I kept hearing about Cindy Eckert and her movement #womenontop for the last year. I was so curious to meet her and learn more about her journey in the male dominated pharmaceutical world. Cindy came for lunch at In The Groove and shared with us her story and her vision for her venture fund and her drug Addyi. She is definitely on a mission. I loved her energy, her passion to make things better for women, and her love of all things pink.
Cindy Eckert, let’s get the details out of the way; when were you born, where were you raised and where do you live?
Born in Rochester NY, raised all over the world including the Fiji Islands and while I would tell you I live on an airplane between the coasts, my company is based in Raleigh, NC.
Addyi is not your first Pharmaceutical rodeo but it certainly is the loudest. Can you tell us a bit about the drug and what it can do for women?
Addyi is a breakthrough first. Not only as the first ever treatment for women’s most common sexual dysfunction but as a catalyst in the long overdue conversation about a women’s right to desire. Shocker…women are biologically wired to desire sex too! But for 10% of us that wiring misfires at some point in our lifetime. Having a treatment option to restore it should be as mainstream as the 26 different FDA approved drugs available for men’s sexual dysfunction that we discuss nightly on television.
Part of the reason I believe society is stuck at reproductive rights is that we never evolved the discussion to pleasure. Addyi could meaningfully destigmatize sex and give way to a much better dialogue on women’s sexual health and rights.
Why is your FDA approval tied to pre-menopausal women? I can hear the collective sigh from our post- menopausal community. Is broader approval in the works?
A large clinical trial has already been conducted in menopausal women and it’s findings are published in the peer reviewed medical journal Menopause. While the FDA required that we study the populations separately, it should not be misconstrued that HSDD only affects premenopausal women aged 18-56 that were the basis of our approval. It equally affects women who haven’t had their period for 12 consecutive months and are post menopausal. It will take us time in the regulatory queue to get to an indication but we’re excited about the data we’ve already collected and look forward to the FDA reviewing it. We’re already moving forward for fast track approval in post-menopausal women through Health Canada.
Who coined the acronym HSDD? Had it been identified as such, before Addyi’s release?
HSDD, or hypoactive (low) sexual desire disorder, first appeared in the medical literature when I was 5 years old. It seriously took over 4 decades for women to finally get a medical treatment option for this condition that affects the same number of us as ED affects men. (They’ve had treatment options for over 20 years) Interesting factoid – HSDD was first characterized in 1977 by female sex researcher Helen Singer Kaplan, a protege of sexuality pioneers Masters and Johnson. HSDD has long been in the International Classification of Diseases, the coding standards healthcare providers use for diagnoses.
Why do you think we allow ourselves to be saddled with the “not tonight dear” trope? Are we just embarrassed about wanting to be sexually fulfilled? How do we change the story from “nice girls don’t to REAL women do?
Think how much that narrative has been fed to us. All the movies, the memes, the cocktail party jokes. We say it because we’ve been conditioned to say it. Worse, to believe it. So where does that leave the millions of women who secretly want to want sex again? Afraid to say it! If they do they run the risk of being the punchline. Yet no woman who is losing her relationship over this is laughing. We owe her better. We owe her acknowledgement that what she’s experiencing is common, that it’s treatable and that the choice is entirely hers to make.
You were in business with your ex-husband, yet it seems you were and are still able to work together. How do you do this?
I’m laughing because when people ask me how to work with your significant other I like to remind them I’m divorced 😉 Teasing, of course, because it certainly can be done! In my case I met my ex when we worked together. We definitely mistook work chemistry for romantic chemistry. When that mistake became glaringly obvious we worked to keep the good and lose the rest. Today I work with my fiancé but we started with the personal relationship first. Maybe to love me is to work with me because what I do is so much a part of who I am.
As I look at the timeline of your business success, it seems a silly question but do you ever struggle with being taken seriously by all the men in the room?
Can you imagine me, in pink, pitching the first ever drug for women’s libido to bunch of blue and gray suits? Literally the rooms used to erupt into middle school giggles. But underestimation is powerful fuel. I’ve had more than a little fun calling back some of those men after delivering 40x returns and asking them if they want in on any of my new investments. Many do and I’d count that as meaningful change. I talk to female founders all the time about the choice to let underestimation knock you back or propel you forward. As I see it, it’s one hell of an invitation to surprise people.
I read that due to your father’s work with the UN and more, you moved every year. I had a similar experience and often think it was all that moving that gave me my drive to make a name for myself. Is this true for you?
Eight schools by the time I finished high school definitely laid the foundation for entrepreneurship! You can’t be the new kid that many times without having to learn to accept being an outsider. That comfort with discomfort has walked me into boardrooms where I didn’t fit in and kept me steady when I’ve championed causes that defy convention.
As a Founder, I can totally relate to how you felt after the Sprout/Valeant takeover. Now that you are once again in the Addyi driver’s seat, have you been able to reconstruct any of that early excitement or the original team? Did that mean a lot to you— to re-build what you had constructed?
The band is back together! I can’t begin to tell you what it means to me that people who had mourned the loss of our baby and completely moved on professionally took one phone call, dropped what they were doing, and came back to get this right for women. This team didn’t set out to create a billion dollar drug, we set out to change the conversation about women and sex forever. Returning after all that has transpired speaks volumes to their commitment to this cause.
Okay, you got the billion (with a B) but what are your goals for Addyi? Are they the same as before you sold the patent and won it back from Valeant? After such a long and dramatic road, how do you now define success?
Here’s my definition of success. That women who need Addyi have genuine access to it. And I’m not just talking about the fact that we’ve made it affordable at $25/month, that we pay for your first 8 weeks so you’ll give it adequate time to see how well you respond or that you can get it through a phone consult with a licensed doctor and delivered to your doorstep. I’m talking about access to truthful, evidence based information on this prevalent condition free from cultural stigma. Success is a national conversation about women’s right to desire.
It’s clear that you love fashion but do you ever tire of pink? Ever sneak out to the grocery store in a black turtleneck?
Honestly I’m always in pink. It’s not just my favorite color, it’s my philosophy. I started wearing pink all the time when I set out to get Addyi approved and was met with comments like “oh, the little pink pill…that’s so cute.” The dismissiveness ignited me. I began showing up in blazing hot pink because we were going to have THAT conversation. Pink represents my shift from underestimated to unapologetic. Unapologetically pink!
I’m suspect you’ve already got a super power, but if you could have another, what would it be?
I would be able to go back and collect $1 from every man who has ever said to me “wait, I’M female viagra” so that I could fund the next century of women’s health research 😏