Originally published November 9, 2016.
Maxie Matthiessen and Emily Casey are breaking the taboo surrounding female health. With much of medicine traditionally tested on men, these women wanted to find healthy and effective alternatives for women. Their online shop offers natural solutions for PMS, periods, the female libido and in the future, pregnancy and lactating, while also encouraging women, men and society to speak openly about the female body. In their own words, "No woman should feel ashamed to be a woman for any reason, in front of anyone."
What was your motivation for starting Femna?
Before founding Femna, I founded the award winning social enterprise Ruby Cup. Ruby Cup is a menstrual cup - a natural, hygienic and environmentally friendly alternative to tampons and pads. During that time, I noticed a huge gap in the market for natural products targeted at women’s health. I personally tried tea for my menstrual cramps and had a very good experience as I no longer dependent on popping pills. But these alternatives were not easily accessible online. So I wanted to bring herbal products for women into the digital age. And I wanted to make it sexy, not witch-crafty style, like “I pray to the moon and will be saved” kinda style. That’s why Emily Casey, my business partner, and I, decided to create Femna. Femna is a lifestyle platform for natural female health.
Can you tell us a little more about the research on gender medicine that inspired you?
In medicine, men are often used for clinical trials because their bodies are more homogenous than women. Women go through hormonal stages and cycles, which might impact the result of a medical study. So, medicine is typically tested on men but recent research has shown that women react to medicine quite differently than their male counterparts and also show different symptoms when getting ill.
The clearest example is heart attacks - men generally are more likely to suffer from a heart attack, but compared to women, they have a higher chance of surviving. It’s becoming clear that women actually have different symptoms to men and so it’s more difficult to diagnose a heart attack in a woman early on and give her a better chance of survival. Men usually present with chest pain, whereas women will often present with feeling unusually fatigued or having sleep disturbances. Acknowledging that men and women have different needs is what inspired us to start a female-focused health shop which really gets to the needs of women.
Words like menstruation and ovaries are still taboo - in your opinion, what needs to happen for society to speak openly about women’s health?
I think we should just call a spade a spade and an ovary an ovary. Talking openly about it definitely helps. Fu Yuanhui, the Chinese swimmer who announced to the world that she had her period whilst competing, is a great example of breaking the taboo of talking about periods.
And also acknowledging that periods and hormones affect women differently. Some women feel dizzy, others feel pain, again others are just fine.
How exactly are your products developed?
We develop our products in close cooperation with leading experts in the field from various backgrounds. They assist with formulations and come from different backgrounds so that we can offer a well-rounded approach to female health. All our products are made in Germany and we have chosen a design that shows the main ingredients on the front label. Because we find herbs beautiful. And they are in fact very powerful. For example, on our libido tea “Sex Machine” the main ingredient is Damiana, a natural aphrodisiac and the front label shows a drawing of the damiana plant. Or our "Sleep Well" roll-on containing lavender and marjoram, where lavender is depicted on the label.
Time for some insider advice, what are some of your favorite products or natural remedies for dealing with PMS?
Well there actually are 4 different PMS Types. Type A (the agitated, mood swing type),Type D (the depressed type), Type C (feeling cravings), and Type H (feeling bloated). Of course, many women, get a combination of the four, which is why we also offer products for general PMS. On our website, you can take a test on which PMS type you are and based on that we recommend the right product for you. Check it out!
This is your second startup focusing on women’s health, what advice would you give other social entrepreneurs?
First, in Germany, we have a tendency to be very risk averse. We are being told by our parents to find a “normal” job. But what does a normal job actually mean? Studying economics and then working for an insurance company? That path certainly fits some people but if you want to create something on your own, follow your intuition and your own path. I believe that everybody carries their own solution within.
I try to not look at what other people do or what I should do, but what I would like to do. That said, it’s easier said than done. Having support from your family and friends can definitely help you through hard times.
Second, endurance. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Building a business takes time. So you need to be patient, work hard, show endurance and be prepared that being an entrepreneur comes with a lot of responsibility, a lot of pressure and weight on your shoulders. But at the same time it is the most rewarding thing in the world to do (for me at least).
What’s next for Femna?
In the short run, we want to develop a natural pregnancy line. Herbal products that are safe to take during pregnancy and while lactating. At the same time, we would like to continuously improve our existing products, gather more feedback from customers and engage in partnerships with retailers.
In the long run, we want to be the leading European platform for natural female health.
What makes you a changer?
Seeing a problem and figuring out a way to solve it.
At femna, we break the taboo surrounding female health in well-being. You’re on your period? Well, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Sweating during menopause? Fertility problems? A huge stigma! Let’s talk about it because at least 50% of the world’s population are feeling these things at some point and the men in their lives are not immune either- we especially want men to be part of this conversation. No woman should feel ashamed to be a woman for any reason, in front of anyone.
Second, we raise awareness about the fact that women “are not just men with boob and tubes”. Women react different to medicine than men and show different symptoms.
Third, we are re-thinking the ways people look at health. Our approach is one that we call Salutogenesis instead of pathogenesis. Instead of asking what makes us sick, like the latter school of thought, we ask: what keeps us healthy. And how do we maintain a lifestyle that keeps us healthy and happy.