14 February 2019 Courier Feb/Mar 2019

Portrait: Miki Agrawal, from Thinx to Tushy

Are you sitting comfortably? From periods to poop, she is in the business of taking taboos mainstream – but at a cost

 

For someone who says they have no time for ‘low vibrational negative shit’, there are lots of things that worry and annoy Miki Agrawal. ‘Wiping your arse with toilet paper is dirty and barbaric!’ she insists. Not long after: ‘Why are women shamed about having periods? We are shamed, shamed, shamed about everything!’ And then: ‘We’ve become indoctrinated by outdated and crazy ways of thinking!’

But chill. By reading her new book about female leadership, Disrupt-Her, she writes in the foreword, ‘you are opening yourself up to disrupting much of what you believe to be “true” so you can live your most vibrant, strong, actualised, lit-up life ever. Congratulations on taking this big, courageous step.’

Agrawal, 40, has also needed plenty of courage herself. The self-described ‘She-EO’ and ‘social entrepreneur’ is committed to bringing taboo topics into the mainstream – think periods, pee and poop. As such, controversy follows her everywhere – sometimes deliberately, other times explosively. Either way, she says, ‘I’m not going to sugarcoat it.’

Grapefruits and dripping egg yolks

Agrawal’s newest company is Tushy, which sells bidet attachments that clip on to toilets and spray water. The small, simple product embodies a bold ambition: to overturn centuries of received wisdom in the Western world about how we clean ourselves after going for a number two.

But it was one of the earlier companies she co-founded that brought her notoriety. She came up with the idea for Thinx, the trendy period-proof underwear company that means you don’t need to use tampons or pads, over a decade ago while running a three-legged race at a family barbecue. Midway through, her teammate and identical twin sister started her period, and the pair had to rush to the bathroom still tied together.

‘As we were washing out the blood from her bathing suit bottoms,’ Agrawal explains, ‘we were like, what if we could make a pair of underwear that didn’t leak or stain and that absorbed blood?’

She didn’t properly launch Thinx until 2014, but within a year the company was infamous across the US. Recognising the viral-marketing potential of bodily taboos, she submitted posters to be displayed across the New York City subway. They featured dripping egg yolks (symbolising menstrual blood), halved grapefruits (vaginas) and models in pants alongside the phrase, ‘For women with periods’.

When the transport authorities rejected the ads, Thinx went straight to the media, claiming they were the victim of sexism. Internet outrage ensued. Only then were the ads promptly green-lighted.

The company released more attention-grabbing campaigns (by reminding passengers that trans men can menstruate, too) while gaining hundreds of thousands of new followers on social media. In 2016, revenues reached into the tens of millions. Agrawal had become a feminist role model for millennials.

But in March 2017, Racked published an exposé portraying a toxic workplace culture at Thinx HQ in New York. Despite the company’s feminist branding and mission, some of the women who worked there felt exploited by poor pay and working conditions, including one who said she was unable to afford birth control under the company’s healthcare plan. Reportedly, 10 of the company’s 35 employees left in the space of just a couple of months.

Almost overnight, Thinx became a case study in mismanagement. Running a taboo-busting company was never going to be easy – but by neglecting to consider stuffy HR processes, the company paid a huge price. Agrawal was ousted from the company after a former employee led a complaint against her citing sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour, including nudity in the office, touching employees’ breasts and video calling staff from the toilet. The complaint was settled confidentially.

‘A lot of people in the startup ecosystem looked up to Miki. She was always a step ahead in terms of her ideas, and the designs and marketing of her products,’ according to a prominent female founder who asked to remain anonymous. ‘And she still is,’ she continues. ‘Her no-bullshit attitude inspires me, especially as a woman in such a male-dominated industry. But she went too far. A friend of mine worked there [at Thinx] and said she was erratic and difficult to keep on your side.’

Of course, working for a company that makes period-proof pants means colourful, sometimes awkward discussions will inevitably take place – but still, there are boundaries, and employees should feel comfortable enough to flag their discomfort.

Agrawal concedes that the crisis was upsetting – ‘It’s a cautionary tale. I did cry’ – but remains bullish. ‘They came into the company knowing the values that we stood for and the way you have to kind of put yourself out there when you’re working in a taboo industry. But only after the fact do they start to cry wolf. I’m not going to let it stop me from inspiring others.’

Bidet boss

Agrawal’s conversation, never less than compelling, often verges on hyperbole. It’s like she thinks toilet paper is the worst thing invented in all of living history.

Consider this, she says: ‘Using dry tissue to wipe “clean” a plate that’s had raw chicken on it. Or getting into the bath naked after a hard day’s work with no water and only dry tissue.’

In both cases, she says, ‘It’s like duh and duh, no thanks! Yet we use toilet paper to clean the dirtiest part of our body. We’re savages! We haven’t moved on from the 1800s. Yet we have so much technology.’

Although Agrawal grew up in Canada before relocating to the US, her father is Indian and her mother is Japanese, so she used bidets growing up. According to recent estimates, the average American uses 57 sheets of toilet paper a day, which means the widespread adoption of bidets in the US could save 25 million trees per year.

‘A decade from now, we’ll look back and won’t believe we used toilet paper,’ says Agrawal.

Tushy sells two different types of bidets, starting at $69, as well as other merch, including ‘Tushy bum towels’, while there are plans to release baby bidets and portable travel bidets later in the year.

‘A big challenge for us was to make our bidets as beautiful as the iPhone but more affordable,’ she says.

In fact, a much bigger challenge will be to fulfil her vision of making bidets commonplace in homes across the US. She hopes the success of the Squatty Potty – a plastic stool said to reduce straining while on the toilet; more than 5 million of which have been sold since 2011 – indicates that people in the US are willing to change their bathroom habits.

‘Turning shit into gold’

For Agrawal, the criticism and accusations directed towards her are almost to be expected: ‘People who shift culture get rocks thrown at them. If you are a disruptor, people want to take you down.

‘But people can talk all the shit they like,’ she continues. ‘I will always be fully authentic. While people will be inspired or threatened by that, I’ll always challenge things that don’t make sense.’

Has she changed anything about the way she manages people and leads her business? She says she is ‘now more careful about hiring, and have an HR manual in place’ – there was none at Thinx, nor an HR department, despite requests from staff.

Before joining Tushy in May 2018, the company’s CEO Jason Ojalvo was senior vice president at Audible, a division of Amazon, as well as heading up Audible Studios, the company’s in-house production arm. Working with Agrawal and Tushy appealed because, he says, ‘I wanted to work somewhere more irreverent, with a sense of humour.’

Ojalvo says Agrawal is deliberately hiring staff slightly older (in their 30s) and more mature than she typically did at Thinx, and that she has placed much more of a ‘buffer, mentally and physically,’ between herself and the rest of the team.

Nonetheless, when Ojalvo first met her for his job interview, it was not at an office but at Agrawal’s home – in a converted church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. ‘A guy answered the door,’ says Ojalvo. ‘I asked him what he did at Tushy and he told me, “No, I’m the baby daddy [Agrawal and her husband have a toddler]. Welcome to our home”.’ The interview itself took place over the next two hours while the pair sat on pillows on the floor. Ojalvo says, ‘It was like stepping into some kind of intellectual commune’.

‘It isn’t for everyone but I find her energy and ideas inspiring,’ he says. ‘She’s innovative in a slightly risqué and fun way. If you decide to work with her, you have to appreciate that it won’t be a conservative working environment. I mean, in our meetings sometimes we’ll be brainstorming t-shirt slogans like, “Ask me about my butthole”.’

Still, Tushy will need to carefully navigate between the risqué conversations necessary to build its product and grow its business and those which simply make employees feel uncomfortable.

According to Agrawal, writing her new book has given her time to reflect. Leaving Thinx was a ‘blessing in disguise because I get to give my all to a new project I’m passionate about. It was unfortunate to be dishonourably discharged the way I was. But I don’t regret the experience, it was important to see the underbelly of the business world.’

Will she ever make things easier for herself and work on projects that aren’t quite so taboo?

‘Unlikely,’ she says, explaining that her businesses have to fulfil three criteria: ‘1) Is it something that sucks in my world? 2) Does it suck for a lot of people? 3) Can I be passionate about it for a long time?’

For Agrawal, Tushy ticks all those boxes. ‘For now,’ she says, ‘I’m all about turning shit into gold.’