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Women in Charge: Meet the Female Honchos Shaking Up the Pleasure Biz

Women in Charge: Meet the Female Honchos Shaking Up the Pleasure Biz

The pleasure industry has witnessed a transformative shift as more women have risen to positions of power and ownership. Pioneering female execs have broken down barriers and challenged long-standing stereotypes, paving the way for a growing wave of entrepreneurs who have continued to shake things up.

The success stories of the industry’s female business leaders have become a source of inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs across the globe, affirming that determination, talent and ingenuity know no gender boundaries. 

The rise of female business leaders is rewriting the narrative of the pleasure industry.

Beyond empowering one another, these trailblazing women have also spearheaded a cultural shift that continues to foster inclusivity and acceptance. Their visionary approaches have contributed to dismantling outdated norms, making space for diverse voices and opening doors for others to follow suit.

Lorals founder Melanie Cristol believes that creating products that reflect women’s sexual health needs can open up conversations regarding inclusivity and pave the way for further growth.

“For too long, there’s been a lack of protective products specifically tailored for women,” she says. “When we highlight the importance of women’s safety and pleasure, we’re sending a clear message that these issues matter and that they deserve to be at the forefront of the industry’s innovation and product development.”

Ducky Doolittle, the managing partner of Enchantasys, believes it is essential to build a workforce that reflects the community in which the retailer operates. When interviewing candidates, she asks strategic questions about their attitudes and feelings toward other people. 

“I look at my stores as the equivalent of a doctor’s office,” she explains. “We don’t decline to care for anyone, as long as they also have good intentions when they walk through our doors.”

Lioness co-founder Anna Lee believes that fostering an inclusive and diverse work environment starts at the top. 

“Our leadership team is diverse, with each co-founder being of a different background,” Lee says. “We also keep one-page guides for all our team members that cover working styles and communication/conflict style. This helps us come together as a team and allows us to discuss collaboration and conflict with open lines of communication while fostering a space where everyone feels they can contribute their best to conversations and projects.”

Companies like Spectrum Boutique, led by founder Zoë Ligon, recognize the value of diversifying their team. The company started out as a one-woman show, but now taps into a range of industry experts who share their views on sex and sex toys for the e-tailer’s online magazine, Spectrum Journal. 

“I think that our online magazine has helped us grow because it has allowed us to work with a bunch of different writers and artists,” she says. “It has been such a joy becoming more of a behind-the-scenes person helping coordinate things, rather than being the sole voice of Spectrum Boutique like I was in the early days.”

Taylor Sparks, sex educator and founder of OrganicLoven.com, says that knowing what it feels like to be marginalized as a woman of color inspires her to seek to collaborate with and hire people of color.

“I have been one of the only black women in schools, organizations and companies for most of my life,” she shares. “I am always seeking to have another person of color work with me and build with me, and to support them in their goals.”

Honey’s Place CEO and President Bonnie Feingold says she implements various strategies to achieve a diverse and inclusive work environment. This includes promoting diversity in the hiring process, cultural sensitivity discussions and implementation, an open-door policy, and celebrating the unique perspectives and contributions of the company’s diverse team.

“By prioritizing inclusivity, we create a supportive atmosphere where creativity and innovation thrive, benefiting both our team and customers,” she says.

Business Barriers 

One of the most significant challenges for female execs, not only in the pleasure industry but in many sectors, is funding. Access to capital can be limited, making it difficult to start or expand their businesses. Studies have shown that women-owned businesses receive a disproportionately small share of venture capital and traditional funding compared to their male counterparts. This disparity is even more pronounced for women of color. As a result, many women have had to rely on personal savings, bootstrapping or support from those close to them to get their ventures off the ground.

“If you are not a white male in this country, getting funding is almost impossible,” Sparks says. “Women-owned businesses receive less than 7% of funding and only 2% of venture capital funding. For me, it’s not just about being a woman-owned business, but a Black woman-owned business. My business will be 10 years old on Oct.13, and we are among the top 12% of women-owned businesses that earn revenue over $100,000 but still cannot get traditional funding. I’ve had to depend on the financial support of friends and family.”

The nature of the pleasure industry can sometimes make some potential mainstream partners feel awkward. When explaining their products, female execs may encounter individuals who are uncomfortable or dismissive when engaging in discussions related to sex — particularly when those discussions are led by a woman. To navigate this, Cristol has developed an approach for normalizing the conversation. 

“I discuss our products and mission with the same professionalism and straightforwardness as one would any other business,” she says. “By doing so, I aim to reduce the stigma around these topics and demonstrate that sexual health and wellness are essential aspects of overall well-being, deserving of open, candid conversation.”

Despite the challenges, many female execs in the industry have found innovative ways to overcome obstacles and achieve success. 

“It is disheartening to witness the reluctance of mainstream banks to associate with anything deemed ‘adult,’” Kama Sutra President Marla Lee says. “Over the years, we have had our long-standing accounts closed with vague explanations that we no longer fit their banking profile. To overcome these challenges, I believe it is crucial to build a robust and supportive network of fellow women entrepreneurs. In my experience, women in this industry have been more open to offering referrals and assistance. By connecting with other women who have already faced similar issues, I was able to assemble a strong team comprising a female CFO, accountant, lender and banker.”

Carolyn Eagle, founder and CEO of Betty’s Toy Box, also believes in the power of building supportive networks among businesswomen.

“By building relationships with my fellow female entrepreneurs, business owners and reps, I was able to find my space within this industry and have my voice heard,” she says.

A Matter of Perspective

One significant advantage of female leadership in the pleasure industry is the perspective women bring to product development and marketing. Female execs often prioritize products and services that cater to women’s needs and experiences, creating a more inclusive and empowering product line. 

As the CEO and co-founder of KushKards, Lauren Miele set her sights on creating a line of stationery and gift items primarily tailored for women. Understanding that approximately 80% of consumers in this category are women, Miele focuses on developing novelty products that resonate with their preferences.

“Having a female perspective not only enables me to cater effectively to the majority of customers but also empowers me to craft products that resonate with their emotions and experiences,” Miele says. 

In the ever-evolving landscape of the pleasure industry, the recognition and interplay of different perspectives plays a pivotal role in propelling the sector forward. As Cristol explains, the industry transcends product sales. 

“It’s about promoting sexual wellness and safety,” Cristol says. “So my aim is to create a dialogue that’s open, respectful and inclusive.”

Many female entrepreneurs in the pleasure industry have demonstrated extraordinary persistence and resilience in the face of adversity. By staying focused on their goals and refusing to give up, they have been able to navigate challenges and achieve success in a predominantly male-dominated space, sometimes using people’s misconceptions about them to their advantage. 

“I think people often underestimate me, but I view this as a positive; it’s fun to be on the other side of what people may assume,” Ligon says. “It’s only inspired me to have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of retail, pleasure products and all the logistics that go into running a store.”

Taking Charge

The rise of female leaders in the pleasure biz has had a transformative impact on the sector. By focusing on offering products and services that cater to a broader range of needs and preferences, female-owned companies have helped break down stereotypes and empower underrepresented consumers to explore their sexuality without shame or judgment.

The presence of women in the industry has helped challenge traditional perceptions of sex toys. By taking a more refined approach to product development and packaging, today’s female-fronted companies have played a role in reshaping the industry’s image, making it more appealing and welcoming to a broader audience. 

HighOnLove CEO Angela Mustone observes that the pleasure industry has traditionally been “very tailored towards men and their needs.” 

“I created HighOnLove to empower women and include them in seeking out pleasure because it’s truly a form of wellness and a necessity for living a happy life,” Mustone says. “Feeling good isn’t something we should shy away from.” 

Ernestine Touon Szabo, founder of Impulse Novelties, says that her own experiences inspired her policy of employing as many women as possible. 

“It is a place where my female team and I come together to create products, making them a part of the process and valuing their opinion,” she explains.

The success of female execs and entrepreneurs serves as a source of inspiration and empowerment for succeeding generations of women. By sharing their stories and experiences, they encourage more women to pursue their passions and overcome barriers in various industries, including the pleasure products sector. 

Thao Luu-Brinberg, co-founder of Nu Sensuelle, would like to see female industry leaders stay the course. 

“I hope we continue to flex our knowledge and power and be brazen enough to talk about how pleasure is meant for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or body type,” she says. “By supporting and uplifting one another, women can continue to drive positive change and break down barriers for future generations of entrepreneurs. Our voices are the conduit to change!”

Luu-Brinberg holds a bachelor’s degree in manufacturing engineering, which she notes is also a male-dominated industry. 

“Back when I was in university, you rarely saw females studying engineering, computing or science,” she recalls. “Not to mention, I was born in Asia, and grew up in a traditional household where culturally, girls were expected to be more passive and fill a particular role in society. But I was extremely good at math and science and decided I wanted to study something that challenged what girls were ‘supposed’ to do. Knowing that very few females were integral members of the engineering field made me feel proud that I was one of the few willing to take on such a challenge. 

“My willingness to take risks and question the status quo led me to co-found Nu Sensuelle, allowing me to use my distinct skill set to change this industry,” she adds. “My sense of individuality and determination certainly drives the development of all our products and our 10 proprietary motors. My journey highlights the importance of representation and visibility for women in a field where they are underrepresented. By sharing my story, I hope to encourage and empower other women to pursue their passions and dreams, regardless of societal expectations. We can only get better if we inspire and support each other.”

Considering the current state of the industry, Doolittle believes that there are now fewer obstacles for women than ever before. This progressive trend is a testament to the strength and determination of female entrepreneurs and leaders, who have been breaking barriers and reshaping the landscape. 

“More women own their stake than ever before,” she observes. “There are still some companies that don’t see women for all their potential. I just choose not to engage with those brands.”

Doolittle’s outlook exemplifies the confidence and resilience that female leaders exhibit in the face of any lingering challenges. As the industry evolves, it becomes increasingly evident that women are leaving their indelible mark, transforming perceptions and demanding the respect they rightfully deserve. With each passing day, their voices grow stronger, amplifying a collective determination to create an inclusive, empowering and forward-looking industry where women thrive, making significant contributions that benefit all.

Mutual Support

Mentorship is key for many pleasure industry businesswomen. By creating a supportive and inclusive work culture, providing opportunities for growth and advancement, and offering guidance and mentorship, today’s female leaders are both inspiring and directly supporting aspiring female professionals. 

Being mentored by adult retail pioneer Phyllis Heppenstall helped to launch Dawn Phillips as a business owner.                        

“I learned from the best,” she declares. “Prior to starting Ball & Chain in 2003, I worked for two very smart and powerful women business owners. They owned and operated what I call an adult retail empire, which was all women employees in the beginning. My 15 years working with them was my stepping stone to where I am today. Phyllis, the owner, worked hard to train and empower her salespeople to become successful.”

Manon Vallee, VP and co-founder of Shunga, believes in allowing employees to work at their own pace and in their own unique ways. She finds that recognizing individual strengths and providing a supportive work environment enables women to excel in their roles.

“It is interesting to see what comes out when you allow people to develop to their full potential,” Valle says. “We always have pleasant surprises when our employees feel valued.”

Miele emphasizes the importance of women supporting one another in the industry. 

“I have cultivated meaningful relationships with fellow women in this industry, and together, we provide unwavering emotional support,” she says. “This sisterhood is truly invaluable, as we lift each other up, share experiences and stand strong as a united force.”

Chelsea Downs, co-founder of New York Toy Collective (NYTC), understands the significance of supporting individuals on their career journey. Within NYTC and the broader industry, Downs provides direct feedback and fosters connections to help others progress in their professional lives. 

“NYTC is known for being overtly queer and trans-competent, so we attract a lot of queer talent,” Downs says. “People choose to work for the NYTC because they know they will be able to express themselves safely and freely. Also, since I’m a queer, BIPOC founder, I think people know coming in that diversity is part of the package.”

Coming from an engineering background where women were rarely seen in leadership positions, Lee takes immense pride in leading a company mainly led and run by women. By removing roadblocks, fostering creativity and offering guidance, she encourages every member of the team to reach their full potential.

“I am proud to say around 78% of our team identify as women and they are all truly the best people,” she says. “I am thankful that I get to work with them on a daily basis. Of course, I feel this for the entire team, but having gone to school for engineering and worked at an engineering corporation, I rarely got to see women lead projects and teams. At Lioness, almost all the women on our team have been with us for a minimum of three years, and seeing them grow in from intern to senior roles while leading initiatives has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.”

HighOnLove CEO Mustone actively seeks win-win opportunities where she can collaborate with and promote other women’s businesses. 

“Supporting other women comes naturally to me,” she says. “I thrive off partnerships.”

Spectrum Boutique’s Ligon additionally focuses on spotting and addressing double standards, ensuring that everyone gets a chance to express themselves and be heard.

“If someone I’m talking with gets cut off or talked over by someone interrupting, I ask them to please finish their thought,” she says. “That’s just one general example, but it makes a difference. I try my best to put myself in someone else’s shoes, without trying to think or speak for them. I think it’s important to check in with someone before doing or saying anything on someone’s behalf, even if it seems like a given to you. Respecting and empowering others is not about doing what you think is right for them; it’s about creating an environment where everyone can advocate for themselves and set their own boundaries without fear. Give support to someone in a way that is suited for them, not you.”

For women who seek to get ahead in the pleasure biz, knowledge is power, and oftentimes that knowledge is passed along by a fellow female entrepreneur. 

“I strongly believe in educating my staff, whether its product education, sexual health seminars, sex educator certification, or learning the ins and outs of Shopify and ecommerce,” shares Eagle. “If you’re willing to learn, then I’m willing to teach. Within our overall industry, I am often a cheerleader and supporter of other women, whether they’re my direct competition, a sales rep or manufacturer. I love seeing what other women are doing in this industry and often draw inspiration from their determination and perseverance.”

Rouge Garments co-founder Farah Shaikh also shares her expertise with up-and-coming female entrepreneurs. 

“I offer my support to all women who want to start a business and watch it grow,” she says. “I share information on what works and what doesn’t, and help them feel safe. It’s a big and scary venture, starting off new, and there’s lots of things to take into consideration, so if I can help and support other women as others did for me, then I’m game!”

The women of Nu Sensuelle know they can turn to Luu-Brinberg for mentorship. 

“I pride myself on empowering the women on my team to recognize their ability and potential, ultimately creating confident leaders who, consequently, inspire others, creating a more equitable future for all,” she says.

Joyboxx founder and CEO Deborah Semer believes that given “mission-critical” tasks, women will rise to the occasion.

“I listen and hear them and treat them as equals, especially my international business partners,” she says.

Redefining Success 

In the world of business, success is often measured by numbers. However, female entrepreneurs in the pleasure industry are redefining what success means to them, as they embrace a more expansive version of personal fulfillment. 

“For me, success isn’t solely about sales or profits,” Cristol shares. “It’s about making a genuine difference in people’s lives, breaking down stigmas, and bringing sexual health and pleasure into the mainstream conversation. As a female company owner, success means knowing that our products have not only offered physical protection but also empowered individuals to own their pleasure safely and confidently.”

For Dawn Phillips of Ball & Chain, success is a multifaceted concept.

“I have been very blessed, and I just love what I do,” she says. “Creating something from scratch and watching it come to life and become a successful product has been one of the most rewarding parts of my work. Being a single parent, then being able to pay for my daughter’s school nursing loans to set her on a positive road — that was a major success. I’ve met so many awesome people in the industry, some who have become my very best friends. That is success. I also have the most wonderful, hardworking distributors who still love my products, some of whom have supported me from the very beginning. Without them, Ball & Chain would not exist.”

Ligon finds success in the continued growth and impact of her business. 

“Honestly, each year and month we continue to ship sex toys out to people is a success to me,” she says. “Communication, collaboration and creativity are some of my most treasured values in teamwork, and if that’s all flowing, I’m a happy camper!”

Taylor Sparks of OrganicLoven.com also views success as arising from a combination of factors.

“I am currently the largest BIPOC-owned online intimacy shop, and success to me means being able to continue to curate the best organic and eco-friendly products and introduce them to my clients,” she attests. “To be able to educate my clients on holistic sexuality and sexual wellness. I enjoy when people have the ‘aha’ moment about a better way to enjoy their pleasures. I am also seeking to make my first seven figures. However, I already feel successful as I have built a life and business that allows me to travel all over the world... and talk about pussy! I get to present my seminars, coach, and sell my products on adults-only cruises and at hotel takeovers, sex expos and conferences around the world.”

For Valle, one measure of success is achieving balance between her professional and personal life. Another is the strong partnerships Shunga maintains with its clients and suppliers to build a sustainable business over time. 

“Success also involves inspiring other women to pursue their entrepreneurial passion,” she adds.

As she continues to evolve as a business owner, Miele likewise finds that success is tied to cultivating meaningful relationships.

“In the present, success is about creating and nurturing connections with buyers, distributors and retailers on a personal level,” she says. “The emphasis lies in getting to know them as individuals, understanding their needs and building a bond that goes beyond mere transactions.”

Carolyn Eagle of Betty’s Toy Box believes that success as a female company owner comes in various forms. Being a voice for change, being asked for opinions, and being nominated for awards are all achievements that signify success to her. 

“I also measure success by being able to accomplish all these things while also being open about being a mother, a partner and a woman of a ‘certain age,’” she says. “I will never hide who I am in order to earn somebody’s respect or attention. To me, that’s success.”

Semer says that she’s long considered simply surviving the entrepreneurial journey to be a sign of success. 

“Now success means the ‘fempire’ thriving, making money and having fun,” she declares.

The Future Is Female

From developing and marketing new pleasure products to embracing cutting-edge technologies, today’s businesswomen are harnessing their creativity and determination to drive their companies forward. 

Vallee shares that Shunga is constantly creating new ideas for unique products. One popular new line is the Shunga Intimate Massagers. Shunga also plans to release new products this coming fall.

“The most exciting part is that my daughter, Kim Chanel Vallee-Séguin, is taking on more and more responsibilities within the company, and soon she will be taking the reins,” Vallee enthuses. “It’s fantastic to have her with us and to be able to leave a positive legacy for future generations.”

Miele notes that KushKards is collaborating with Rock Candy Toys to attach discreet bullet vibrators to her greeting cards, creating the ultimate “gift with a lift.” 

“Since the introduction of NaughtyKards, I always envisioned attaching a discreet bullet vibrator, perfectly suited for our target customers,” Miele says. “The alignment between Rock Candy’s branding, vibe and messaging exceeded my expectations, elevating the collection to new heights.” 

The NaughtyVibes Greeting Card series includes bold slogans like “Dick Don’t Kill MY Vibe” and “Think Less, Vibe More.” 

“Working with Tracy Leone and Jackie Richerson, inspiring women leaders in the industry, has been an absolute pleasure,” Miele says. “Their dedication to sex toy education has been invaluable in guiding this project forward.”

Doolittle says she’s excited about the growth of Enchantasys.

“With the help of my business partners, I have opened two stores in less than a year, so my current goals are to continue to strengthen my team, connect with my communities and show Arkansas what a warmhearted, nonjudgmental environment looks and feels like,” she says. “I’m enjoying this place that I am in at this very moment. The future is bright and I am sure there is more goodness to come.”

Lee reports that Lioness is expanding sales across all of Europe, and has new plans for its “Pleasure Quotient Scale.” Based on 150,000 Lioness datasets collected over time, the algorithm places masturbation sessions into pleasure level categories. 

“When using the PQ Scale, users will see a rocket ship soar through the sky and land within 10 different pleasure levels where they can understand which factors affect their PQ Scale,” she explains. “Multiple orgasms, really long orgasms, a lot of session tags, etc.”

HighOnLove also is expanding into Europe. After attending major trade shows and meeting with new buyers, Mustone says she plans to increase the brand’s presence worldwide.

Women in the pleasure biz are also expanding their brands in other ways. Ligon says that Spectrum is creating new in-house items to be released shortly, while Eagle recently launched Pleasure Curve, an online sex toy and pleasure boutique specifically geared toward plus-sized bodies. 

“It’s a space we feel this industry largely ignores,” she says. “Being a plus-sized woman myself, I wanted a space where other people of size could find toys that work with their bodies and needs.” 

Luu-Brinberg shared news of Nu Sensuelle’s new Lyra Panty Vibe, which can be controlled at a distance by its remote or a smart device through the Nu Sensuelle Remote App. 

“We are thrilled for the Lyra to hit the shelves, as it is a revolutionary way to stay intimately bonded with your partner despite being in different locations,” she says. As you know, connectivity and intimacy are a cornerstone of our brand, and this product absolutely brings that concept to life.”

Rouge Garments plans to venture beyond the leather bondage and medical play products that it’s known for.

“We plan to include different types of adult products and expand our ever-growing catalogue with fresh and exciting products, which we will be rolling out very soon,” Shaikh reports.

With a recently published book titled “An African-American Guide to Ethical Non-Monogamy: The How, Why and With Whom to Explore Your Expanding Love Styles,” Sparks says that her coaching practice for those interested in ENM is growing. 

“I’m now providing content for SDC.com and Kasidie.com, two of the larger swinger sites in the U.S.,” she says. “I still contribute as an erotic educator to media such as Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health and Women’s Health.”

Joyboxx’s Semer is preparing to release the 10th-anniversary edition of Joyboxx with Joybuff, a reusable silicone sex toy cleaning tool. She is also partnering with brands and bands like Gay C/DC, to customize Joyboxx for a cause and create Joyboxx bundles with the comapy’s own pleasure product lines.

This year marks Ball & Chain’s 20th anniversary and Phillips says semi-retirement is just around the corner. 

“It’s been a long 35 years in the adult industry but I’m not ready to leave just yet,” she says. “I am currently in the process of building a shop/office next to my home and I will continue to keep my business going for several more years.” 

The rise of female business leaders is rewriting the narrative of the pleasure industry, once exclusively dominated by men. Overcoming funding challenges, breaking through gender biases and navigating uncomfortable conversations, female entrepreneurs have proven their resilience and determination. Through perseverance, innovative approaches and a commitment to inclusivity, female company owners and execs will continue to play a leading role in shaping the landscape of the industry, driving positive change and inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. 

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