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Women Who Tech Are Dangerous: Portraits and Stories in the Age of #metoo

All portraits and interviews by John Davidson

johndavidson-photography.com

Kirsten Karchmer

Kirsten Karchmer

 
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Kirsten Karchmer

Job Title: CEO at Viv Wellness and Conceivable Inc.

Company Websites: http://www.vivwellness.com and http://www.conceivable.com

Years working in the tech industry: 5

On the Viv Wellness and Conceivable Mission:

Viv is a woman’s health company that builds technology and products to support a woman from the day she starts her period until the day she finishes menopause. We built the first and only app that can fix a woman’s pms and cramping. The app uses proprietary algorithms to assess simple factors that most women are already tracking, like their cycle length and characteristics, or their lifestyle habits, and applies our patent-pending program and supplement recommendations to significantly improve her menstrual cycle.

82 million women in the US alone report significant PMS and cramping. Most of them have been told this is normal and something that women just have to “deal with”. This simply isn’t true. We know that a number of factors, including diet, supplements, stress, sleep, and hydration can have a massive effect on how you experience the symptoms around your period. I think most women instinctively know this — how many times have you found yourself saying “I feel like I need a glass of wine when I’m PMSing, but it always just makes it worse.” Viv has done all the research and taken the guesswork out of making periods easier.

Our goal is to change the face of women’s health and how women experience their bodies. We aspire to build technology, natural supplements, and educational tools to teach women that their menstrual cycles are barometers of their overall health and with the correct interventions, most cycle dysfunction can be improved if not totally eliminated. Our goal is to empower women to connect with menstruation as something they can ultimately control, not as an adversary.

We know that empowering women around menstruation and reproduction starts with access to the basic hygiene products women need on their periods. That’s why we started our Menstrual Defend Fund, the philanthropic side of our company that uses 10% of our profits to support access to menstrual hygiene products and to fund other women’s health initiatives that we believe in.

On, well, conceiving Viv Wellness and Conceivable:

In my clinical work, I worked with over 10,000 infertile women to improve their fertility. During those 20 years, I developed a system to improve their cycles, health, and fertility. Ultimately, I wanted to help more women than I could in my clinic, so a few years ago, my co-founder, Rob Krassowski and I decided to translate our highly successful clinical program to a tech enabled program that included the foundational elements of Viv, things like nutrition, stress reduction, supplements, and habit formation around healthy behaviors like sleep, hydration, sex, and exercise.

We started with a product called Conceivable that was specifically designed to improve a woman’s natural fertility and were amazed by the pilot results. Not only did 23% of the infertile women get pregnant, but almost every other cycle parameter improved — these women had literally gotten rid or PMS, cramps, irregular bleeding, ovulation issues, and a host of other problems, all in less than 10 minutes a day. In fact, within 90 days, many women had regular cycles and were completely PMS and cramp free.

Actually, I have had a lot of fun pitching and educating male VC’s about the significance of menstrual cycles as they relate to women’s overall health.

Once we saw those results, we knew that we could make a huge difference for women, and not just those struggling with infertility., Now we’re launching Viv. It’s the same effective program, just specifically geared to help women that struggle with period problems. We’ll continue on with Conceivable, but we just couldn’t ignore the millions of women — literally more than 80% — that have to put up with awful periods every month.

You work in a tech space that’s devoted to women’s health, and specifically, women’s reproductive health — have there been challenges specific to that that you’ve faced?

The biggest challenge has been education, both on the consumer and investor front. Women (and men) have been conditioned to think that pretty much anything that is happening to a woman’s body that isn’t a diagnosable disease is normal. I have had to spend a significant amount of time untangling that story, but I think it has been worth the investment.

Actually, I have had a lot of fun pitching and educating male VC’s about the significance of menstrual cycles as they relate to women’s overall health. Once, I ended up ordering tequila shots for my potential investor before I started a pitch. When I ordered them, he looked at me quite puzzled and asked why I ordered them. I told him, “You are going to need this because we are going to do a deep dive on menstrual blood, clot, and PMS. If you are like other VC’s, this may cause you to squirm a little.”

We did the shots. I pitched. He invested that day.

We know that while women are successfully raising venture funds for their companies, their take only represents about 5% of the massive pool of investable funds in Silicon Valley. That makes it incredibly difficult for women to grow companies with the same velocity as men.

On the significance of being a clinician first, and a techie second:

I think I am one of the rare founders who is a clinician in the women’s health space and turned myself into a techie. There are a lot of other founders in our space that started out in tech and looked at women’s health and saw an opportunity. We’ve been working with women directly every single day for the last twenty years. I think it gives us a totally unique perspective — one that puts women first and the industry second.

On a path shaped by women:

As a clinician who has worked with women for more than 20 years, my entire life’s work has been shaped by women of all types of backgrounds, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. They have been my role models and their bodies were my teachers. They demonstrated perseverance beyond my wildest imagination. Their drive, their commitment to positivity in an impossible situation, and their openness profoundly impacted and shaped me. Their struggles and suffering drove me to innovate constantly in order to continually evolve my theories and solutions.

Ironically, while I was the one who was supposed to be helping them, in many ways, it was those women who showed me the path to where I am today. Without them, I never would have been able to develop the systems and technologies that drive our products.

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In my experience, it seems like women often police other women even more stringently than men.

On the challenges of fundraising for women founders:

In my seed round, I was extremely surprised how easy it was to raise over a million dollars. In later rounds, the stakes got bigger as did fundraising challenges, which is a common struggle that many founders experience. We know that while women are successfully raising venture funds for their companies, their take only represents about 5% of the massive pool of investable funds in Silicon Valley. That makes it incredibly difficult for women to grow companies with the same velocity as men. You need money to make money. That said, if there were biases against me because of being a woman, I wasn’t aware of it.

One thing that I’ve noticed in general, is that for men and women alike, talking about women’s health — and especially menstruation — can be a very uncomfortable subject. This is something that I notice all the time in investor meetings. One of the biggest goals for our company is to change that. We want to start a new conversation about women’s health that doesn’t start from a place of stigmatization, but rather from a place of education and empowerment.

Say what?? On men in Silicon Valley being more responsive/helpful/open than Silicon Valley women:

Yes, that was true for my particular experience. While I don’t presume to know the answer as to ‘why’ - the reasons are incredibly multidimensional - I do have a few hypotheses.

Perhaps it is because there are very few spots at the top. When women are only getting 5% of the assets, the bar for access becomes a lot higher. In my experience, it seems like women often police other women even more stringently than men. While this seems like a very common condition for women, the question is why. In a climate where women are actively talking about supporting women, why do they often do the exact opposite?

Maybe it is form of mirroring. Like it or not, the majority of our role models in business are men, and maybe women are unconsciously mimicking the culture they were “raised in.” We don’t have a lot of opportunities to see how women support each other in a positive way in corporate culture because there are so few of us at the top.

I think it’s easy for us to wear pink pussy hats and feel like, “Yay Women!!!” We should totally do that — they are fun and they make a brazen statement for women in general, and that’s important — but we shouldn’t stop there. The biggest statement we can make is to do something what makes a difference for other women when no one is watching.

Most of the women in my world are insanely intelligent, hardworking, creative, beautiful people. The less we worry about not being enough of something and the more we focus on BEING badasses that we actually are, the stronger position we will take in society.

On what women can do more of, or be better at, to contribute to lasting change in tech…(or, wait — actually, a corrective):

It is funny that you say, “what can women do more of, be more of, or be better at to change industry culture?” Most women I know, myself included, often struggle with the notion of if only I was smarter, or harder working, or funnier, or prettier, or skinnier — just something more. I don’t know if men experience this, but I think this is an erroneous approach for us. We actually don’t need to be anything more. We just need to be more authentically ourselves.

Most of the women in my world are insanely intelligent, hardworking, creative, beautiful people. The less we worry about not being enough of something and the more we focus on BEING badasses that we actually are, the stronger position we will take in society.

We know that the numbers don’t favor women in tech. Maybe the question is “What can men do more of, or be better at, to build a more inclusive and equitable culture for women?”

On the challenges, as a company CEO, of creating an open, inclusive work culture:

Because my company is a female led women’s health company, I typically have the pick of the litter in terms of hiring from an incredibly diverse pool of individuals. So many people approach me asking to come and work with us. We are building highly innovative technology that is making a huge difference where there previously was no solution. There is such a wide range of people who can get behind this mission which makes team building fun.

Complacency, and getting caught up in the day to day, is always a challenge. You have to continually make a commitment to return to your foundational values. We’re really committed to an open environment where everyone’s voice is heard, everyone’s work is valued, and everyone’s perspective is respected. When you start from a position that each person on your team matters, it motivates you to create space for their voices and contributions. The important thing is to make that commitment every day.

On whether apportunities for career advancement are changing for women, in and out of tech:

I think opportunities for women are improving all the time. If you look at Silicon Valley ten years ago, there were significantly fewer female VC’s and founders. Now we even have female led funds investing solely in women led companies. I would love to see those numbers grow with greater velocity, but these kinds of changes require more than us wanting them to change.

Unfortunately, we will still have to continue to show up smarter, harder working, and more resilient than men to get noticed, and have to do it while making it look effortless. I wish that was different, but from my experience, we will have to earn every milestone we want to achieve. The real question, is what can we, as women learn from this struggle to make us better humans and to allow us to make more significant contributions than ever before?

On standing on the shoulders of giants:

We didn’t get here by accident, it’s taken decades of work by feminists to push for the culture that we’re living in today. In the 60’s, the civil rights movement and the feminist movement worked to bring about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision to protect us from discrimination and harassment at work. In the 70’s and 80’s, we started a new conversation about sexual harassment which led to women on Wall Street winning the multi-million dollar “Boom Boom Room” lawsuit in the 90’s.

My point here is that the process is incremental, and doesn’t happen all at once, but that doesn’t mean that this moment — in fact every moment — isn’t significant. Every moment is an opportunity to change how our daughters and granddaughters will experience the world they grow up in.

On putting the ‘kick’ in Kickstarter:

It seems that women are very good at raising kickstarters for up to $5,000, but there isn’t a single female led company in the top 20 campaigns from $100K to 10mm. I am going to change that.

We are building a company for women, by women, and funded by women. I believe that this is an opportunity for women to be at the naissance of something that will make a gigantic contribution to the lives of so many women worldwide. I hope the women who invest in our work will be able to say, “I helped change the world for women.”

On the one book that every CEO, Senior Executive and Entrepreneur in America should read:

I am a voracious reader so I could name dozens, but the book that I found most impactful on my personal and professional life was a book by Joe Dispenza called Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself. Dispenza talks habitual ways of being that are driven by our subconscious desire to survive. In survival, there is no room for creation. This book and the associated meditations were game changing for me.

Speaking of books, one more thing:

I am writing a book and a documentary called Period, with Conceivable co-founder Rob Krassowski. The book explores how the history of the menstrual cycle has influenced the way that mainstream medicine and women view menstruation and themselves. It will also talk about my life’s work around how women can actually use their menstrual cycle as a barometer of their health and a tool by which they can measure the impact of how they live their lives and care for their bodies. I hope to have it launched after our documentary next year.

 
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