There aren't enough women making decisions at supplement companies, and that hurts growth, advocates say

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Dietary supplement, Naomi whittel

Perhaps indicative of the problem, many stock photos on the subject of 'success' feature men.  iStock photo.
Perhaps indicative of the problem, many stock photos on the subject of 'success' feature men. iStock photo.
There aren’t as many women in decision making roles in at dietary supplement companies as some prominent women in the field thought might be the case when they first joined the field.

“I’ve taken quite a look at how we compare in terms of female representation and I think we are lower than some of the other consumer goods industries such as skin care,” ​ Twinlab Consolidation Corporation CEO Naomi Whittel told NutraIngredients-USA.“We’re in the middle and that’s not where I’d like us to be.”

“As far as I know it’s probably representative of the broader industrial sector in the United States. We certainly don’t have any more women; we may even have less,” ​said Suzanne Shelton, who is a principal in the marketing firm Shelton Group and has been active in various dietary supplement trade organization committees for many years.

“Several women I’ve known who’ve done quite well in the industry in building companies and have had significant impact eventually left because they felt that it was not an industry as open to equality in gender in leadership positions as they thought it would be. You would think in alternative health care that people would be open to other alternatives, too. It was an assumption I made and that a lot of my colleagues made and it was a myth,”​ Shelton said.

“I think this industry for all of its progressiveness in terms of alternative health approaches, it is behind the times in terms of inclusiveness. If you look at boards of directors at companies, if you look at boards at the trade organizations, it is almost all men sitting on those boards,”​ she added. 

Startups that hit the ceiling

Many dietary supplement products have had their genesis in the home, where mothers were struggling with how best to provide nutrition for themselves and their families, and sometimes for children with special needs. These ideas grew to become companies in a number of cases and one would think that stratum of female entrepreneurs would provide a talent pool for women in executive roles.

This is the path that Whittel herself took when she founded fast-growing Reserveage Nutrition, a product line originally based on her own health journey. The line was based at first on the benefits of resveratrol, one the main active components of red wine, and then branched out into other ingredients and products. The company was acquired last year by Twinlab and Whittel was named CEO of the combined entity following that transaction. Though Whittel broke through the glass ceiling, she said many female-run companies never do, and that reservoir of female entrepreneurial talent goes to waste.

“Studies have shown that 98% of women-owned businesses never get above $1 million in revenue. The research points to the challenges that women have around having the skill set to scale their businesses,” ​she said.  According to Forbes​ magazine, business started by men are 3.5 times more likely to break that barrier​.

Connecting with the consumer

For Whittel, this is not just a matter of civil rights; rather it’s just good business and all companies ought to be thinking hard about having more women in decision-making roles in this era of rapidly changing markets. She said research shows that when companies can reach a level of 33% or more female representation in the executive suites and in the boardroom, financial performance improves significantly.

“Our consumer is primarily female and connecting with that consumer and providing her with solutions is just good business. Our industry is a $39 billion industry in a country where more than 60% of the personal wealth is now controlled by women. Women make 85% of all purchasing decisions for their families, and when I see that we have fewer women in the industry than I think we should have, well, I want to see that increase because I think it will influence growth,” ​Whittel said.

Crafting a message for the female consumer

Having women around to speak to women is a key facet of proper messaging to the consumer.  Dr Susan Kleiner is a PhD nutritionist who advises female athletes and who at one time was developing a sports nutrition supplement brand of her own. Over the years she said she has seen how male-dominated sports nutrition supplement companies have taken an approach to connecting with their female customers that can only be described as ham-fisted. Or worse.

“The sports performance side has not been focused on women, period. They haven’t connected with female customers except in terms of weight loss. I’ve seen the messages they use; they’re terrible. They’re misogynistic and they’re demeaning,”​ Kleiner said.

Kleiner related the experience a client of hers had when signing up for her first half marathon. She accessed a website from a well known sports nutrition brand that had a chat function where the consumer could enter goals and then be given product recommendations.

“They came back with, you should take this product and this product. They will help you to become lean and sexy. She’d say, no, I’m trying to train to become stronger and faster. Well, they didn’t have anything for a woman who wanted to be stronger and faster. Their message was just that you should shrink and disappear. It was astounding to me. It made me so angry,”​ she said.

Finding a sponsor

Whittel said that fostering more women in decision-making roles will take an effort to improve networking opportunities as well as helping women change self-defeating behaviors such as a lack of confidence. Whittel has been a sponsor of a female-oriented networking event for women in the natural products industry in Boulder, CO. And she urges women to seek a sponsor, which she differentiates from a mentor who in her view is more of a sounding board and a shoulder to cry on.  A sponsor is someone who can actually provide hands-on experience in what it means to run a business. Whittel said in her early days at Reserveage she was fortunate to have just such a sponsor in the person of Beth Kaplan, who was then president of GNC.

“She would invite me to an event and introduce me to all of her top executives. That allowed me to step out of my comfort zone,”​ she said.

“The objectives that I have for the industry are the same I have for my own company. If we are purchasing raw materials, I want to make sure that they are backed by science that reflects the needs of women in the studies. As we are reinventing and redeveloping ourselves over the next few years, I want to work with companies that are actively thinking about men AND women as their end customers,”​ Whittel said.

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1 comment

Thanks for This Article

Posted by Beth Lambert,

Hank, once again you find thought provoking stories well worthy of discussion in our industry. Thanks for this article.

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