Anne Fulenwider Demystifies Menopause
STARTUP
February 24, 2023
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Anne Fulenwider is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Alloy Women’s Health. She is a former magazine editor and a believer in the power of storytelling. She began her career at the literary magazine The Paris Review, spent ten years at Vanity Fair editing such writers as Carl Bernstein and Dominick Dunne, and in 2009, was named editor-in-chief of Marie Claire, overseeing all content and brand extensions in the United States.

While at Marie Claire, she became the mentor on Project Runway Allstars, served as a judge for the Pulitzer Prizes, and launched a conference for entrepreneurs called The Power Trip. Fulenwider has interviewed women including Melinda Gates, Mindy Kaling, Tracee Ellis Ross, Naomi Campbell, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Anne Wojicki on stages such as the Makers Conference and South by Southwest. After her mother died of a sudden heart attack in 2016, Fulenwider became motivated to make an impact in women’s health. Inspired by all the women she’s met who are building a better world for women by disrupting industries, she became an entrepreneur herself in 2020, joining Monica Molenaar to change the conversation around women’s post-reproductive health. Anne is a graduate of Harvard University and lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, two teenagers, and a Cavapoo.


Alloy started to help the 47 million women entering menopause around the world each year. How did you find this market opportunity and what drove you to take the first steps in creating your business?

My friend Monica Molenaar Monica had her ovaries removed when she was 40 because she was BRCA positive, and went into surgical menopause overnight. She had an insanely hard time finding the right solutions, and had to go to about five doctors in five years to finally start feeling like herself again. Right before I met Monica, my mother had died of a sudden heart attack, my daughter was going through a few health issues of her own, and I just had this realization that women’s healthcare is kind of a mess. We did a story at Marie Claire called “Being a Woman is Killing You” about all the mishaps in diagnoses that happen because most of medical science is based on men’s bodies. And I was so inspired by all the female entrepreneurs we were covering at Marie Claire. So when Monica came to me with this idea to start a menopause business, I jumped. I don’t think I knew what I was getting into– no idea that three years later we would have a national online telehealth and pharmacy business, but I think that naivete was probably helpful. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you just plow ahead.

As your business has expanded and menopause has become a hot startup space, what are you learning that’s changing and evolving how you think about your company?

Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned is that when you are essentially creating a new market, the rising tide literally does lift all boats. In media, we were all competing so hard for the same advertising dollars, so the success of someone else quite literally meant fewer ad dollars for you. But in creating a category of online menopause care, absolutely anyone else out there who is talking about it is helping to educate our market.


I spend all day in menopause world, thinking everyone knows all about it and there are so many of us, etc., but then I go on a girls weekend with my college friends and literally no one has heard of any of us. So if there are three other companies out there advertising on instagram telling women they can get menopause treatment online, that actually helps us.

It’s a totally different way of thinking about business and I had to unlearn a lot of the competitive behaviors that are common practice in magazines. Not to say I’m not competitive! I just don’t waste time thinking about everyone else.

What is the biggest myth, in your experience, about menopause in general?

The biggest myth by far is that estrogen is dangerous. We have estrogen receptors in every cell of our body, so at menopause, when the ovaries stop producing estrogen, everything is affected– yes, our vaginas, but also our brains, our hearts, and our bones.


Everyone should read Sue Dominus’s recent, excellent, groundbreaking story in the New York Times, but, essentially, a study came out 20 years ago that caused a great deal of fear out there about putting a little estrogen back into your body to keep everything going. It turns out that the fear of breast cancer was unfounded– when re-examined over 20 years, those data actually show that the women in that study who took estrogen alone had a 30% lower risk of breast cancer.

And more and more studies have shown that continuing to expose your body to estrogen as you age has very protective effects on your bones, your heart, and your brain. The damage done to women’s health overall by that study in the last 20 years is immeasurable. Peter Attia calls it “hands down the biggest screw up of the entire medical field in the last 25 years.”

What has your experience been like working with a co-founder? Is there anything you know now that you would have done differently in the early stages of your business?

Working with a co-founder has been absolutely invaluable. I can see why everyone does it! Being the head of an organization, as I was at Brides and Marie Claire for many years, can be extremely lonely. Having a co-founder to bounce things off of, commiserate with, measure the pros and cons of something, and share wins with is the best. I think it also allows you to make better decisions because you get to try them out on each other first.

As for what I know now that I would have done differently, I've learned a TON along the way, including, and I’ve learned this again and again, but more intensely every time: to trust your gut, especially if you have the same nagging feeling about something over and over, tand o make swift decisions with the information available at the time, even if you don't have all the information you think you need. For example, early on we partnered with a back-end vendor, and we had months of difficult negotiations and a super hard time getting our working relationship off the ground, and for a while we just tried to force it to work. It didn't, and we ended it, but had we not been so wed to our original plan we would have ended it a lot sooner, which would have saved us a lot of money and time.

You started your career at the most prestigious literary magazines, what did that teach you about storytelling that you use now in your business?

I learned a lot about storytelling at The Paris Review, including that literature and stories are not some stuffy purview of English professors (which is basically what I learned in college), but that they’re for everyone, and that the more honest your story is, the more likely it is to be universal. But what I’ve learned throughout my career is that I just view the world in stories. It’s how I process everything I experience. And the ability to sense and read and translate everyone’s stories is what I think we’re bringing to women’s aging experience at Alloy.


Time and time again in our support groups we hear “Oh my God I thought I was alone,” or “I can’t believe everyone’s been experiencing this same thing and no one told me.”

And sure, because the rapid decline in estrogen affects each body slightly differently, every person’s specific menopause journey is unique, but there are about 34 main symptoms, and maybe you experience 3 or 4 different ones from me, but in the end the experience of suffering silently in our late 40s and 50s, being told it’s just aging, and being confused by what doctors are telling you, that’s universal to women my age, and there is great comfort in learning that. And by the way, it’s not the doctors’ fault– they weren’t taught the accurate science about treatment, but they also haven’t been taught to look out for this concert of symptoms and think about perimenopause or menopause, and that is essentially a storytelling failure.

Who are women you really admire right now?

I really love what Tracee Ellis Ross is doing about hair. I found out while I was at Marie Claire that hair is an extremely emotional topic for absolutely everyone, and the airtime she’s giving to the specific hair issues of women of color is just magnificent. I love Jill Biden for working in education full time as First Lady, and I love Jacinda Arden for deciding to leave her post as Prime Minister of New Zealand. I’ve read that there were many factors going into that decision, and I’m sure we’ll never know the whole story, but I took it as a great signal that external success is really not all there is, and certainly not in a working mom’s life.

What is one thing you cannot live without?

Hmmm so many. Coffee. Bioderma facial cleanser, and, now, my Alloy M4 Estriol Face cream!


What is one trend that you see on the horizon that you think everyone should be paying attention to?


Women in their 50s (and beyond) are going to start feeling a lot better, and a lot stronger, en masse, and when they have gotten enough sleep, don’t feel like shit all the time, and are no longer dismissed, I can’t wait to see what happens!
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