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The start-up that wants to give you free tampons

With an aim to empower both women in the workplace and girls in school, two young entrepreneurs have launched a drive to provide free sanitary products through corporate partnerships. Jihee Junn talks to Jacinta Gulasekharam of Dignity to find out how it all works.

Menstruation! Lady business! That time of the month! Whatever medically accurate or blissfully euphemistic term you call it, periods are an inconvenient reality for women all around the world. In fact, the average woman has more than 450 periods over her lifetime, meaning she spends most of her teen and adult years beholden to this inevitable monthly burden. And while dealing with the physical and emotional effects is one thing, the financial costs can be a whole other issue – one that strikes a lot deeper for some.

Earlier this year, the inaccessibility of sanitary products once again hit headlines following Pharmac’s decision not to help fund the cost of pads and tampons. The refusal was made on the grounds that sanitary products weren’t “medicines or medical devices”, with Pharmac’s director of operations arguing that menstruation was ultimately “a normal bodily function”.

“Normal bodily function” or not, the reality is that a sizeable number of women have struggled to keep up with the maintenance, with the outrageous cost of sanitary items (a large pack of regular tampons generally costs around $8) bearing hard on those with little money to spare. Even retailers themselves seem to understand the financial burden of feminine hygiene products, with brands like Countdown and The Salvation Army teaming up to urge customers to make donations.

But donations are rarely enough, which is why start-ups like Dignity have begun to employ some more innovative solutions. Using the buy-one-give-one model regularly deployed by social enterprises nowadays (Eat My Lunch is a good example), Dignity aims to provide free tampons not just to high school girls, but for women in the workplace through corporate partnerships.

I talked to Dignity co-founder Jacinta Gulasekharam about how it all started, what plans the company has to scale, and what she hopes to see from this year’s election.

How did Dignity start and what was your inspiration behind the project?

I ran for student president at Victoria University and one of my promises was promoting access to sanitary items on campus. It got a lot of traction but I wasn’t successful with that election. I also listened to Daniel Flynn from Thankyou’s story at Festival for the Future and talked to my flatmate and Dignity co-founder Miranda Hitchings about the lack of access to sanitary items and the high cost involved. It made us both mad and determined to go forward with it as a problem to solve.

DIGNITY FOUNDERS JACINTA GULASEKHARAM AND MIRANDA HITCHINGS (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

Did either of you have any experience in business or entrepreneurship prior to starting Dignity?

Neither of us had any prior experience! Dignity is our first crack at entrepreneurship and it’s turned out okay. We went through a supportive accelerator with the Victoria Entrepreneur Boot Camp last summer – that really set us up from problem to business model to then gaining our first customer, Flick Electric Co.

We surprised ourselves with how accessible and attainable starting our own business was. The best businesses are built from selfish problems – we hated the cost of sanitary items and being caught short all the time, so we came up with the idea that businesses are in a great place to provide this as a wellbeing initiative. Neither of us had a huge interest in starting a business, but solving a problem like sanitary item access was an idea that really motivated us to come up with a solution that is now Dignity.

There are quite a few similar initiatives out there offering sanitary items based on the buy-one-give-one model, but it seems like the difference with Dignity is that it’s offering corporate subscription plans to support girls that are currently in school. What was your reasoning behind taking this particular approach?

Sanitary item access and affordability have always been our mission. When we saw high school students were missing school due to not having access to these items, it really upset us. It seemed so out of place in New Zealand that such a basic item was causing this, so it mattered to us and our impact to incorporate a model that was able to support girls in school.

You’ve currently got Xero and Flick Electric on your list of customers, so do you have any other companies currently in the works that you can tell us about?

We do have another company in the works, but if we told you we’d have to turn off the internet and delete The Spinoff website.

XERO AND DIGNITY (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

What sort of feedback have you received regarding Dignity?

We’ve had an awesome response to our initiative, better than what we could have imagined! This was just an idea we had over summer and now we have female employees tell us they feel 85% more personally supported in the workplace.

It’s so hard to pick even just one piece of feedback, they have all been very moving and a testament to the businesses that have stepped up to support their women with free sanitary item access. One bit of feedback from our Xero implementation told us that Dignity was “a great initiative that breaks down the taboo topic of having a period and makes going to the bathroom less awkward when it’s that time of the month as you don’t have to sneak your sanitary products in with you.”

The principal of one of our high schools receiving Dignity’s products also told us that “the tampons and pads that Dignity donate for our students are greatly appreciated by girls whose families struggle to buy everything they need. It is great for the school to be able to support our students and free them to concentrate on their education.”

The combination of the response from the schools and women in the workplace is such a motivation for us to grow our business and scale our impact even further.

We’ve got an election coming up this month. What would you like to see done by the government in terms of improving access to sanitary products?

We want the conversation of access to sanitary items to be on the government agenda. Lack of access to sanitary items for female high school students is part of the wider cyclical issue of poverty in New Zealand. We want the government to put in place measures that assist those in disadvantaged situations and break the poverty cycle, not just ticking boxes. In reality, we don’t want an initiative like ours to exist. We want the government to be taking action, preventing poverty, and reducing the barriers in affording these necessary items.

DIGNITY AND XERO (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

Do you have any plans to grow further and if so, what are they?

We would love Dignity to be in all businesses and support all female high school students in New Zealand, with the intention of expanding to the Pacific Islands where access is an even more prominent issue. The best part of our job is meeting and helping more Kiwi businesses with our tangible initiative. It’s such a simple way to support women in the workplace and within an organisation’s larger diversity plan. Our aim is to make sanitary items in the workplace the norm, like providing coffee even though some people don’t drink caffeine. We’re keen to grow our team in Wellington and Auckland beyond just ourselves with people just as passionate about sanitary item access as we are.

Lastly, tell us about a startup or business that you really admire right now.

We love Sharesies, a female-founded investment app that wants people with $50 to have the same investment opportunities as someone with $50,000. They are an awesome millennial led company with authentic branding and a great business proposition.


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