Polly Rodriguez Is Turning The Sex Toy Industry Upside Down

Success stories can seem just as fantastical as the fairy tales you (may have) loved growing up: Bold career woman finds herself in the right place at the right time, and poof, her fairy godmother mentor snaps her fingers, transforming our hero into an overnight success who brings home a 7-figure salary, jet-sets the world spreading her you-can-have-it-all gospel, all while looking awesome and Instagramming the whole thing. Umm...really? Why do we so rarely hear the other side of the story — the false starts, the waves of doubt, the failures, and the fuck-ups? Those late-night worries and, occasionally, breakthroughs that are so relatable to the rest of us?
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Introducing Self-Made, Refinery29's newest column spotlighting the real stories that fueled success — the wins, the fails, and the curveballs —proving there's no one path to getting what you want.
Photographed Sabrina Santiago, Design by Abbie Winters.
Polly Rodriguez, 31, is the CEO and co-founder of Unbound, a New York City-based sexual well-being company, and she's on a mission to empower women to take control of their sexual health. Last year, Polly helped found Women In Sex Tech with Lidia Bonilla, a group that supports the growing number of female entrepreneurs who are revolutionizing this once taboo industry.
Refinery29 talked with Polly about her struggle to raise funding, how cancer helped radically changed her career goals, and what she's doing most nights at midnight.
What inspired you to launch your own business?
"I graduated into the recession, and so when I got my first job working as a consultant for Deloitte, I was just so happy to have a really well-paying job. But I didn't really like the work. It was hard to imagine quitting because I was financially stable, and I was really good at my job.
"I thought about going to business school, and I signed up to take the GMAT. I did really well on the practice tests, but on the day of the actual exam, I was like, “I can’t do this.” I called the moderator over and asked her if I was allowed to leave? She was like, if you leave, you get a 0 on this test, and it will be tied to your account forever. I was like, I just don’t care. I walked out. That’s when I realized I didn’t want to go to business school. And I didn’t want to stay in consulting.
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"But I had to figure out what to do. I didn’t even know where to start. I think it can be so hard to know what you want to do with your life when you don’t know all the options available to you. I started reaching out to a lot of people in my personal and professional networks and talking to so many different people in so many different industries. I eventually decided I wanted to go work in the startup world. But I had a really tough time jumping into that very tight network. Ultimately, I ended up taking a customer service role at a dating startup. My salary was less than half of what I was making at Deloitte. But I loved the job and I loved being in a fast-paced environment and I loved making decisions that had real consequences. I was there for two years, and promoted to an executive-level role. Eventually decided I wanted to start my own company. I met Sarah Jayne, my Unbound cofounder, through Dreamers & Doers, a feminist women-in-tech group, and we launched in December 2014."
Why did you decide to launch an online sex toy company?
"Every woman I’ve ever talked to has a terrible story of the first time they tried to buy a vibrator. But, on a more personal level, I realized how underserved female sexuality is both in the marketplace but also from a societal perspective, when I went through cancer at the age of 21. I had to go through radiation treatment which then catapulted me into menopause. None of my doctors warned me; they just said, 'Oh, you'll never have children.' So I ended up on the Internet, literally googling: 'radiation treatment never have children.' That was how I found out that I was going through menopause.
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"A friend who is a nurse recommended I buy a vibrator because the cancer treatment was having such a big impact on my body and, by extension, my sex drive. I was really embarrassed to talk about it, and the whole shopping experience stuck with me. I was living in the midwest — it’s not like there was a Babeland on every corner. But even if I could have shopped there, I think I would still have been uncomfortable. It was weird to me that no one was selling these products to women in a way that made the customer feel good. And that always stuck with me."
Photographed Sabrina Santiago, Design by Abbie Winters.
Photographed Sabrina Santiago, Design by Abbie Winters.
Can you talk a little bit about the struggles you faced as you raised capital for Unbound?
"Raising capital was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I consider myself a fairly resilient person, but it was really tough dealing with the constant rejection. Here you are putting your dreams on the table, and person after person — we're talking hundreds of people — telling you that your idea is bad and that it will never work. And then couple that with the industry that we're in, so there are people who judge you or won't take meetings with you just because they think what you're doing is unethical or trashy. It's hard not to take that personally. Because I don’t consider myself a trashy, unethical person.
"It was especially heartbreaking when I would go out to pitch some of the female angel investor groups. They were often the ones that were the most prudish. It surprised me. I thought the women would understand why buying sex toys was a terrible shopping experience. But more often than not, it was the female investors who made me feel less than. They wouldn’t even take a meeting with me. And a lot of the female groups just said, “Categorically, we would never invest in a company that’s in the sexual health and wellness space, so respectfully, we don't want to waste your time, we don't want to waste our time, we just would never invest in a company like you.
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"It took a long time to raise the money. Much longer than I ever thought it would, especially after being at the dating startup where we got funded so quickly. I was just so confused. I didn’t understand why it was so hard when the business model made sense, the market made sense, and we were growing like crazy, Eventually we got a lead investor and ended up closing our funding round way oversubscribed which was great. We raised $2.7 million."
What qualities do you think you possess that make you a good candidate for self-making your destiny?
"I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 20, and I was given a 30% chance of survival and an 80% chance that the cancer would come back. And 10 years later, I’m still here. I’m really fortunate to have been given the gift of perspective, and I’m fortunate to know what it’s like to be sitting in a hospital listing off all the things you would do differently if you beat cancer and make it out alive. You make this promise to yourself that you'll go after all the things that you want, and you won't be too scared of failure. When you're sitting there, and the doctors are telling you they “wanna be honest, it’s not looking good,” you realize how short it all is and that you really do have to go after what you want. I think that’s definitely the most transformational experience I’ve had in my life."
We know about the problems with the boys' club. What are some of the pitfalls of the girls' club?
"I personally don’t understand the backlash of women’s groups. Women have only been able to vote for 100 years. I do think women get built up and then torn down a lot. Just look at Hillary Clinton. It’s because we're still an anomaly, and there’s this expectation that you’re gonna be like Superwoman. That’s why we need to have more women in leadership, so we're not an anomaly. When you’re a rarity, the expectations get that much higher. Like Barack Obama basically had to be perfect because he was the first African American president.
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"I think women need a place that’s just for them. There have been all-male clubs forever. I went to The Wing the day after the election and just cried all day. There were so many other women there doing the exact same things, and it was really nice to know that I wasn’t alone."
Photographed Sabrina Santiago, Design by Abbie Winters.
Would you recommend young women go into sex tech?
"I think it’s a great industry to be in. It’s changing rapidly, and there’s a huge opportunity to be a part of an industry that has the potential to change women’s lives. I would say that getting into this industry requires an exceptional level of resilience, and you have to really not care what people think about you. It can be exhausting at times, but I think that that's probably true with most leadership positions. If anyone is interested, the Women and Sex Tech group puts on events all the time. And we love anybody to be a part of it."
Did you worry about not having a traditional tech background when you founded Unbound?
"My first foray into tech was at the dating startup I worked at before Unbound. I had done a little consulting in the tech space. But I'm definitely not an engineer by any means.
"I think women get really self-conscious about not having a tech background when launching a business, but if you look at the most successful female entrepreneurs, the majority of them don’t have a tech background.
"Yes, we need more women in STEM, and we should encourage more women to be in STEM. But you know one of the biggest reasons startups fail is because engineers will build beautiful technology, but then they'll have no idea how to sell it or tell a story or how to get people to care about it. I think women tend to sell ourselves short because we aren't engineers. But if you’re a wonderful sales person, if you kick ass at sales, that is just as important as being able to code. And more and more there are a lot of out-of-the-box tech solutions that you can use that aren’t wildly expensive, so you can get started at a low cost."
What are you doing at midnight every night?
"I always journal right before I go to bed, or I try to. I’ve kept a diary since I was 7, and I have four massively thick journals that are just filled from cover to back. I have trouble falling asleep sometimes and trouble shutting my brain off, and journaling allows me to unplug and put those thoughts somewhere.
"Sometimes, I’ll go back and read some of the journal entries from when I was really sick or going through a hard time, and it’s a nice reminder that the sun’s gonna rise tomorrow, you’re gonna wake up, and you’re gonna get right back at it. Life marches on."
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