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Men laughed when this CEO pitched 'female Viagra' — then she sold it for $1 billion. Here's her trick to get respect

Jillian Clark

It's not hard to notice self-made billionaire Cindy Eckert when she walks into a room — she's always wearing hot pink, her signature color, and she always oozes confidence.

It's not surprising. Eckert (formerly Whitehead) is co-founder of Sprout Pharmaceuticals, the company behind the female libido-boosting drug Addyi (a.k.a, "female Viagra"), which sold for $1 billion. Most recently, Eckert and her partners won the company back almost for free, and she is once again Sprout's CEO.

But Eckert's path to success was far from easy. In fact, she clearly remembers nearly being laughed out of the room when first pitching Addyi to investors.

It happened during one of the industry's most important healthcare conferences, Eckert says, while Addyi was still on its path to earning FDA approval. The purpose of the presentation was to get the attention of key healthcare investors and potential strategic partners. Eckert remembers it as a "golden opportunity."

"This presentation was at a critical time for Sprout in terms of investment needs in order to make it to the finish line," Eckert tells CNBC Make It.

She recalls being given eight minutes to present and was eager to spread awareness about the libido-boosting drug.

“Here I am, blazing hot pink in front of a room, it’s a sea of blue and gray suits,” Eckert says, remembering the mostly male audience. “I start to talk about women and sex, and the whole crowd starts to laugh. And when they started to laugh, I can remember looking at my countdown clock — the time was passing.”

Determined not to let such valuable time slip away, Eckert fast-fowarded to the part of her presentation that included brain scan studies of the condition that Addyi treats: hypoactive sexual desire disorder in premenopausal women (10 percent of all women suffer from HSDD). Eckert remembers the moment vividly.

“I dramatically paused and pointed at it on the screen, and I went silent for just long enough for it to be uncomfortable for everybody, and said, ‘Are you looking at what I’m looking at? Because I’m here to talk about the biology of sex in women,'" she says. “It quieted.”

"In black and white, you can see a fundamental difference in how the brain lights up in response to sexual cues for a woman with HSDD versus without," Eckert explains. "Suddenly, in the face of scientific evidence [of the disorder], an entire room reconsidered their dismissiveness of female sexuality."

A representative from Valeant, the company that ultimately acquired Sprout Pharmaceuticals, was sitting in the room that day.

Indeed, Eckert's company attracted millions of dollars of private investment, and in 2015, Eckert and her co-founder (and then-husband), Bob Whitehead, sold Sprout and Addyi to Valeant for $1 billion. Later, when Valeant allegedly mismanaged the company, Eckert and other shareholders filed a lawsuit. In November, Valeant returned Sprout to its original shareholders for next to nothing. (In exchange, the suit was dropped.) Eckert got back her position as CEO and has big plans for Addyi and Sprout.

Along the way, Eckert learned a thing or two about how to command respect, often as the only woman in a room full of men (not always an easy feat when you’re dressed in pink and talking about women and sex, she says). Now, Eckert asks to have people in the room who will understand the product she’s pushing.

“Human nature is such that we’re going to invest in those things that we understand,” Eckert explains. “That’s the same for me. I like to give the analogy that if someone came to me with the next biggest invention in golf; I don’t golf — I probably wouldn’t invest. But if they came to me first and said, ‘Cindy, will you go out and talk to all of your friends who golf and allow them an opportunity to use this device?’ whatever it may be, and all of them came back to me and said ‘Whoa, this is a game changer,’ I would have a different mindset.”

“The way to command that respect," says Eckert, "is to make the ask that they, in fact, have people in the room who understand it or they’ve done their own homework. I think that’s fair. You’re taking your time to present an opportunity, it’s a fair ask that they have people who can truly relate to it in the room."

For Addyi, that means Eckert wants women in the room.

"My life's work is about having women in the room at the decision table. I always ask for it," she adds. "Even in a scientific discussion with the FDA, the women suffering with the condition deserved a voice in the room. They were, after all, the reason for the conversation. Shouldn't they be there to participate in it?"

And whether you're an entrepreneur pitching investors, giving a big presentation at work or going about your daily tasks in the office, Eckert says you can turn whatever disadvantage you think you have into an advantage.

Jillian Clark

“There aren’t a lot of women that lead pharma companies, so I was unexpected, which really means I was underestimated,” Eckert says. “And the mindset you have to get in is you will be underestimated. If you were championing something totally new, if you are outside of the norm — the outliers, if you will — you need to prepare for underestimation. And instead of allowing that to make you reel back — because I think it can make you start to doubt what you’re doing or it can start to frustrate you — you need to use it as an opportunity to surprise people."

In fact, that mindset is the reason behind Eckert’s signature pink, which she says she wears every single day.

“Pink is a lot about owning it,” Eckert explains. “I think for me, as a woman, it really started when I was with Sprout. [We] had what we called ‘the little pink pill.’ People would say, 'Oh that’s cute, the little pink pill.' And it was striking to me the dismissiveness in that.

"And I think that when things are gender stereotyped" or you're underestimated, she says, "you can either walk away from it … or if you have my personality, you go right toward it, because that’s the conversation we need to be having.”

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