Maya Gandhi (MG)
Why don't you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Simone Godbout (SG)
Yeah, I'd love to. So, I'm Simone, the CEO and co-founder of Marlow, and I can give you a bit of a brief background and then we can sort of dig into the details. How I got started is one of my co-founders was describing this pain she felt using traditional tampons, and how she felt really limited by her other option of using pads. So, an example of a personal anecdote she used was,
“I take a week out of the gym every month because I feel really uncomfortable working out.”
and then my other co-founder goes,
“That's really relatable to me, because I spend the summers up at the cottage and I wish there was a better product that was less painful.”
That conversation caused her to seek out a gynecologist to describe what she was going through and her doctor told her,
“Spit on your tampons to make them easier to insert”
That blew us away. We're 3D printing things, we’re sending people to the moon - how is there not a better solution to this? So, we started digging into the space, and we realized there was just a big lack of innovation, and the product had been the same for decades. There were clusters of other problems that really sparked our interest such as the sustainability of the product and a lot of the messaging surrounding inclusivity, so that inspired us to consult medical advisors and we're going to be launching the first lubricated tampon kit in the fall to make insertion easier!
That's just the start of the journey. Beyond that, we're also really interested in broadening the conversation and getting more people involved. We often feel like we are very much on autopilot as far as our whole menstrual experience goes, and we felt we lacked a lot of information to make our own choices. So our goal is to spark conversations to create a community where people feel welcome and comfortable asking the typically awkward questions so that they have the information to make great choices about their bodies.
So, you mentioned a lubricated tampon kit - how does that work?
What we have heard from interviews is that some people were already doing this at home, but it was a super messy process. A ton of people called it arts and crafts in the bathroom stall! What we did is we engineered the lubricant bottles so that it perfectly coats a tampon when you dip it in with a cross-split valve at the top. I often compare it to a soda that you'd get at McDonald's, and there's a cross slit in the lid for the straw. It's a similar mechanism that wipes off any access lubricant on the tampon when you take it out.
We've also done a deep dive into the ingredients so that the tampon itself is 100% organic cotton and the wrapper is compostable. The applicators are plastic and the lubricant is water based, and we really tried to remove any kind of allergens and make it really great for people with sensitive skin.
We often had people confused about lubricants and where to begin. There are a ton of different kinds, and they didn't know what was right for them, so we wanted to make it a really easy choice. On the tampon side, we thought about the production process before it even turns into a tampon. There's so much water runoff from non-organic crops, so understanding the whole supply chain and where we can make improvements is just the beginning for working towards a more sustainable product.
Did you ever think that you would end up going from business school to engineering a menstrual technology? Did you feel prepared to be the CEO of a company like this?
I think definitely one of the beauties of the job is it is such a steep learning curve.
“Something that I've loved about the journey is that you're 100% accountable to all your decisions and responsible for the outcomes.”
That feedback loop between making a decision and then seeing if it works out is really quick, so you learn a lot, really quickly. In a more corporate role, those feedback loops can be longer.
One thing I'd say is you have to be really good at flipping your brain between seeing the big picture, the milestones that are 10 years out, and then most importantly, breaking that down into bite size milestones. Being able to flip between those brains has been the biggest learning from going from Ivey to this role.
What have you learned in terms of menstrual politics from being in this space?
A huge amount, and we're really lucky to have some awesome advisors. I think that's another learning - to surround yourself with people who are passionate, good hearted, and great at what they do. There's so much to learn.
“For example, Shed Red is such a big advocate for the accessibility of products, and the narrative is often that that's just a problem abroad, but it's such a big problem in Canada as well.
We have seen how inflated menstrual products and other products are in Indigenous communities, so that's something that we're considering in our delivery process. We are also looking into the innovation in this space. It was really interesting to learn that the Diva Cup was based out of Canada.
It is really exciting that so many of these innovative products do come out of Canada! I think there are a couple of period underwear brands based out of Canada too. Our mindset towards menstrual products is also interesting - we often just think that they are the way they are and that’s it. We don’t realize that we as menstruators have a strong grasp on what could be done better and we can actually fix it!
Our hypothesis is that there's been such a lack of conversation. But like you said, the switch just hadn’t flipped, and
“I never asked myself, ““how could things be better for me?”” - we just accept the bare minimum.”
So, what we want to do is spark conversation and foster a comfortable environment, so people are like, “Wait, I feel that too”. That sort of spark is much needed to drive ambition.
How is it being a female CEO at this time? How do you feel as the leader of a team like this?
It is really exciting and is my favorite part of my job. Rallying a team around the mission is amazing.
“It's interesting being a female CEO, especially in this space that's typically been quite gendered.”
We learned a lot from pitching to a mix of genders but often a lot of men. We have had to flex our communication styles to make it understandable. We do get a lot of, “I'm going to go ask my wife and then I’ll get back to you”. There has also been a lot of anecdote sharing in the entire process.
We came across a study where a PhD candidate researched the Q&A section of pitches, and she identified that the quality of pitching was almost equal across genders. But, the types of questions that were asked to females compared to males were very different. The questions were often positive looking and aspirational for males, and it was the opposite for females who received questions like, “Why is a competitor not going to take up your market share?” That different choice of questions actually had a huge impact on the outcomes of the fundraising, because the negative questions put you on the defensive rather than the offensive. That study shifted our approach to making sure we redirect those negative questions.
Something we do say on our team is to “Always bring our full selves to work.” There are so many assets that come with that. Right now, we're an all female team of co-founders, which has given us an opportunity to challenge a lot of business norms. For example, what does our maternity leave look like?
“We're not just going to coast through based on the norms of other startups. Instead, we've really taken the time to question our culture.”
Speaking about bringing your full self to work, do you feel that you can present yourself genuinely when you're talking about your product and your company with other people, specifically non-menstruators?
Yeah, that's really interesting. I think it's been a huge journey for us. I wasn't a huge advocate for menstruation, because I just didn't know enough about it and didn't feel comfortable talking about it. What we want to pass on to our community is that if we can do it, you can do it too. Now, I'm so entrenched in the work that I'm so comfortable using the word, vagina. What I will say is when someone asks what you're doing or what company you're working for, I'm really excited to share, but there is always that reminder to get ready for the reaction.
How do you see the future of menstrual products playing out in terms of the emerging companies and technologies?
I do think there is this certain momentum in the younger generation. There is almost a thrill in talking about traditionally sensitive or stigmatized topics, which is exciting. What we've realized is that adding a bit of casual humour into Marlow campaigns is really effective and helps to push the conversation. People are becoming more informed and it's easier to get information on where you're buying from, which is great because,
“With every dollar you spend, you're voting for the world you want to live in”