Pure Genius

Q&A: Why Bay Area hipsters and women in Swaziland use the same condom

Q&A: Why Bay Area hipsters and women in Swaziland use the same condom

Posting in Design | From Issue 19 June 2 & 9, 2014

Buy a condom, donate a condom may seem like an absurdist take on philanthropy. But L. founder Talia Frenkel is deadly serious about both disrupting the condom industry, and saving lives.

Sexy and socially conscious hipsters in New York City and San Francisco, take note: You can now get a bike messenger to deliver you a non-toxic condom tastefully wrapped in black-on-black packaging within the hour. Even better, you can seal the deal with your socially conscious lover by telling him or her that because of your purchase, a woman in Africa will get a condom, too.

This sexy philanthropy may seem like an absurdist take on the one-for-one trend, in which one purchase funds one donation elsewhere. But L. founder Talia Frenkel is deadly serious about both disrupting the condom industry, and saving lives.

Formerly a photojournalist, Frenkel founded L. in 2010 with the aim of getting condoms into the hands of disadvantaged consumers in developing countries. At the same time, she redesigned this FDA-regulated product to be glycerin- and paraben-free, made out of 100% natural latex. In February, L.'s cheeky video commercial showing a confident but sensitive man bandaging a puppy's foot, drinking whiskey, gathering lavender and stocking his camping tent up with L. condoms exploded across the internet, with 394,000 views.

Now, you can find the sleek, little black packages in boutique hotels, on Amazon, in California CVS stores, online at the L. website in subscription form, and in the hands of empowered women in Uganda and Swaziland. And Frenkel says their monthly sales have gone up 500 percent since the same time last year.

We talked with Frenkel about why she chose manufacturing condoms for a career, how she's trying to change condom culture in the United States and Africa, and how L. fits in with modern feminism.

So how did you end up starting a one-for-one condom company?

My background is in photojournalism, not in consumer packaged goods. I was actually working as a photographer for the Red Cross and the United Nations documenting disasters and humanitarian crises throughout the world, flying at the last moment to photograph a tsunami or fire or earthquake or flood, mostly in developing countries. It wasn't until I photographed the effects of HIV and AIDS on women and girls, that I was documenting a preventable disaster.

When we talk about a condom, this is a product that has innumerable effects on people's lives. It's the most effective way to prevent the transmission of HIV. AIDS is still the number one killer of women of reproductive age--globally, not just in Africa. So, it's very much a women's issue. Maternal death is the second biggest killer of women age 15 to 44. The number one reason girls drop out of school is pregnancy. Condoms have the power to prevent that. So a condom is a really powerful product that has the power to transform lives and communities and nations.

But countries in Sub-Saharan Africa go through condom stock-outs for two to three months at a time. Right now there's a condom stock-out in Cuba. So this is an issue.

I came back to U.S. and saw a lack of innovation in the condom market here, from the branding that felt very warlike, to ingredients in the products offered. There was room to create a product that would be better.

L. condoms

There's a lot of one-for-one companies out there right now. How does yours compare?

There's been some criticism in the past of one-for-one companies being culturally insensitive or disrupting the local economy with their product. But because of my non-profit background, I was really sensitive to how we build the capacity of the organizations who are already doing incredible work on the ground. I didn't want to come in, drop off condoms and hope for the best. I didn't want to see them left in a warehouse or even stored in a clinic. That's not that effective or innovative of a method of distribution.

We wanted to focus as a company not just on our outputs but on our outcomes. When I talked to program officers on the ground and did my due diligence, I learned that the best way to do that was to create income-generating activities for women who are paid as healthcare providers and have an incentive to educate their peers in the process, while making a living for themselves. When a woman becomes a breadwinner, she ultimately has more of a say in key decision-making, such as negotiating condom use. To me that was a truly holistic approach.

So you train women who then hand them out?

Well, that's one approach. There isn't one AIDS epidemic in Africa; there are hundreds. Different solutions work more effectively in different areas.

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In Uganda, we partnered with a local organization, BRAC, who is training women to be health care providers. By offering them that training, they then become equipped with a skill, then by providing them with condoms, they can sell them in communities at below-market cost. They're educating their peers on why this is so important, they are creating a living for themselves, and they are creating a long-term distribution channel. BRAC is one of my favorite organizations. They are technically the largest non-profit organization in the world, because they employ so many local women. They are doing phenomenal work.

That's the process in Uganda, but it's different in Swaziland, which has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world. There, what we found was most important was to create income-generating condoms for HIV-positive women who were too weak to be involved in other kinds of labor. There is also a huge taboo with condom use. So they are repackaging our condoms in artwork created by artists to remove that stigma, much like branding and marketing in the U.S. There we found it was more effective to distribute them free of charge.

Have you seen any of the impact in person?

When I went to Swaziland, I met this woman with the nickname Number One, she was one of the distributors, an HIV-positive woman. She was all smiles, so excited, to meet with her peers and talk about this and be open about condom use. It was very humbling for me to watch, and energized me to come back and scale this and find more women like Number One working in other communities, who just need support.

L. condoms class

What is it like to be a female in the condom and sexual health product industry?

It's definitely had its challenges, especially in the beginning walking into a manufacturing facility, I remember being like, "I'm the CEO, I swear!"

It's sometimes a little bit challenging to be taken seriously. You just have to realize that that's an advantage. There's a high, high percentage of women who are making these consumer-packaged purchasing decisions in stores. But the percentage of women-owned companies, or companies with women on the board, is insanely low, at 4 percent. Women aren't designing the products that women are purchasing. Women are not involved in manufacturing or packaging. That was shocking to me.

We're offering a product that truly takes women into account. It's looking at the ingredients, and thinking about how does this affect a women's body? The question of being paraben-free--why is this important? How does the quality of the latex itself, or the presence of protein, affect a women's body specifically? How does our brand resonate or not resonate with women?

That's to say, all of our branding is black and white. It's not super feminine or flowery. We're not going for conventional stereotypes of what's feminine. Rather, how can we be thoughtful about our approach and not exclude women from the conversation?

The existing branding is very loud and colorful and with names like Trojan, Armour, Charged, Fire and Ice. I don't want to say it's surprising that sex is being marketed through conquest.

The Trojans literally raped and pillaged a city.

[Editor's note: It was the Greeks who tricked the Trojans, not the other way around.]

Yeah, they tricked their way into an impenetrable city. And then ravaged it. It's not a great message or brand for sex-positive women. And definitely not for men who truly respect women. It doesn't resonate with the modern view of sexuality. It didn't resonate with me either. I thought, why isn't there something more sleek, sophisticated, I guess just more modern that isn't such a turnoff?

In general, even the purple Her Pleasures, I think women see beyond that. Men see beyond that. These are the kind of products that men can feel proud carrying, and that should be in every modern woman's purse.

Do you think that just putting a condom that is quietly sexy into a young male's hand as opposed to a Trojan Man condom could set the tone for a sexual experience?

I hope so. This is a product that socially conscious, environmentally conscious, globally aware people seek out. And we find those things very sexy. We've definitely gotten emails and comments before from men like, "Thanks for helping me close the deal." The condom you use should be in line with your lifestyle and outlook. And should say that you respect your partner.

Do you think that women are more concerned than men about toxins in their products, especially condoms?

I don't know. I do know that the issues with condoms are most often: they smell bad, they taste disgusting, they dry out, they irritate, and those are experienced by both men and women. And then there are issues like yeast infections and urinary tract infections that are primarily experienced by women. Products like L. help to solve those issues for women, while solving the other issues by providing better quality raw material and manufacturing them in a way that reduces latex scent and makes them skin-sensitive.

With your commercial, were you trying to reach men? Women? Both?

Both. We were really thinking about what we find sexy. It ties into the branding and storytelling that exists in the condom market. How do we support a dialogue about sex between men and women? There's very little conversation happening between men and women about it, even though it's a collaborative act between men and women usually.

It's masculine to care about women's bodies. It's masculine to care about sustainability. These things are as sexy as camping in the woods, and carrying an axe around and drinking whiskey. He's doing these super-masculine things while being sensitive and doing yoga.

What was the response?

It was amazing. When we launched the video, our site crashed. We never expected it to be that intense. But there were orders coming in left and right. It was really overwhelming.

This isn't just specific to condoms, it's across industries and products, this idea that the modern man is--what is the best way to put it?--constantly being redefined. There's a need to rethink what makes men sexy. We knew it was a little edgy coming out with, "Good men give a fuck." But the idea was that, it's not just about giving a fuck about developing countries, but give a fuck about your own health, give a fuck about women's health, give a fuck about the environment. This product is trying to encompass all that. That message resonated.

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Photos courtesy of L.

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Alden Wicker

Contributing Writer

Alden Wicker is a freelance writer and founder of EcoCult.com, an online magazine about all things sustainable in New York City. You can find her work in online media such as Refinery29, Well+Good, Huffington Post, Narratively, LearnVest, EcoSalon, xoJane, and Greatist. She currently lives in Manhattan, but is plotting her escape to Brooklyn. Her other passion--besides sustainable living and writing--is electronic music. If she could only find a way to marry the three, she would be a happy lady. Disclosure