5 Questions with Mia Davis & Elise Racine

Cofounders of Tabú

Mia Davis & Elise Racine

Mia and Elise are the co-founders of Tabú, the first social media app to provide “sex ed for gen y.” In 2014, they graduated from Stanford, where they became friends and sorority sisters as freshmen. Mia continued on to work at Salesforce as a user experience designer on the Community Cloud, while Elise spent the year as a Kiva ZIP fellow working on marketing and small business development. They joined forces as friends and social entrepreneurs to start Tabú.

  1. Why did you start Tabú?

Mia: I grew up in a fairly conservative and religious family and attended a parochial school for 11 years. My upbringing definitely provided a great foundation; however, my academic education was often conflated with my religious beliefs.

For example, I was taught that sex was reserved for marriage (which it totally can be), and the way it was described led me to believe it was a painful act with no other purpose than reproduction. In high school, this base-line “knowledge” was supplemented with the discovery (through wonderfully graphic PowerPoint slides in health class) that not using a condom led to babies, or horribly unpleasant rashes and diseases.

Needless to say, I was a bonafide sexpert. Coming from this background, I experienced firsthand the psychological, emotional, and physical damage a shameful and painful association with sex can have on a young person, especially a young woman.

As I developed more open and candid friends in college, I realized just how ridiculous it is that we’re all afraid to talk about sexuality, sexual health, even menstruation — realities people worldwide experience everyday.

Sex is hypersensationalized in the media, yet its depiction is often shallow, inaccurate, and void of the fundamentals for health, happiness, and safety. The importance of relevant, comprehensive sex education cannot be stressed enough, especially in modern times. We not only need to understand how to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STIs, but also the value of and necessity for clear and active consent, the nuances of sexual and gender identity, and that periods are a fact of life, not a source of shame. The goal of Tabú is to normalize, modernize, and revitalize the conversation. We strive to empower young people with information when they need it and ensure no one feels alone.

We not only need to understand how to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STIs, but also the value of and necessity for clear and active consent, the nuances of sexual and gender identity, and that periods are a fact of life, not a source of shame.

Elise: I was very lucky in that I attended an all-girls school that provided an inclusive sexual health education. It was an environment that not only fostered a sense of female empowerment and pride, but also encouraged us to take responsibility for our health.

Coming to college I realized this wasn’t exactly the norm. I was definitely judged for being a “feminist” and began to see firsthand how our society’s deficiencies in sexual health education had created an atmosphere where many individuals’ needs and desires are marginalized. I wanted to be part of a solution, but wasn’t quite sure where to start.

The more I talked to my friends and peers the more I realized what we needed was a resource that revolutionized the discussion. Sex is a normal, crucial, and basic part of the human experience. Yet we as a society are afraid to openly discuss the issue. When we do, it’s often from a very specific viewpoint. I recognize that things are definitely better than they were in the past, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement in how sex, sexual health, and sexuality are taught. Our current approach leaves a great deal of gaps, which in turn create a whole slew of problems.

The reason I’m so excited about Tabú is I truly believe it can truly change how we approach these topics and, consequently, how we relate to one another. It’s time to modernize the conversation and make it more approachable and engaging. I can’t wait to draw upon my own experience growing up to create a platform where all feel empowered, not only to learn but also express their opinions and experiences free of judgment.

2. What was your journey into Silicon Valley?

Mia: I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, and I like to think my Midwestern roots keep me grounded in the hustle of the Silicon Valley (let’s hope it’s true!). I definitely have a special fondness for my fellow Midwesterners.

My aunt and uncle moved to the Bay Area, and on a family trip, we visited Stanford’s campus when I was about 12. Between the sunshine and palm trees, it was pretty easy to imagine a life without seven months of winter. I set my sights on Stanford, and I’m incredibly grateful my dream became a reality.

I was intent on pursuing criminal law after watching The Green Mile when I was little (probably too little), but I discovered in high school the potential that engineering disciplines had to reach people on a global scale. I ultimately fell into user experience because it allowed me to leverage technology and empathy to make people’s lives easier. It was both fun and rewarding, and it continues to motivate me. Naturally, being at Stanford influenced my interest in all things apps and startups, and thus my journey into Silicon Valley.

Elise: I definitely didn’t expect to end up in Silicon Valley growing up. I was raised right outside Washington, D.C. and loved the East Coast. I was pretty sure I wasn’t leaving any time soon. But I also dreamt of rowing for a Division I team in college and Stanford had a great program (not to mention amazing academics), so when I received an offer I immediately said yes. I fell in love. It’s one of the best decisions of my life.

Starting off college, I was interested in international politics and public health. After spending a summer interning at a hospital in India I decided to major in Sociology. I loved the flexibility to study not only what made people tick, but the very fabrics of our society. It’s a passion that, combined with my interest in international and small business development, led me to Kiva. I love that company and their mission. It was working there I first became interested in being part of a startup.

I love the potential of the startup scene here, the intellectual curiosity and desire to change the world. It’s an environment where you’re encouraged to question convention and pursue creative methods to make a difference. I’m constantly fascinated by everything going on around me. But I am still a proud member of the DMV and glad to bring a global/social good component to what we’re doing!

It’s an environment where you’re encouraged to question convention and pursue creative methods to make a difference.

3. What’s a challenge you’ve faced as a minority founder, and how have you dealt with it?

Mia: The greatest challenge is definitely being taken seriously. Elise and I don’t exactly match the archetype of startup founders, which paired with the nature of our business, sometimes impedes people from respecting us and the work we are doing.

Fortunately, we are both highly optimistic and driven people, so any setbacks push us to work harder and smarter. We will always be who we are, and we wouldn’t be where we are if we weren’t, so it’s important for us to maintain our convictions. It’s also somewhat of a blessing because it helps us find the right people to join our efforts.

We will always be who we are, and we wouldn’t be where we are if we weren’t, so it’s important for us to maintain our convictions.

Elise: I would agree that the biggest challenge we’ve faced is being taken seriously. As Mia mentioned we don’t exactly fit the image of a typical founder team. But I also think that Tabú is the better for it.

Not only are we very focused on finding people who are likewise driven by this mission, but our experiences have pushed us to consider creative solutions to the issues we’re trying to address. We aren’t the type of people to back down from a challenge, so I know that the quality of our product is only going to get better with each trial we face.

4. When’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

Mia: One of the best parts about being in user experience, specifically in enterprise software, is the endless number of opportunities to improve someone’s daily life. While working at Salesforce, one of my main focuses was community management and moderation. Because these tools are powerful and robust, they can often also be quite complex.

In technology and design, it’s critical to remember that users are real people with real goals and pain points. It’s immensely rewarding when you see how a small change or a new feature can impact someone’s productivity and remove daily frustrations. I’m very proud of and grateful for the opportunity I had at Salesforce to optimize our product for our customers.

Elise: I love pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. As a result, I have a tendency to peruse slightly atypical experiences (such as teaching an art class on El Greco in Mongolia…)

It’s also a practice that’s led me to three summers with the Tibetan refugee community in India. What most people in my life don’t know is I almost didn’t go back my second summer. India, especially rural India, is not the easiest environment for a woman. I knew other Westerners there who were sexually assaulted and faced some scary situations myself. I struggled to decide if I wanted to face those challenges again.

I spent months debating if I wanted to return. Ultimately, I felt a strong commitment to the Tibetan community who had welcomed me into their lives and knew I would regret not facing my fear. So I made my way back and ended up completing a 150+ page honors thesis on the Tibetan self-immolations.

The trip and topic were difficult and exhausting, but it was so rewarding giving a voice to an issue I felt so passionately about and ending my Stanford career on such a detailed academic project. To this day it is one of my proudest achievements.

5. If you could give your 18-year-old self any advice, what would it be?

Mia: This is a very timely question, because my 18-year-old cousin is off to college this fall, so I ‘ve been thinking a lot about advice I would give her or anyone entering “adulthood.”

The most important piece of advice I’d give myself is to surround yourself with people who make you happy and with whom you present your best self. Those people may change over time, and that’s okay. It’s natural to want to hold onto relationships due to nostalgia and affection, but if you notice that certain individuals bring you down far more than they lift you up, the healthiest — and toughest — decision you can make is letting them go.

This advice goes hand-in-hand with open communication. I’m pretty easy-going, and when I was younger I was definitely a pushover. I’m still evolving, and in that process I’ve learned the importance of standing up for yourself and communicating when you aren’t happy about something. Problems can often be solved quickly if you just talk about them! Being open and honest (to the level to which you are comfortable) is extremely valuable for mental and emotional health.

Elise: The biggest advice I would give my 18-year-old self is to pursue your dreams unapologetically, even if others don’t fully understand your choices. I’m a big believer in following your passions. Work, no matter what you choose to do, is hard, but if you really love it the hard days are that much easier.

Work, no matter what you choose to do, is hard, but if you really love it the hard days are that much easier.

Working first at Kiva and now at Tabú, I’ve never regretted the sacrifices I’ve had to make because I fully believed in the mission behind what I was doing. I was not, however, always aware of the real value of pursuing my passion or fully comfortable doing so.

It’s easy especially when we’re younger to get caught up in others’ visions of ourselves. In other words, what they want us to be and do. It took me some time to stop trying to live up to those expectations and deviate from the path I thought others wanted me to take.

While I definitely don’t regret the choices I‘ve made, I do wish I’d learned that lesson sooner. You will never make everyone happy so make the decisions that are the best for you. Your happiness comes first.

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