The Female Founders Disrupting the Vagina Economy

Joanna Griffiths, founder and CEO of intimate apparel company Knix, was motivated by a similar retail hellscape: adult diapers. While talking to her mother, a doctor, Griffiths learned that one in three people experience urinary incontinence during or after pregnancy. “There were no suitable products on the market,” Griffiths says. “You’d get told to go to CVS or Walgreens to pick up Depends, but that didn’t feel very relevant to my demographic.” It’s hard to imagine a 29-year-old Instagram mommy blogger wanting to wear a diaper under her sundress. Griffiths started conducting online surveys and found that many, many folks were concerned about leaks. “It extends way beyond urinary incontinence,” she says. “It’s periods, it’s discharge, it’s sweat.” Again, the array of products on the market was making people having a perfectly normal experiences feel like icky outliers. “There was a great need for innovation in this category overall,” Griffiths says. So she started designing leak-proof underwear.

While they started out shocked by the obvious failings of products designed for individuals assigned female at birth, the founders quickly figured out what the major holdup was: monied men. “In the early days, around 2013, the main challenge was that there weren’t any female decisionmakers,” Griffiths says. “I would go into a funding meeting and get interrupted by a guy saying, ‘Let me go get Sally. Sally is my associate, the intern, the receptionist.'” What happened next is going to give you hives. “This woman would come into the room and sit down, and then her boss would ask her, ‘Do you leak?'” Griffths says. “It’s like saying, ‘Hey, do you have erectile dysfunction?’ and expecting them to answer in a room full of people.” Often, poor Sally would say no, and then her boss would tell Griffiths that there wasn’t a market for her products.

Wang had a similar experience: VCs would take home her prototype menstrual cups to their wives and ask, ‘Would you use this?’ which is a less than scientific way to determine if there’s demand. “One of the first things I did was change my pitch,” Wang says. “I’d say, ‘Have you ever been turned down for sex by someone because they were on their period? I have a new product for period sex!'” Suddenly, the venture capitalists were a lot more interested. (They still took a bunch of convincing, though. “Investors say they like really disruptive things, but the truth is that they like to see something validated in the market first,” Wang says. At first, they wanted her to sell a tampon subscription service rather than a menstrual disc, even though tampons had made her sick for over a decade.)

Stiil, as Rodriguez found out, having a sexier product didn’t necessarily get investors to line up either. “I knew reputational risk was going to be the biggest hurdle, but I didn’t really get it until I went to the bank, tried to open a credit account, and got denied,” she says. “Investors treat you like you’re trying to raise money for gambling or guns or some other vice category.” Most banks cluster all “sex stuff” into the same high-risk bucket, whether it’s pornography or menopausal lube. Look at ads. Rules for what can and can’t be advertised in places ranging from subway trains to Facebook dictate that there is no difference between what Rodriguez is trying to sell and an AR-15. “The rule doesn’t apply if it has to do with family planning,” she says. “Men have to orgasm to procreate, so Viagra, penis pumps, even some manscaping products are allowed to advertise, but the only thing you’re allowed to advertise to women is birth control pills and condoms. Lube and vibrators are banned.” Rodriguez’s response to this difficulty was to pass the savings on to her customers. “Not being able to advertise just means we can keep our costs down. Our vibrators start at $18,” she says. “We’re growing more slowly, but we can feel good about it.”

None of that growth, and none of the funding they’d eventually receive, would have been possible without the other, nongendered thing that makes Griffiths, Rodriguez, and Wang’s products stand out from many others: data, gathered by asking vagina owners—lots of them—what they actually want. At first, it was hard. “For periods there’s been so much stigma that people haven’t felt comfortable talking about it,” Wang says. That’s changing rapidly. Wang and the Flex Company now rely on a research group they call “the Uterati” that numbers over 7,000 strong. The Uterati have (literally) shaped Flex and their products. “We were hearing that people wanted a fully reusable product but were getting stuck on the difficulty of removing the cup,” Wang says. (If you’ve never used one, let me explain. Menstrual cups have to be far enough inside your body that nothing leaks around the sides, so they have silicon pull tabs on the bottom for removal. Often, these stems are too short or slippery.) The result was, for some, a new, easy-to-grab stem and, for others, a tampon-esque pull string. Flex makes both because everyone experiences their period differently.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired