Redefining Periods, One Cup At A Time

At the onset of Navratri we promised to bring you stories of 9 mindful women entrepreneurs who are making the world a better place. Personally, this journey started with excitement and has now ended with enlightenment. Today, we bring you the last feature of this campaign and leave you with the most pertinent topic that we hope rallies women to stand behind the cause. The taboo around our menstrual cycle has become a symbol of our weakness rather than being respected as the source of life and creation. It is time we make ourselves more aware about how to change this mindset.

29 year old Shivangi Bagri comes from a fashion background and used to work as a fashion stylist and producer for magazines like Vogue. Along with her friend Alakshi Tomar, she co-founded TruCup – menstrual health and hygiene management organization that creates high quality menstrual cups. Their primary objective is to rid society from the taboo surrounding periods. They aim to establish truth against stigmas, sustainability against waste, freedom against restraints & stereotypes and the inclusion of all menstruators, across the world.

I grew up in Jaipur and moved to Singapore to pursue my graduation in fashion communication from Lasalle College of Arts and have been living here since. I went on to work as a fashion stylist and producer for about 5 years. Eventually, I realized that I needed to work on something I believed in, that made an impact and change the world for the better. I was especially keen on working for the betterment of women and children. Every time, I’d come back home, I was more convinced that something needed to be done to improve the overall condition of women in India, especially their health.

In 2012, during a holiday in Indonesia, I was lounging in a pool with my friend and was surprised when she told me that she was on her second day of periods. She explained that she was using a menstrual cup and that’s when I got introduced to the idea. Initially, I thought it might be disgusting to use it but now I’m a staunch advocate. Inserting and taking it out was a little uncomfortable at first but once I got used to it, it was life changing. I was sleeping better and didn’t worry about soiling the sheets. Since then, I started encouraging my friends to use cups instead of pads or tampons and they seem happy with the change.

Each pad or tampon takes 500 years to disintegrate and in their lifetime, the average menstruator uses about 12,000 pads and tampons.

When I was 25, I decided to quit fashion and think about what’s next. My interest in helping women played a big part in my decision to start TruCup. I was constantly engaging with people, discussing the cups and started educating myself about its environmental impact.

Each pad or tampon takes 500 years to disintegrate and in their lifetime, the average menstruator uses about 12,000 pads and tampons. I realised how as an industry, sanitary pads and tampons generate massive amounts of waste while one menstrual cup that is made of food grade silicon can be sterilised and re-used for 10 years!

In 2016, I started talking to one of my school friends Alakshi, who was in India at the time and was starting to use the cup. She used to work for the Gandhi Fellowship and has worked extensively in the social development sector. Her work revolved around menstrual health awareness. When we were discussing the cups, we realized how strongly we felt towards the same cause and eventually decided to work on it together. By June 2018, we quit our jobs and started working on TruCup, full time. We are self-funded with our headquarters based in Delhi and Singapore. We do our business in India as well as international markets.

As an entrepreneur, you have to be on the ball and try to do things right.

There’s discipline and procedure involved. It’s not just creating, there’s accounts, design, sales, marketing etc. Initially, an entrepreneur does all this by themselves. In a previous entrepreneurial attempt, I found it really hard to be disciplined and do everything myself. So this time I was very sure that I needed a co-founder, especially in India. Luckily for me Alakshi was the perfect collaborator. We went to school together and knew each other’s families for a really long time so it was easy to trust her. After all, trust is the most important thing in any partnership. When we started ideating we realised our skills were complementary.

Alakshi is an analytical and logical thinker. She comes from a background of social development and was connected to the grassroot movements in India. She knew the process and handled the management. I’m more design, sales and communication-centric. In our first 6 months, we naturally figured who wanted to do what. We have our expertise and can work independently but we have a system of keeping each other motivated and driven. Only when one does the job can the other take it forward.

Our aim is to provide hygienic, high-quality, environment-friendly and affordable menstrual cups for vibrant, bold menstruating individuals across the globe.

Not being from business school, setting up an enterprise was no cake walk. Fortunately, in the initial days, we had many smart and talented individuals from MIT and IIM who helped us with design, making business plans, marketing etc.  Thanks to my design background, I was very sure about the packaging and design of our product. We were very conscious and mindful of the different kinds of women who would use this product. It had to be efficient and premium but also we didn’t want to compromise on product quality for the rural market.

The Southeast Asian market we were targeting is slightly orthodox. Inserting something in your vagina is not an easily-acceptable concept, hence we wanted to design something that looked friendly. The cups that were available in the market were transparent so you could see your blood; many found that a little intimidating. Other options were pretty dull, functional and coloured in green, brown and blue, asserting its organic nature. We wanted our product to be bold, colourful and a conversation-starter.

The cup is safe, natural and comfortable. We wanted the design to be user-friendly especially for beginners and still cater to the needs of an active user. For instance, if you’re a diver then sanitary pads don’t work and the water pressure works against the tampon. Alakshi and I took 6 months to sample most of the cups available in the world from different manufacturers and eventually shortlisted one of two that we liked. We made design changes to the product like ensuring the rim had strong suction and a longer stem for ease of use.

Only 12% of menstruators in India have access to menstrual hygiene products, leading to ‘period poverty’.

In rural areas, women cannot afford to buy pads every month. The methods that they use are extremely unhygienic, to themselves and the environment. So many women there lose their uterus because of hygiene related ill-practices. The pads and tampons you get in the market, even the ones that say organic, still have a little bit of  plastic along with chemical coating and toxins. These chemicals are abrasive and adversely affect the vaginal wall and the plastic is harmful to the environment. So, using menstrual cups is the holistic solution here.

Myths about using a menstrual cup-

  1. Virginity –

Many, incorrectly, equate the hymen with virginity. So, people discourage women from the use of any product that could cause the hymen to break. The reality is that you could break your hymen while running or doing other strenuous activities. In reality, the cup sits way lower in your vagina from the hymen tissue.

  • Vagina Shaming-

Till date, many women believe that the pain and hassle of periods is something they must endure. What many fail to understand is that it’s a natural process and must be treated like any other health issue and resolved. In many Asian pockets, women aren’t taught about touching themselves. There’s so much shame and taboo associated with the vagina. They detest the idea of putting their finger inside, let alone a product and seeing their own blood. Only when you start using a cup do you realise that it makes your life easier and more comfortable.

It is very difficult to change set patterns of behaviour and that is why we must educate them

Growing up, we had limited knowledge about menstrual health products and it’s very difficult to change set patterns of behaviour. Even in urban markets, it is hard to educate everyone and make them users. Hence, awareness is our first priority. Our social impact work is done under our program TRUSocial. It’s an honest, free and inclusive transformation program which aims at educating the mindset towards positive & sustainable menstruation in urban & rural communities. The program provides them with in-depth knowledge, tools, processes for menstrual management and top-of-the-line menstrual products at a subsidized cost.

TruCup has developed the four-pillar TRU model to influence 50,000 menstruators, achieve 25,000 Cup-verts & transform 25,000 communities.

We give extensive education about each of the four pillars – Gender Politics, Sexual Health, Menstruation and Menstrual Solutions/Products and Environment and Ecosystem. Each of the pillars are covered through different communication techniques and customized channels across rural and urban areas. We implement workshops on holistic menstrual wellbeing in schools, colleges, villages, corporate and other institutions for 1 – 4 days. Additionally, we take entrepreneurship sessions to create skilled trainers who can conduct their own workshops, sell cups and propel change towards healthier menstruation. This is effective because women trust women of their own community and are much more open to trying the cups. We also give subsidized cost or free products in underprivileged communities so that ownership of the product might lead to ownership of their bodies and menstruation.

Donate a cup

In our shopping page, there is an option of donating menstrual cups. Many people donate 20-30 cups at one go and we organize a donation campaign to distribute these to the right group of women.

Taking the conversation beyond gender

We always evoke gender-mixed conversation and make sure that we are inclusive. We try to start conversations about menstruation, especially in the transgender community who also need menstrual hygiene products but are usually discounted from mainstream conversations. It was also important to us, to speak to young boys and men and help them understand their sister’s or mother’s situation. We see a change in men’s awareness about menstrual health. I feel happy when men want to work with us and don’t shy away from it. Our packaging designer is a man and we would do long video calls about the products and it felt very comfortable and normal. The most important thing we can do, as women, is shed the taboo and engage in open conversations with other girls and the men in our lives about the menstrual cycle. I avoid even the slightest inhibition during such conversation to try and bring an overall behavioural change. In one of my talks, in Singapore, a 17 year old boy came and talked to me about the product. He was progressive and had many questions and eventually ended up buying 3 cups for his mother, sister and friend.

We are working towards a campaign about your first period experience. Under this we engage with women and men of all ages and ask them about their first brush with periods. Most men have their first encounter when they see their mother or sister using a pad. Our agenda is to generate conversation and understand the psychology of these so-called taboos and how they are formed.

There is a lot of gratification in the work that we do which keeps us going

Our biggest challenge as a business is that our customers are one-time buyers since the same cup can be used for a long time. But the exciting part is that even our one-time buyers keep coming back to buy it for a friend, gift or donate it to other women. So we educate one customer and they end up educating others and it works on word of mouth. In the past year, our company has grown and most people, who have heard of menstrual cups, have heard about TruCup. When we get positive feedback from women who are able to lead a healthier lifestyle thanks to TruCup, that’s all the motivation we need. There is a lot of gratification in the work that we do and that keeps us energized to do better and bigger.TruCups’ noble agenda is to support women to have a free and open conversation about their bodies. Even non-menstruators should visit their website and learn more about menstrual health and perhaps gift it to a friend or donate one. All Shivangi and Alakshi ask for, is an open conversation with you. Women must take charge of their lives by asking the right questions, demanding answers and coming together, as a community, to talk about their bodies and its needs.

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