In 2010, twin sisters Miki and Radha Agrawal were sitting with their “triplet from another mother,” Antonia Dunbar, on the banks of the Ganges River in Rishikesh, India. They’d traveled for a wedding, and that afternoon, the conversation turned to how each of the three women wanted to make an impact on the world. “We were talking about wanting to ‘do good and do well,’” explains Dunbar, articulating the phrase that’s become something of a motto for the group. And as the conversation rolled on, they realized there was one problem they shared that, for whatever reason, still lacked a solution.
Brace yourselves for breaking news: Tampons leak. So do pads. In fact, most women, at some point or another, have faced the small but excruciating personal nightmare of getting their period and overloading whatever sanitary option they decided to use, or dealing with a surprise arrival that strands them out in the world with no help in sight. Radha doesn’t pull any punches in admitting she has a problem: “I bled through my underwear every month,” she says. “It was annoying.”
Dunbar lived a similar experience, including one mortifying accident at age 13 in which the running back of her school’s football team asked her if she sat in ketchup. Miki, meanwhile, found herself deeply affected during a trip to Africa by a chance meeting with a young girl who was unable to attend school because she was in the middle of her “week of shame,” and so she started researching the shocking statistics about women in places where they lack even the dubious benefit of crummy tampons or dodgy maxipads when their time of the month arrives: Women in developing countries miss at least 20% of the school year because of their periods. Millions drop out entirely. Their options for sanitary protection tend to include sticks, leaves, dirty rags, mud, and plastic bags. “This project started very personal,” Radha explains, “and then it became global.”
Cut to three years after that conversation in India, throw in lots of research and crowdfunding, and the Agrawals and Dunbar have launched Thinx, a women’s underwear company that strives to solve both the personal and the global problem. It’s “smarter underwear,” as Radha puts it, featuring patented fabric technology that’s both leak and stain resistant–and it doesn’t look like granny panties. That in and of itself would probably be enough for most entrepreneurs, but because of their motto (Do Good And Do Well), the Thinx team took it a step farther. For every pair of Thinx that Western women purchase, the company funds seven washable pads for women in a developing country via a Uganda-based for-profit called AFRIPads. “It’s an empowerment model,” says Miki. “We’re not just giving away pads for every pair of underwear that we sell. We’re funding AFRIPads, giving them money to grow their company, hire more women locally, creating sustainable business models, creating local jobs, and then subsidizing the cost of the end product, which makes it affordable for the end user: the women.”
It’s not surprising that the Agrawals would come up with such a strong and social business model for the venture–they’re both experienced businesswomen, first-generation children of immigrant parents who shared an entrepreneurial streak. “Our dad came from India with five dollars in his pocket, and our mom came from Japan, barely speaking English,” says Miki. “They made a life for themselves. It definitely gives you the fire to really achieve. We want to use the advantage of what they sacrificed to change the world.”
The sisters attended Cornell University, where they played soccer and majored in business and communication. In 2005, Miki launched WILD, a gluten-free and primarily vegan farm-to-table pizza parlor in New York, which has since opened a second location in Williamsburg, and a third in Las Vegas. Radha, meanwhile, found inspiration in a kids’ menu she dreamed up as the creative director for WILD, and in 2010 she spun it into a children’s media company called Super Sprowtz. Focusing on nutrition and wellness education, it reaches about a million families per week–they’ve even shot a PSA with the Super Sprowtz characters in Michelle Obama’s White House Garden.
So, the Agrawals seem to know what they’re doing. Miki published a book this year called Do Cool Sh*t: Quit Your Day Job, Start Your Own Business, and Live Happily Ever After. The secret, she says, is to eliminate all the negative relationships and naysayers in your life. “As an entrepreneur, it’s so easy to be deflated by people who are like, ‘That’s a terrible idea, it’s never gonna work,’” she says. “You’re as good as the five closest friends you keep.”
Which is a lovely compliment for Dunbar, a trained cellist who graduated from Northwestern and spent her early adulthood working in PR and marketing. She met the Agrawal sisters through mutual friends in New York while she was working in the music business. “It was just meant to be through the universe,” she says. “At the time, I was an exec at a recording studio, working with an array of different artists, and I was just not very fulfilled in that kind of job. Although it was music, which is definitely something that’s close to my heart, it didn’t satisfy the calling of my soul to do something that really had meaning.” Dunbar also happens to be a Kundalini yoga instructor; Miki refers to her as “the calming force that mitigates Radha’s and my tornado-like behavior.”
As the idea for Thinx took shape, it was Dunbar who found herself playing hooky from her day job to research fabrics, call garment manufacturers, and climb the steep learning curve of how to actually make their idea a reality. Thankfully, Dunbar comes from a family of what she calls “makers,” and the idea of creating something that didn’t exist appealed to her from the start. “It’s a very technical product,” she says. “Lots of different technologies are involved. Just to have it be anti-microbial, that’s one piece. To have it be moisture-wicking, that’s another piece. To have it be leak-proof in certain areas is another aspect. Finding the right partners, researching the technologies–it was like making a puzzle fit. Having it all come together?” She laughs. “Thank god for Google.” After a year of the development process, she quit her job at the recording studio, and in June of 2012, she became the first full-time Thinx employee.
The Agrawals, meanwhile, have taken a little longer to figure out which of their successful businesses to focus on–which is not a bad problem to have–though as of right now, there doesn’t seem to be much competition. Miki has brought on a management company for WILD and has transitioned to being C.E.O. of Thinx; Radha, meanwhile, intends to keep working on Super Sprowtz while simultaneously serving as creative director for Thinx, because, in her opinion, the ventures can actually feed each other. “I think food and fashion go hand in hand,” she says. “They’re both very much community-driven, very much social ventures.” As the brand starts to expand into brick and mortar locations, it also doesn’t hurt that one of her partners in Super Sprowtz is the owner of Century 21 department stores.
Now the only hurdle to overcome is the one your reporter struggled with at the beginning of this story: How do you market a product whose concept is 100% focused around something that most people don’t really like to talk about without using useless euphemisms and/or random blue liquid? “One thing that we’ve always focused on is elevating conversation,” replies Dunbar. “This is something that’s natural. We’re all here because of this monthly cycle. You can feel empowered by the ability to create life. It’s exciting, it’s awesome, and it’s not something to be grossed out by.” To Miki, the charitable aspect of Thinx makes it even easier to address. “It’s like a head fake,” says the former soccer star. “I’ll buy this underwear for myself, but let’s not talk about me and my period–let’s talk about the girl around the world who has an issue. My goal is to achieve gender equality globally, and so to me, this is the culmination of everything I ever wanted to do.”