designation:  Co-Founder

Country:  USA

Social media: @RBScherl