Thinx’s CEO Talks Feminism, Advertising, and Conscious Capitalism

When I first asked people what they thought about the concept of “period panties,” they responded with scrunched faces and genuine confusion.

“Wait. How does that work?”

“Why would anyone want to bleed in their underwear?”

These are the questions that Thinx CEO Miki Agrawal has attempted to answer with content campaigns strewn across New York City’s public transportation system and embedded in our Facebook feeds. As it turns out, there are plenty of reasons to bleed freely in your Thinx, the period underwear that holds up to two tampons’ worth of flow. But the shocking part about Thinx has less to do with menstrual blood and more to do with the company’s messaging. It wants to be part of a political discussion, which makes an already unique brand stand out even more.

Agrawal and her feminist posse at Thinx want to flood the public space—from subway stations to paid social media—with content that boldly confronts age-old taboos and shame related to women’s bodies. As one of the ads reads: “WHY ARE PERIOD ADS EVERYWHERE? The question is, why shouldn’t there be? There is a 1 in 12 chance you are on your period right now, yet we rarely discuss menstruation outside of whispers from woman to woman.”

As a woman challenging a gender-biased “ick” factor, Agrawal has faced skepticism in the limelight. New York magazine painted her as a flimsy feminist “literally” more interested in Burning Man than promoting women’s empowerment. The New York Times gave her more credit for entrepreneurial endeavors and a bohemian lifestyle than her mission to empower females.

Yet regardless of her public perception and assumptive portrayals, it’s hard to ignore the force with which Thinx has entered today’s narrative on women’s rights. When I spoke with Agrawal, I set out to understand how she uses content to influence both feminist culture and her company’s bottom line. It turns out that she had a lot to say.

Tell me a little bit about why you started this company. What’s your goal in the feminine-hygiene industry?

I like to look at the industry of women in America from a bird’s-eye view. In 1931, the tampon was invented by a man. In 1969, they put the adhesive strip underneath the pad to prevent it from moving around. Before that, women had to use menstrual belt clips to hold the pad in place. The 1980s is when the menstrual cup came into the scene, but it’s still not really mainstream. Really, the entire 21st century is going through major innovations.

If you’re walking down the street and you have your period, sometimes you’re like, “Oh shit, I just forgot to change my tampon,” and all of sudden you’re in an uncomfortable position.

My sister is a surgeon at Johns Hopkins, and in the middle of operating on someone’s face, she can’t just be like, “Yo, hold that face open, I’ll be right back, I need to change my tampon.” Whether you’re stuck in traffic, at a concert, on a date, or taking a test—for women, when they have their period, they’re in a compromised place.

And Thinx? 

The idea came when my sister and I were at our family barbecue. We were defending our three-legged race championship title. In the middle of the race, my sister started her period. That’s when we had the idea. We were like, wouldn’t it be awesome to create a pair of underwear that never leaks, never stains, absorbs blood, and that actually supported women during any situation just like this?

Cut to 2010 when I had the opportunity to go to the World Cup. While I was there, I met a group of girls who weren’t in school and asked them why. What one girl said changed my life: “It’s my week of shame.”

I came back really mad, really pissed off. I discovered millions of girls were dropping out of school because of something as natural as their period. That’s when I resurrected the idea of creating period underwear.

What role has content played in propelling Thinx’s mission? 

We want to talk about the things that are generally uncomfortable to talk about. The concept of feminism has had a very knee-jerk reaction. What feminism means to you might be very different from what feminism means to me. We know that feminism means gender equality, but beyond that, what are the nuances?

We’re sharing feminist news on our blog on a weekly basis to educate people around what’s happening with women’s issues in a tone that’s very uplifting, friendly, and accessible to the masses. Our language, the way we talk about it feels like you’re talking to your best friend, like you’re writing her a text message.

If you look at our ads, it’s accessible copy as well. It makes you think. It makes you stop in your tracks and have a conversation about it. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do: Give people permission to talk about something that’s taboo by using language they’re familiar with.

I love the idea of giving people permission to talk about something that’s been considered taboo. 

We’re able to do that with accessible language, artful imagery, and by considering design. We just consider every touchpoint in the way we share the message because it’s very sensitive.

Who creates Thinx content? 

We do everything in-house.

Is there any language you consider off-limits?

Of course. Every time our team sends me copy, whether it’s about feminism or design, I review it and say if it feels too intense. Is it too gratuitous or can you soften it up? If I’m not smiling enough right now, go back and make me smile. That’s a key point. I want to make sure that you smile throughout the experience of seeing our stuff. Make you smile and then think.

Outside of the ads, is there a reason that you chose to focus on a newsletter as your strategy for content distribution? 

It’s something that you can look forward to in your inbox. If you give people content that they want to read, they’ll engage. If it’s a bunch of garbage, then no one’s going to want to read it or check your blog.

Is Thinx’s brand identity tied to feminism? 

I think “period feminism” is the term. It’s just saying a woman on her period shouldn’t be shamed. It should be a time to be celebrated. It should be a time that we remind ourselves, wow, women can create life. It should be a time of reflection, of gratitude, and not of “Ew, you’re so gross” or “Oh my god, I can’t talk about it” or quietly handing someone a tampon to make sure that no one can see you.

There’s a level of shame associated with having a period, and we’re trying to change that.

So feminism… 

Call it what you want. Call it feminism, call it period feminism, call it gender equality, call it education. We just want to tell people what’s going on with women. Our content strategy is very much in the women’s news—what’s happening to women this week, where women are getting ahead or doing something awesome. We’re acknowledging women for our powers and for what we can offer to the world using positive and uplifting educational content.

Do you consider what Thinx is doing to be political?

I think we play a big role in the public conversation because our product relates to accessibility. Because we have a product where women can feel safe and free wearing it—they don’t have to have the shameful experience of having a leak or an accident any longer because they have a product that works for them. That gives them permission to be loud and proud about having their period.

And through that pride, things change. People are able to go to their politicians and say, “Hey, I don’t like the fact that we have a tampon tax,” or “Hey, I don’t like the fact that women in prison don’t have easy access to feminine hygiene products.”

People are starting to raise their eyebrows because more people are able to have the conversation. They have a product that actually works for them, and they no longer feel the shame.

Has the content itself become part of the product? 

Absolutely. We’re a content company disguised as a period company.

First, we want to make sure that people know that we have a product that works since more and more people are getting social proof from their friends and from what they read. Next, it’s about elevating the conversation—about breaking the period taboo and talking about women’s issues. Innovation is a portal into women’s issues.

Do you identify as an activist or an entrepreneur?

I’m a social entrepreneur. I believe that businesses will change the world, that conscious businesses will change the world. I believe in conscious capitalism.

It’s not charity that’s going to change the world’s business, but consciousness and social enterprise. Call me an activist, call me a feminist, call me an entrepreneur, call me whatever you want, but I believe in elevating humanity using conscious consumerism.

What was is like to talk to Gloria Steinem?

She’s a boss lady. She actually taught me a very important term, which is “matrilineal.” Basically, prior to patriarchy, the matrilineal era was when the mother’s namesake was passed down generation to generation, not the father’s. I want to try and figure out how we can get back to that.

What does the feminine hygiene space look like in five years?

In an ideal world, we are doing over a billion dollars in revenue. We’ve helped every girl in the world better her experience during her period and eliminate shame from the period conversation.

In five years, I want women and girls to feel a sense of pride for being the bearers of humanity. To be proud and not ashamed.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed.

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