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the ladder

Chia Chia Sun launched Damiva because she was frustrated that she couldn’t find any good products to treat vaginal dryness.JENNIFER ROBERTS

Chia Chia Sun, 46, is chief executive officer of Toronto-based Damiva, a women's health company that makes natural menopausal products.

I have three graduate degrees: a master's in genetics, a master's in bioethics and an MBA in corporate finance. My career has been spent in the pharmaceutical industry, including a role as the vice-president of a Canadian boutique life sciences [company, as well as] management consulting firms, whose U.S. clients included Wyeth-Pfizer, Merck, and Johnson & Johnson. My last role was head of Canadian operations for a Danish pharmaceutical company. Because of my background, the transition to the CEO role of a women's health company was not too bumpy in most functional areas, such as supply chain, manufacturing and regulatory issues.

My leadership philosophy is to identify strengths and problems. I believe that everyone – even my dog, who is training to be a therapy dog – needs a growth plan. I work very hard to ensure that my team grows individually and together as a company. I help set personal goals, and we have quarterly strategy and alignment meetings because we are growing so rapidly. I also believe that complacency makes things worse, so I address problems right away. If they don't resolve with feedback and a plan, I terminate [the employee] quickly.

A huge part of what we do is talk about menopause. About 25 per cent of the world's population is in perimenopause [the stage just before menopause] or menopause, but no one realizes this due to the taboos and denial. Women don't want to admit that they are in perimenopause or menopause, and therefore can't begin to address the symptoms. If we can educate and improve the lives of even a small portion of our target demographic – by making products, educating and breaking down taboos – then we will have done our job.

I launched Damiva because I was frustrated that there weren't any good vaginal [dryness] products in the marketplace. After learning that menopause lasts for the rest of my life, I wanted something safe and effective because I knew I would be using it for 30 years. So my business and life partner, Gardiner Smith, and I co-invented a 100-per-cent natural vaginal lubricant, Mae by Damiva, named after Mae West. It is launched in most major pharmacies across Canada.

My advisers gave me the confidence to be a tech CEO. To give some context, I only got onto Facebook in January of 2015 because I figured I had to learn something about social media for the business. So I'm a bit of a Luddite and went from knowing nothing to raising money for a new, expanded vision of how to tackle the gaps in menopausal information. Ken Teslia, a board member and investor with experience in the tech arena, is advising us as we build a unique digital-health platform for menopause, launching in October. Think of it like a period tracker but for menopause. His guidance, as well as support and investment from [his venture capital firm] Extreme Ventures taught me that my scientific knowledge, paired with technology, could fill a massive void.

The worst advice I received was to "dumb down" our message. The advice came from the CEO of a company with a billion-dollar brand. We were going to partner with them and sell in the U.S. via infomercials. We abandoned this strategy earlier this year because it didn't resonate with our brand and our customer base. Our experience with our customers tells us that women need a trusted retail pharmacy outlet to buy vaginal products, not infomercials, where they buy gadgets. Dumbed-down marketing is not appropriate for our customers, who are savvy, health-smart, older women.

The best advice I received was on retail margin expectations.The retail selling part was a huge learning curve. I didn't even know how to price products. One of my advisers, John Marley, who is the national sales manager for Clorox and [formerly of] Burt's Bees, worked with us on the formula for a successful consumer and retail pricing model.

Our brand's goal is to make menopause fun. We work hard at being fun with our brand voice and messaging. We sit around a lot and just brainstorm crazy, goofy slogans and hope that there will be a few that will be brilliant and get people fired up. We laugh a lot together as a team – it's in the Damiva DNA and culture to be funny.

As told to Leah Eichler. This interview has been edited and condensed.