Polly Rodriguez, Founder of Unbound Babes
Polly is the co-founder of a sexual wellness online shop called Unbound Babes. She shares what inspired her to launch the business, the power of finding a community who believes in you when you lose faith in yourself, constantly learning from brilliant people, and furthering the conversation of sex in the #MeToo era in today’s spotlight below.
Polly, why the name “Unbound” and what inspired you to start the business?
Unbound was started by a group of women who thought female sexuality was underserved by the market. We felt there should be an online destination where women can learn about their bodies and buy well designed sexual wellness products. We’re often asked where the name “Unbound” came from and there’s a pretty great story behind it. My co-founder, Sarah Jayne, was on a train down to Baltimore when she struck up a conversation with an older woman who was her seat-mate. Her train companion went on to regale her with stories about her sexual adventures when she was younger. Before she exited the train, she turned around to say goodbye to Sarah Jayne and peppered, in “I guess I’ve just always been a bit… unbound.” And in that moment, Sarah Jayne knew that was the name of the company.
For me, a cancer diagnosis that brought me to this realization. I was 21 and it was four days before Christmas when I found out I had stage IIIV colorectal cancer. I had to drop out of college and move back home with my parents in St. Louis and begin radiation treatment immediately. I can vividly remember my doctors sitting me down and telling me that I would never have children as a result of the radiation. It was only weeks later when I started having unbearable hot flashes that I googled my symptoms and discovered I was also going through menopause. No one took the time to tell me that this would happen, only that I would never be a mother. I felt too embarrassed to ask my doctors, so I called a good friend who was a nurse and she walked me through what menopause was. Truthfully, everything I knew about menopause was from TV -- you know, moms putting their heads in the freezer and "being cranky". My friend empathetically suggested that I buy some lubricant and maybe a vibrator to help with my dip in libido. So I found the only place that sold these products in my town, which was a seedy shop next to the highway with mannequins in crotchless onesies and plastic penises lined up on shelves. It left me feeling embarrassed and ashamed to be shopping for these products at all.
After treatment for cancer, I went on to work for Senator Claire McCaskill on the Affordable Care Act in Washington, DC. I also lost health care coverage as a result of getting cancer and I was determined to change the system that almost financially destroyed my family. From there I went to work at Deloitte Consulting focusing on brand building and growth strategy for Fortune 100 companies. I knew I wanted to start a business one day so I chose to join a startup instead of going to business school. The only position I could get at a Y-Combinator dating startup was as a Customer Service Manager and so I took the position and worked my way up to an executive level position in less than two years.
Then, in 2014, I met my co-founder Sarah Jayne through a women in tech group in New York City. As two midwesterners with big dreams, we hit it off immediately. She had been working on a quarterly subscription box on nights and weekends with some friends who were no longer actively working on the business. We decided to team up to create a direct-to-consumer brand that would be the online destination we wished we had when we bought our first vibrators, lubricants, condoms, or accessories... and Unbound was born.
There has been a rise in conversations about women and sex, how is Unbound furthering that conversation?
I think the #MeToo movement was an undeniable moment where we collectively realized that we’ve lost our way when it comes to human sexual expression via systematic and widespread abuses of power. Post #MeToo, it feels a bit like we’re frozen in time, afraid and unsure of how to proceed. Unfortunately, I think the burden falls to womxn, non-binary, and trans individuals to guide us in how to reengage in conversations about our sexual identities from the bottom up.
At Unbound, we’re trying to create opportunities to engage in those conversations on a consent-driven basis. Whether it’s reading an educational Unbound Guide that lands in your inbox, tagging a friend in a meme on our Instagram, or developing innovative products you can incorporate into your sex life -- our goal is to make it easier to self discover and engage in conversations about sexual wellness.
So much of the answer to, “Where do we go from here?” centers on a willingness for individuals to embrace their vulnerability. We have to create a culture where it’s celebrated to ask, “Can I _______?” before engaging in sexual activity and being open to the possibility that the person on the receiving end might say “No,” and that’s okay.
From the labor of love to an actual business, what are some challenges you and your team have faced and how do you all overcome that?
Because we're not allowed to advertise on Facebook, Instagram, or any other paid channel, we had to get really creative in the early days. It was shortly after Donald Trump was elected and the Republicans in Congress were going after Planned Parenthood. As a female-founded sexual health and wellness company, we decided to publicly take a stand with a creative PR stunt. We launched "Vibes for Congress," a campaign that allowed any customer to send a vibrator to their congressional member of choice and the profits all went to Planned Parenthood. We thought maybe 100 people would participate and ended up having thousands send vibrators. The press coverage was insane -- within a week Unbound had been written about in over 40 publications. We also got to send Mitch McConnell 275 vibrators, so that was a nice bonus.
Most of us have never started a company before and most of us don’t come from a background where our parents can bankroll us until we figure it out. Starting a business feels impossible every single day, so you have to build relationships with those in your life who genuinely believe you can do the impossible.
That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with people who believe in you, because there will be so many times when you don’t believe in yourself.
What makes your work so fulfilling, sexually and beyond, of course ;)
Being surrounded by brilliant femme, non-binary, and trans revolutionaries. Whether they’re the womxn on our team or the customers who write in, there is -- without question -- no shortage of brave human beings who are embracing their vulnerabilities and showing us how to be better. I am inspired every day by the bravery of marginalized Americans, despite the political discourse and discouraging news headlines, they forge on, committed to creating real change.
The next milestone Unbound Babes is looking forward to?
We just launched Palma, the wearable haptic ring vibrator that took 2nd place at TechCrunch Disrupt. As we look ahead, I’m most excited for Facebook to (hopefully) change their policies banning female, femme, and non-binary pleasure from their platform. While they’ve made no indication that they are open to changing this policy, I am hopeful that if we continue to raise our voices about it, they will give us access to the same visibility they grant to Viagra and Playboy.
Interviewed by Chary