Carly Leahy & Afton Vechery
For this month’s Joie Muse Series, we met with Afton Vechery and Carly Leahy – entrepreneurs, modern-day feminists, and game-changers in women’s health (not to mention, members of Forbes and Inc’s “30 Under 30” list!). Founders of Modern Fertility , an at-home fertility test, Afton and Carly are helping to move the fertility conversation from infertility-resolution to fertility-proactivity to empower women about their bodies and their futures. Read along to learn about their ground-breaking work and shop their favorite #Joie picks.
On your career…
How did you two meet and what made you decide to go into business together?
AV: I've always been a product-oriented, technical kind of leader, and I knew that when starting Modern Fertility, I needed someone who's a master at branding and creative. Carly and I were introduced through a friend, which we call the most epic email introduction of all time - and instantly clicked and couldn't stop bubbling with ideas. It was the perfect combination of skill sets.
CL: When I met Afton, she was fully in the game of entrepreneurship and fertility. I wasn't thinking about either. I was heads down with my career (I had been working at Google and was then at Uber) and, to be honest, I didn't think I needed to be bothered by fertility information. But after my first meeting with Afton, I was struck by what a blind spot I'd had about the topic. I've always been a big feminist, and after thinking about fertility more, I realized that it's about so much more than just settling down – it's about independence and ownership of your body and future. I came to see fertility as one of the last largely overlooked frontiers of feminism. I kept meeting with Afton, talking to friends who had the same blind spots, and soon enough, I couldn't get this problem out of my head.
Did you always have entrepreneurial aspirations or was it the need for something not already easily accessible (fertility information) what drove you to start your own company?
CL: I didn't think that I had to start a company. Coming from a creative brand background, as opposed to finance, product or consulting; I didn't know that it was entirely possible. But after meeting Afton (who has entrepreneurship in her DNA) and sinking my teeth into proactive fertility (and how unapproachable it felt to me), that changed dramatically. This was the ultimate creative challenge and I quickly saw that creative people make great founders! Sometimes your blind spots are the things that you are uniquely positioned to help others see clearly. If you can communicate those blind spots and connect with your customers and your growing team, you can build something game-changing.
AV: I think I was fortunate to stumble upon my entrepreneurship at a young age. I started a clean water testing company in high school after doing some investigating and picking up on a water contamination issue in my hometown in Maryland. The project led me to science fairs at the local, regional, national, and international levels and kicked-off a string entrepreneurial endeavors building science-based companies. I learned that if I was obsessed with a problem and worked really, really hard, doors would open. I've always said that I know I'm not the smartest person in the room, but when it comes to a problem that I care deeply about, I am the hardest working. I think hard work trumps intellect when it comes to building a company.I had a hand in launching a few health-tech companies before joining 23andMe, where I helped relaunch their core product right after it was shut down by the FDA. Around that time, I realized I wanted to wait until later in life to start my family, so I tried to get my fertility hormones tested at my OBGYN's office and was told "you're young, you don't need this... you should only do that after it isn't working." I knew from earlier in my career that these tests had been around for decades and were typically an option for women or couples after they've struggled to conceive for about a year. I knew the information was in my body and I thought, well why can't I get this baseline proactively?I eventually got a referral to an infertility clinic to get this testing, and after months of appointments, I finally got the results-along with a $1,500 bill. Even though the process was cumbersome and way too expensive, the results were incredibly empowering. It clicked that there was a big opportunity to give women this important information about their bodies on their own terms, much earlier in life. This is about taking more agency over our reproductive health, as we choose to have kids later and later and face rising external pressures with fertility.
How would you describe your relationship with each other pre-Modern Fertility and its growth since?
CL: People often don't believe me when I tell them that Afton and I did not know each other before starting Modern Fertility. For us, it worked out really well that way – kind of like the advice you get about not being roommates with your best friend. :) There was a period when we were learning each other's styles. I learned Afton absolutely loves negative feedback-about the company, about her leadership, you name it (spoiler, I prefer positive feedback!). It drives her to be better like nothing else. At this point, we really feel like we're in each other's minds-in a great way. We know what the other is thinking without them saying a thing, and can help bring each other's ideas to the finish line just by knowing what the other was going for. I can tell when Afton picks up the phone if it's her brother who's calling (she has a certain way of talking to him), or what she wants for dinner that night (her dinner preferences are easily intercepted by what someone had for lunch).
What is a typical day like in the Modern Fertility office?
AV: As a growing company, each day truly is different than the last. A few things are consistent, though. This is one of the most productive and talented teams I've ever come across, so there is never a shortage of new ideas and work to do. We have a culture of talking about the hard things (addressing the elephants in the room, so to speak) and have each other's backs regardless of the project or domain at hand. We usually take a break from work to all eat lunch together, but otherwise people are in and out of meetings and between projects. We have a neon "We Trust Women" sign in our office. It's become our internal mantra.
How did it feel when you were able to take the first Modern Fertility test?
CL: Afton had this testing done through traditional channels before starting the company (hence the inspiration for MF) but being able to take the test from home during our beta was so cool. After getting back my results, I had this overwhelming feeling of how crazy it was that women didn't have easy access to this important information about our bodies and futures.
How does it feel to have created something that is not only innovative but also life-changing?
AV: We know this is an incredibly important area of work, but we have so far to go! We fundamentally believe that all women deserve the opportunity to own their fertility information, regardless of their age, identity or fertility decisions. We see a world where fertility hormone testing is as ubiquitous as pap smears and physicals. We have a long road ahead before we've truly integrated fertility hormone testing into mainstream consumer wellness, but an obsession with the problem keeps us going each hour of each day.We are focused on bringing fertility to mainstream consumer life, but also have a research division of the company where women can opt-in to have their anonymized data used in women's health research to help create better predictors of future fertility. We started the company to increase access to information, but also improve it.
On your website you volunteer your personal fertility profiles to give customers an idea of what they can expect. What made you decide to share something so personal?
AV: We firmly believe that with fertility, there is no "right" or "wrong" and that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Your fertility hormones are just where your body is at. We think ambiguity breeds a lot of stress and shame, and that clear, clinical information can break that down. Putting my fertility profile on our website is one way I can help women understand what they'll learn about their bodies, and show that fertility can be a regular part of everyday health conversations.
What does the future of Modern Fertility look like to you?
AV: We have so much room to expand with integrating fertility into mainstream consumer wellness, and helping more women own the decisions impacting their bodies and futures. That said, we are talking to our customers every day in our community and know that they want other tools for understanding their reproductive health. We're mapping out new products that directly respond to these requests, and fill the gap in clinically-sound, community and education-based resources. Finally, and we're still quite early in this, we're investing in pushing fertility science forward with new research. We give women the option to opt in to have their information anonymized and used in clinical studies by our research team. For context, the bulk of industry research to date focuses on infertility, due to the reactive way our healthcare system treats infertility. Our focus on wellness gives us a unique view into a different part of the fertility window. Long-term, we are working to understand new nuances in fertility and develop a better predictor of future fertility. The goal is to give women better information about their bodies and advance fertility science. We ultimately want to be *the* trusted consumer brand in reproductive health.
If you weren’t in the fertility business what would you be doing?
AV: I'd be working in clean water. It's still a long-held passion of mine, and like fertility, is core to our lives but without the proper attention it deserves.
What advice would you give someone looking to start their own company?
AV: Take the first step, even if it's a small step. Starting a company can undoubtedly be scary, but when I'm confronted with impostor syndrome, I try to see it as a choice. Succumbing to it is as intentional as deciding to go the other direction and take a step towards creating something meaningful.
Describe your style in one sentence?
CL: Elevated camping wear aka "camping chic”.
AV: Makes you slightly uncomfortable but you want to learn more.
How do your on-duty and off-duty looks differ?
CL: They don't differ much. Although if I'm going somewhere after work my team always knows, because I'm a wee bit more dressed up :)
AV: On-duty, I'm fairly straightforward. I wake up and can be into the office within 15 minutes (I'm about a 5-minute bike ride away). But weekends are another story. I have notorious "weekend wear" that's usually a combination of puzzling and fabulous. This largely comes from vintage shopping, which I love.
What is your fashion mantra?
CL: BE. COMFY. ALWAYS.
AV: Match my mood and feel confident.
Do you have a favorite piece from the shoot?
CL: OMG that red leather skirt. Softest leather-seriously.
AV: The leather jogger pants are insane. They are so funky but lined with silk – I literally wore them around the house instead of sweatpants last weekend (and out that night)!
What are some of your style staples?
CL: Jeans and a sweater. I LOVE the white turtleneck comfy sweater from Joie.
AV: A dressier shirt, usually with slight structure, and jeans. I like the blue V-neck with the white print from Joie. It makes me feel put together but is also easy.
What is your work uniform?
CL: Workout leggings (shout out to Outdoor Voices), sneakers, and a cozy sweater. I wasn't kidding when I said "elevated camping”.
AV: A dressier shirt or sweater with jeans and clogs/mules. I am 5'4 and prefer to see the world from 3" higher.
On San Francisco and travel…
What is your favorite thing about living in SF? Why?
CL: I love the collectivist culture here. There are so many transplants that there is a constant sense of welcoming and group activities.
AV: How close we are to the things out of the city...and getting to explore those places with amazing people. I find that the people here are so passionate about their work and hobbies. I love people who have that energy for life.
What are some of your favorite restaurants/shops in SF?
CL: 20 Spot is my favorite. It's a record store turned wine bar owned by a brother/sister duo where you'll always feel at home.
AV: I love Bar Agricole. When I moved to SF, I was on the board of a New Music orchestra with someone I met in all state band in high-school (I played the trumpet!). We did this awesome gala event where we paired the music with food with chef Eric Chow. Eric was at Tartine, and now runs Bar Agricole. Dining there is quite the treat – Eric is on another level. In terms of shops, I love The Human Condition. Also, is the OBGYN a shop?! Pro tip- there is an OBGYN shortage, and securing an OBGYN that also delivers babies is a challenge, so it's helpful to start thinking about your doctor before you want to conceive! Modern Fertility works with a handful of OB's in SF that believe proactive fertility information should be available to everyone. If you want in on this list of OBs, ask us: hi@modernfertiIity.com!
San Francisco’s best kept secret is?
AV: It's not much of a secret, but I love the top of Bernal Heights hill. It's so serene, with 360-degree views of the Bay Area and cute dogs running around.
CL: OK, I will tell you. Get up early and get to Mario's Cigar Bar in North Beach (used to be a cigar shop), if you get there early enough, you can treat yourself to a croissant sandwich that will make your whole heart happy. I love walking the filbert steps afterward. :)
What is your dream destination?
AV: When I travel, I love visiting places that have such a different culture that it is entirely consuming. Some of the places where I have met the most amazing people have been Beirut and Nairobi.
CL: I have a: I-want-to-go-everywhere complex. Can I say...everywhere?
For more information on Modern Fertility, please visit www.modernfertility.com
Shop Their Picks
Moxya Wool Sweater$248.00
Eberta Leather Skirt$448.00
Findley Faux Leather Pants$298.00
Tuulia Wool Sweater$348.00
Rarly Suede Bootie$348.00
Alinie Suede Mule$298.00 $178.80
Artist / Fashion Stylist / Creator
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Journalist / Author
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Actress & Lifestyle Blogger
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Fashion Bloggers & Photographers
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Owner/Designer of EF Collection
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BPCM PR Team
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Founder of Guest of a Guest & Lingua Franca
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