[Women in Healthcare] Ursula Hessenflow: Safe Is Sexy

January 25, 2019


Ursula is Co-founder of myLAB Box, the first online service that allows members to take control of their sexual health by testing for STDs and related conditions from the comfort of home (http://www.mylabbox.com).


As a graduate of USC’s Marshall School of Business, Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Ursula draws from over 18 years of experience in marketing, product development, project and operations management to build digital start-ups into growing enterprises. As part of her Founding roles at digital agency A Hundred Years and video marketing pioneer Channel Factory, she led digital initiatives for NASA’s Spitzer Telescope, Sony Electronics, Coca Cola, Boost Mobile, Sony Entertainment and numerous Fortune 100 brands.

Sophie: I can’t believe no one had created a company focused on easy, convenient, at-home STI/STD tests before myLAB Box! Why do you think this is?


UH: When we first started myLAB Box, all the large healthcare players told us it wouldn’t work — that people wanted to go to their doctor to test for STDs. I think this was the general sentiment at the time and we proved them wrong! My co-founder, Lora, and I met one day for coffee and we were both single at the time and talked about a number of things including dating and the importance of getting tested for STDs. We decided to start myLAB Box with the goal of removing the fear, stigma and inconvenience of clinical appointments — two of what we found to be the largest barriers to testing — through an at-home model.


The creation of myLAB Box was motivated by our own experiences and our eagerness to find a solution to a problem which seems to have remained a puzzle for educators, health providers and the public alike.


Sophie: Why was it important to you to start this company and offer this service?


UH: As challenging as it is to bring up the topic of STDs with a new partner, even more concerning is that as a whole, people in America are simply not testing enough, if at all! Less than half of adults 18-44 have ever been screened for anything other than HIV, leaving the vast majority of infections undetected.


Contrary to being one of the most developed and influential countries in the world, the US is suffering STI/STD rates with unprecedented epidemic proportions. One in two sexually active people will contract an STI by age 25, which is unacceptable by any standard.


Sophie: Care to share any lessons learnt for fellow female founders?


UH: If you have the drive to create something that makes a difference in the world, go for it! However, don’t expect it to be easy or happen overnight. There will be a lot of blood, sweat and tears shed, so make sure you choose something that you are passionate about.


As female founders, we do experience unique challenges with sexism that is sometimes overt and sometimes unintentional, as most investors and most boardrooms still consist of mostly men. One of my fellow female founders actually has a pitch deck geared for men and a pitch deck geared to women, which I think is brilliant! The good news is there is so much more support for female founders now than there was even four years ago when we started myLAB Box, including funds and investors that focus entirely on female-founded companies.


Lastly, choose your co-founders wisely. You will spend a lot of time in the trenches with your team. Make sure that you complement each other, that you actually like being together and you have a solid foundation of trust.


Sophie: Have you received any unexpected reactions to your product or mission?


UH: myLAB Box was first to ever offer at-home STD testing nationwide. As such, we initially faced a fair share of curiosity and even skepticism from some of the medical community. Rather than seeing this as a challenge, however, we saw it as an opportunity. We designed our service to not only make testing private and convenient but to also provide a superior level of care on-demand.


Sophie: How are you addressing or planning to tackle the other major obstacle to that awkward conversation with a new sexual partner: stigma?


UH: Our goal with myLAB Box is to create the experience of taking care of your sexual health as “sexy.” Hence our slogan — Safe is Sexy. We even created the Love Box for partners to test together. By removing all the awkwardness and shame around testing and allowing partners to test together privately, we believe we are opening up a whole new conversation that encourages openness and honesty around sexual health status.


Sophie: Have you found ways to help make myLAB Box accessible for people who need your tests but may not be able to afford them?


UH: myLAB Box was designed to address all populations with an affordable and convenient service, including many groups cited by the CDC with the fastest rising rates of infection. Our tests are priced to be about half the cost of going to a clinic, retail lab or physician’s office and start at just $79 for an individual test. We do offer discounts, run promotions and offer reduced rates for re-testing and regular testing to help keep our service as affordable as possible while still providing a safe, easy to use and accurate service.


We also partner with many non-profit organizations to offer free testing to people who can’t afford to test. In fact, this month through February 25, as an effort to spread the word about cervical health, we are offering 10 percent off of at-home cervical cancer screening tests when people use the discount code fightcancer10 at mylabbox.com. For every test purchased, one free cervical cancer/HPV kit will also be donated to our cancer prevention partners, The National LGBT Cancer Network and The Rural Cancer Prevention Center. In addition, myLAB Box is also partnering with transgender activist Buck Angel, who will help to spread the word about the importance of regular cervical cancer screenings.


Sophie: What worries you most about the current state of American healthcare as it pertains to reproductive health?


UH: There have definitely been some good efforts by various organizations and the sex educator community to make conversations around STIs and overall sexual health more accessible. But when it comes to evaluating those efforts, the numbers speak louder than anything. With one in three Americans affected by an STI today and trends on the incline, we cannot ignore the fact that the tried and true methods for approaching the matter are simply not working as effectively as they should.


A major factor is the lack of consistent sex education in schools at the age where young adults become sexually active and are at the highest risk. Sex talk can be taboo even for adults making people less likely to discuss safe sex with partners. But perhaps most dangerous is the lack of routine STD screenings. Less than half of adults ages 18-44 in the US have ever tested for anything other than HIV, which comprises less than one percent (0.2 percent) of new STIs, leaving the vast majority of infections undetected.


At myLAB Box we combine information resources and education with routine testing and access to treatment options in one easy, simple and private solution. The only way we can truly make a difference is by taking a new and fresh approach — one in which education and testing go hand in hand and where sex health becomes just a part of overall health.


Sophie: What’s next on the roadmap for myLAB Box? What’s your long-term vision for the company?


UH: With several initiatives underway, our team today is focusing on ways to further reduce testing costs, improve access to testing as well as empower each customer to customize his or her screening practice based on lifestyle. We want to make screening as easy and carefree as possible so it can become just a part of regular personal hygiene, which we feel is the only way to encourage more people to test and curb the spread of disease.


Sophie: Counter to the common idea that being a woman is an obstacle in business, your SWAAY interview mentions that being female founders was an asset for you and your co-founder, Lora Ivanova. Could you tell us about that?


UH: We are proud of the fact that there isn’t a lot of support for female entrepreneurs, in many ways because it is more uncommon, and it’s actually become an asset for us to leverage. That’s why we chose to become certified as a women-owned business. This has gotten us in the door of big retailers such as Walmart. In fact, over 20 percent of our initial investors were women! We are also backed by a number of investors that support women-owned businesses, like Pipeline Angels, who believe in the mission of decreasing the gender gap in the world of business.


Sophie: How can our readers help support your mission?


UH: Talking about sex and STDs has long been taboo in the United States, especially given the amount of religious conservative influence in state and federal government. But study after study shows that limiting people’s knowledge and access to comprehensive sexual healthcare can lead to negative outcomes. Plus, the increase of online dating is predicted to up the likelihood of an STD by as much as three times.


I think your readers can help support our mission by spreading the word about myLAB Box and how we’re opening up conversations around sexual health and disrupting the medical testing market. The STI/STD rates continue to increase year over year and it’s important for each of us to take on regular screenings for ourselves and encourage all of our partners to test prior to entering into new relationships.


Sophie: How do you take care of yourself so you can continue to put 100 percent into your work?


UH: For me, it’s critical that I exercise in the morning to wake up my body and have a clear mind. I also participate in courses and coaching that encourage me to grow and develop myself as a leader and human being out to make a difference in the world.


About the author:

Anne-Sophie Bousset ("Sophie" to English-speaking friends), is a freelance marketer and community builder. She helps companies build their brand, attract clients, and build a community around their product. Her favorite things include sunshine, yoga, reading, and lazy Sundays in with her cat, Phelps. She can be found on Twitter @Sophie_Bousset.

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