The Woman Bringing You Sex 52 Weeks a Year
It’s that time of the month again. I’ve got 15 minutes to kill before my interview, so I dash into the nearest CVS, tiptoe to the feminine hygiene aisle and discreetly pluck a box of tampons from the shelf. Wouldn’t want anyone to know!
But my monthly cycle isn’t some covert operation, says Lauren Schulte. In fact, “we should be proud of our reproductive system,” the 29-year-old entrepreneur tells OZY. We’re sitting in a Venice Beach café near the headquarters of Flex, Schulte’s feminine hygiene startup, which sprang from San Francisco’s prestigious Y Combinator Fellowship and is backed by other startup accelerators in California, including Amplify.LA. And while you might picture the woman railing against the patriarchy of periods as radical, Schulte is a perky blonde with hazel eyes and arched eyebrows who wouldn’t dare burn a bra. Indeed, she tells me, she grew up in a conservative Georgia household and didn’t know where her “peehole” was until a couple of years ago.
Schulte is part of a new breed of entrepreneurial leading ladies who are steering the charge toward a menstrual product revival, brainstorming and building the next generation of period-wear. And while they’re not going so far as to champion the “free bleeding” fad, their beef with tampons can be boiled down to three points: Tampons are clogging up landfills, they’re a health problem and it’s about time women shove all that period-shaming where the sun don’t shine. The average woman uses 12,000 tampons throughout her lifetime — if you stacked them up, they’d be higher than the Empire State Building.
They’re going head-to-head with Goliaths like Tampax, Kotex and Playtex.
Schulte’s alternative to the tyranny of tampons is a disc-shaped, long-wear device made from food-grade material that can be worn for 12 hours (unlike tampons or pads, which typically last four to eight hours). Called Flex, it costs $15 for a pack of three, pricier than your average box of tampons. Unlike many of its competitors, though, Flex is geared specifically toward mess-free period sex, a selling point that few companies can boast — and that few dare to touch. Both men and women have already done “test runs,” if you will, with the new product. For 33-year-old Mateo Bueno, a strategist and marketer in San Francisco whose girlfriend tried Flex a few months ago, the little disc is changing the conversation around what was formerly a “do not enter” zone for men. “You catch women by surprise if you know something about their cycle,” Bueno says.
Schulte’s “anti-tampon” falls into step with the growing “hipster resurgence” of alternative feminine hygiene products, says Jennifer Conti, a gynecologist and obstetrician at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Lunapads are made of washable cloth, while the DivaCup, on the market since 2003, is an eco-friendly menstrual cup. This past year, Thinx launched with absorbent “period-proof” underwear. Some experts say this reset is long overdue: The modern-day tampon hasn’t changed much since the 1930s, when, according to Tampax, it was inspired by the cotton plugs used in surgery. Products like Flex, which is slated to ship en masse this summer, could finally take the testosterone out of the mix: “It’s been awhile coming,” says Kristin Crosland at Experien Group, a consulting firm. As of now, tens of thousands of people have signed up on Flex’s website, says Schulte, and the company is outpacing its original projections tenfold.
Schulte and her sisters in the menstrual-care alternatives market are trying to crack a hard nut. They’re going head-to-head with Goliaths like Tampax, Kotex and Playtex, which hold a huge slice of the $15 billion feminine hygiene industry and are bent on maintaining the status quo. (A spokesperson for P&G, which makes Tampax, says the company “embrace[s] each women’s choice to use whatever product she feels works best for her.” It says that its tampons are safe and subject to strict FDA review, and that toxic-shock syndrome can occur with any product incerted into the vagina.)
Although DivaCup is carried at CVS and Thinx has sold 200,000 products, Schulte admits getting investors — who are mostly male and “blanch when discussing periods” — onboard the period product train has been tough. Plus, there are plenty of bureaucratic hurdles to clear to get Flex on shelves. Schulte is in the midst of registering with the Food and Drug Administration and undergoing biocompatibility testing to ensure safety, which is a seven-month process. Often, “it’s like a big black box dealing with the FDA,” says Crosland, who consults on her fair share of medical devices.
But even that seems unlikely to derail Schulte. As a girl, she dreamed of becoming the first female president, despite growing up in an evangelical household where, she says, “feminist” was an “F-word.” Shortly after hitting puberty, Schulte was given a promise ring, to dissuade her from premarital sex, she says. What motivates her today is not conservative sways but her eagerness to push the boundaries in the oft-ignored corners of women’s health. As she puts it, “it’s been a strange journey.”
Sitting across from this feisty feminist, I can’t help but stare at her uterus — the one proudly displayed on her T-shirt. It’s bold, it’s artsy and it’s her coat of arms as she leads the way toward the menstrual revolution. Clearly, she’s not afraid of a little blood.