I was born and brought up in a life of privilege in Mumbai. Growing up, my mom always told me that I should aspire to be someone like Indira Nooyi. My mother, herself, was a nuclear scientist, and expected the most from her children.
So, naturally, I graduated from IIT Bombay in 2011 in material sciences and metallurgy and joined an investment bank. However, even while at the bank, I specifically worked with CSR because I always believed that there should be something that I can give back.
Luckily, I happened to meet me Anshu Gupta from Goonj, and that was the first time someone made me aware of the state of menstrual hygiene in the country. He told me, that there are over 80 percent women who are not using pads. Forget sanitary pads, even cloth as a material is not available to them. For example, if there are five women in a family, they share the same set of rags during all their periods, which you can imagine causes many infections.
There have even been cases where hooks on blouses have causes tetanus in vaginas.
It got me thinking that something that is so common and obvious. It affects almost half the human species, is something that is largely ignored. In fact, while thinking about poverty, we consider hunger, homelessness, etc, but menstruation is something that was never discussed. I always had the inclination to being an entrepreneur and starting up on my own, but now, I found something that I genuinely felt for.
I looked around to notice that all the products in the market had been designed for the urban women. The same sort of technological advancement was not being channelled towards the rural women’s comfort. Low cost products, to be made available to rural women, were made so, because they compromised on the quality of the cloth, the absorption, etc. This was unacceptable, primarily because, women in rural areas have to worst menstrual hygiene and need the best pads to counteract the ill effects. I had the expertise of coming from an engineering and product design background and decided to focus my energies towards creating products of quality for women who cannot afford it.
While working at the investment bank, my parents could see how stressed I was. When I told my parents that I wanted to start Saral Designs, they thought it was because I didn’t like my job. It took me a while to convince them of my passion on this issue. One day, before giving my final resignation at the investment bank, I took my parents out for dinner, and gave them a proper, business-plan presentation that outlined what I wanted to do.
My parents grilled me, they poked holes in my business idea, and asked me thousands of questions. Only then were they convinced.
After quitting my job, I went on the Tata Jagriti Yatra, which is a 15-day tour of the country. I met other budding and grassroots entrepreneurs, who enlightened me about social entrepreneurship, something that I had no knowledge of. Upon discussing my idea, I received positive and constructive feedback that made me believe that what I had thought of doing would work.
I also went on a tour to southern India to see what technological innovations in the field of making sanitary napkins were already underway. I visited Arunachalam Muruganantham’s factory in Tamil Nadu and a few other self-help collectives that were working in this space.
I interacted with friends and family who worked for more recognised sanitary pads brands to understand the contrast between the local collectives, and the mass-produce high-end brands. I went through the entire spectrum of the available products and their price-ranges to see affordability.
Meanwhile, I met my co-founder, Kartik Mehta, a machine designer who graduated from IIT Madras. He had worked previously on designing products and packaging machines, and joined the efforts on a freelance basis. Still, on engaging and learning more, Kartik got interested in the project.
Finally, in 2015, we registered Saral Designs as a company. But, we still needed to figure out a way to produce the best possible sanitary pads, at the lowest production cost. A P&G machine that makes sanitary pads is a Rs 1,500,000,000 investment.
At the time, we were running social media campaigns to get out efforts known, and it so happened that an IIT-Bombay alum, named Satendra Tiwari, heard about us, living in the USA, and sent us USD 10,000 with a message saying that he appreciated our efforts and wanted us to do more. That was such a huge show of faith for us, because, of course, this was not proving easy. Our seniors, who consist of angel investors, also noticed our efforts, and funded our company. That gave us the money to build a prototype machine that is called Swachh (patent pending). The world’s first compact machine that makes sanitary pads. Just imagine a large 3D printer, you put the rolls in, and the pads come out.
It’s so funny, but ever since our first round of funding, I’ve started carrying a complete range of sanitary pads to show people, because it becomes especially hard to explain why one sanitary pad is better than another, verbally. This is a peculiar problem that I face with investors and middle-men, who, more than often, turn out to be men who have never used sanitary pads. I don’t have to do an absorption test for a woman, but I’ve had to pour water to demonstrate the absorption ability of our product versus the others. Usually, the men get bashful and say things like, ‘This is the first time I’m touching a pad.’
I always encourage them to take some pads for their wives, daughters, sisters, etc, and then after a week or so, the feedback always turns out to be favourable.
Our first bunch of investors gave the sanitary pads to their wives and girlfriends who convinced them that our product was good.
Now, we have 80 different women known as sanginis, who operate out of 80 villages in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Manipur. We train them and give them stock, that they sell from door-to-door. Rural women manage to save money to buy product, but have no place to buy them from. You see, many women do not have a medical store even near the 5km radius of their villages.
We also have installed vending machines in schools, and provide sex education workshops so that there is a newer generation of women who are well-equipped to handle menstrual hygiene.
The biggest challenge, apart from finances, has been trying to work on our distribution channels, especially when we partner with the government. There is so much bureaucracy and corruption, that we’ve had run-ins with people demanding bribes. It’s really frustrating to try to do something good, but have to face issues with things like these. We’ve let go of thousands of opportunities where we were too adamant to give into extortion.
As a woman, there have been trade fairs where I have been standing with our machine, and men will come up to ask about it. When I venture to answer, they tell me that they want a man’s explanation. They always get shocked or amused when they realise that even a woman can design and build machines.
Despite it all, we’ve sold 1,000,000 pads in just a single year, and aim to break-even in the next eight months. Our goal is to provide all rural women with the chance to experience their periods comfortably.