This article was included in November's My Club Red menstruality magazine, which is included in My Club Red subscriptions. You can get a free download of the full issue and peek behind the cover of this one-of-a-kind menstruality magazine that's typically available exclusively to subscribers by clicking HERE.
We sat down with the CEO of The Functional Chocolate Company, Nicole Smith, to highlight one of the products in November's My Club Red box: The Rhythm chocolate bar! We chatted more in depth about the products, the company’s values, and especially Nicole’s experience as a fellow menstruator.
CEO/Founder Nicole Smith is an accomplished entrepreneur and a pioneer in botanical product development. She served as SVP of Manufacturing at Harvest Health and Recreation following its acquisition of CBx Enterprises, where she was CEO. Prior to that, she was co-founder, CEO and CMO of Mary’s Medicinals. She is co-author of one of the first patents issued to a legal cannabis company in the U.S.
MY CLUB RED: We’re excited to have you as the first My Club Red menstruality magazine feature!
NICOLE: I’ve been talking to my crew about wanting to be included in a period box for a long time. Our Rhythm chocolate is just so effective, and along with our founder’s origin story, I think your box is just the perfect fit for us.
MCR: I definitely think so too! Before I launch into the interview, I wanted to ask: Since My Club Red deals with period care, that’s what we talk about all the time. Are you okay if I ask you about your period?
NICOLE: Sure, I have one. I think we really need to normalize talking about periods and about wellness in general, especially female health and wellness.
MCR: Definitely, yes. That's exactly one of the main things that I’m trying to do with My Club Red! I would love to hear from you the original idea to start The Functional Chocolate Company.
NICOLE: Our co-founder, Chris Peruzzi, developed our very first product we now call Rhythm chocolate for his daughter. He's a single dad and I can't imagine how frightening it would be for a father to be dealing with his daughter’s coming of age and not knowing what to do about that.
He’s spent almost 30 years now in natural products and developing products as well as selling a variety of formulations. I think he knew what he could give her to help her intrinsically. He also knew that she wasn't going to take a whole bunch of pills and he thought, “I can do better.”
And better was putting that formulation that he had in his mind and making it a delicious treat in addition to an effective solution. The origin was really Rhythm chocolate and then that was so successful he developed a product that we now call Carefree for stress and anxiety for his son.
The origin of the company was a few years later when he and I were talking right at the height of the pandemic and he mentioned these chocolate bars he’d been making for his kids and I said, “This is fantastic! Life is sweet, treating your health should be too. We need to get this product into the hands of other people.”
So that was it: The Functional Chocolate Company was born.
MCR: That's incredible that he created these for his kids. What about for you–have you personally experienced your chocolate bars having a noticeable impact on your period?
NICOLE: Yes, definitely. As far as period symptoms go, I'm sort of in the later stage of life and probably getting a little closer to needing our Hot Chocolate for menopause more than our Rhythm for PMS. My symptoms aren't as severe anymore, but when they are, Rhythm definitely helps.
I know that for some of my younger friends that still have really terrible periods–it seems like in your thirties and your child-bearing years, periods are really harsh–my friends swear by them, they can't have enough of them on hand.
My favorite is our Carefree chocolate for stress and anxiety. Not only is the mint chocolate my favorite flavor but I love the effect, the chill-out-ness of our stress and anxiety formula. I like the sleep one too. Those are my two favorites.
MCR: I will have to try them all! I'm very interested in the botanical blends that you guys select to make these bars. How do you go about that process of selecting what kind of botanicals and other health goodies go into your chocolate?
NICOLE: My partner Chris Peruzzi spent 30 years in natural product development, formulation, and sales, so he is the formulator of our products. All of them contain usually somewhere between 10 and 15 different ingredients and those ingredients are selected for their benefit but also for how they work with the other ingredients.
All of our blends are very synergistic. That's why there's only 1 Mg of melatonin per serving in our sleep product. Because it’s the other things that help enhance the melatonin’s effectiveness and then that way we don't get the grogginess in the morning like you do from other melatonin products.
We also have a couple of patented ingredients that we include in each of our products. So in our PMS formula, we have SaffSerene which is a fenugreek extract. He selected that ingredient for its effectiveness but also the inclusion of our patented ingredient allows us to very clearly spell out to our consumers what the product does because we can use some structure-function statements because that ingredient is registered with the FDA.
MCR: Incredible! So how do you go about choosing what problem to tackle with a new bar?
NICOLE: One of the things you’ll notice about all of our products is that they’re designed to be symptomatic relief. They're not designed to be something that you might replace a daily supplement or multivitamin or medication for–they’re designed for symptomatic relief.
PMS being a prime example, or menopause, because we want folks to use them when they need them. That’s one of the qualifying conditions: Is this something that can be treated as a symptomatic solution and not an everyday chocolate bar or an everyday serving? Although we have a lot of people that eat these every day or even multiple types a day which I am totally okay with. But that was the number one qualifier.
So once you start to think about that as a qualifier you'll find that there are a few things then that wouldn't necessarily make sense so we could start to exclude from the development pipeline.
But the new and exciting one coming in for us is Pain Free! It's going to launch in a couple of weeks. It will be a natural anti-inflammatory. Of course the next qualifier would be demand. We know that 80% of Americans don't sleep at night so a sleep formula–there’s a huge demand for that market.
MCR: The anti-inflammatory one would also be good on your period. Your body’s going through a lot! And inflammation can make your period symptoms worse and vice-versa: your period symptoms can exacerbate inflammation you already have in your body. So Pain Free would be a good addition to period care as well.
NICOLE: Yes! We should be doing our first production run next week and product will be out by the end of the month.
MCR: That's very exciting. I'm interested in other kinds of pairings. Are there many people that would use multiple different chocolate bars at the same time?
NICOLE: Yes, we call this the chocolate cocktail. Brainy and Carefree are a really nice pairing. That's probably the top selection here in the office: one or two pieces of each to help you feel very chill yet focused.
MCR: Oh, love that.
NICOLE: That's a pairing we usually promote for back to school. Carefree’s really a nice addition to any product because any time you can reduce stress and anxiety a little bit alongside anything else it's a great pairing. So a little bit of energy and a little reduction in stress–that's also a great pairing: get up and go but also chill out.
There are definitely lots of different options to use multiple products at the same time in a chocolate cocktail.
MCR: My brain is spinning with so many of these combinations I want to try. A lot of these pairings would be so good on your period. Even on different days of your period, different pairings would be more effective. Like right before your period to help you get some sleep or adding to the extra burst of energy after your period. There are so many possibilities!
NICOLE: Personally I like a little bit of the stress and anxiety before my period. I don't know about you but I tend to get a little extra emotional or extra amped up a few days before my period. Here I am 40-something and still surprised when I’m feeling a little emotional.
MCR: I’m on Day 2 of my period right now and four days ago I was like, “Oh gosh, why I am being so mean for no reason?” And then my period came and I said, “Oh yes. Here I am.”
NICOLE: Yes, every month now for 40-some-odd years and I’m still surprised. My husband, however, is not surprised.
MCR: I know. My husband is getting much better at rolling with it because he can recognize that tomorrow will be different and I always say, “Thank you for reminding me because it doesn’t feel like it.”
NICOLE: Afterwards he’s like, “Oh, you’re back! Welcome back.”
MCR: Exactly. What about pairings with other items? Like either food or products beyond your specific chocolate bars? I'm thinking like teas or other herbal allies or…
NICOLE: Wine, maybe? Wine and chocolate is a great pairing. Highly recommend a nice glass of red wine, maybe a heavy Bordeaux and a piece or two of Sleepy chocolate, that’s definitely a guarantee for a good night sleep.
MCR: I can imagine! So another big element that made me super drawn to your company is your ethical business practices.
Another big reason that I started My Club Red is because there's so much out there that is harmful to our bodies with endocrine disruptors but also the huge conventional period products companies with their profit-is-king model don't care about business ethics essentially, it feels like sometimes. So I really love that you prioritize ethical sourcing. Can you tell me more about your ethical sourcing and practices?
NICOLE: All of our products are designed to be what we call radically inclusive, meaning we want to appeal to or be available to as many people as possible. Folks are starting to choose products based on things like ethically sourced ingredients, which we believe in.
So we want our cacao farmers to be treated humanely and fairly and paid appropriately. That's number one. Sourcing of course is key, but also our products are naturally vegan and gluten-free, have a low glycemic index, and are cholesterol-free. We want to be available to as many folks as possible and also be delicious.
That’s a hard balance to always have in terms of being all of those things to all people that we really did strive to, and I think ended up succeeding, create a product that is delicious and effective while also catering to those values that consumers are seeking.
MCR: Love that. That's definitely commitment I have is as well: Making sure that the products that I include in each box are helping people that subscribe to My Club Red be introduced to new companies, people, and products that also have these values. I'm so pleased every time I see another company that values the same priorities because we want more of this in the world.
NICOLE: More consumers are becoming more demanding on these values and the best way that you can continue to influence that is by where you spend your dollars. And spending your dollars with companies that do share your values.
MCR: Yes, so important.
MCR: Can you talk to us more about being a menstruator and a CEO?
NICOLE: Sometimes I feel like they’re the same thing--both challenging! Some 40 years ago now I had my first period when I was 13. On my thirteenth birthday, in fact. Happy birthday to me!
NICOLE: And all through my younger years, particularly in my twenties, I had horrific, painful periods. A while ago, no one really talked about that. Things that were suggested to you to help with that was to take an ibuprofen or to have a hot bath but mostly it was just grin and bear it.
My mother was a nurse and I thought maybe she would have gotten a little bit more advice or direction but I think that was also how she was guided, that “just deal with it” mentality and I don't think it's been until recently that women have started talking about, “What can I do to help?” “What is available to help reduce pain?”
Prior to Functional Chocolate I developed cannabis products, CBD-based products, and anti-inflammatories. I patented a transdermal patch for cannabis. We were able to isolate THCA, which is the non-active, not-get-you-high version of THC. THCA was a godsend for many women, particularly those with endometriosis. So now there is certainly a demand and people looking for things to help.
I have two kids, two boys; I’m a mother of adults. I think as you age, at least for me, my period got a little easier to deal with. I think you just grow accustomed to dealing with them.
I’m occasionally still surprised by my period coming or seeing why I’m so emotional. So now I have a system to help me manage periods. As you start to make that change into menopause, periods can certainly worsen or become more sporadic. Or some of my girlfriends talk about how they now feel like they're a teenager all over again with heavy menses and heavy pain again and just feel like a teenage girl over again.
MCR: That’s a lot to deal with!
NICOLE: I think that as I evolved what I use for my periods over the years, I found that changing and moving away from tampons to a cup, which I did 10 or 15 years ago, has also helped with pain and flow and regulation and even shortened the duration of my period.
MCR: I had the same experience after switching to a cup, and I wasn’t expecting that.
NICOLE: I wasn’t either!
MCR: I thought, “This is so much better! Why is everybody using tampons?” My periods were way worse before. They’re so much easier and shorter.
NICOLE: Using a cup makes me feel very in control of my period, so I’m not accidentally leaking. I’m just in control, and I love it.
MCR: Especially if you’re working–like you, as a CEO, and you have to show up while you’re on your period, the last thing you want to be thinking about is leaking or having to run to the bathroom between meetings to change your tampon again.
NICOLE: Exactly. Things are hard enough already, right?
MCR: Yep, and if we can make our periods one day shorter by using a cup, it’s excellent.
NICOLE: I certainly went from what was consistently a 5 or maybe 6 day period to more consistently maybe 3.
MCR: Yeah, I was shocked. I have about a 2 and a half day period now and I was never like that before a cup. It’s incredible. So there’s another good pairing: menstrual cups and the Rhythm chocolate bar.
NICOLE: I agree with you! 100 percent.
MCR: What do you see as your strengths that come from being a menstruator and a female CEO?
NICOLE: There are a few things. One is an ability to overcome adversity. I feel like we deal with a certain level of adversity and emotion on a much deeper level sometimes that I think is an advantage.
I also think our ability to be empathetic and emotional is a strength as a female CEO. I think we’re sometimes more in tune with our business partners and colleagues more so than men tend to be.
And the other strength, at least for me through the different industries I’ve been in, is I’ve largely found that women are underestimated. And that has largely been a strength for me because they’re not expecting us to come through with a great level of success. And when we do, we catch them all by surprise.
MCR: Oh I love that. What about challenges that come from being a menstruating CEO?
NICOLE: Being underestimated and not being as trusted or as respected. There’s a lot more proving of yourself that you have to do that is annoying.
I think there’s also, particularly when you’re in your childbearing years, some discount for “oh you’re going to need to have time off “ “Or oh you have to be available to your children as well” So I think sometimes women are overlooked for promotions, particularly to senior executive positions because of concerns over their availability. So that’s certainly a challenge. But we will just continue to persist.
MCR: I’m in Utah, and we certainly deal with a lot of the expectation of childbearing and assumed lack of availability. It’s very rampant here. Alright, are you ready for the period lightning round?
MCR: First up: What period product do you use most frequently?
NICOLE: I like the soft cup in particular.
MCR: Do you get period cravings?
NICOLE: Yes, usually red meat because I tend to run a little iron deficient, so I love a good ribeye.
MCR: Are your periods painful?
NICOLE: Occasionally. Usually the first or second day, but not as much as when I was younger.
MCR: What period symptom do you wish you didn’t experience?
NICOLE: The emotional stuff! I get very in my head and emotional and the world is down on me and everything is terrible and nothing is going to go right–that one. I would get rid of that one.
MCR: What is your favorite way to care for yourself when you’re on your period?
NICOLE: Wine and a bubble bath.
MCR: If you took a day off for menstrual leave, how would you spend your day?
NICOLE: Wine and a bubble bath! Maybe a long nap afterwards.
MCR: Alright, those are all the questions I had for you Nicole. Is there anything else you wanted to share with My Club Red readers?
NICOLE: We’re excited to be participating in this and we’d love for you all to try Rhythm chocolate!
Don't forget to download the full issue for FREE! This issue also includes a discount code for The Functional Chocolate Company; you won't want to miss it! Download your free issue of the My Club Red menstruality magazine HERE.