Saundra Pelletier remembers the first time she got birth control. She was a teenager in the 1980s, attending Caribou High School, and her mother, a hard-working, no-nonsense Aroostook County woman, took her to a family planning office in Presque Isle to get her on the pill. She wanted the best for her daughter, and an unplanned pregnancy was not going to be part of the equation.
Looking back, Pelletier, now 52 and the CEO of Evofem Biosciences, a pharmaceutical company that last year introduced Phexxi, a non-hormonal, use-when-you-need-it form of birth control, sees that day as pivotal — even if at the time, she didn’t understand what its significance would be.
“They sat me down and told me about my body, and gave me all the options and the choices I had,” Pelletier, who now lives in San Diego, said. “As soon as I got my driver’s license, I drove some other girls over there to get birth control, in my old Chevy Chevette. I wanted to do for them what my mother did for me. I wanted to give them that choice.”
Phexxi, a contraceptive gel a woman uses up to one hour before having sex, offers an option that wasn’t previously available to women: a reliable form of birth control that does not involve hormones and puts the control in a woman’s hands. Used correctly, it is 93 percent effective; with typical use, it is 86 percent effective, about the same as a condom. It’s not a spermicide, but instead alters the pH of the vagina to make it more acidic and inhospitable to sperm.
“There are countless women who just don’t want to put hormones into their body. There are serious side effects from hormonal birth control that women are expected to just deal with, like weight gain, blood clots, emotional swings and anxiety,” Pelletier said. “You don’t have to now, with Phexxi. It’s as simple as putting in a tampon. It gives you a hormone-free option, and it doesn’t require you to hope that a man uses a condom correctly.”
Pelletier’s journey from outspoken teenager in Aroostook County to CEO of a publicly traded pharmaceutical company in California had a few pit stops along the way, but it’s all part and parcel of the worldview she says her mother and other women in her hometown instilled in her.
Growing up in a working-class family, with parents who worked full-time in the Birdseye vegetable processing plant in Caribou, left a mark on Pelletier. When the day was over and Mom and Dad were home, her father got to do what he wanted — but Mom began her second shift of cooking, cleaning and caring for the kids.
“My mother never stopped working. And nobody thanked her for the work she did, because domestic things were a woman’s responsibility,” Pelletier said. “I knew as early as fifth, sixth grade that that was B.S. It wasn’t fair. And my mom always told me, ‘You don’t have to do this. You have a choice.’ She didn’t want that life for me. And I didn’t want it either.”
When it came time to go to college, Pelletier had dreams of going into broadcast journalism and becoming the next Diane Sawyer or Jane Pauley. With that in mind, she went to the New England School of Communications in Bangor, and later attended Husson College — now Husson University, which NESCOM became a part of in 1997 — for a business degree.
“Husson was the first place where I felt safe to kind of be myself,” Pelletier said. “They let me wave my crazy flag. They let me try new things. I have a lot of love for Husson, and for Bangor.”
Pelletier’s first job after college was as a DJ at WZON AM620, the radio station owned by Stephen King. Between 1989 and 1990, she was on air in the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. slot on weekdays, under the name Sandy Nelson.
“I saw the ad, that Stephen King was looking for a female DJ with a sultry voice,” she said. “I thought, ‘That’s me!’ It was so much fun. It was honestly the coolest job I’ve ever had, except for the one I have now.”
In 1992, dismayed by the lack of job prospects in the broadcasting world, Pelletier took a job as a pharmaceutical sales representative for G.D. Searle, the company that introduced the first-ever commercially available birth control pill in 1960. She quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the head of a global women’s health franchise within the company’s women’s health division. Searle eventually merged with the company Pharmacia, and in 2003, Pharmacia was purchased by Pfizer.
By 2005, Pelletier was burned out on the pharmaceutical industry, after seeing many colleagues focus more on profit than on helping people. She took a few years off to write a book, “Saddle Up Your Own White Horse,” and worked as a corporate consultant and business coach. In 2009, she founded the women’s reproductive health nonprofit Woman Care Global, which connects women in the developing world with birth control.
While at Woman Care Global, she came across a product then called Amphora, developed by a struggling pharmaceutical company called EvoMed. Pelletier realized the potential of the product, a non-hormonal contraceptive gel that also had the potential to prevent transmission of sexually transmitted infections chlamydia and gonorrhea — the product that would eventually be renamed Phexxi.
Phexxi’s ability to also prevent the spread of those STIs is still being proven in testing, and has yet to be approved by the FDA for that use. Public health officials have sounded the alarm in recent years about gonorrhea’s growing resistance to antibiotics.
“Women in the developing world have just as many side effects from hormonal birth control. And child marriage is a very real thing. Girls as young as 12 can get pregnant. That’s awful,” she said. “I knew this product could be a game changer.”
After a few years of deal-making, in 2015, EvoMed became EvoFem, and Pelletier became its CEO. She has since raised nearly half a billion dollars from investors, and has hired 128 people.
All that happened while she was raising a son, and facing her biggest challenge yet: a breast cancer diagnosis in 2018. Pelletier underwent a brutal six-month chemotherapy regimen, and had a double mastectomy, a hysterectomy and an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries). She’s now cancer-free.
At Evofem, Pelletier has instilled a corporate culture that is based on radical honesty, and on feminism as its core philosophy. And as she learned back in Caribou, as a teenager getting access to birth control for the first time and then making sure her friends had that access as well, it’s all about making sure women — regardless of geography, means or social mores — get to choose what they do with their bodies.
“Every day has been insanity for me, since 2015,” she said. “But if I didn’t feel like this was what I was put on Earth to do, I don’t know if I’d have had the strength to carry on. I do kind of feel like this is the path I was meant to be on.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the radio station Pelletier worked at and the years she was on air.