Miki Agrawal’s life-changing moment came when, early in her career as an investment banker, she slept through her alarm.
“Thank goodness I slept through my alarm clock,” says Miki, “I woke up to find that I’d narrowly missed being in the 9/11 attacks that claimed two of my colleagues.”
The shock was profound.
“I promised myself I was going to follow my heart – you just don’t know what will happen from one day to the next and I suddenly felt I had no time to lose.”
And that brings us to Miki’s most successful business to date – Thinx, an underwear brand producing ‘period-proof’ underwear with hopes to disrupt the US$15 billion feminine hygiene market.
Made of swimsuit-like material, the underwear is available individually, but Thinx encourages women to purchase a ‘cycle set’ of five pairs, which costs approximately US$150. It’s cheaper and more effective than disposable products in the long run. A 2015 Huffington Post article calculated that, for the average woman, the number of days spent menstruating over her lifetime adds up to 6.25 years. The associated costs easily run into the thousands: 70 per cent of women use tampons, at an estimated cost of approximately US$1800, but still require about US$450 of panty liners, while the need for replacement underwear due to staining – estimated at over US$2000 – is still far less than the cost of washing and buying new clothes and sheets.
A 2015 Huffington Post article calculated that, for the average woman, the number of days spent menstruating over her lifetime adds up to 6.25 years.
Since launching in 2014, Thinx has grown incredibly quickly, with revenue growing 20-fold within the first year. In those first 12 months, Miki and cofounder, her sister Radha, also employed 26 new staff members, who work at the company’s office within Manhattan’s Centre for Social Innovation. She’s clear on what it takes to be a good boss: “We grew from four to 30 people very quickly. I realised that setting values and culture as early as possible is essential – the mentality has to be about abundance, and seeing the glass as half-full.”
But the growth hasn’t been without its challenges – getting funding from male VCs for an extremely female-focused product, for example. To counteract this, Miki focused on talking numbers when pitching.
But, she says, investors believed in her and her co-founders enough to make the leap, even if they weren’t always completely convinced by the idea.
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To try to convince them otherwise, in one meeting Miki convinced a potential investor to put a pad in his underwear and walk around.
“Put it under your balls,” she instructed. The effect was instant empathy: “I can’t even think properly, this is so uncomfortable!” he said, before investing.
Then, last year, when Thinx tried to put up ads in the New York subway, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) initially refused their artwork on the grounds that words like ‘period’ might offend people. It caused a media controversy that went viral, giving Thinx the kind of international publicity that start-ups only dream of. In the end, MTA ran the ads.
The brand’s latest campaign continues to push boundaries. One of its 2016 billboards features a male transgender model wearing period underwear that looks like men’s undies; highlighting the issue that many transgender men still menstruate and are an under-served market.
But Thinx isn’t the only period underwear brand on the market – Dear Kate is another popular US brand, while Australia’s Modibodi is also gaining recognition. Miki is happy for the market to grow, seeing it as helpful to have more people talking about these taboos; creating more buzz and helping make high-tech underwear, and periods, less ‘weird’.
Key to Thinx is its empowerment model. As a former semi-professional soccer player, Miki travelled to South Africa for the World Cup in 2010 when she met a girl who wasn’t in school. Asked why she wasn’t in class, the girl answered that it was her “week of shame”. Miki learnt about the large number of girls (and women) who have little access to hygiene products, which leads to many girls avoiding or dropping out of school. This inspired a partnership with AFRIpads: each pair of Thinx helps fund reusable, locally-made menstrual pads for women in Uganda as well as providing employment.
Yes, periods is a topic you won’t see openly discussed at cocktail parties too often – and happily so, as mentioning the unmentionables and breaking taboos is high on Miki’s agenda. A slightly horrified American journalist wrote in a recent article that when Miki took a call from their magazine to answer a few questions, that she put the call on speakerphone, used the toilet, then flushed it, all while answering questions.
“I love to talk about the things we’re not supposed to talk about,” she says. “What Steve Jobs said is, once you realise that the society that tells us to go to school, get a job, get a house, get married – that society was developed by people no different to me or you. So we have a huge opportunity to create our own reality,” says Miki. “I think entrepreneurs thrive on that idea of creating their own reality.”