BY TRACY CLARK-FLORY
This past fall, Andrea Barrica, 26, was meeting with investors in the Bay Area to raise money for her startup, when she sat down at a bougie hotel in downtown San Francisco with a man who she describes as “very famous in the valley.”
As a former venture partner and pitch coach at the incubator 500 Startups, she’d already seen thousands of pitches. Now, on the other side of the table, she found herself hitting a wall.
She gave her pitch for a site featuring live-streamed sex-ed workshops aimed at women and gender-diverse adults. The investor tried to show that he was progressive enough for her business idea. But then he asked her, “Andrea, if you want women to have more pleasure, why don’t you go to the men? Men give women pleasure.”
She left that meeting frustrated with his sexism, and not too surprisingly, he never followed up. Not all of the investors she’d met with have been quite so clueless, however, and she nonetheless went on to raise $500,000 for her site.
But it was a challenge finding investors interested in an LGBTQ-friendly, intersectional, judgment-free platform in the male-dominated venture capital industry. Her goal — to intentionally and carefully build a community that keeps out trolls and creates a “safe space” online — also involved going against a typical Silicon Valley growth-at-all-costs mentality.
Still, she is filling a market need. Barrica’s site, called O.school, aims to update sex-ed for the 21st century with a membership site that will launch this year. “There’s, like, boring textbook drawings of anatomy and basic science based sex-ed or there’s pornography — there’s nothing in-between that’s really accessible,” she said. “That’s our sell.”
The content, now accessed in invite-only beta mode, is a far cry from both putting condoms on bananas in high school and the run-of-the-mill “Blow Job 101” class at your local adult shop. The current calendar features workshop titles like, “Unpacking Purity: Healing From Religious Shame,” “Reclaiming Your Trans Body In The Aftermath of Violence,” “Living, Loving, And Thriving After Herpes,” and “Stepping Out Of Shame And Into Poly Excellence.” A diverse team of 35 instructors — at least half are people of color and more than half identify as queer, and there are bloggers, sex workers, nurse practitioners, and social workers in their ranks — lead each session.
Even more crucial is the fact that each session is live. Once the site launches in late summer or early fall, users will pay an as-yet undetermined fee and get access to a few free video streams, after which they have to pay for them individually. The classes will happen live through O.school’s platform, which allows students to interact with teachers and each other.
“There’s something really magical and appealing about being in the same room with fifty to one-hundred other people who are going through what you’re going through and that’s what you get from a live workshop,” she said. Barrica argues that pre-recorded videos, which would certainly be a less intensive proposition, just aren’t the same.
The biggest challenge is ensuring that these online workshops remain a “safe space,” she said. The plan is to attract the first 100,000 users through “a reverse reputational system.” Instead of promising an account credit for referrals like you see with ride-sharing apps, O.school will penalize users for referring trolls. If someone refers a friend who turns out to be a nuisance on the site, that friend is kicked off and their referrer might be penalized as well, she said.
This goes against the usual Silicon Valley model. “Everyone is incentivized to be like, ‘We’re going to be 3 million users by the end of the year,’” said Barrica. “That’s not what we’re doing at all.”
Creating a troll-free space is especially important given the site’s focus on trauma and shame, said Barrica. She didn’t start out with that emphasis, but as she’s traveled around the country talking to people about what they would want from an adult sex-ed site, it became clear that it wouldn’t work to just address pleasure. “You can’t just sell them an erotic product when one in three women have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime,” she said. “I’ve been completely blown away by how much this is needed.”
Despite the nontraditional nature of her business, Barrica is deeply rooted in the venture funding world. “The last seven years of my career I’ve been building up my vanilla cred,” she said. Prior to launching O.school and working at 500 Startups, she also co-founded the accounting software inDinero.
Her new company’s model, which she says puts “security and safety over growth,” is a challenge to the typical startup mentality — but Barrica says her investors have faith in the eventual market size. As Monique Woodard, a venture partner at 500 Startups and O.school investor, said, “I believe that a company can create a platform that is used by millions of people while also keeping users safe and free from online harassment.”
She also believes the timing is right. Today, it’s much less stigmatized for women to buy sex, pleasure, and intimacy products, and the market will only continue to grow with younger generations. Barrica points to a recent study showing that millennials are twice as likely to identify as LGBTQ, which she says represents a massive underserved need around sex ed.
As a precedent, she points to Pure Romance, a company that sells sex toys through at-home Tupperware-style parties, and is a $200 million-a-year business. “That’s an offline midwest company that figured out, wow, people really want to buy this stuff,” she said. But entrepreneurs struggle to take these kinds of businesses online, given issues with payment processors that won’t work with adult-related companies and problems with advertising on platforms like Facebook.
The key to “winning this market,” she said, is going the startup funding route, despite all the inherent challenges. “Technology and startups are a great vehicle for activism,” she said. “It’s the fastest way to get to scale and get people the help they need.”
This story originally appeared on Vocativ and has been republished with permission.