Behind Cheeky Bonsai
written by Shea Sweeney
I’m interviewing Cheeky Bonsai founders, Catherine Nguyen and Elise Johnson, over the phone. Although I can’t see them, their closeness not only as colleagues, but as dear friends, is extremely apparent in the way they respond to questions, laugh, and make space for each other’s words. “We’re kind of business married,” Catherine says at one point, “You can’t shy away from problems, you have to learn how to communicate.” Elise chimes in; “Yeah, you really learn how to appreciate each other. And that appreciation deepens with time.”
The two first met as Stanford undergrads where Catherine studied adolescent health and Elise was focused on product design. Across years of friendship they bonded over common passions surrounding women’s health. Like many (more than 50% of women!), they’d both dealt with UTIs and were sick of the societal shame that comes with literally just having a vagina. So, they decided to do something about it.
They started developing the concept for a new kind of women's health brand during quarantine. Elise’s mom actually helped them come up with the name. “We were brainstorming over Zoom when my mom chimed in from the kitchen, How about bonsai like the bush?! And we added, Done, but let’s make it cheeky.”
An unapologetic stance regarding everyday health has always been at the core of what makes Cheeky Bonsai what it is, and Elise and Catherine are no stranger to the difficult process of unlearning shame. “I was raised in a very conservative Catholic family,” Catherine says, “So there were just certain things we never talked about. There were all these taboos surrounding sex, but also just talking about vaginas and vulvas. I carried that shame into my conversations with friends, but after going to college I really came into myself and became more comfortable talking about my health.” Being shameless isn’t a personality trait, Elise adds, “It’s always a process to accept and love yourself. Legacy brands in our space are all about the act of covering things up, but we’re not about being discreet. We’re flipping the embarrassing conversation on its head. Just like your favorite fashion or beauty brand, women’s health should be something that you can actually relate to.”
Picking a name, cake. Agreeing on what they wanted the brand to stand for, easy. The real hard work came in developing the type of science-backed products they wanted to see widely-available to all people with vaginas. The products they themselves wish they had access to over the past decade. A major step in moving toward that goal was connecting with a trusted medical partner. Dr. Emily Von Bargen, a Harvard urogynecologist (doctor specializing in pelvic floor conditions) and gynecological surgeon, ultimately served as their first medical advisor. And after lots of iterations, trial and error, and hard work in between, Cheeky Bonsai finally launched its first products for UTI care in August 2021.
In the process of creating Cheeky Bonsai, one major thing that Elise and Catherine learned was just how much misinformation about vaginal health is circulating on the internet. Stigmas about vaginal scent, UTIs, and sex, bad advice surrounding women’s health...The list goes on. “We thought there should be a trusted, science-backed brand guiding these conversations,” Elise says. Neither Elise or Catherine were TikTok people pre-Cheeky Bonsai, but they saw an opportunity to use the platform for sharing accurate information in a way that was both straightforward and fun. They clearly scratched an itch because their videos addressing basic vaginal health facts and how-to’s quickly went viral. “People on TikTok are open to more real conversations. Things aren’t edited. They aren’t polished,” Catherine says, “Be real. Be weird. Be supportive of each other.” Those are the vibes that Cheeky Bonsai wants to embody.
I signed off by asking Catherine and Elise what founding Cheeky Bonsai has taught them about themselves and about what it means to live unapologetically. This prompted two contemplative sighs, in unison. “Founding Cheeky Bonsai pushed me out of my comfort zone.” Catherine says. “Telling my own story and having it be broadcast.” I can feel Elise nodding supportively through the phone. “Yeah, we’re not the type of people who are going to yell in your face Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! I think it’s more about being comfortable in your way. Your comfort can manifest in many different ways.” It feels like one of the main reasons why Cheeky Bonsai has already made a poignant mark in the women’s health space, even though it's such a young company, is because of this very stance. They aren’t telling you to be anything. They are providing tools and resources to simply be comfortable being yourself. And that stance is a meaningful one for both the Cheeky Bonsai community and the founders themselves.