When Cindy Whitehead marched into meetings to pitch Addyi, the first-ever prescription libido pill for women, none of the investors or venture capitalists in the audience were female.
Beyond investors, leadership in the healthcare field lacked gender diversity, the former Sprout Pharmaceuticals CEO observed.
“Women control the majority of healthcare decisions for their households, but so few women actually run healthcare companies,” she said. “There’s a disconnect in that, and there are so few mentoring opportunities for women.”
Whitehead’s latest business venture, The Pink Ceiling, aims to fix those problems. The company, which launched in April and has offices in Raleigh and Miramar Beach, Fla., partners with startups focused on products or services that help women and provides mentoring, seed investing and consulting services.
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Less than a year later, Whitehead and her all-women team are adding another facet of The Pink Ceiling: the Pinkubator, a membership service that begins Feb. 1.
The Triangle area is home to many business incubators and co-working spaces, such as American Underground and HQ Raleigh, but the Pinkubator is the first women-focused one.
Seven companies have signed up for on-site memberships, which cost $500 per month and include monthly meetings with the Pink Ceiling team, brainstorming sessions and access to the company’s office in North Hills.
Located in a suite at 4350 Lassiter at North Hills Ave, the workspace includes meeting rooms, printing and WiFi along with rosé on tap, snacks and pink everything – lockers, chairs, a phone booth.
I don’t think the next billion-dollar idea is coming out of Silicon Valley. It’s coming out of a place like Raleigh.
Cindy Whitehead, who started Pink Ceiling
Virtual members pay $99 per month for a smaller array of services, including a bi-weekly phone call with the Pink Ceiling team, free admission to events and investment possibilities. About 50 women have signed up.
Though she won’t release the names yet, Whitehead said the women who have joined the Pinkubator are in various stages of business development, ranging from millions of dollars in funding to a basic idea.
“It’s an interesting mix, and that’s going to be what makes it great,” she said.
Whitehead’s own background is a diverse mix of experiences.
She was born in upstate New York and her family moved around frequently, with Whitehead attending a different school every year from fourth through 12th grade. While studying at Marymount University in Virginia, she decided she wanted to work for Merck, one of the world’s largest drug companies – not because she loved pharmaceuticals, but because of Merck’s reputation as one of the best Fortune 500 companies to work for.
Eight months after she graduated in 1994, Merck hired her.
Several years later, she followed the advice of her brother, who told her to leave the corporate world and work for a smaller company, and joined San Diego-based Dura Pharmaceuticals.
After Irish drug company Elan Corporation bought Dura, Whitehead decided she needed “a new challenge” and joined advertising agency McCann Erickson, where she worked on skincare products. Next, she headed to QVC, where she helped women’s brands connect with the popular shopping channel.
In 2005, Whitehead and her former husband, Bob Whitehead, moved to Raleigh and started Slate Pharmaceuticals. At Slate, the couple produced Testopel, a testosterone pellet, but ran afoul of the Food and Drug Administration for misleading marketing claims in 2010.
The following year, they sold Slate and launched Sprout Pharmaceuticals, the birthplace of Addyi (pronounced “addie”). For four years, Whitehead fought for FDA approval for the “little pink pill,” the first prescription drug to boost women’s sex drive.
After two failed attempts, Addyi was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2015. Shortly after the approval, Valeant Pharmaceuticals bought Sprout for $1 billion and cut the Addyi salesforce. Valeant was in the midst of a drug-pricing scandal, and Whitehead stepped down as CEO.
The following year, she started The Pink Ceiling, and for now she’s staying in Raleigh.
“There’s a workforce, get-it-done mentality here that is very different than ‘I need to be the next unicorn,’ and I think that’s refreshing,” she said. “I don’t think the next billion-dollar idea is coming out of Silicon Valley. It’s coming out of a place like Raleigh.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler