You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but Molly Hayward is conducting a social experiment. She’s at the bar in Washington Square’s Talula’s Garden, sipping a drink and looking a little pensive. “I think I need to check,” she says, excusing herself to the ladies room.
Hayward, you see, is much more than a much-ballyhooed 27-year-old entrepreneur. She’s the quiet but driven leader of a burgeoning movement, and today’s social experiment is one she’s hoping to entice her customers into following: She has her period and is not using any feminine product.
When she returns from the ladies room, she flashes the thumbs-up sign. All’s good; the folded-over cotton Sari she’s using—the same cloth a girl in India might use, due to the lack of feminine hygiene products—hasn’t soaked through yet. “It’s a light flow so far,” she says. “Even so, walking over here, I was terrified I was going to bleed through my clothes. I’m going to be refolding and worrying about it all day.”
Huh? What kind of movement might this be? It is, as Hayward envisions it, a movement of female empowerment. A couple of years ago, during a trip to Kenya, Hayward noticed a young girl staying behind while others went to school. When she asked the girl why, Hayward was struck by the response: “I have my period.”
That sent Hayward researching. She found that there is no such thing as safe feminine hygiene products; that the products most Americans buy are sprayed with pesticides and made with bleach, and can harm the environment and, in some cases, lead to toxic-shock and cancer. Then, laying on her parents sofa in Swarthmore, she read a Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times that detailed how, in many developing countries, girls don’t even have access to such products. They miss one out of every four weeks of school, either due to the lack of sanitary pads—in India, newspapers or animal dung are often used—or because menstruation is stigmatized as dirty and shameful, subjecting young girls to a perpetual opportunity and achievement gap.
So what did Hayward do? A self-described capitalist who believes in the power of markets to solve social problems because “we can’t ask non-profits to do it all,” Hayward came up with a business plan. Cora, and its slogan “Woman for Woman, Month for Month,” was born. Cora is a subscription service that, each month, sends its members in the United States a customizable package of safe, organic sanitary pads, tampons, chocolate and tea, ranging from $15 to $35 a month. Borrowing from the one-for-one business model popularized by TOMS shoes and Warby Parker eyewear, for each customized package bought in the United States, the equivalent number of sanitary napkins is sent to girls in India.
“I tell people all the time, you don’t have to choose between being an entrepreneur and having social impact,” Hayward says. “In fact, I think business can be the catalyst for social change. Our value proposition is to get women to think about the products they’re using, but also to change the way we think about menstruation—as something dirty—when it’s the most natural thing in the world. To do that, you can’t just go out on the street and hold up a sign.”
In the ravages of the Great Recession, a trend was born: corporate social responsibility, which has already become something of an antiquated term. Hayward and others like her talk about social impact, which goes far beyond donating a percentage of profits to charities. She has baked social impact into her very mission and value proposition. And she’s not alone. From Giving Tuesday to the proliferation of B Corps, the notion that companies and organizations can do well and do good at the same time has taken off, and is more than a passing fad.
“I think business can be the catalyst for social change,” says Hayward. “Our value proposition is to get women to think about the products they’re using, but also to change the way we think about menstruation—as something dirty—when it’s the most natural thing in the world.”
“Companies will increasingly become pro-active agents for social change, occupying a newfound and powerful role as market disruptors in the civic, nonprofit and social/environmental arenas,” writes Russ Stoddard of Oliver Russell, a brand builder for purpose-driven companies. “Companies will be doing this because they will be behaving, in some regards, as companies always have—they will be responding to consumer demand. As is usually the case with social change, much of this push is fomented by youth, in this case, the Millennial generation. Unlike previous generations, protests aren’t necessarily taking place in the streets—they’re happening at the cash register or online shopping cart.”
Hayward was inspired by companies like Patagonia, Whole Foods and the Body Shop. “They didn’t just start companies to sell products and make money,” she says. “It was more personal. They were interested in helping people cultivate a more conscious lifestyle. If you’re a CEO running a company and not having a social impact, you may not be missing the point, but you’re missing an opportunity.”
Of course, companies that value social impact as a legitimate return on investment don’t necessarily succeed overnight. Many of those Hayward cites as models took 30 years to fulfill their mission. It takes time to build a values-based company that disrupts traditional models. “But I’ve got time,” she says. “This is my life’s work.”
Hayward started Cora after that trip to Kenya in 2013. At the time, she was an administrative assistant at Children’s Hospital, working nights on her dream. When a friend of a friend wrote her a check on the spot for $14,000, she decided to pursue Cora fulltime. What followed was common among entrepreneurs: Moments of desperate despair, followed by exhilarating examples of miraculous serendipity.
“Every time I jump without a net, a net seems to appear,” Hayward says. “An investor writes a check for $20,000 right when I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay my bills. Or I’d not have enough money to buy groceries and a neighbor will knock on my door and say, ‘Hey, we made too much soup, will you take some?’”
Cora now has hundreds of customers in the U.S., enough to have sent 20,000 packages of sanitary pads to a school in a rural area outside of New Delhi. (Hayward also diverted some packs to Nepal this month after the earthquake.) In India, the compostable pads—made from plant fibers—come from a local organization, Aakar Innovations, that employs women, and also runs health education programs throughout the region. Coincidentally, Aakar will soon expand into Kenya—which will also be the next place Hayward takes Cora.
Business has been good enough in the last several months for Hayward to hire a COO. A successful crowdfunding campaign netted in excess of $30,000, and other like-minded investors have stepped up, even though Hayward isn’t actively fundraising. Instead, she’s actively selling an idea, jumpstarting a movement.
Which gets us to her little experiment. Hayward isn’t going without tampons as some marketing stunt. (In the course of one of our conversations, she just let the fact of it slip). She’s doing it as an exercise in empathy, to make sure she connects in her own mind with those in India, Kenya and elsewhere who she’s seeking to help. And she wants other women to do the same.
“Up till now, I’ve been working on behalf of that girl, but I wasn’t her,” Hayward says. “Obviously, I’m not in a rural village without a toilet and privacy, but what I can at least feel is the fear and embarrassment at the prospect of others knowing she’s menstruating. Why is that? You have nothing to be ashamed of. But we get the message all the time that we should be—and not just in developing countries. In Europe, there’s a luxury tax on feminine products. Really? A luxury?”
Hayward says she wants to empower an army of women to forgo traditional products during their cycle, as a sign of solidarity with women across the globe. She’s young, but she’s no firebrand. She speaks calmly, like an old soul, someone wise beyond her years whose values long ago ceased to be malleable. Before we part, I challenge her.
“Tomorrow morning, Tampax calls,” I say. “They’ll give you $2 million to buy you. What do you say?”
Molly Hayward smiles, as if she’s practiced this very scenario. “I’d invite them to have a conversation,” she says, slyly. “I’d politely explain that we’re not into what they’re selling women in drug stores. I’d tell them that no one in good conscience would sell to them, knowing the health and environmental dangers of their products. But I’d tell them I’d be happy to talk about ways to make them better, and to get them to help the women who have no access to safe products.”
“Okay,” I say. “Three million.”
Molly Hayward smiles. And this is why she’s going to be someone to reckon with. “There’s no number,” she says.
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously identified a company as Cora’s US manufacturer.