Periods Are Powerful—And This Period Care Brand Is Working to Underscore That
Okamoto remembers being infuriated and catalyzed as a teen by learning about period poverty, and talking directly with homeless women about the things that they'd use as period products when they couldn't get their hands on a tampon or pad—toilet paper, socks, grocery bags, and cardboard. Food stamps don't cover period products, and tax existed on them in 40 states at the time. "It was an issue I’d never thought about before, and at the time, my family was experiencing housing instability, so learning about period poverty got me thinking about privilege—it ignited this anger and unadulterated passion,” she recalls.
This passion fueled her to write a book: Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement in 2018. It was during her research for this book that Okamoto learned even more about the history of the commodification of period products, the long-running “negative stigma” around periods, and the tradition of period marketing that makes people “feel ashamed” about, and want to “hide or forget,” menstruation. (She’s experienced those cultural stigmas firsthand: “I get violent threats because I talk so openly about periods.”)
She met her August co-founder, Nick Jain, working at JUV Consulting, a Gen Z marketing agency Jain co-founded at age 16. The pair became best friends and roommates, and “naturally when you live with me, you're going to hear a lot about periods in the context of my work and stuff,” she says. The coworkers-turned-pals and roommates also shared frustrations about the limitations of their work: “At a certain point, we were both tired of working on a consulting agency—we wanted to really be able to implement a lot of the strategies and changes," she says. While working with femcare companies from both nonprofit and branding perspectives, “it became very, very clear that we could make more sustainable tampons and pads at a better price, from a better brand that really stood for something,” Okamoto says. She and Jain started working on August in January 2020, fundraising and building a community for a year and a half before actually launching product in June 2021.
Pre-pandemic, Okamoto was on a plane once or twice monthly for three years on book tour for Period Power while also “balancing going to school at Harvard full time, being executive director of my nonprofit, being chief brand officer at JUV Consulting, and doing modeling,” she explains."The idea of being able to just be focused on one thing, full-time was kind of impossible when COVID-19 hit; suddenly my schedule was completely clear because most of the work I was doing before was all in-person work, and it was really great for me to take time for that transition.”
With much of day-to-day life, and the world, at a standstill, Okamoto and Jain had “space to strengthen our passion for what we were doing, because periods don't stop for a pandemic, obviously,” she explains. Another silver lining of the pandemic? Prioritizing people over product first by starting a conversation and (digital) space to connect about menstruation all before rolling out period products. “Building our virtual community when people were really craving community was really wonderful,” says Okamoto. (Even the staff has been getting acquainted virtually, for the most part: “I haven't met most of our team ever in person, we've only met on Zoom,” she says of an interesting element of inadvertently starting the company right before a pandemic.)
But courting investors as COVID-19 continued to hit globally took over a year and was rife with “obvious obstacles,” she says: it would’ve been a quicker process if in-person meetings had been possible, and of course without the financial uncertainties of 2020 (and 2021). “A lot of the advice we got was, ‘How could you even think about fundraising right now? We're in a pandemic, nobody knows what's going to happen!’" Okamoto explains.
Another factor that prolonged funding, she says, was the type of investors they were looking for. “We wanted to make sure that we only took money from values-aligned investors,” she says. “We turned down a lot of offers from people we thought weren't values aligned, investors who’d say, ‘We love what you're doing but we'd like to establish a rule of not showing menstrual blood,'"Okamoto says, which was a hard no. “We were like, 'Okay, we have to turn down this money, even though it's a lot.’"
They didn’t connect with any female angel investors in the first six months of attempting to do so. “It was always some old stodgy old white guy, which was disappointing, but I can't say it's shocking,” Okamoto says. Having female-lead investors was "really important, and we weren’t going to settle on that,” she says. They finally found and went with female-founded VC fund Hannah Grey, which led their nearly $2 million seed round. “We had an oversubscribed round but made a lot of changes to make sure that we not only put them in, but that they could come in and lead,” Okamoto says.
She was also working through personal matters in the process. “I took a couple months off over the summer, and was admitted into residential rehab for six weeks for work addiction, depression, and PTSD," says Okamoto. The ability to step away for self care was a sort of silver lining of the pandemic, as she otherwise couldn’t image “starting a company, then having to tell your investors that you're peacing out” for mental health purposes. “It was really worth it, very necessary, and Nick [Jain] was such a supportive co founder and friend; I’m really thankful,” she says.
August’s first products dropped June 2021, and were largely determined and vetted by its “inner cycle” community of Gen Z teens whom Okamoto is “constantly in contact with” on Geneva, an app. “Everything we do from a product, and brand, perspective starts with our community,” she says, be it choosing a logo and color palette, product selection, or making traceability a priority. “It’s a mentality brought over from my nonprofit work,” Okamoto says. "What’s the point of doing anything [if you're] censoring the voices of the people you're serving?”
That crowd-sourced input also shaped direction around what sorts of products to offer; they considered menstrual cups, which are more sustainable than pads or tampons as they’re reusable “but over 90 percent of all of our community is not open to using them yet, they're using tampons and pads,” she says. Learning “ridiculous” stats about menstrual products’ environmental impact—like that most period products take five to eight centuries to decompose, and some maxi pads contain the equivalent of three to five plastic bags—propelled some eco-minded production decisions, like making August pads nontoxic, 100 percent cotton, and biodegradable, and also creating BPA-free tampon applicators.
“When you talk about periods and hormonal changes during a pandemic, you're talking a lot about loneliness, mental health, personal life experiences, social changes, so this community has really blossomed—it’s become about overall wellness, and actually not about periods or product" — Nadya Okamoto
Okamoto says they “really underestimated” what this Inner Cycle cohort could be, not realizing that “when you talk about periods and hormonal changes during a pandemic, you're talking a lot about loneliness, mental health, personal life experiences, social changes, so this community has really blossomed—it’s become about overall wellness, and actually not about periods or product,” she says. Inner Cycle’s demographics are “super inclusive,” with an estimated 10 percent gender nonconforming or transgen, and is “really international surprisingly,” spanning across more than 40 countries. There are three to five virtual (for now) events weekly, some organized by members, that have included video game sessions, study hall hangs, or homework dates, plus a town hall chat channel on Geneva staffed by “a team of really dedicated people always on," to answer questions.
"Everybody on our team is Gen Z, so we’re very familiar with being sold to, and being sold ‘community’—brands saying, ‘we care about you, we love you,’ but everything is really about product,” Okamoto says. That was a consideration when finding investors with aligned values that would “understand that we were going to do things that maybe didn't make sense in the moment, but would build deeper connection,” she says, and also the freedom to “completely pivot and change our strategy, depending on what’s of interest to our community.” That’s precisely how the Ask August, a free searchable database of hundreds of period health questions like ‘How much is too much period blood?’ The idea came from an Inner Cycle Zoom call in fall 2020. Each question includes two explanations: Gen Z answer, and a medical board answer, the combination of which help translate the kind of medical jargon a Google search produces in relatable, real-people terms, while also providing accurate expert insight.
Even after seven years of hard work helping normalize menstruation, there’s still so much Okamoto wants to do. “Every single day we're exposed to more stigma” about it, which echos in the messages August receives on a near-daily basis, like middle schoolers’ sharing the fear and anxiety over getting their first periods. Those kinds of messages are just one of the many, many motivations and reminders of Okamoto’s passion fore all things period education and empowerment: “I feel more about it than ever before.”
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