The Oppy is reconnecting with some prominent NYU Stern alumni with our ‘Graduate’ series. Each month, we’ll interview notable alumni that have made an impact on their community and industry.
This month, The Oppy is featuring Meika Hollender (‘13), entrepreneur, author and activist who built the first sexual wellness brand focused on women and sustainability, Sustain. Grove Collaborative acquired Sustain in August 2019, and Meika took on the role of VP of Communications at Grove. Meika and I sat down, virtually, to talk about her journey building and growing Sustain and the opportunities that followed after.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
We’re going to start with an icebreaker question. What’s your favorite natural product right now and why?
My favorite natural product right now – this is not just to promote Grove – but is truly Grove’s Lavender Hand Sanitizer. It’s the only hand sanitizer that smells decent and works, which is very important these days.
Zooming out a bit, can you speak about your background and career journey so far?
There are a lot of different parts of my journey, but I think the biggest part started when I was finishing up my time at NYU Stern. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I had always wanted an impact-driven career, and so I thought I was going to go into a big consumer products company and work on their sustainability team. This was about 10 years ago. It was a relatively new space in that there weren’t all these amazing mission driven companies.
My summer internship was at Johnson & Johnson, and it was a good experience, but I also felt frustrated because I was on a tiny little team. I think there were maybe two other people on the sustainability team for all the consumer brands at Johnson & Johnson. It felt like an afterthought, not a team that was actually driving the business forward or helping to make big decisions. Although it was a good experience, it felt sort of like green marketing which wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I was stuck after that, because that had been what I thought I was going to end up doing. I even turned down a job from Unilever to work on their sustainability team after graduation because I just didn’t feel like I was going to be able to drive enough change that way.
I ended up having long conversations with my dad who had started, and by that time had left, Seventh Generation. He was also trying to figure out what he was going to do next, but obviously with a lot more experience and a different perspective than I had in my early career. He’s passionate about starting businesses and building brands, and so I ended up deciding to join him in starting what ended up becoming Sustain. At the time we were calling it Rainforest Rubbers which I just thought was just terrible.
We were trying to figure out how to make the most sustainable condom in the world, but really seeing the market opportunity as targeting women or people who identify as women who use condoms. We discovered some really interesting statistics around the fact that 40% of condoms are actually purchased by women and women influence 70% of purchases. And yet, when you go and look in the condom aisle at the drugstore it’s this macho male-centric category. It doesn’t speak to a lot of the considerations that women are making when they’re buying these products.
So we took the idea of making the most sustainable condom in the world and addressing a bunch of different sustainability supply chain issues that result from condom production, i.e. from the rubber industry and how harmful that’s been from the deforestation standpoint to the manufacturing process where there’s a carcinogenic byproduct that comes out of heating and molding latex. Then, from a marketing, packaging and messaging standpoint the mission of the business became to empower women to take control of their sexual and reproductive health. So that’s how I decided to get into business with my dad and start a condom company, which, you know, is what most young kids dream of doing when they grow up.
I spent about seven years building that business, working with my dad for the first few years and then more independently after that. Interestingly, we started as a mostly wholesale business selling to grocery stores and smaller drug chains, and eventually became a direct-to-consumer business. We had so many challenges getting the business going and getting people engaged with the brand. That might be hard to imagine right now, but eight or nine years ago there was no real mainstream culture around sexual wellness. Sexual wellness as a term didn’t exist. We had a very easy time getting media coverage, because who doesn’t want to write about a father-daughter condom company? But it was hard to engage with consumers, who spend an average of seven seconds in the family planning aisle, and it was hard to get our social media built – especially focusing on wholesale. It was really an uphill battle until we launched our direct-to-consumer business and period care because that became a way for people to engage with the brand. Direct-to-consumer became 80% of the company’s sales.
When Trump got elected everyone started to care about reproductive rights and reproductive health. That created a huge positive impact and catapulted the business forward. All of a sudden, what we were doing wasn’t just relevant, but it was urgent and it was important. Everyone wanted to be part of this movement, it was a really interesting shift. Everything changed, and everyone wanted a piece of this space, so it got really crowded.
All of a sudden Procter and Gamble launched organic cotton tampons and all of these big players brought more organic products to market. It got really hard from a competitive standpoint. We had had interest from different companies over the years in terms of partnering with us or acquiring us. I felt like the products we had created were so important and really good. The way to survive would really be partnering with or being acquired by a company that had access to millions of customers, because the competition was getting worse every year. We weren’t one of those companies that had $20 or $30 million in funding, where we could pay our way through that pain. We ended up getting bought by Grove, they had the customers and could market our products to them.
So were you actively seeking a partnership at that time?
We were about to have to go out and raise more money. I was feeling this existential feeling and wondering what the right was in terms of getting access to customers. We weren’t going to go out and raise some crazy amount of money, and we were going to raise another couple million dollars to keep the business growing. The payoff of fundraising wasn’t going to be there because the customer acquisition costs were just going up. I was really scratching my head wondering if fundraising was the right answer. I sought out some people, Stu, the CEO of Grove, being one of them. I asked, “Can I sit down with you and take you through where the business is? Run some ideas by you and try to understand how you would approach this problem? How do we take the business to the next level?” I had three or four conversations with different CEOs who I thought were in similar or adjacent spaces that were much bigger than we were. I just wanted to figure out what their perspective was. Stu said he was interested in buying the business on the first phone call. Things moved fast. We had a 90-day crazy sprint towards closing the deal.
It’s been over two years and I have been really thrilled with how the business combination ended up working out. I’ve been able to bring my experience and my skill set to their company and build areas of strength within their brand and their marketing team that didn’t exist before. But there were a lot of hard parts; for example, Grove is based in San Francisco so I knew that our entire team wouldn’t be able to stay on unless they wanted to relocate. Overall, it’s been really positive but it has certainly been a journey!
What was it about Grove that made you feel like it was the right company to take Sustain to the next level?
It was really three things. One was the purity of their mission and their deep deep focus on sustainability. I’m pretty blown away on an ongoing basis of how committed this team is to pushing the boundaries on what it means to be a sustainable consumer products company and leading the industry. That was very attractive because I felt no fear that I was going to get there and they were going to say, “You know, we could make the condoms this way but it’s cheaper if we do it this way, so we’re actually going to reverse some of the things you’ve done because we care more about our margin.”
The second thing was, as I mentioned earlier, access to millions of customers who care about sustainable products. That was super attractive. Even before the acquisition was completed we were brainstorming about how to get Grove customers engaged with Sustain and Sustain customers with Grove. There was so much opportunity and so many efficiencies. Grove has a marketplace where it sells third party products, but also has six or seven of its own brands and has already set up the infrastructure around their supply chains, packaging and certifications. I didn’t want to go into a situation where we were going to have a year-long integration process. The integration overall wasn’t terribly complicated. We realized, “Wow, we could really take this business and place it into Grove’s system and, within three months, be doing the same amount of revenue, spending a fraction of the cost.”
Not to be cheesy, but the third thing really was the people. There were some people there that I met early on that I really spent time with. They were really smart, mission-driven people that had a lot more experience than I did. For example, our Head of Physical Product and Supply Chain has been at Williams-Sonoma and a bunch of different places. Just talking to him, I realized that there was so much I could learn. Also our COO was from Netflix and had been there in the DVD days. One important thing for me in the transaction was that I wouldn’t go just to provide benefits to their company with my skills, but also to learn. I’m learning all the time, and I think the CEO has been really great in setting up my role and providing access to the rest of the team in a way that he knows will benefit me long-term.
How involved are you with Sustain today? What are you doing at Grove now?
My involvement with Sustain has slowly gone down over two years, not because I don’t want to be involved, but because there are 15 people working with 5-20% of their time on Sustain as they are with other brands. There’s no need for me to be involved. The first six to 12 months I was more involved in helping the team navigate how to keep Sustain growing. I’d say that I’m a stakeholder today. If there are any big decisions being made about the brand, for example, discontinuing or expanding a product line, they’ll definitely talk to me about it.
My day-to-day is much more focused primarily on my other job at Grove which is VP of Communications. Obviously I don’t have a traditional PR background – I’m an entrepreneur – but, before I got there, Grove had neve done any PR. Funnily enough, the most PR they ever got was when they acquired Sustain and I led the charge announcing that deal and working with my former Sustain agency to develop our plan. We got so much publicity and the CEO was blown away and asked, ‘Can you help us do that?’ I agreed to take it on. It was really cool because Grove had really not done any brand marketing, PR, or elevation of all this great sustainability work. So I’m focused on how we tell that story. I’m really proud of how much I’ve been able to do for them in the last couple years and take a company that did no PR to a company where people ask, ‘What agencies do you work with? How do you get so much coverage?’ It’s also been a really good way to be involved with so many different teams which was what I wanted. I know what’s happening in finance, marketing, product development and retail – I get to touch everything. That’s what I was hoping for.
Great. As business school students, many of us are looking for our next job opportunity. Do you think they should consider Grove as a potential employer and, if so, why?
First of all, I think the job market’s pretty good right now. It’s definitely really cool that there are so many companies now where you can go into engineering, operations, finance, or whatever and you’re going to be able to be at a company that’s mission driven and cares about sustainability. That really wasn’t the case like 10 years ago. Grove is a great example of that. Whether you are on the marketing team or the product development team, sustainability is core to what you’re doing. Grove is still mostly remote, although it’s based in San Francisco. It’s really pushing the boundaries on consumer products from a sustainability standpoint both in our formats and formulas. I truly am amazed by it and I haven’t seen anything like it before. It’s where consumers and industry are headed. A lot of really exciting stuff will happen at Grove over the next year or two.
I actually started purchasing from Grove because I was trying to find more sustainable products and found the marketplace to be really straightforward and accessible.
The app is super easy. For me, sustainable products for so long meant ingredients and I didn’t think about packaging. At Grove, it’s been hammered into me because we want to be 100% plastic free by 2025. I can’t bring myself to buy anything in plastic anymore, because it’s something you can’t unsee. For example, I used body wash forever but I don’t anymore. Body wash was bar soap before they invented plastic. So it’s really cool, and the products work really well, which isn’t always true in a lot of the space sadly. They’re beautiful, too.
Now I’m going to take you through my rapid fire questions:
- What’s one word that describes you? Sprightly
- Who was your favorite professor at Stern? Sonia Marciano
- Finish the sentence: At 7am you can find me feeding my baby.
- Favorite movie, TV show or podcast? Succession
- What’s a cause you’re passionate about? Reproductive rights
- What’s one thing you can’t do that you want to learn? Read fast
- If you could meet anyone alive or dead, who would it be? Barack Obama
How do you think your time at Stern influenced where you are today?
The most important thing I did at Stern that shaped what I’m good at today was being the co- president of the Social Enterprise Association. I learned how to manage people.
What advice would you give to fellow MBAs who want to start their own company?
Go for it, but know that starting your own company is not for the faint of heart. It will be an ongoing road of what can feel like insurmountable challenges. If you are not deeply committed to the mission, and passionate about it, then it’s not for you.
Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, Meika! Sternies, you can find Meika on LinkedIn or on Instagram and Twitter @missmeiks. If you want to learn more about Grove Collaborative and Sustain, visit Grove’s website at www.grove.co.