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This Entrepreneur Is Turning Period Drama Into an Opportunity for Female Empowerment

Miki Agrawal aims to empower women, one period-proof set of underpants at a time. #globalgoals

This fall, the United Nations is preparing to launch its 17 Sustainable Development Goals—an extraordinary action plan to solve the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Over the coming months, we’ll be connecting with The Local Globalists: 17 nonprofit founders, entrepreneurs, and social innovators who are working every day, wherever they are, to turn one of the U.N.’s #globalgoals into reality.

Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

“Twenty billion tampons, plastic applicators, and pads end up in U.S. landfills each year,” says Miki Agrawal, 36, CEO of THINX, the period-proof panty. While the average woman will use roughly 16,800 disposable pads and tampons during her lifetime, Agrawal’s lacy undies last at least two years, and drastically reduce waste and the user’s carbon footprint. In addition to offering a practical and environmentally sound option for period care, THINX is helping to bring equal opportunities to menstruating girls and women in the developing world. For every pair of underwear sold in the developed world, THINX donates to Uganda-based AFRIpads, which trains local women to make and sell washable, reusable pads to girls and women at affordable prices.

The underwear comes in four styles: Hiphugger for heavy days (holds up to two tampons’ worth of blood), Sport (one and a half tampons’ worth) for medium days, Cheeky (the equivalent of one tampon) for light days, and a thong (half a tampon) for light. All are available in black or beige, and have specially patented material in the crotch that is absorbent, antimicrobial, moisture-wicking, and stain- and leak-resistant, leaving the wearer comfortable and dry. For the first two days, Agrawal recommends using a tampon or menstrual cup in addition to the underwear. “After the heaviest days, just wear THINX on their own and bleed freely,” she says.

The idea for the panties first occurred to Agrawal and her twin sister, Radha, in the bathroom at a family reunion. Radha had gotten her period in the middle of a three-legged race, and had a leak. They thought, wouldn’t it be great if there were underwear to prevent this? Years later, in 2010, Agrawal traveled to South Africa to attend the World Cup. She met a group of preteens who should have been in school and asked them why they weren’t there.

“It’s my week of shame,” one replied, and explained that while she tried to continue with school and work by stuffing bits of old mattresses, leaves, rags, or mud in her underwear, none of it worked, and it was too embarrassing to go to school and have an accident. “Millions of girls are dropping out of school because of something as natural as their periods,” Agrawal says, “and because of this, girls in the developing world are falling behind.” In Uganda, more than 60 percent of girls stay home when they’re menstruating. Worldwide, it’s 100 million girls.

Agrawal returned from South Africa inspired. It was clear that something as natural as menstruation was too big a roadblock for women in the developing world, and that women in the United States had anxieties surrounding their periods as well. “In the 20th century there have been only three innovations in the feminine hygiene industry: in 1931 the tampon, in 1969 the adhesive strip on pads, and in the 1980s the menstrual cup. This is a $15 billion category!” Agrawal exclaims. “How is it possible that there’s no innovation in something that women require for the better part of our lives?” Agrawal herself was sick of ruining nice underwear with period accidents or wearing ugly period granny panties. She decided to put her considerable entrepreneurial skills to the test.

Agrawal has worked on Wall Street; played professional soccer for the New York Magic; worked in film production; founded Wild, a pizza chain that serves organic, gluten- and hormone-free, sustainably sourced food with the goal of keeping the carbon footprint to a minimum; and authored Do Cool Sh*t, a book on entrepreneurship and lifestyle design. In 2013 she was spotlighted as one of Forbes’ “Top 20 Millennials on a Mission.”

Where does her boundless energy come from? On September 11, 2001, Agrawal was a recent graduate of Cornell University and had just begun a job in investment banking across from the World Trade Center. “That morning, I slept through my alarm for the first time in my life,” she recalls. Two people in her office died that day, and many others she knew were killed, injured, or traumatized. “That was my wake-up call,” Agrawal says. “Life is so short. I needed to actually be lit up and do what makes me happy.”

Agrawal reports that THINX, in partnership with AFRIpad, has helped 20,000 to 30,000 girls in Uganda return to school since 2014. “Ultimately, what we’re creating is not just about a functional, environmentally friendly pair of underwear. We want to create the next generation of empowered women, worldwide,” she says. She referenced the Girl Effect movement, explaining, “If I give a girl $100 in Uganda, and I give a guy the same, 90 percent of the girl’s $100 goes back into the community, compared with 20 to 35 percent of the guy’s $100. Since millions of girls are dropping out of school because of their periods, developing communities are losing billions of dollars of potential income. If women have access to feminine hygiene products, that would triple the likelihood of getting their communities where they need to be.”

In her travels to Africa, India, and around the world, Agrawal discovered that many girls think they’re sick when they have their periods. “They have no idea that it has anything to do with being able to have a baby, or what their bodies are capable of,” she says. “Girls need a safe space to talk about their bodies.” This is why THINX is adding to its giveback mission by funding the social enterprise Pasand to run girls’ clubs in India that will host discussions on health issues like puberty and menstruation as well as tackling such subjects as female empowerment.

“I never knew I was a feminist,” Agrawal says. “I was just doing what I thought was right for basic human rights and for women. I never read a Gloria Steinem piece or The Feminine Mystique or anything.” However, this fall, Agrawal and her good friend Kiran Gandhi—former drummer for the rapper M.I.A. and a feminist activist who ran the London Marathon letting menstrual blood run freely down her legs, in an effort to bring awareness to women in developing countries who lack access to menstrual products—were invited to Steinem’s home to discuss menstrual politics, feminism, and possible collaborations. She also attended a private event with Hillary Clinton, where women’s issues were integral to the discussion. “As I build THINX, I’m understanding more and more the importance of the feminist movement,” Agrawal says. “There’s this beautiful feminist community that supports what we’re doing so deeply.” After launching, THINX proved so popular that its products were on back order for months. Starting in November, they’ll be stocked up and moving forward again.

A perennial entrepreneur, Agrawal has two new projects brewing. Icon undies are underwear for women with light bladder leakage, a problem that frequently affects women who are pregnant or have recently given birth. “It’s a super-taboo thing that women aren’t really talking about. One in three women will have this in her lifetime, especially after childbirth,” Agrawal says. Instead of seeing women forced to rely on the “horrible offerings in the marketplace,” like adult diapers, Agrawal wants to offer them a product in which they can feel “sexy and beautiful, no matter how messy or busy life can get.” These pee-proof undies can hold up to five teaspoons of liquid, with unique technologies for leak protection, odor resistance, and moisture-wicking.

She’s also launching Tushy, which will offer bidet-style attachments for American toilets to help combat the 13 million annual cases of hemorrhoids and urinary tract infections, with a goal of saving about 26.5 billion rolls of toilet paper per year, or 15 million trees. “One child dies every 17 seconds because of poor sanitation,” Agrawal says. “Again, basic human rights—40 percent of the world doesn’t have proper sanitation. There is enough wealth on this planet to go around and provide human dignity in basic forms.” Her proposed product will attach a bidet to any toilet in less than 10 minutes, for around $50. As with THINX, for every bidet sold, Tushy will donate money to NGOs fighting the global sanitation crisis, and will work to provide a way for people to “defecate safely, cleanly, and with integrity,” Agrawal says.

Ultimately, Agrawal would like for every woman in the developed world to have a set of THINX in her underwear drawer and to feel a connection to the brand as a group of intersectional feminists who truly believe in gender equality. She’d also like for every girl in the developing world have access to basic menstrual products and education about their bodies. As she cheekily told Forbes earlier this year, “ If I can own the vagina and butthole, I win.” Of course, it’s not about Agrawal winning; it’s that women everywhere win when they feel as if they have ownership over their own bodies.

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

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