In 1975, Keech Combe Shetty's grandfather was asked to testify before Congress. He wanted to run television advertisements for Vagisil, which was designed to treat vaginal itch, she says, and he was accused of making up the condition. "Before that, no sanitary protection products were advertised on TV," says Shetty. "It was really my grandfather's testimony that started opening that opportunity for women's health to be more broadly heard about." Shetty is now the co-CEO of the company her grandparents founded-- Combe, Inc.--and CEO of its Vagisil group.
In some ways, not much has changed. Meika Hollender, the co-founder of eco-friendly and women-friendly sexual health company Sustain Natural, is fighting a similar challenge 44 years later. In her efforts to market condoms, lubricant, and menstrual products, Hollender says there are still certain ads that make Facebook and Google squirm. (She hasn't yet tried to advertise on television.) "The mantra Facebook keeps saying is that as long as you're focusing on health it's okay. The minute you cross over into pleasure, it's, 'Don't go there,'" says Hollender. "Obviously I have an issue with that, because it pushes sex under the rug."
So it's not too surprising that these two women would find each other, and that eventually, Shetty's company would take a majority stake in Hollender's. The two first crossed paths in 2016, after Sustain's pitch deck found its way to Shetty. Hollender and Shetty stayed in touch over the next few years. They met again in early 2018, and this time, says Hollender, the potential of a partnership "kept gnawing at me." She thought Combe could help in places where Sustain suffers from limited resources, such as research and development and international expansion "This is a huge milestone for the business to take us to the next level," says Hollender, who founded the Sustain in 2013. "It's something my team is very excited about. I feel lucky - knock on wood - to have found such a good partner."
Neither Shetty nor Hollender would disclose the size of the deal. White Plains, NY-based Combe--which owns other personal care brands including Just For Men and Aqua Velva--has about 500 employees in eight locations around the world. Sustain's dozen employees will stay in their New York offices. Hollender will continue as CEO of Sustain, and Sustain will continue to operate independently. "Over the next few years we'll figure out how the relationship will evolve," says Hollender.
The deal between Combe and Sustain echoes recent acquisitions of direct-to-consumer millennial-focused brands by established consumer products companies, which often see the newcomers as providing valuable research, development, and innovation. In December, Procter & Gamble acquired men's personal care company Walker & Company. In August, mattress maker Tuft & Needles mergerd with Serta Simmons.
Sustain was co-founded by Hollender and her father, Jeffrey Hollender, founder of natural household products pioneer Seventh Generation. Sustain's flagship product is its eco-friendly condoms, which are marketed primarily to women. "Twenty-one percent of single sexually active women use condoms regularly," says Hollender. "The overall market for condoms is stagnant, but our brand is growing."
About a year and a half ago, Sustain began a direct-to-consumer strategy, which Hollender says has been powering the company's growth. Hollender expects that some of Combe's marketing and retail muscle can be deployed to help Sustain get national distribution with a drugstore chain, where she says 60 percent of condoms are sold. "Now we have the expertise and connections to help knock down the walls that have kept us out of drug, grocery, and mass-market channels," she says.
At first, said Hollender, it wasn't necessarily important to her that Sustain find a home with another family business. Her father, she said, "has obviously been through the good, the bad, and the ugly, and he helped me understand why a privately held family business could be very important," both in terms of culture and because such a business wouldn't be yoked to quarterly priorities.
"To find another woman sticking her neck on these issues," says Hollender, "is really cool, and really unique."
In the original version of this story, Keech Combe Shetty's first name was spelled incorrectly.