Justice For Women In The Bedroom And The Boardroom, Meet ‘Female Viagra’ Creator Cindy Whitehead

Cindy Whitehead pursued a career in pharmaceuticals to help solve real problems that were affecting people’s health. She was especially outraged by what she perceived as sexism at the Food and Drug Administration after it rejected a new drug named Addyi that would treat low sexual desire in women. 

Whitehead bought the drug and went on a successful campaign to get Addyi approved. She then sold her company for $1 billion payout. But the struggle left her even more impassioned about the lack of opportunities for women in business and the paucity of mentorship available to them. She founded The Pink Ceiling, a Raleigh-based investment fund, and “pinkubator” that mentors women and propels women-centric startups with the potential for social impact.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Cindy Whitehead about her career as a woman in the pharmaceutical industry, how she deals with being underestimated, and why she insists on wearing pink. 

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS
 
 On how her itinerant childhood shaped her:
 It was a fascinating lesson. I think it stoked my curiosity young. I figured out I could learn new things from all different kinds of people, and I absolutely in the class picture looked like the outlier, as you might imagine. And what I realized is my good fortune as an American. And understood ... An appreciation for life even in the absence of things. So it was really formative for me spending time in Fiji...
 
 ... I think it gave me an attitude of gratitude every day seeing those who were less fortunate than me have that attitude and that spirit for life. So that really did teach me right, I think, even from an early age. You know my father, even when we were young, we used to at Christmas time open all of our presents, and we had a discipline that we had to give one of those presents away ... You're a little kid. You've opened all of these things that were on your list, and it's really hard to part with it an hour later. But that was a good lesson that it's not about the things, and it's about doing your part toward others. Take what you have and pay it forward.

 On how her mother shaped her perspective on being a woman in a man’s world:
 My mother is a strong woman … [She] didn't work during all that time as we were moving every single year. My dad is from upstate New York. My mother is from the deep South. So we have a "mixed family," I like to say. We need a translator at family reunions. But her charm was that femininity and never allowing anybody to take that away from you. Not believing that you have to behave like a guy to succeed in business. That was very important to me to learn that from her.

 On her entry into the pharmaceutical industry:
 When I was in college, I had a business professor whose task for me was to constantly report back in to her on the best businesses and why they're working. So I would read all the business magazines. And that ultimately shaped where I decided, singularly,  I was going to work when I graduated from college. I was going to work for Fortune's most admired company, which was Merck. And I think she wasn't so sure about the singular focus ... 

 ... She said, “OK, you mean pharma?” And I said, “No! I'm working for Fortune's most admired company to learn the business lessons, and then I'll take them with me anywhere.” So she was a little bit worried I was putting all my eggs in one basket. But I got the job. The day I got the job I called her. I said, “I got the job, I told you I would.” She said “Great, we're going out to dinner and you're paying.”

 On her first company, Slate Pharmaceuticals:
 My first company was Slate Pharmaceuticals … And it was Slate truly in every sense of the word. Clean slate. I was going to do it on my own terms. Over the course of my time in the industry – I loved the industry for what it could do, the impact it could make – I didn't love how they got it done in every case. So I thought, there have got to be other people out there like me who are in big environments. They're successful because they're driven, but they're uninspired. So what if I got them together and gave them permission to be themselves? We find a great product. We see what we can do, and that, ultimately, was the ride of my life.
  
On different perceptions of men’s and women’s sexual health:
 No question there's unconscious bias. You can amplify that 10-fold when it comes to sex. Because we all think we know everything about it based on our own experience, or maybe when we were taught in high school, I don't know. But in truth, actually pervasively across healthcare, one of the issues when it comes to women's health is we tend to acknowledge, or accept point blank, that all things for men are going wrong are biological. And then we think that the things going wrong for women are psychological. And in truth, we're underselling both genders. Many conditions are multifactorial. They're complex, and you have to take both of those things into consideration. And what bothered me was the fact that we didn't even acknowledge the possibility that something was going wrong for a woman biologically when it came to sex when she went into the bedroom. And we knew it, because there was brain scan imaging that showed us that. 

On starting The Pink Ceiling:
 The Pink Ceiling was sort of the perfect job. Right after an exit like that you really get to take stock. For me, I'd had a front-row lesson in what it means for women to advocate for themselves and each other. So that was going to be central. I was going to create a bunch of owners, because I'd now watched that ripple effect of ownership and the ripple effect that can make on lives. And the final thing is, I had to rip the ... Covers off every morning and jump out of bed, and for me that's fighting injustice. That's what has always done it my whole life. And in The Pink Ceiling, I get to fight the injustice of women's lack of access to capital. Women get only 2 percent of venture funding. Two percent, by last year's data. You cannot tell me that 50 percent of the population has 2 percent of the good ideas. Something is wrong with that system. And the other piece is mentorship. I've been there. I've done it. Now I can reach my arm back and pull somebody there faster than I got there myself.