After her studies, Gabrielle Lods knew quite quickly that she wasn’t made for a corporate life and wanted to have a real impact on this planet. Today, she is a successful professional in e-commerce and runs two online businesses, The Green Condom Club and Sustain a Bum. In this interview, you will find out how she came to do this, read about her definition of sustainability and what she thinks is important when running your own business.
How was your cold swim in the lake this morning? Very brave of you, I have to say. (It was February when this was recorded.)
It was great, it was not so much a swim as a dip. If you have the technique down, it works quite well.
Sustainable diapers and condoms – What’s the story behind these beautiful ideas?
In 2008, I read this book called “The 4-hour Work Week” by Tim Ferriss. It’s quite old now, but some of the concepts are still interesting. It showed how you could set up a business that doesn’t take too much time and how you can automate a variety of steps. I thought that maybe one day I’ll do that. It sounded like an appealing idea. So when I was looking for a project to start with I kept those principles in mind. But I didn’t really want to sell useless products, but rather something that would make the world a better place, because I always cared about sustainability. This is also due to the way I was brought up: my mum is a biologist, I spent my days outside in nature and was raised to be conscious about the environment and climate change.
I graduated from ETH in 2010. At the beginning of 2011, I joined the company DuPont. There, I was only executing other people’s ideas and that drove me nuts. I desperately asked for a project of my own for months and it did not happen. So I told myself that either I quit or I do something on the side as I had no agency over what I was doing or where I was headed.
The cloth diapers
I knew I wanted to do something towards fixing the problem, as opposed to creating new ones. I noticed that a large number of solutions existed which were available already, but they were either not sexy or no one knew about them. Out of all the options there were at the time, I chose cloth diapers. I did this for several reasons: it is a non-perishable good, it’s easy to transport, it doesn’t break, it doesn’t contain electronics and it doesn’t age so much. When I started, there were only a few brands and they were rather ugly, so I found that there was potential for differentiation. I looked for a supplier, built an e-commerce website – I had no clue what I was doing, I did not learn any of these things during my studies. I had one class on entrepreneurship that wasn’t about entrepreneurship at all. I just gave it a go.
The condom thing started as a joke. After the diapers, I also started selling menstrual cups and I was looking for something to sell for men. I thought that if there was something that they were lacking, I should start offering it in the same spirit. It’s not as easy to find. And because my previous products were located somewhere “between the stomach and the legs”, someone suggested to check out condoms. I found that to be an interesting idea. So I tried to find out what condoms are made of. All I knew at that point was that they are made of latex. After some research I realized that the manufacturers were quite non-transparent about the components and the production process. Being a chemical engineer of course helped me understand the important things. During my research I found a couple of brands that were really progressive when it came to the components they use. So I started working with an Australian-based company called Glyde. In the beginning, I just bought a small amount from them. At the same time, I did a survey to find out if there is any interest around buying condoms without toxic chemicals. The premise was to have a subscription-based model on a monthly basis. 250 people answered the survey with massive amounts of positive feedback. The pricing also seemed right.
So I built a small website and contacted some journalists. I was curious to see what would happen next. It took me approximately two months (absolutely not full time!), around 200 bucks, and a testing phase. I got a lot of exposure, built some partnerships, opened an e-commerce shop online to sell the condoms outside of the subscription model.
I got some big orders and that led me to starting my own brand (Green Condom Club).
You normally have a minimum order quantity with suppliers. So you cannot just go to a factory and order, for example, 36 pieces. They might sell them to you but that would be at wholesale pricing and you’d completely miss out on the effect of economy of scale. So I started my own brand with my own formulation, found a factory that was willing to do what I had in mind and got rolling.
Did you experience a certain point in life when it really clicked, when you knew that you had to change something? What did you feel at that moment?
I was just so bored with my job. I just knew that I couldn’t continue this way, that if this is how life should be, it was not going to work. I needed to have a meaningful project. I thought: “That can’t be all there is.” It’s not very glamorous. It’s not that I woke up one morning screaming: “Oh my god, I have the best idea ever”. I think it’s rarely how that goes.
«You just need to start! You can research for thousands of years, but the only way you‘re going to have impact is if you actually do something.»
For me, it’s really about giving it a go. Ideas are not really the problem. But: you can have an excellent idea but shitty execution. And then no one wants to buy anything from you. For me it’s really about trying and testing, and then seeing what people say. And you might need to leave it and offer something else which people actually need. You just need to start! You can research for thousands of years, but the only way you‘re going to have impact is if you actually do something.
What do you like most about your life as an entrepreneur in sustainability?
I can decide everything. It’s really great for me to have the ability to get all the facts, to have the strategic vision, and to decide what makes sense and what doesn’t. However, there is a downside: I really have to decide everything, which can be overwhelming at times.
Another thing is that I can organise my days and weeks to my taste, and I am not accountable to anyone when it comes to working hours, which is very precious. The regular nine to five is not necessarily the time when I’m the most productive. Then again, there is the downside that no one will come and kick your ass. You have to understand how you function as a person and what it is that you need in order to perform. And build your life around that. In regular society, you have routines (working hours, your desk, etc.). You have a lot of things that give you a kind of frame to act within, and as an entrepreneur, you have to build that frame yourself. If you don’t, you‘re going to be all over the place and burn out.
When people start out, they are like: “Yay, I can work whenever.” But when you sit there at 3 AM and still haven’t designed your website, what does this say about your work-life balance? If you’re aware of that, then you will be able to be mindful about it and pay attention.
What does sustainability mean to you personally?
We are eight billion people on one planet. We’ve been using resources at an alarming rate, way beyond the planet’s capacity to replenish those resources. If you look at it from a systemic perspective, you can’t have infinite growth in that system. To me, sustainability is finding a way to lastingly ensure that everyone has room on the planet, so we don’t make ourselves disappear.
What are changes you think everyone can implement in their lives. Where can people start acting in a more sustainable way?
Right now, most of the pollution is caused by industry. But many people in the media, and also in politics, state that it’s an individual change. In my opinion, that won’t be enough. And we actually know that. We won’t stop climate change just by not using plastic straws at Starbucks. For me, there is this huge discrepancy between everyone trying to reduce waste – and by no means do I criticise the people that do this, I think that it’s a necessary step – but it’s not enough at all.
And if you really want to make a difference, force your banks, force your institutions, force your pension plan to divest themselves of fossil fuels. Go to climate strikes in order to force your government to implement harder objectives in laws related to emissions. We really need to have a systemic change.
This is way beyond consumer habits, because at the end of the day, people have basic needs and they’ll buy from the outlets in place, such as Migros and Coop in Switzerland. Sure, they can buy zero-plastic or in bulk, but if both of these supermarkets suddenly sold things without packaging and sourced everything locally, then no one would have a choice.
As much as I appreciate the fact that people make lifestyle changes, it needs to go way beyond that. It needs to come from both sides. The amount of effort we invest should be proportional to the amount of emissions. For example, if we know that the transport industry could omit those massive cargo boats (15 of these mega ships emit as much pollution as the total number of cars in the world), then we need to fix that issue first. And we need to put pressure on the people who actually have the power to change something.
You already gave a lot of advice regarding entrepreneurship in the course of this interview. Can you think of specific tips for women that want to start their own business?
Yes, I have plenty of tips. When I started doing my own thing, I noticed that many men – and I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean anything by it – were very eager to tell me what I should and shouldn’t be doing and how I should be doing it. And having spoken to a lot of entrepreneurs both male and female, there is a large number of female entrepreneurs that had this experience. I don’t want to generalise too much of course, but the number of guys that went through this seems to be a lot smaller. I don’t think it doesn’t happen to them, but way less. What I found worked for that is to first gain confidence in myself and my research, because at the end of the day it’s my business, so for whoever else comes in with ideas that are not well-researched and, excuse my French, obviously pulled out of their asses, I have learned to nod politely at first and then ignore them. Having said that, I’ve also met people with in-depth industry knowledge who offered suggestions, and in that case, it has always been very valuable. So it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
My current approach in regard to unsolicited advice by someone is to thank them, ask for their help and invite them for the next morning to give their input. Usually – and again, I do not want to generalise – people who just want to hear themselves talk; they’ll likely find excuses and not show up to do the work. But some people might even join and that’s great.
Being a woman who sells condoms (there are not that many of us in the industry), it comes with an entire host of side effects, especially when I go out. People will proposition you or start telling you everything about their sex lives. My tip for that, depending on where I’m going, is to not specify the goods that I’m selling and just say that I work in e-commerce or hygiene. That works great if I don’t know people. Sometimes friends are very eager to introduce me as the “condom lady”, which is meant very well, but it can backfire. So being vague about the business can help.
Another thing: try to find other female founders that are in a similar field. Join meetups, Facebook groups, go to industry events. There you can meet women that already have more experience, who are more senior and who may have been through similar things as you, or even through worse situations, because they did it even earlier, when the social climate was not as woke as it is now (even though we still have a long way to go). All of that can be a great source of inspiration.
Now it’s time for your personal statement. What do you want to tell the world?
Many things: just do it – like Nike says – be mindful of your mental health, breathe and find your way!