From Early Menopause to Founding a Company Based on Sexual Empowerment: Meet Polly Rodriguez, CEO & Co-Founder of Unbound
Unbound is a sexual wellness brand that is providing womxn with a way to become in touch with—and in turn, more aware of—their individual sexuality and sexual being. With a curated collection of innovative, beautiful, safe and playful toys and accessories, Unbound is set to create a world where female pleasure is no longer taboo or glossed over. Most importantly, Unbound is a brand with an overall mission to solve the orgasm gap, educate the world about sexual health and drive gender equality, once and for all. We sat down to chat with Polly Rodriguez, Unbound’s CEO and co-founder.
You were diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer in your twenties, which prompted you to go through menopause prematurely. Through these major changes in your body, how did your relationship change with your sexuality?
Any modesty I had about nudity and my body went out the window with colorectal cancer. You have people poking and prodding you in your most intimate places every day. It also taught me that, on the most basic level, our bodies are just organs held together with skin and it’s up to decide what we want to do with them. It taught me not to be afraid of my body, but to embrace it for all its flaws and enjoy it while I can.
Relative to sexuality, cancer taught me that masturbation is a form of self-expression and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. During chemotherapy and while I had a temporary ileostomy bag, I couldn’t have felt less sexual, and still, I tried to still connect with my body in that way because it allowed me to acknowledge I was still a person and a woman — not just a bunch of tubes, bags, and IVs.
Lastly, I think in the ten years post-cancer and treatment, I’ve realized that our sexuality ebbs and flows. There are times when we feel really sexually energized and there times when we don’t. There’s no such thing as normal and we shouldn’t put pressure on ourselves to perform. Your sexuality is your narrative to tell, don’t force it, just go with what you feel that day.
You founded Unbound in 2014 in a tiny apartment and it’s since grown into an online shop, quarterly box, and online magazine. There’s obviously a need for your mission and brand! What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in growing a sex-tech company?
Because we’re not allowed to advertise on Facebook, Instagram, or any other paid channel, we had to get really creative in the early days. It was shortly after Donald Trump was elected and the Republicans in Congress were going after Planned Parenthood. As a female-founded sexual health and wellness company, we decided to publicly take a stand with a creative PR stunt. We launched “Vibes for Congress,” a campaign that allowed any customer to send a vibrator to their congressional member of choice and the profits all went to Planned Parenthood. We thought maybe 100 people would participate and ended up having thousands send vibrators. The press coverage was insane—within a week Unbound had been written about in over 40 publications. We also got to send Mitch McConnell 275 vibrators, so that was a nice bonus.
Most of us have never started a company before and most of us don’t come from a background where our parents can bankroll us until we figure it out. Starting a business feels impossible every single day, so you have to build relationships with those in your life who genuinely believe you can do the impossible. That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with people who believe in you because there will be so many times when you don’t believe in yourself.
It seems like some founders are serial entrepreneurs, some are solving for a specific problem, and some businesses are happy accidents. Which, if any, of those archetypes do you identify with? Would you ever have guessed you’d end up in sex tech?
I’d like to think that the creation of Unbound was a happy accident that solves a specific problem. On the one hand, I didn’t grow up with the intention of going into sex tech! After treatment for cancer, I went on to work for Senator Claire McCaskill on the Affordable Care Act in Washington, DC. From there I went to work at Deloitte Consulting focusing on brand building and growth strategy for Fortune 100 companies. I knew I wanted to start a business one day so I chose to join a startup instead of going to business school. The only position I could get at a YCombinator dating startup was as a Customer Service Manager and so I took the position and worked my way up to an executive-level position in less than two years. Then, in 2014, I met my co-founder Sarah Jayne through a women in tech group in New York City. As two midwesterners with big dreams, we hit it off immediately. She had been working on a quarterly subscription box on nights and weekends with some friends who were no longer actively working on the business. We decided to team up to create a direct-to-consumer brand that would be the online destination we wished we had when we bought our first vibrators, lubricants, condoms, or accessories… and Unbound was born
Part of Unbound’s mission is to create a safe space for inclusive, honest conversations around sex. What are some ways we can address the harm that certain porn and abstinence-only sex ed is doing for people just starting to explore their sexuality?
I think the #MeToo movement was an undeniable moment where we collectively realized that we’ve lost our way when it comes to human sexual expression via systematic and widespread abuses of power. Post #MeToo, it feels a bit like we’re frozen in time, afraid and unsure of how to proceed. Unfortunately, I think the burden falls to womxn, non-binary, and trans individuals to guide us in how to reengage in conversations about our sexual identities from the bottom up. At Unbound, we’re trying to create opportunities to engage in those conversations on a consent-driven basis. Whether it’s reading an educational Unbound Guide that lands in your inbox, tagging a friend in a meme on our Instagram, or developing innovative products you can incorporate into your sex life — our goal is to make it easier to self discover and engage in conversations about sexual wellness.
Going through menopause in your twenties likely meant you couldn’t relate to a lot of the sex advice and stories out there for your peers. What would you recommend for a woman in a similar situation—whose body has experienced injury, illness, or trauma—who is trying to explore her sexuality?
Give yourself space and time to figure it out. You’re not on anyone’s time table but your own. Buy a vibrator, try some lube, watch some porn (I highly recommend Erika Lust), try audio porn (like Dipsea), try MakeLoveNotPorn as a relatable porn alternative. Create a fake profile on a dating app and sext with a stranger. Get on chat roulette and laugh your ass off with your girlfriends — not because you have to, but because you can. I think it can be liberating and thrilling to give yourself permission to experiment and try new things that perhaps you ruled out because of what you’re currently facing. And, if you’re not feeling it, don’t stress out, just come back to it when you’re ready. Give yourself time and permission to figure it out. It takes time — all worthwhile things do.
You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone. When I first starting dating after cancer and it came to sex, I felt obligated to give this whole spiel on my medical history. “Oh, well you know I can’t have kids and that I’m going to need lube and and and…..” and then I just stopped doing that. Because I don’t owe my story to anyone unless they’ve earned the right to hear it or if I want to share it with them. I use lube because it’s fun. I’m excited to share that with a partner because it’s going to make sex better for both of us. It’s not that easy all the time, and certainly not with trauma, but I do find myself coming back to that Nora Ephron quote quite often — “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”
Journal. Writing down where you are in the moment can be a huge release and I find no greater pleasure than going back and reading previous entries when I was certain my world was going to end and realizing that the sun rose the next day and life went on.
And finally: Talk to us about CBD lube. Is it worth the hype?
When my team first came to me with the idea for a CBD lube, I thought they were crazy. It was around the time that CBD was just coming into popularity and I didn’t want us to be another brand selling something with CBD in it. It wasn’t until we were in the testing phase for Dazy that I saw how impactful CBD can be in intimate moments. I think when done correctly, CBD lube is definitely worth the hype. Dazy specifically is water-based, whereas most CBD lubes are silicone-based, so it’s safe to use with condoms and toys.