Pizza, periods, and potties. That’s what we’re talking about with Miki Agrawal, serial social entrepreneur and champion of stuff we don’t want to talk about.
“Actually,” she says, “it’s pizza, periods, pee, and poop.”
Miki is referring to each of her businesses, founded in that order. The first is WILD, an alternative farm-to-table pizza concept opened in New York in 2005. The second is THINX, what the www has dubbed the period underwear changing the way we think and talk about periods (#periodpower). The third is Icon, a brand of panties for women who suffer from incontinence (happens to 1 in 3 women over their lifetimes). And the fourth is Tushy, a small, modern day bidet that attaches to your toilet, eliminating the need for TP.
For some it might be hard to understand the entrepreneurial jump from a good slice to the uterus (though, truth be bold, their shape is vaguely similar), but Miki's career trajectory is not as wild or disparate as first glances deceive. The through line for all of these companies: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
AKA: She's solving problems with innovation.
Take THINX, the most dissected of her inventions. Buzzfeed editors have field tested it (with success). So have the gals at Nylon. With periods, Miki saw two problems. One: in the last 50 years there has been little to no innovation in the feminine hygiene category. Disposable pads were introduced to the market in 1888 and have been slowly improved upon since. A man invented the first tampon in 1931i. Certain birth control products promise your 'time of the month,' would only happen four times per year. In the '80s menstrual cups were introduced, but remain fringe. That's about it, despite the fact that almost every single woman on planet Earth gets her period. (We bleed for humanity people.) Two: Miki learned that 50% of Ugandan girls miss school when they're on their periods and that 100 million girls worldwide miss school when on their periods. She was so "mind-blown" that she went to Uganda to understand more. What she found was a domino effect detrimental to young woman and society: miss school, fall behind, drop out. It was a chain reaction unacceptable to Miki, so she, along with her twin sister, Radha, and friend Antonia Dunbar, decided to do something. Starting in 2011 THINX spent 3.5 years in R&D, where the trio worked to develop the tech for the underwear that would whisk blood into the fabric. The comfort level and practicality has been much discussed. Will it work? Public consensus is yes. Am I going to be running around in my own blood? No. Can I wear it all day, all day? Yes, though Miki suggests wearing a tampon on your heaviest days, as she does.
To address the second issue, THINX partnered with AFRIPads, a Uganda-based LTD. producing reusable pad solutions to women and girls, who would otherwise use cut up old mattress pads, banana leaves, newspapers, or simply stay home when menstruating. THINX is almost two.
Across the board, Miki is “looking at things that are uncomfortable to talk about— food, bodily fluid, bodily issues. People are very sensitive about food, their diets, and if they want to change their habits," she says. It's more obvious that people don't like to talk about bodily functions. According to Miki WILD was "the first restaurant to truly offer gluten-free pizza that was delicious."
"No one was talking about farm-to-table, gluten-free pizza in 2005," she says. "In the other categories it’s about using technological innovation to get people talking. To get people asking, ‘Why have I been doing it this one way this whole time?’‘Why have I just been coping?”
Despite the fact that these body convos typically happen behind closed doors, in doctors' offices, or wind up in the deleted category of our search history, Miki is getting people talking and believes TMI is dated. "There's almost nothing" she says, that she won't talk about. (Case in point: we chatted about Miki and longterm boyfriend using the rhythm method as birth control.)
But this isn't simply about making people uncomfortable, she has a head for business, and has isolated three prongs that are important to her across all of her brands. "You have to take things that are taboo and use innovation," she says. That's number one. But in order to get people talking you also need "considered design and accessible, relatable communication capable of changing the conversation." She believes that change will come, if you do all of the above “incredibly well and across every touch point of the brand: the website, the packaging, the product, the Facebook advertisements, the email, and the marketing."
Beyond innovation, it has to look good. "Everything needs to be considered aesthetically," she says. So THINX created visually enticing and appealing ads, the first of which were rejected by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the corporation that oversees the New York City public transit system. Outfront Media, the company that manages much of the MTA's advertising argued that the ads were too suggestive and sexual.
Part of what MTA was so offended by was the word "period," asking Miki and her director of marketing, Veronica del Rosario, “What if a 9-year-old boy sees these ads?"
"As if that was a rebuttal,’” she says. “And we said, ‘Wouldn’t that be great if he did. Wouldn't that be great!?”
Instead of getting their period panties in a bunch, THINX stuck to its guns, challenging the idea and double standard that the ads were sexual, citing the approval of breast augmentation and lingerie ads. The above grapefruit design ran-- as originally submitted -- at the Bedford L Subway stop. Other ads ran on turnstiles and in Grand Central.
“People don’t want to talk about the things that actually happen to human beings. Even the thing that creates human life, that perpetuates humanity. Most people, including women, have never even felt their own cervix. Even as they’re giving birth, they have no idea how a cervix dilates."
She knows that these are uncomfortable conversations for most people, but also thinks that the less weird you make it, the better. “If we present the facts, for example," she says, in reference to Tushy, "that there are 26 million combined cases of hemorrhoids, UTIs, and yeast infections, per year in American alone, in a way that’s fun and relatable, then people will remember that, and ask, ‘Why the fuck am I using toilet paper?’” Same goes for periods. She’s not talking about the female ‘time of the month’ in hushed tones, she's not hiding tampons in her back pocket; her convo surrounding periods is like a firm handshake. “Hey,” she says authoritatively, “let’s talk about my period. You know, that thing that made you? You’re welcome.” Approaching these topics with confidence and without humiliation are a major keys in shifting the shame narrative around our bodies.
Which is why beyond looking good, it has to sound good.
For Miki, one of the most important parts of her brands is presenting information in ways that people can digest. Or “like you’re texting your best girlfriend.” If you look at the websites for THINX or Tushy the language is what she calls “of the times.” These are not clinical and uncomfortable conversations about hemorrhoids. When you visit tushy.me the pop-out asks, “If a bird pooped on you, would you wipe or wash? So why is your butt any different?” The language challenges you, but in a friendly way.
"These are topics that could be talked about academically, medically, or clinically, but if all of the sudden it’s relatable, it’s not scary, it’s not a big change.” It also gives permission to everyone to talk about these subjects openly.
That’s not to say she hasn’t experienced WTF moments in investor and pitch meetings. “People have said, ‘Good luck getting people to use bidets. Good. Luck. No one is going to change. People also said, ‘No one is going to bleed in their underwear, that’s gross.”
But that hasn’t deterred her derriere; pushback is part of every entrepreneur's story. “Ye of little faith,” she laughs, referring to the doubters. “It just takes a few early believers and adopters to shout from the rooftops that they love it. Then you have a few great articles written, and it slowly builds from there.”
There are also environmental considerations with her products. For instance, 20 billion tampons and pads end up in landfills in the U.S. per year. She shares that we “cut down 50 million trees per year for American asses alone.”
“Do you know how many gallons of water it takes to make one single roll of toilet paper?” she asks. “37 gallons of water, isn’t that crazy?” she says, knowing yes, that is 100% crazy. For the people who argue that Tushy is also using water, she backfires. “Yes, you’re using a pint of water. Net per week you’re saving about 53 gallons of water.”
The pricing and product is accessible, easy to use, install, and/or wear. “It’s easy to change your habits. I’m giving you the easiest door to enter.”
All of the businesses also have corporate giving models. When you purchase Icon, it helps fund treatment and recovery for women with fistulas. THINX will continue to fund AFRIpad, but Miki says they have outgrown that partnership. What’s next and what she is incredibly excited about is the THINX Global Girls Club, a foundation currently in the 501c application process. “One of the things we kept hearing,” she says, “is that girls are unsafe when they hit puberty, unsafe walking to school, unsafe because they’re at risk for getting raped and having babies because they now have their periods.”
What Miki and her team intend is to “create safe spaces around the world for girls to learn about their bodies, get menstrual products at a subsidized cost, learn about self defense, personal finance, and entrepreneurship.” The pilot school will open in Tanzania, with branches in Uganda, India, and Nepal. It's taking social corporate giving to the next level.
As for any other bodily functions she's looking to take on, she claims, “No, I’m done. This is it.”
We hear her, but we’re not so convinced. Social innovation is in her blood.
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