February 13, 2013
Ironically, it can be really difficult to make condoms sexy. We all know how they work (hopefully), and what they're supposed to do. There's nothing new to discover, right?
Enter b condoms -- a unique condom company with a sleek look, a social mission, and two dedicated safer-sex advocates running the show. While Jason Panda and Reggie Thornton sell b condoms to keep the lights on, they also partner with businesses and nonprofits to distribute b condoms for free in certain venues. As the only black-owned condom company, they also specifically target and spread prevention messages to communities of color. These "condoms with a conscience" rival the notorious Magnum in quality -- and they're vegan friendly to boot!
Jason and Reggie sat down with TheBody.com to share how the company got its start, their experiences working in the "taboo" condom industry, and what they're doing in their community now. They also sound off with their views on love, barebacking, involving fellow heterosexual black men in HIV prevention -- and whether any of their friends realize they sell "condoms," not "condos."
Olivia Ford: Tell us a bit about your personal and professional story -- from the founding of b condoms, up to today.
Jason Panda: I've been in the condom business for two and a half years or so. Before b condoms, I used to practice law here in New York City. But it's a pretty interesting story, in terms of how I got into condoms. My mother used to run a detox and transitional care facility for crack addicts, heroin addicts and alcoholics in Boston, where I'm from. Growing up, I basically used to work at the detox and transitional care facility. So my background is kind of rooted in public health and community engagement.
One day, while working at the law firm, I just really wasn't happy with my lifestyle, or with my job. I let my mother know that I wanted to do something else -- something more community focused, but that would also allow me to make money.
Then we got to talking about HIV/AIDS, got to talking about the crack epidemic and different ills that specifically affect the African-American community. And she made a really interesting statement: "All of us nonprofits give away thousands upon thousands of condoms, but there's not really a black-owned condom company." And second to that, she also said, "There's not also a condom company that actually does anything focused on community, either." None of the money from the companies whose condoms nonprofits gave away actually came back into the community to move it forward.
When I thought about it, I was just like, "Wow, that's a really powerful idea." Imagine a condom company that could still have Lifestyles Condoms sexy brand, where you're doing cool and hot stuff; but also have it be able to educate people, make people aware, and have a community element to it as well.
At that point, I reached out to Elkhair Balla, who is another business partner of ours, and said, "I have an idea where we could make some good money and also be able to do some really good things in the community." That's kind of when we came up with b condoms.
Reggie Thornton: For me, I came from the Internet space and had the opportunity to meet Jason and Elkhair, and hear about b condoms. And I just had to be involved. To me, it was an ambitious project -- not only ambitious in terms of the potential and in terms of entrepreneurship, but also in terms of the impact that Elkhair and Jason both were committed to.
It was really a true mission, and that's to make an impact on communities where people look like me. That was important to me at this stage of my career. I joined the company in 2011, and we've been rockin' together since.
Jason Panda: We launched on World AIDS Day of December 2010, at the Trump SoHo in downtown Manhattan. At the launch, we highlighted VillageCare and some of the work that they were doing amongst communities of color in the HIV/AIDS space. From beginning to even now, the social component has always been part of the company.
In highlighting VillageCare as part of our launch, what we wanted to do was bridge that gap between the nightlife and entertainment world and the community space. I think that's what condoms give us the ability to do.
Because a condom is a really unique product in that it's relevant to people spanning from, I don't know, as young as maybe 9, 10, all the way up past 100 years old! People get what the condom does and what it means for a relationship, and what it means in terms of the community. And I thought it would be a good bridge. I think it allows us to connect people that may not necessarily have been connected.
Mathew Rodriguez: What did each of your families say about your getting into the condom business, and switching out from whatever you were doing to go into condoms? Has your work sparked some interesting or informative conversations among your family members, and even your friends?
Reggie Thornton: I think people don't really know what to say. You say "condoms" and you realize, even in 2013, what a taboo subject, unfortunately, that condoms get categorized as. My parents have been very supportive, not only from an entrepreneurial standpoint in encouraging me to empower myself and take control of my career in that way, but also just in terms of the social component.
Because, at the end of the day, I've reached that point with my parents where we talk as adults. I can share with them some of the decisions I'd made in my life, looking into the past, as people do, to times where you aren't concerned as much about your health, your wellness; and what happens is, you make bad decisions and bad judgments, and there's a reckless kind of behavior.
I think, looking at stats and the way they are now, and with a lot of the work that we do on the ground, really engaging folks in our community, you realize that, for whatever reason, the recklessness is still there. So if I can do my part, which is to see this through, in terms of b condoms and what our true vision is, in terms of safe sex, I think ultimately I make a difference, and I make an impact on the world; and that's something that my parents support.
Jason Panda: I basically feel the same way. The idea started with my mother, so at least from a parental perspective, there wasn't much pushback. My parents are pretty open-minded, as well. There's always been support, at least for me, in what my future career was going to be.
Piggybacking on what Reggie said, as it relates to how people respond when we talk about what we do in different environments: Condoms, for a lot of people, are taboo. It's funny. I always make the joke about when I was talking with people that I used to work with. They asked, " What do you do nowadays?"
And I said, "I run a condom company."
And they were like, "Oh, yeah. Condos. I heard real estate's kind of down right now."
And I was like, "No, no. We deal in the high rises. Real estate's way up right now!" [Laughs.]
And what happens is, you know, then they don't know how to respond. They look at you like, "OK, where's the joke?" When they hear you're actually being serious ... everybody's initial thought is you're running a triple-X website or whatever. But then we actually get to explain what it is we're doing, kind of the importance of it, especially amongst communities of color.
The second part is that we're trying to blaze a path that's never been done before. So we are kind of like pioneers in this space. The ultimate impact is a lot larger than even what we may seek. As Reggie said earlier: It is really ambitious. But I think we have the team to be able to execute it.
Reggie Thornton: As much as talking about condoms is often taboo, or throws people off, what's been really amazing to see since I joined the company is that we have this really authentic support from all types of people, everywhere across the world. You know, a real authentic movement of people that are like-minded, that understand that we are saying: "Be yourself, but just be safe, and really connect what you do, in terms of your sexual health, to the community as a whole."
And it's been really amazing to see the love that people have given us thus far.
Jason and Reggie with Olivia, between their two companies' exhibit booths at the U.S. Conference on AIDS in 2012.
Olivia Ford: Can you tell us about some of your work in the HIV community? Have you partnered with any organizations other than VillageCare at the time of your launch? And what was that like? And also, have you partnered with organizations outside of New York? Do you travel? Is b condoms kind of a national deal?
Jason Panda: We actually get a lot more traction outside of New York than we do inside. I think part of it is that with New York, it's a little bit different, because we are a for-profit company, so we do have to sell condoms, as well. And in New York City they have a really big condom campaign. So I think it's a little bit more difficult to get integrated into some of the New York nonprofits.
But I can tell you, we supply condoms as far away as Guam, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands. We have a lot of traction in the state of Georgia. We've run numerous campaigns all across the country. We were the official condom for this year's BET Rap It Up tour. We had a campaign last year with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Greater Than AIDS, where we highlighted HIV/AIDS education amongst HBCU (historically black college and university) youth. We have a lot of traction in Miami, as well, where we're kind of built into the nightlife, as well as the community side.
We did a campaign a few years ago called She Carries, where we basically donated condoms to women's organizations that focused on HIV/AIDS all across the country. What we tried to do there was basically open up the discussion about relationships, and condom negotiation, and what are different techniques or ways that you can have that conversation within couples, and also amongst single women.
I know this past year on World AIDS Day we actually had a big event in New York City where we brought Chef Roblé -- he has a show on Bravo; we had Solange Knowles there; we had Stevie Boi, who is like a high-end fashion eyewear designer. What we did there was we tried to get celebrities to kind of leverage their platform to increase the reach of HIV/AIDS awareness around World AIDS Day.
Reggie Thornton: We literally have a board here at headquarters, where we list what we call a Condom Coalition. It's really just people from all facets of our culture, from celebrities to nonprofit workers; and we really truly are trying to build a common coalition of like-minded people that are aboard on this mission -- which is safe sex.
Mathew Rodriguez: Can you describe for the readers the difference between the two wings of your company -- you have for-profit and nonprofit sides to b condoms -- and how they operate together, and what each does?
Jason Panda: We are a for-profit company. We do still have to sell condoms to keep the doors open. Right now we're still small. We're not nearly at the scale that we plan to be. So what we've been able to do is, whether it's small donations of condoms or meals or something like that to smaller organizations, what we want to do is use some of our condom sales to support grassroots movements. On a larger scale, when we think about how we can leverage the condom sales to support what we think our contribution can be on the community level: That was kind of the only way that we've seen doing it.
When you look at some of our different campaigns, a lot of these things we're paying for out of the condom side; but we realize that it's necessary to get a larger microphone to reach a lot more people.
The same is true as we look at how do we scale this up: It's leveraging condom sales to build community focus and awareness around not only HIV/AIDS, but other STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), as well, and how they impact communities of color.
Reggie Thornton: Earlier this summer, we launched our relationship with Whole Foods. The great example for what we're doing there is, for every condom purchased out of Whole Foods in the Boston area, for instance, we donate another condom back to a local nonprofit. So in Boston's case, it was Fenway Health. So it's really a great opportunity for retailers to connect to their own local communities.
Jason Panda: I think that's what is also different between us and others: Where a lot of people look at giving back internationally, we see there's a fight going on right in our backyards. It's really important for us to come together and support each other, and still be able to make a difference where we live.
Olivia Ford: Switching gears a little bit, inquiring minds want to know: When you say "vegan-friendly condoms," what do you mean? What does that indicate, exactly?
Mathew Rodriguez: We want to know if regular condoms have meat in them. [laughs]
Jason Panda: Now, you would have to wholesale! [laughs] But, no. What vegan-friendly means -- and it's funny, because it isn't something that we actually searched out to become. When we first started the company, we realized that there were two bigger issues that we had to overcome in the condom category. One was that a lot of women, as well as men that have sex with men, complain about drying out -- that condoms don't stay lubed up, or wet, long enough.
A second issue that we came across was that a lot of the guys in the community say that the Magnum large-sized condoms are too thick; you can't really get the sensation of a feeling when you use them. So what we sought out to do with b condoms was to develop a condom that would have a higher quality lubricant, that would allow people to have extended sex sessions and still be able to maintain their fluidity, and that would compete against Magnum by being thinner in its latex, and allowing people to have a better sensation for longer periods of time, as well.
So, in sitting with the manufacturer and working to overcome those two issues, one of the things that we found was that, in the process between when they take the material from the rubber tree, kind of where condoms start off, to when it's processed with additives, some of the things that they ended up taking out were the animal byproducts. It was interesting because, as a result, we realized, wow; we're now vegan friendly! That was something that we could now put into our own brochures and put out to the community, that kind of adds a product differentiator -- which is really important because we were still able to maintain the strength, the quality, and basically the guarantee that we are the best product on the market, while still being able to take out some of the additives that we didn't feel were necessary.
Reggie Thornton: Not only was it just the vegan-friendly portion, but the social responsibility as well. I think there's a misconception a lot of times, in urban communities, that somehow there isn't as much care and concern about the quality of product that we use. And that's just not the case. At the end of the day, whatever response the "vegan friendly" label triggers, they appreciate the care and the quality of product that we're trying to bring to the marketplace.
Jason Panda: That's part of the reason why it was also a natural fit between us and Whole Foods, where we are carried, in that we do consider ourselves a premium product, because we do invest on the manufacturing side, as well as the packaging side. We try to create an affordable luxury. Because we do want it to be affordable, but we do want people to get a better experience using a b condom, as opposed to another condom on the market.
Reggie Thornton: And it really goes back to kind of what we talked about earlier with that ambition. I mean, that's the thing. We're trying to change the optics in which people view their condom company. It doesn't have to be just equipment. It can be a true and authentic connection, not only with the product itself and them, personally, but also collectively as a whole, in terms of the community.
Mathew Rodriguez: Switching gears again, one of the great hurdles that people are talking about in the HIV community is getting the involvement of heterosexual black men in HIV work, and in HIV prevention. I was wondering what your take is on the barriers that are in place towards getting straight black men more involved in talking about HIV and in HIV prevention, in their home lives and in the community, at large; and what do you think it's going to take to overcome those barriers?
Jason Panda: I think the fault for a lot of the barriers specifically falls on funding. Also, being able to overcome a lot of the preconceived notions -- not only within the community, but within the broader public. I do think that it's becoming more of a discussion now. Because one of the things that's happening is seeing a lot of women and gay men being the most impacted. I think initially people tried to blame it on black gay or bisexual men for directly impacting the HIV/AIDS rate in black women -- not to necessarily say that there are no "down-low" men, or whatever; but that's not the direct correlation to why the HIV/AIDS incidences amongst black women are so high.
As a result of that, we now find that, well, if it's not gay and bisexual men and it's obviously not women only, there's a whole population of men that haven't traditionally been tested for HIV. Part of that may be because if you look historically at how funding was directed within the HIV/AIDS space, it started out primarily amongst white gay and bisexual men, and then it kind of transitioned from there to gay and bisexual men of color.
Going specifically to how we bring in more heterosexual men? Part of it is kind of taking the taboo away from talking about HIV, and opening the discussion.
We work a lot with Iris House in New York and in New Jersey. And you know, they have the "Keep It 100" campaign to involve young heterosexual black men in HIV prevention. They've been really successful in opening up the conversation.
You know, I think the essence of it is: We need to realize that whether you're straight, whether you're gay, whether you're a male, whether you're a female -- if you're a person of color, whether Latino or African American, the probability of you being impacted by HIV/AIDS is going to be a lot higher, just by virtue of who you are.
I would necessarily try to find a way to kind of bridge different communities and open up the discussion; and also realize that people aren't necessarily trying to demonize, or say one community is better than the other, but, I think we just have to have more open and honest discussions and try to found how do we move together as a community.
Reggie Thornton: Yeah. And I think, as heterosexual men, I think it's critical that we kind of alter our mentality. I'll be candid. I alluded to it earlier when I talked about how we can make reckless decisions, using bad judgment -- whether it's with one person, or whether it's with a hundred people. And I think we have to change the mentality of how we view condom use.
I always kind of joke with friends that know I'm in this. They say, "We think back and years ago, when Ol' Dirty Bastard from the Wu Tang Clan rapped, 'Oooo, baby, I like it raw'" -- and you look back at it and you're like, wow, that's kind of the mentality.
And it's only, I think, gotten worse, in terms of people kind of -- and especially heterosexual men, I think -- embracing this mentality that no condom use is somehow cool. So I think to Jason's point, we have to have open communication with others and, more important, with ourselves and say this mentality's got to stop. I think that coming from a heterosexual male, changing that mentality will be able to resonate and connect with other heterosexual men, I believe, in a greater way.
Olivia Ford: Where can we find b condoms out in our communities, whether for free or for purchase? And if we can't find them, what can we do to help make them available at our local stores or organizations or sex supply shops, or wherever we get our condoms?
Jason Panda: Initially you can go to bcondoms.com. You can also go into your local Whole Foods Market. I know in New York City we're carried at almost all of the bodegas and corner stores in Harlem. We're also kind of spread in some of the other ones -- not as much in Brooklyn, but a little bit in Queens.
b condoms are available through a number of nonprofits here in New York City, whether it's National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, Exponents, Iris House or others.
Outside of New York City, we're probably distributed by about seven or eight states right now, including the states of Georgia, Indiana and Florida -- a bunch of different states, as well as nonprofits. But people can support the movement by, if you have a relationship with a store and that's where you get your condoms, tell them that they need to carry b condoms.
Or, if you want to help us with the movement, reach out to us. We're always available at firstname.lastname@example.org. We're open to having anybody that can help us get this to the next level of support.
Reggie Thornton: We've got big plans in 2013, and we expect, really, to have tremendous growth. And I think anyone that is reading and knows anyone that is the person responsible for purchasing condoms; say, "Hey, where are b condoms?"
Because what we do know is that there are tens of thousands of people out there that are behind the brand that are supportive, and we're on a true mission. So I think to Jason's point, anybody that wants to help us with that mission, please reach out.
Mathew Rodriguez: I recently read something about people in the dating world who actually think the date that they have sex with a new partner without a condom is more significant than the date that they first have sex with that person. So, the question is: Do you think people romanticize barebacking within their relationships? And if so, why?
Reggie Thornton: I think so. You know, it's interesting. An article that just came out the other day saying that a lot of people think sex is actually better with condom use. I think it's a mixed bag.
Clearly, I think, there's a certain role that pornography plays. And I'm not here to say whether it's good or bad; but is it imitation of art? You know, that whole thing.
I definitely think there's a romanticized thing about it. That's the challenge, I think, for any condom company. You know, we can have all the bells and whistles, but as long as you do have this kind of romanticized idea about barebacking, I think it always will be a challenge.
Jason Panda: And then I think a central issue amongst two people that are in a closed relationship is the element of love. And I think any time you talk about condom use and why people will use them or why they won't use them, I think there are elements of closeness, of relationships, of trust, of caring, of love, that I think, when it comes to two people that are in a relationship, a lot of times barebacking or, you know, not using a condom, becomes a deeper level of engagement -- a deeper level of trust. I trust you. I love you. I'm willing to take it to the next level with you.
And I think that's part of the reason for the romanticism may come around it. Some people express love in different ways. And I do think that, at the end of the day, you need to love yourself. And loving yourself is caring about yourself enough to care about your own health and your own personal wellness, as well as caring about the person that you're going to be with.
Reggie Thornton: I also think there's just a stupid mentality that's out there. It's almost as though it's a thing of conquer. Like, "Oh, I went up in there raw." You know? What does that mean? I think we all have to get to a point where we hear those words and think, "Wow; what is that person really saying when they say that?"
Olivia Ford: In closing: We do little features on Valentine's Day on our site pretty much every year. And we oftentimes ask people questions about their own experiences finding love. So I wondered if each of you would care to share sort of an anecdote or a piece of advice that you've learned about relationships, or about looking for love, that you'd like to share with our readers?
Jason Panda: Even when you're in the doghouse, you still need to love one another!
Olivia Ford: The doghouse!? Can you elaborate on that?
Reggie Thornton: In terms of a message for love: I think that each day brings a whole new set of challenges. And when you love someone, I think the challenges really aren't anything that's insurmountable, because you've got someone who loves you, and they've got your back. So I think that's really what my take on love is.
Jason Panda: Also, love is not easy, and it's something that evolves with time. The way that you love somebody today and the relationship that you have with somebody today isn't going to be the way that it's going to be in five years, or 10 years, or even looking further out into the future. And you have to be kind of willing, if you truly do love someone, to grow with them, and to grow with their changes, and be open to that.
Reggie Thornton: Being yourself is the best way you want someone loving you. When you are yourself and that person is loving you, then you're not going to feel that way. You know? It's when you go into it not necessarily loving yourself and bringing the best you; I think those are the relationships, a lot of times, that fail.
But then again, none of us really know.
Jason Panda: Love can be a messy business.
Olivia Ford: It sure can. It can, indeed. But thank goodness we have b condoms to help us through! On that note, thank you all so much for speaking with us today. I think you guys are so amazing.
Reggie Thornton: It's been awesome. We appreciate the opportunity.
Olivia Ford: Absolutely.
Mathew Rodriguez: Thank you for sitting down with us. I had a great time talking with you both.
Reggie Thornton: It's not every day you're asking Valentine's Day questions about barebacking, so that's always good.
Mathew Rodriguez: That's just how my mind works. Like, most people are picking out topics for Valentine's Day, and I'm like, "What do you think about barebacking?" It's what's on my mind.
This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.
Olivia Ford is the executive editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.