Here's a surprising piece of trivia: Tampons were invented by a male physician in the 1930s. And menstrual cups, which might be mistaken for cutting-edge period technology, first appeared on the market in the '30s too. These are just a few of the eye-opening facts we at MyDomaine learned within moments of speaking to Lauren Schulte, the forward-thinking entrepreneur behind The Flex Company.
Before Schulte launched the startup that's revolutionizing the period product industry, she worked in marketing for companies like Coca-Cola and IBM. So how did she end up leaving her traditionally corporate career behind to develop an innovative tampon alternative? It all started at a doctor's appointment with her gynecologist, she told MyDomaine. After years of struggling with infections, Schulte discovered that her seemingly innocuous cotton tampons were to blame. She tried more than 30 tampon alternative products from all over the world, but nothing was quite right. Noticing a gap in the market, Schulte developed Flex, a menstrual disk that, as its name suggests, is flexible, not to mention body-safe and can be comfortably worn for up to 12 hours. To be candid, if that's not innovative, then we don't know what is.
In this installment of Womaneer, a series dedicated to highlighting women who are leading pioneers in their fields, we ask the founder of The Flex Company all about disrupting 88 years of tampon industry, including the mistakes she's learned from, why she thinks now is the best time to be a female entrepreneur, and what's on the horizon for her successful company.
Tell us about what you do and how you broke into the field.
I am the founder and CEO of The Flex Company. We manufacture and sell menstrual discs, which were designed to be so comfortable that customers forget they're on their period when using it (78% of our customers tell us they forget they were on their period when using Flex). Menstrual discs hold about five regular tampons' worth of fluid, are hypoallergenic, and can be worn for up to 12 hours, including during swimming and sex. Discs are disposable but create 60% less waste than traditional period products.<br/>Before I founded The Flex Company, I envisioned myself building a business that would help millions of women feel more self-love. But inside, I was plagued by my own self-doubt. Like most people, I'd never been a founder or worked at a startup. I had about 10 years of experience in marketing, working for companies including Coca-Cola and IBM, but I had no experience designing or manufacturing products. I just had a very real problem that I faced in my own life and the conviction that I was not alone.
Can you recall that "lightbulb" moment that motivated you to pursue your current path?
Every month following my period, I'd get a terrible yeast infection. For more than 10 years of my life, my vagina was out of commission for 50% of the time.
A nurse told me that tampons were disrupting my vaginal pH each month, which was the underlying culprit of my infections. It didn't matter that they were organic. She told me that the absorbent cotton was to blame.
Did you face any immediate challenges? What was the biggest barrier you had to overcome?
Companies that manufacture their own products have a chicken-and-egg problem. You need money to manufacture a product, but investors need to know that people will love what you're making before they'll invest. This was the biggest challenge we had to overcome.
How has being a woman helped or hindered your progress?
Being a woman in this space has both helped and hurt our progress. My own struggles with period products have made me more empathetic to people who have uncomfortable periods. On the flip side, I've had a female investor tell me that women have to work extra hard to demonstrate to people that we are analytical. It's hard to say if that's hindered our progress, but it is something that's always in the back of my mind.
Now, tell us about The Flex Company, and how it came about. What was that pioneering moment for you?
In 2014, I discovered the "modern" applicator tampon was invented in the 1930s—by a man. Menstrual cups seemed new, but they were invented in the 1930s too. A lot of people told me that their periods were really uncomfortable because of side effects from traditional period products: cramping, odor, leaking, and infections.
I tried more than 30 products from all over the world and felt really frustrated by the lack of real design innovation to make periods more comfortable. I was living in San Francisco at the time where people are (seriously) working on colonizing Mars. If I wanted real change, I knew I had to take matters into my own hands.
How did you turn this initial concept into a successful company? When did you first discover that this idea could be a business and a career?
The first person I shared my idea with is a successful serial entrepreneur who had just sold his first company for $1 billion. His advice to me: "Don't be afraid to tell everyone you meet about your idea." That advice sounded counterintuitive, but it served me very well. Telling others about my idea helped me find early users, recruit a team of talented people who are smarter than I am, and eventually raise money.
The next thing I did was make a list of all of the things I wasn't good at but knew were important for launching a business. Then I found people who had those skills and convinced them to work with me. Through this process, I met Erika Jensen and Panpan Wang, who joined me as co-founders.
Then we got to work. We used the Y Combinator application to create an early business plan. It helped us understand what investors would be looking for. Even though we were self-funded, we found creative ways to get as much traction as we could before going out to raise money.
Do you think it's harder or easier for female entrepreneurs to start out today? Why?
Now is an incredible time for women to start a business. There are more support networks and resources for us than ever before. We have a long way to go before we see equal representation between female/male founders and CEOs, and the best way to get to a 50/50 ratio is for more women to start a company.
One of the most progressive organizations I've seen has come from a group of top female investors called Female Founders Office Hours. I'm honored to have been selected as a mentor, and I spend about an hour each week mentoring early-stage founders.
What does being a womaneer mean to you? What qualities and attributes do you think it takes to be a womaneer?
A womaneer is someone who is tenacious and visionary. It is audacious to create something out of nothing. There will be endless roadblocks—many seem impossible to overcome. To be successful, I think you need a healthy mix of optimism, realism, fearlessness, empathy, and unwavering confidence in your vision.
How did you shake off the fear and doubt to pursue your innovation?
It's funny, I don't think I've heard anyone ask a male entrepreneur this question. I can't believe that men don't experience self-doubt, so perhaps we expect women to question themselves the same way society questions us. I did have a healthy dose of self-doubt, but I overcame it by working hard to execute against my vision.
What is the one thing you think every woman needs to become a pioneer in her own field?
Be aware of both the advantages and disadvantages your gender provides you. Know that you might have to work harder. But don't dwell on things you cannot change, otherwise, you may come across as having a chip on your shoulder. Find a way to overcome these challenges like any other challenge you'll experience on your entrepreneurial journey. Find motivation in your own mission and vision.
What mistakes have you learned from, and even benefited from, in your career?
I've learned to trust myself a lot more and to not seek validation in other people's opinions of me. I started working at IBM when I was 19 years old. People were quick to brush me off and not take me seriously because of my age, gender, and appearance.
What's next for you in 2018/19?
We are in a very high-growth stage, so right now we're focused on ramping up manufacturing for FLEX. We're also working to create more awareness that periods don't have to be uncomfortable.
For more inspiring stories about successful women who've forged their own career paths, peruse MyDomaine's Womaneer archives.