Venture

Startup Founders See Cultural Taboo As Opportunity

Sadaf Naz was tired of the same routine. Every time she got her period, she headed to the nearest convenience store and wrapped her face up in a dupatta (an Indian scarf) to hide her identity and asked for a few pads. The cashier would either laugh or joke, and she’d leave feeling like she had been doing something illegal.

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Naz, who grew up in Okara, one of the smallest towns in Pakistan, felt the public shame of buying and talking about period products all of her life. She grew up using rag clothes, instead of pads. Finally, after talking to classmates, she realized she wasn’t alone. The next day, she went to the same cashier, still with a dupatta, and bought a mass-supply of pads for her, and her classmates, to make a statement.

Five years later, Naz is the founder of Her Ground, a startup that wants to make branded period products like pads, tampons or underwear, readily available to those who need it.

Across many cultures, women, especially minority women, feel the stigma of talking about periods, women health and puberty. To entrepreneurs like Naz, who are willing to demystify the conversation around these same topics, it’s proof that there’s a real need (and market potential) for these startups.

So let’s get started doing what we do best, and learn about some startups.

Her Ground And Blume

Her Ground founder Sadaf Naz.

While Her Ground has not yet secured funding, which we’ll unpack, another startup that wants to make puberty easier for girls raised cash last week.

Earlier this month, Blume, a Vancouver startup started by sisters Bunny and Taran Ghatrora, raised $3.3 million in a seed round for self-care products, ranging from tampons, deodorant, acne medication and more. The Ghatrora sisters are first generation women of Indian descent.

Blume’s website advertises a $10.99 subscription box which includes a “wide range of life products such as organic tampons and pads, fun treats, and comforting remedies for everything PMS.” (For context, a 50 count box of Target-brand tampons costs $4.99.) Currently, Blume is available in Urban Outfitters, Riley Rose and Nordstrom, among other retailers.

Co-founder Bunny was diagnosed with PCOS. After feeling “alone and in the dark” about the condition, she felt called to help educate other girls. Since then, the sisters said the topics they would avoid with their parents have become part of their everyday mission.

Photo Courtesy: Sadaf Naz.

The aforementioned Pakistan-based Her Ground tackles something a little different: its period product box gives women a 3-month supply at a time. They currently deliver in Lahore and Okara, both within Pakistan, and have 750 subscription-based customers, Naz told Crunchbase News.

In addition to selling physical products, both Blume and Her Ground have also created blogs to open up the conversation around these issues.

The Bigger Picture

That’s not the only culture battle these often-women-founded startups are tackling. They are fundraising in an environment where 91 percent of decision makers in venture capital are men—an audience not necessarily skilled in openly discussing women’s issues.

I caught up with Laura Huang, an associate professor of business administration in the organizational behavior unit at Harvard Business School, for some more insight on this. Huang said a cultural shift is necessary among the investor community.

“They just don’t have an inherent premise to work from when they are looking at a company that is trying to address a topic that is women-centric,” Huang said.

Although Huang acknowledges a slight generalization in her comment, she said venture capitalists must alter their decision models, and communication models in order to understand a company about period products. Further, the process changes when a woman of color is pitching a startup, Huang said.

“Whereas other entrepreneurs can sometimes skip directly to the problem that they are addressing and the incredible growth opportunities that their solution provides, women of color have to first establish a number of things before they even get there,” she said.

Those things include their credibility, expertise level, and ability to navigate a male-dominated field, she said. In Blume’s case, they pitched their idea and despite a few “hilarious questions,” most investors remained interested in learning about the industry.

Blume co-founders Bunny and Taran Ghatrora.

Case In Point: More On Her Ground

Her Ground’s Naz said the investors she has spoken with don’t understand how hard it is for some females to access period products. Despite no investment money, they plan to expand their delivery reach to all over Pakistan by the end of this month.

From an advocacy standpoint, the shift is slow yet steady. Naz said her own mother used to avoid anything to do with periods, banning her from buying pads in their neighborhood to avoid others talking.

“Now, she’s thinking about retiring and joining me,” Naz said. “She wants to be more aware.”

While the girls in Naz’s town still struggle to be open about their periods, she said at least for now, she doesn’t need to hide behind a dupatta.

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