Athena’s Home Novelties’ Jen Jolicoeur

TRIPOD ATHENA POSTER

Athena’s talks philanthropy and sex education

You can spot Athena’s Home Novelties in Woonsocket from a good distance – most days, their signature purple RV with a giant illustration of a winking woman is parked at the front of their lot.

It’s a fitting emblem for the company in many ways. Bright purple, an attention-grabbing, unafraid color – appropriate for a company that has defied convention with brazen confidence. Winking, because the Home Novelties in question are primarily sex toys. And the RV is a sort of mobile showroom, symbolizing the way founder and CEO Jennifer Jolicoeur got her start, and the way most of Athena’s thousands of “goddesses” nationwide ply their wares.

The goddesses – most are female, although there are also Adoni in the pantheon – mostly conduct business through private home parties. Think of the Tupperware parties of yore. Each goddess lines up her own appointments and becomes the focus of a party that’s also a presentation of available products and how best to use them. But beyond the practical, each goddess also is tasked with creating an atmosphere where sexuality can be discussed, can be fun, and often where education can take place as well.
Jolicoeur began working out of the trunk of her car, using a start-up loan from her grandfather (she made back that loan the first week). Now she is the Mother Goddess of a 6 (and growing) million dollar per year business.

This month, Jolicoeur is being honored by the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council for her contributions to the region – charitable, economic and cultural. The awards show, on October 3 at Twin River, highlights several regional businesses that have been helping to lift the Blackstone Valley back toward the prosperity it enjoyed during the industrial revolution and the era of New England manufacturing. Jolicoeur is an apt choice for this honor – she enjoys discussing the merits of the buy local movement, and of the town she grew up in and keeps her company in.

“I will never set foot in a Walmart,” she says, her cascade of curly dark hair a bouncing embodiment of her tremendous energy. “The local businesses are the ones that need our support.” When she coordinates Athena’s training events, which draw goddesses from around the country, she tries to direct them to local businesses. “I’ll warn places like Chan’s – we make a flyer for a lot of local businesses, saying ‘400 goddesses are coming!’” And we encourage our visitors to seek out these local treasures.

When I first met Jen Jolicoeur 12 years ago, she was in a much smaller office, carefully appointed with Greek imagery, classical statuary, and solid oaken furniture. Nothing about her lobby or office seemed explicit at all. I sat down to talk to her, and almost immediately her phone rang. “Excuse me,” she said, grabbing the call… on a phone shaped like a giant penis. Unexpected, and almost incongruous, that experience really defined for me the mix of classy and naughty that Athena’s represents.

Now, Jolicoeur has an assistant to take her calls during meetings, so we sat down again to discuss how she got started, hurdles she’s faced, product testing, her bra-raising charitable endeavor, and what Athena’s means to her.

Motif: What is Athena’s all about? How do you describe your business?

JJ: We want to make sure that sex education is available to people – really good sex education – in a comfortable, safe environment – like the home. Basically, we teach people how to have better sex, and we also provide them with the tools to help them. We want to make sure people are having better sex.

Our reps need to have confidence in the products and be knowledgeable about human sexuality – there’s a lot of training…

Motif: It seems like there’s an evangelical element there as well.

JJ: In junior high school, we learn a fundamental lesson …The girls who have sex – there are certain names for them, and the boys who have sex – completely different names. It’s almost like we cheer on the boys who have sex, and we make the girls who have sex feel somewhat ashamed of themselves. And that carries on through our lives. Women who are married still feel that tension, that conflict inside themselves. ‘Should I be a sexual person? Should I do these things? What will my husband think of me? What will I think of me?’

We really try to help people find balance – where you can be a wife and a mother and you can also be a sexual being and feel good about it.

The women who work with me don’t look like strippers and porn stars. We have bus drivers, bank tellers, nurses, teachers … from all walks of life, women who are skinny, chubby, black, white, Asian, mothers, gay. It’s this melting pot of women who represent everyday women. And they don’t have to look like Megan Fox to have great sex.

Motif: How did Athena’s get started?

JJ: My grandfather lent me the money to start Athena’s. He met me down at the bank, and he lent me $8,000, which was a big deal at the time, and not an easy thing to ask for. And when I met him a week later and was able to return the $8,000, he said, ‘Are you sure you’re not selling drugs?’ I told him, ’No, PePe, it’s sex toys. Everybody wants to have better sex.’ And he said, ‘Well, OK, but let’s not let your grandmother know.’

[So we told her I was selling lingerie. Until my grandmother’s hairdresser, who had been to a party, accidentally revealed what I was actually selling.]

The next time I came to visit her, she said, ‘Jenny, I heard that you don’t sell lingerie. You sell dilly-does.’

So, I took a deep breath, looked at her and said, ‘Meme, it’s true. I sell sex toys.’
‘I’m not sure about this,’ she replied.
I went outside and got my kit, and I brought it inside and put it on the floor and I said, ‘Meme, I’d like to show you what I sell.’ And I took everything out, and she sat there on the couch, and I showed her everything. From body drizzle to anal beads. Everything. And in the end, she looked at me and said, ‘Jenny, I wish I had known someone like you when I was a young woman.’

Then I didn’t have to lie to my grandmother anymore. Unfortunately, she passed away a year later. But I am so glad we had that moment together. So glad.

Motif: Tell me about some of the hurdles you’ve faced.
JJ: Well, early on, the city sent some people to talk to me and investigate the business. They accused me of running a prostitution ring. It was pretty humiliating, and here I was walking a 70-year-old gentleman through exactly what it was we did, to get him to understand we weren’t exploiting women – so much the opposite.
And a few years ago, information came to light about phthalates – those are compounds that might be linked to health problems, and they’d been used in a lot of products to soften plastic. We addressed it right away, and changed our product line to be phthalate-free. It was kind of horrifying – we want to make people feel good, you know – we certainly don’t want to make them sick!
Those are some of the big ones, but really – I got started before the internet. You couldn’t Google how to do things, you just had to figure it out. And even now, so much of what we’re doing, there really aren’t existing models. There are for sales, of course, but what we’re doing goes beyond that. So there have been challenges at every step, and you just have to fight through them.

Motif: How is product testing “handled”?
JJ: Product testing – that’s a lot of fun. There are literally thousands of products that come our way every year, for every conceivable orifice. I ask each sales rep from the manufacturers to narrow it down and send a dozen of the new products they’re most excited about.

Then I have a committee – the Goddess / Adonis Advisory Board GAAB). They are sent boxes with the best of the best, and they’re instructed to test these products and fill out surveys afterward. I mean, it may seem less sensual, saying, ‘Ok honey, how do you feel? Are you tingling? Do you feel that you lasted longer?’ But it’s fun.
They are so elated to get these boxes. It’s work. But you couldn’t ask for better work. It’s great to get a big brown box and spill it out and go ‘OK, what makes sense? What three items can we use in one session that would complement each other?’
And then we meet and talk about the survey results – we only select products that get a 70 percent approval.

So yeah, it’s interesting to have these heated debates about whether we should include these particular anal beads or not, for example, but there’s a lot of junk in the industry. Sometimes I’ll hold one and go, ‘Whose idea was this? This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.’ And then I’ll see it in a sex toy store in NY or California and I can say – oh my god, that thing, we tested that, it’s awful! We want to help people avoid going down that road.

Motif: When I came in today, I passed walls with hundreds of bras posted on them. What’s up with that?
JJ: Those are part of the Athena’s Cup drive.

Motif: Tell me about the Athena’s Cup.

JJ: I wanted to find an appropriate way to give back – a cause we could really get behind. And one of our goddesses that I’m close to was fighting breast cancer. I saw what she was going through, what her family was going through, and it made all of us really aware of the havoc and destruction cancer causes.
So we started the Athena’s Cup. The goal is to create the longest chain of bras in history. We looked up the existing record, and it’s 166 thousand put together in Australia. We set our sights on 169,000.

In the process, we’re raising awareness and asking for $5 donations, which enabled us to make a $20,000 donation to the Gemma Foundation to prevent Breast Cancer.
Motif: How is that going?

JJ: It’s another thing where a lot of people told me I was crazy – ‘do you realize how many bras that is? Where are you going to store them?’

So far, we have gotten more than 110,000 bras from around the world. A lot of them are in a warehouse, and we have a big room here filled floor to ceiling with boxes of bras. A lot are signed, and every bra tells a story. We’ve been doing it for four years now.

Motif: What happens when it’s done? Does it become a public art project?

JJ: Maybe, yeah. It will stretch for 95 miles. There will be quite an event when we hit the record – we’ll probably have to do it in a spiral on big field. After, bras in good shape will be donated to clothing projects for the poor. There’s a charity that sews old bras into quilts. Celebrity bras will be auctioned off.

Then I will open this bottle of Champagne I’ve been saving. It says, “Dream Big” on it, and here I wrote “169,000” on the bottle. It represents this project for me, and I can’t wait to uncork it.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month! More info about the Athena’s Cup at athenascup.org.

Motif: Why Athena – what inspired the name?

JJ: I chose Athena because Athena is a warrior goddess. Aphrodite, goddess of love, or Venus, goddess of beauty might seem like a more obvious choice.
But I felt I had declared war on … women not having orgasms, on discriminatory sexual expectations. I wanted a warrior. I needed a warrior. Because when it comes to people and sex – whew! There are a lot of strange beliefs out there. That women shouldn’t have orgasms. That good girls don’t enjoy sex. There were a lot of walls that I needed to break down. And I needed a warrior to help me do it. And I knew this was not going to be an easy journey when I started.
My own dad said, ‘This is the biggest mistake of your life.’ Those are the words my father said. So I needed a warrior goddess on my side. To help me change these beliefs – that any woman who was talking about sex would be considered a prostitute or a porn star or a slut, or all these negative derogatory terms.

Motif: What does your father think now?

JJ: There are three words a daughter loves to hear from her father. “I was wrong.” That was pretty great.

Note: Some of the conversation has been condensed for our readers.

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