Getting male investors to fund period startups remains challenging
Picture this: you’re one of 166.7 million women in the US, 84 percent of whom experience some form of menstrual pain. What do you do? Do you pop some ibuprofen and hope for the best? Or are you curled up in the fetal position on the couch, a hot water bottle on your stomach, calling into work to take one of your precious sick days because you can’t think straight?
If you’re one of those women, like me, you don’t have to think. You already know. You have a plan, a ritual, a system. But when was the last time you talked about it?
A study commissioned by Thinx and the New York Post found that 62 percent of women say that others don’t take their period symptoms seriously. That’s three in five women, so why aren’t we talking about it more?
It’s probably because according to that same study, nearly 58 percent of women have felt embarrassed while on their period and 42 percent have experienced period shaming. It’s a taboo subject, even among women. But that’s changing.
It’s time we talked about women’s health. Period.
Gen-Z is changing the conversation by actually having the conversation in the first place. And the founders of The Girls Co. are more than happy to lead it.
“We’re openly talking about [our periods],” says Zoia Ali, 21, one of three founders of The Girls Co. “We don’t feel ashamed when we go buy our pads or tampons.”
“[The key is] just opening up the conversation and creating new solutions,” adds Abby Warner, another founder of The Girls Co. By talking about a topic that has previously been seen as taboo in almost every social circle, The Girls Co. is acknowledging women’s experiences and providing a platform and a voice to the women who need it. They’re working to lift the stigma because, even in 2020, that stigma is real.
Looking back to the Thinx study, 51 percent of men polled believed it was inappropriate for women to talk about their menstrual cycles in the workplace. Forty-four percent of men admitted to joking or commenting on their partner’s mood while on their period. And 73 percent of women admitted to hiding a pad or tampon on their way to the bathroom. The shame is real. And when we don’t have these conversations, we’re perpetuating a culture that doesn’t take women’s health seriously.
“Our #uterUS campaign has been really inspiring. We just share women’s period stories and their experiences so people don’t feel alone. We’re encouraging [the conversation] and we’re hoping to be the driving force of just talking about it,” says Ali. “We interview different women. Some have endometriosis, some have painful periods. We share their stories on social media, in blog posts, and through Instagram, and we give them a voice and a platform to be able to share.”
By sharing the stories and experiences of real women, the founders of The Girls Co. are providing not only a valuable platform for their customers, but they’re contributing to the normalization of the female experience. Which is a relatively new concept, considering women have been historically left out of health research.
The problem: easing menstrual cramps
But the problem with an emerging industry like femtech is that it (counterintuitively) doesn’t always have the female experience in mind―or account for the fact that the female experience differs wildly from person to person.
Taimi Kennerly, the third founder of The Girls Co., for example, experiences period discomfort, not cramping. Ali, however, experiences cramping to an extreme. “I was the person that skipped school,” she says. “My sister and my mom, we all have terrible, terrible cramps. And I don’t take medicine. I only use a heating pad.”
People who experience intense bouts of period pain are held to the limits of whatever method of pain relief works for them. Many women mention having to sit next to an outlet to plug in their heating pad or laying down so a heated rice pack can provide adequate relief. And for some, that means having to miss school or work because your methods of relief aren’t portable.
So the team at The Girls Co. decided to create a solution that allows women to relieve their period symptoms in a way that’s portable, convenient, and stress-free. It was a no-brainer problem that needed solving in order to keep women from missing school or work due to period pain.
“We spent $60 on all of our prototypes,” Ali shares. She and her cofounders walk me through their story, telling me about how they were grouped together for a class on entrepreneurship at Brigham Young University. In a class of 50, with only six girls in the whole program, Ali, Kennerley, and Warner came together for a group project to pitch a product to their class.
They started with what she calls “Taimi’s pants,” cutting off the waistband and stuffing them with rice. “It smelled terrible. The rice literally leaked everywhere,” she says. “But the women we gave it to, they kept reheating and using it because it was really helping them.” Which says more about the state of innovation in period relief products than anything else, the bar is so low that we’ll take anything that provides relief.
By the time The Girls got to the final iteration of the product that would launch their company, they knew they had something worth pursuing because they designed a product that accounts for all experiences of period pain. Their heat wrap is customizable to your experience, which means you can relieve pain where you need it, when you need it most.
Convincing male investors to solve a female problem
But getting the product from prototype to market isn’t easy and in the femtech sector, it’s largely because the investors that companies like The Girls Co. are pitching to are men.
“Virtually every investor we talked to, especially in the beginning, was male,” says Kennerley. “And so we would not only have to explain the business model, but we’d have to explain the problem.”
“One of the hardest things we learned was that we really had to educate people that it was even a problem and something significant that people dealt with,” adds Warner. “We are pitching predominantly to men and they just really didn’t understand it or were not even aware of it.”
Unless investors had mothers, wives, daughters, or other women in their lives who experienced period cramps and were vocal about them, they didn’t get it. And that has led to some frustrating encounters.
“The most memorable story was when we were doing this investor pitch and, during the Q&A portion, one person raised his hand and said ‘what’s, um, uterus?’ Because we have a media campaign called #uterUS [for our followers] to share [their period experiences]. And we were like, ‘um, we can’t really explain anatomy.’ And he said, ‘oh, you should change the name.’ And we’re like, ‘no.’”
But these women’s experiences aren’t exclusive to Utah—or even to the femtech sector. According to Forbes, only seven percent of partners from the top 100 investment firms were women in 2016, and that figure hasn’t improved by much in the last four years. As other CEOs have expressed to TechCrunch, it’s common for female founders of femtech companies to have to educate their investors on what exactly the problem is that they’re working to fix.
“It’s pretty rare, honestly, [to come into contact with female investors]. Of all the people we’ve talked to, we’ve maybe talked to two women investors,” says Kennerley.
Which has reinforced the idea that we need to be talking about women’s health and women’s experiences, like through the #uterUS campaign The Girls Co. hosts. Because normalizing the female experience is the only way we’ll make space for innovation in women’s health.