On Tuesday afternoon Bwog sent staff writer Nikki Shaner-Bradford to a talk and Q&A with entrepreneur Miki Agrawal, organized by Barnard’s Smart Women Lead and Pre-Health Organization, so that she could learn more Agrawal’s start-ups, scuffle with the MTA, and thoughts on how to do “cool shit.”
Yesterday afternoon Miki Agrawal, CEO of Thinx and an all-around badass feminist, scootered into the Diana to speak to Barnard students about her journey as an entrepreneur, Thinx, feminism, and how to create a successful startup. She also brought a pop-up shop for the infamous Thinx underwear—meant to be period-proof—with her.
Agrawal began by sharing her story pre-Thinx. As the owner of two successful restaurants she was already a self-starter and a businesswoman. The inspiration for Thinx came when she and her twin sister were competing in the annual three-legged race at their family BBQ. Halfway through, her sister began her period, and post-race they rushed (still tied to one another) upstairs. Agrawal explained that watching her sister wring out her bathing suit bottoms sparked the idea: what if she could create a product that would allow women to continue their days largely uninterrupted by their periods?
Having to change a pad or tampon every few hours, Agrawal noted, isn’t practical for the schedule many women maintain today. The feminine hygiene industry is worth $15 billion, and yet there have only ever been three major innovations: the pad, tampon, and menstrual cup. Agrawal went on to say that while there are many instances in which we find changing tampons unfeasible (e.g. taking exams, performing surgery, attending concerts, playing in an athletic event, and so on), having a period in a developing country is a life sentence of sorts. The mission for Thinx came together when Agrawal, a soccer player and enthusiast, attended the World Cup in South Africa. While there she met many girls who had dropped out of school because of their periods, due to a lack of access to proper sanitary methods. In fact, over 100 million girls miss school the week of their period every year worldwide.
This poses greater societal issues as well. Agrawal explained a theory called the girl effect. The idea is this: if a girl and a boy are given $100, 90% of the girl’s money will go back into the community, whereas only 25-30% of the boy’s will. “So,” Agrawal asked, “If having a productive woman can elevate the community three times faster than a guy, if millions of girls are dropping out of school because of something as natural as their periods, and that’s millions of dollars a community is losing, how can we solve this and get women and girls to be productive and stay in school?”
And so, Thinx came into being. Today, Thinx is teamed up with a company in Uganda that creates reusable pads. For every pair of Thinx purchased, some of that money goes to buying a whole pack of these reusable pads, ultimately subsidizing them for these girls and women.
Along with the idea and the mission, Miki Agrawal needed a product. Using Kickstarter, indiegogo, and social media to raise funds, Agrawal and her team spent 3.5 years working on the technology of the product (luckily, Agrawal added, she had her restaurants to pay rent). Underwear is one of the hardest garments to create. Because all bodies are so different, the Thinx team found multiple obstacles along their journey. First, the underwear had to fit every woman. On top of that, it also had to be antimicrobial, moisture-wicking, and leak-proof. Lastly, it had to be able to absorb up to two tampons worth of blood. The team eventually found a fabric, and settled on their three initial styles, propelled along when they won $25,000 in a start-up competition.
“I made every mistake in the first year,” Miki noted. “If you’re interested in launching a business you have to have a soft launch and then a grand opening.” Thinx did just that. After their “coming out party” in May 2015, the company soon went viral through Forbes, and not for the last time.
Explaining the infamous MTA ad scandal in which their advertisements were deemed too obscene, Agrawal emphasized the sexism of the third party advertising agency the MTA uses. The MTA doesn’t approve adds; they have to go through another company. Agrawal explains that the goal of her ads were to be artful, to give the feeling that viewers were walking through a gallery. Her marketing mindset is the question “Is it fridge worthy?”
Thinx managed to create their entire campaign on a $5,000 budget, but their ads were rejected. As they fought back, Thinx went viral again, all as they struggled against the misogynistic and baseless rejection. How can trains be plastered with breast augmentation ads using grapefruits, but period panty ads using grapefruits are inappropriate? The ads were ultimately approved and can now be seen in subway stations across New York.
Thinx would go viral an additional four times, once for their decision to create a boy-short model for “people with periods” to market and cater to the trans community. Because many people with periods may not identify as women, Agrawal notes that it was important that Thinx be welcoming and available to all people with periods.
In light of all of these controversies, Agrawal stated that she hopes to “choose radical authenticity every time.” Her company is “full of feminists, but we refuse to be typecast.”
She finished her story with the five things she wished she learned before starting her businesses. First, the saying “you are the average of the five closest friends you keep” is real. Take a hard look at the people you spend your time with, Agrawal advised, and seek people you want to be like. Second, solve a real problem. “It takes ten years to be an overnight success,” she joked. Third, shift culture through innovation: to change our society we have to do new things and create new ideas. Fourth is that purpose is your best motivation: Thinx had staying power because it’s solving a problem that affects so many people, and it’s grounded in a mission Agrawal feels passionately about. Lastly, she told the group, ask people how you can help them. That is how you create long-lasting connections.
The event then turned over to a Q & A in which audience members asked Agrawal about her challenges, successes, and past job experiences. Overall, it was an incredibly inspiring and afternoon, and Agrawal’s energy and enthusiasm generated a fun, bonding, girl-power atmosphere. It can’t get any more Barnard than that.
1 train on a sunday via Raeky/CC BY-SA 2.5