Kim Airs: From Harvard University To Sex Toy Entrepreneur
Airs didn't use a sex toy until she was almost 30, and dating a radio disc jockey whom she dubbed "Smut Hound." She was working as the assistant to an esteemed Harvard University administrator at the time, but shifted to part-time to open a sex shop that quickly grew into a $1.3 million-a-year business. These days, Airs is a successful sex-toy consultant, penning sex toy reviews, lecturing on college campuses, advising sex toy businesses, as well as conferring with doctors and their patients about the best sex toys for relieving certain medical issues.
There were plenty of naysayers during this career transformation. But Airs now has a personal motto to deal with that: "I care what you think about, but I don't care what you think about me."
Finding Her Passion
Married as a freshman in college, Airs says that her sexual curiosity made her husband uncomfortable. By 27, they were divorced. Restless, Airs landed a part-time summer job at Harvard and moved into doing administration work for whoever needed it. (She even briefly worked for Larry Summers, then an economics professor; years later, he would become university president and secretary of the U.S. Treasury.)
Airs says that while she was temping, a top Harvard administrator hired her to be his full-time assistant. While she wouldn't name him to AOL Jobs, she says that she enjoys the shock value of disclosing his name to friends. "They can't believe a freak like me would work for him," she says, laughing. The two remain close friends.
Around this time, Airs also began dating the "Smut Hound." He "totally supported everything I wanted to do and learn about sex," she says. Soon, Airs was the in-house sexual expert for Harvard's entire administrative staff. More timid co-workers would ask her to help them pick out their first vibrators, or suggest a porn movie to watch with their boyfriends. "Basically the same stuff I do now," Airs realizes. She just hadn't yet found a way to get paid for it.
How She Got Her Big Business Idea
Then one day in 1992, she had a conversation with a woman running a G-spot workshop, who had struggled to find a space willing to host her in Boston. "We could really use a women's sex toy store in Boston," Airs remembers her saying. And like so many entrepreneurs, she spotted the opportunity. "I could do that," Airs thought. "The clouds burst open and the lightbulb went off."
Raising $14,000 from an old co-worker, Airs rented a 225-square-foot, second-floor former insurance agent's office in Brookline, a few miles from Harvard. She tried to be low-key and didn't advertise, while working part-time at Harvard in the morning to keep her benefits. The only way you'd know her store existed was through word-of-mouth and her subtle outside signage: "Grand Opening: A Woman's Boutique."
The first year, Airs grossed $50,000; by 2004, she had $1.6 million in revenue, a 1,000-square-foot store at street level, and a dozen employees. She felt vindicated. "I can't tell you how many people had said, 'Boston, that's so conservative. It'll never fly there,' " Airs recalls. But in 2006, tired of running a business, she sold it and moved to Los Angeles, where she worked for a major sex toy manufacturer, and then a home sex toy party company.
These days, Airs feels that she has the best of all worlds, writing reviews, speaking about sex toys, consulting for sex toy companies and advising doctors on how to treat conditions like vaginismus (a tensing of the vagina that makes penetration painful) and erectile dysfunction.
Ultimately, Airs believes that her job is to help people have better, happier, and more fulfilled sexual lives. Plenty of people thought she was nuts for trying to turn this particular passion into a career, but she shrugged them all off. Now she sports a tattoo across the nape of her neck: "I don't sleep, I dream."
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin. Follow Claire on Twitter. Email Claire at firstname.lastname@example.org. Add Claire to your Google+ circles.more...