Caribou native champions global push for reproductive health

By Julia Bayly
BDN Staff

     CARIBOU, Maine — There was a time Saundra Pelletier hid her hometown Maine roots from the rest of the world.

     Today, the 46-year-old former pharmaceutical company CEO and current head of a global nonprofit promoting women’s reproductive rights and health embraces her past, the impact it had on her and how it shaped her impact on women around the world.

     “There was a long time I denied I grew up in Caribou,” Pelletier said in a recent phone interview from her San Diego home. “I was ashamed and embarrassed to come from such a small, rural place.”

     Pelletier said as a girl she saw poverty firsthand, knew of domestic abuse and lived in a culture that told girls they could decide two things: whom they would marry and how many children they would have.

     Her family, she said, helped counter those experiences.

     A 1987 graduate of Caribou High School, she grew up picking potatoes on her grandparents’ Colby Siding farm, driving trucks in the field and learning from her mother there were far more choices for women than getting married and settling down.

     “A man is not a plan,” Pelletier said. “My mom would tell me, ‘Domestic skills — unless you are going to be a famous chef — will not get you where you need to be.’”

     Instead, Pelletier said her mother, Leta Pelletier, advised her to certainly think about marriage and a family, but only after she had determined and followed a career path.

     Saundra Pelletier grew up having household chores such as balancing the family’s checkbook, helping her brother with his education and organizing family activities.

     Pelletier left Caribou and earned a degree at Husson University. From there, she entered the corporate world and eventually became the chief executive officer of Evofem Inc., a biotechnology company that develops products in contraception, feminine care and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases for women around the world.

     In 2008 she wrote “ Saddle up Your Own White Horse: 5 Principles Every Woman Needs to Know,” a look at how women can create the life they want.

     She also is the founding CEO of WomanCare Global, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing family planning and reproductive health solutions for women and girls around the world through education, assuring information comes from a reliable source and encouraging women to understand what choices are available to them.

     “There are 225 million women in the world today without access to modern methods of contraception,” Pelletier said. “I saw an opportunity to change the standard model of a nonprofit by utilizing strong business practices, focusing on strategic partnerships and pursuing a goal of self-sufficiency.”

     In the United States alone, Pelletier said, of the 6 million pregnancies a year, 3.4 million are unplanned.

     “Sometimes it works out OK, but a lot of times economically it does not,” she said.

     It’s the same in other countries, where women will risk their lives to control the size of their families for whom they may already lack the economic means to provide, Pelletier said.

     “These women will risk their lives walking miles to have an unsafe abortion just to not have a baby they know they can’t support,” Pelletier said. “But we have found in those areas if the women have access to the right [contraceptive] products they will use them [because] they want smaller families and a quality of life.”

     That access, she said, can make all the difference.

     “When you are in an environment and you see women desperate for a quality of life for their children but they are without access to health care and education, you realize everything in life for them would change with that access,” Pelletier said. “If women could have more access to everything from education to the right products, their lives would be better and they could make others’ lives better.”

     Pelletier and WomanCare Global work in places such as Turkey, Mexico, Puerto Rico, India and throughout Africa.

     “In some of these countries, men are often the decision-makers, so we have to appeal to them and sometimes work through a variety of cultural, religious and legislative hurdles to ensure that women’s needs are put on the agenda,” she said. “We deeply believe that reproductive health is not about gender, it’s about everyone.”

     Most recently, Pelletier has teamed up with television celebrity Jessica Biel to launch an online digital series titled “ If You Don’t Tell Them, Then Who Will,” aimed at educating women and girls about the different stages of reproductive life, encouraging them to talk openly about their bodies and destroying taboos about women’s health.

     “These conversations can be awkward and embarrassing,” Pelletier said. “But we need to take the conversations out of the closets and darkness [because] it’s time to learn how women’s bodies work.”

     And those conversations must revolve around correct information.

     “They have to have access to the right information,” Pelletier said. “That is one of the reasons I am so passionate about the campaign with Jessica Biel. We are getting the right facts out about their bodies — and that information makes you powerful.”

     It’s a conversation every woman can be a part of, Pelletier said.

     “We really need to talk about sensitive and vulnerable things with younger girls,” she said. “We need to talk about sensations, odors, vaginal discharges and that it’s OK to know about their bodies, [and] being a mentor to girls can take a lot of courage.”

     That courage and the drive to help are not lacking in Pelletier, according to her mother, Leta, who still lives and works part time in Caribou.

     “All young girls need to be told how their bodies work and about life,” her mother said. “Saundra had to work hard growing up — she picked potatoes, she helped pile wood and she always had jobs in high school and throughout college.”

     That hard work paid off, Saundra Pelletier said.

     “Things have really now come full circle,” she said. “I learned you have to work hard to stand out and it taught me a great work ethic and how to be disciplined, [and] when I look back on what I have done I would be less than honest if I said I was not proud, but wow, there is so much more to do.”