Earlier this month DivaCup co-founders, Francine and Carinne Chambers had an opportunity to talk with Lunapads co-founder Madeleine Shaw about period care, the incredible program Pads4Girls and the many wonderful moments of female entrepreneurship. Join the conversation by reading our post below and sharing it with the Divas in your life!
Can you share a bit about the history of Lunapads?
I started developing Lunapads and Lunapanties in 1993 when I realized that the recurrent vaginal infections I was experiencing were starting within a few hours of the onset of my periods (ie putting in a tampon). Until then I had been exclusively a tampon user, and was unwilling to switch to disposable pads, which had always seemed wasteful and bulky to me. Having a background in fashion design, I decided to sew my own cloth pads and padded panties.
Using something comfortable and pretty to manage my flow, as well as going through the previously unimaginable experience of washing and reusing rather than throwing away the products showed me that rather than being gross and inconvenient, my period was actually really cool and worth paying attention to.
I noticed that I started feeling better about my body in general, and even started learning about my cycle and its relationship to the lunar cycle. Periods for me basically went from being a messy chore to being something special, so I decided to commercialize the products in the hope that this would also be true for others who tried them.
My business partner Suzanne and I met at a community leadership course in 1999. Realizing that we shared a dream for healthier women and a healthier planet, we combined our talents to grow Lunapads into the brand it is today.
Although there are many, if you had to pick just one, what aspect of sustainable menstrual care do feel is most important?
While Lunapads definitely came out of the desire to address a specific health concern, I feel like sustainable menstrual products support women’s health and wellness in many other ways as well: by creating a cleaner environment, as well as sending more positive messages about our periods and bodies that in turn support self-esteem.
Have you encountered any barriers to launching a new femcare product and business within an already established industry?
Definitely, and yet one of the advantages is that sustainable innovations like Lunapads, Lunapanties and The DivaCup are just flat-out so much better than disposables. Put another way: I have yet to hear a customer tell me how much she loves the disposable products she is currently using – they are as drying and uncomfortable as they have ever been, so all we really need to do is address the perception that dealing with your menses instead of throwing it away is taboo. Not that that’s always easy, but the feedback that we get again and again is that it wasn’t a huge deal, and, as was the case for me, changing how you think about it can be liberating and help us to love ourselves more, which is light years away from what any disposable product can do
What inspired you to start Pads4Girls?
Our mission with Pads4Girls is to support education for girls in developing nations by providing them with sustainable, affordable menstrual products. The program also supports economic empowerment for women by supporting locally-based padmaking initiatives.
Initially, the idea grew from a letter we received in 2000 from a Zimbabwean/Canadian woman, who informed us that girls and women there had little or nothing to help them manage their menses and asked us whether we could send over some Lunapads.
Lack of access to menstrual products affects millions of girls in the developing world. As many as 10% of girls miss school because of it. The effect of these missed days is devastating, with girls missing up to 20% of their education, thereby increasing the likelihood of dropping out, earlier marriage and pregnancy, as well as limiting career options.
In many communities, disposable products are impossibly expensive or simply unavailable. Providing reusable products means the burden of purchasing products each month is removed and the environmental devastation that thousands of disposable pads would have on the landscape is alleviated.
Can you explain how Pads4Girls works?
Since 2000, we have been providing school girls with washable menstrual pads and underwear that, like Lunapads, will last them for years. During the following years, we would either make the pads and panties ourselves, or gather pads made by customers and supporters, and send them to whoever asked for them.
In 2008 things changed when we were approached by two development aid workers in Uganda who had come across Lunapads via a volunteer from Vancouver: they asked us if they could copy the products and start a business there selling them. We said yes, and today AFRIpads employs 65 people!
Following our trip to Uganda in January 2012 we launched our One4Her program. Similar to the TOMS Shoes model, with eligible purchases of Lunapads, we provide girls with AFRIpads. Since its launch, in partnership with dozens of groups, individuals and NGOs, Pads4Girls and One4Her have reached over 120,000 girls and women in 15 nations with supplies, giving them immediate and practical means to have a better future.
How does One4Her empower women?
One of the things of which we are proudest (and that also happens to make total business sense!) is that One4Her supports economic empowerment for women. In the beginning, we used to make all the pads and panties here in Vancouver and send them where they were needed. Which was great for the girls who received them, however expensive and inefficient.
Working with AFRIpads, the pads are made in Uganda using local labour, which creates employment, as well as increasing the capacity to provide more pads since we are no longer paying to have them made and shipped from Canada.
When we went to Uganda and visited AFRIpads, the workers each wrote us a personal letter telling us how their lives have changed thanks to having a job – they are now able to send their kids to school, buy homes and livestock, and even start their own businesses. This in turn raises their overall status as women in their communities, giving them greater power and respect.
What period care options are viable options for the regions you work with?
We are excited about the increasing variety of choices becoming available as awareness of the Menstrual Health Management (MHM) issue grows, including sustainable disposable, as well as reusable, options. We work with each group individually to assess things like water availability, social taboos, and whether or not the girls or women have underwear to determine which options are best for any given population.
How can our Diva Community
support your programs?
You’re doing it right now! We love the Diva Community, and are proud to count Francine and Carinne as treasured longtime friends and colleagues. Liking Lunapads and Pads4Girls on Facebook (as well as following @lunapads and @pads4girls on Twitter) is a great place to start. You can also support Pads4Girls directly by donating here.
Where do you see Lunapads in ten years?
We are doing a ton of behind-the-scenes product development at Lunapads right now, as well as thinking about other ways to support reproductive wellness and body needs from menarche to menopause and beyond.
Our legacy will be that the next generations of girls are more fully aware of their options and choose healthier and more natural choices for themselves. We want girls to be as shame-free about their bodies as possible, and to grow up to be healthy, empowered adults
What advice would you give to women looking to start a business?
We always tell people to choose something that you’re passionate about, because being an entrepreneur is not always as easy road, so you want to make sure that what you’re going to be spending so much time and effort on truly matters to you. We are also big proponents of business partnerships: doing it solo can be tough, so finding someone with complementary skills who shares your dream is a big asset.
Lunapads co-founders Madeleine Shaw and Suzanne Siemens
Madeline and Suzanne are well-known social entrepreneurs and longtime DivaCup fans and distributors. Their business success in the sustainable menstrual care world has also brought them an opportunity to make a unique difference in supporting education for girls in the developing world with their Pads4Girls and One4Her initiatives.