Miki Agrawal’s Panty Raid
The self-styled tech broad wants to disrupt the tampon industry, turn your time of the month into a cause, and make a lot of money in underwear.
The New York City subway is not an especially prudish place. In addition to the unflappable readers of romance novels, there are the advertisements, which specialize in double entendre. A mattress company entices riders by promising a comfortable place to “go too far.” A plastic surgeon’s office illustrates breast enhancement with clementines transformed into grapefruits. But last fall, when a young company called Thinx that makes “period underwear” — constructed of special fabric to ensure menstrual blood doesn’t leak or stain — submitted a proposal for ads that employed grapefruit halves (and runny eggs) in an if-Georgia O’Keeffe-painted-food kind of way, the media company that evaluates ads for the MTA balked. You may have heard about this, because it was big news on the internet: “Will the New York City Subway Ban These Ads for Using the Word ‘Period’?” asked Mic, in a post that was widely aggregated and shared with righteous anger on Facebook and Twitter. (“Yes @mta, let’s not suggest that women get periods” and “DEAR NY SUBWAY, THERE WILL BE BLOOD.”) The MTA told the Times that this wasn’t at all the case, that the ads were still in the review process, and that “of course” they would run. “We were hoping to work with the advertiser to refine the copy,” said a spokesperson. But the ins-and-outs of the bureaucratic approval process were really beside the point, because Thinx had experienced what its founder Miki Agrawal said was the third of its five viral moments to date — and in the process had increased its revenue by a factor of 23.
As any casual observer of the Donald Trump campaign can tell you, internet outrage is the fastest route to “earned media” — free publicity — and this is something Agrawal understands intuitively. “Literally, my director of marketing called me sobbing after we spent a month busting our asses working on these ads,” she told me, a month later, scraping soy yogurt from a bowl, perched at her kitchen table in front of a Mac laptop with a prominent Burning Man decal on it. “I was like, sweetheart, I got this.” Agrawal’s apartment is a lofted condo inside an old Catholic church, strewn with succulents and yoga accoutrements. A surfboard sat on a sunny balcony. I’d walked there from the Bedford Avenue L stop, which was by then entirely covered in the grapefruit Thinx ads. Agrawal, who has large brown eyes framed by bangs and the sort of asymmetrical shaved sideburn Skrillex made famous, was wrapped in a plaid blanket over her black crop top and artfully torn leggings. She spoke quickly, intensely, and with her hands. “The good news about the way this world is today is that if there is a good fight to be fought, there are people who will listen to you and write about it. Subject heading: ‘SCANDAL with the MTA’?” Her eyes got wider. “It’s like, Ooh, I’m going to open that email. You know what I mean?”
If Agrawal were a man, her type would be immediately recognizable: She meditates with the app Headspace, she does Crossfit, she has given a TEDx talk, she quotes Steve Jobs and Tim Ferriss. She is self-mythologizing, utterly confident even in situations where she has no good reason to be, and it all serves her exceedingly well. She is a tech bro — except she’s a woman, trying to sell underwear. Or, as she sees it, innovating in the “period space.”
Agrawal says she came up with the idea for Thinx ten years ago, when she and her identical twin sister, Radha, were running a three-legged race at their annual family reunion, Agrapalooza, and Radha’s period started, so the twins had to three-leg their way to the bathroom for damage control. (Though not until after they’d won, “which is my favorite thing about it.”) “As she was washing the blood out of her bathing-suit bottom, that was the aha moment,” Agrawal explained. “We were like, what if we could make a pair of underwear that never leaked, that never stained, that absorbed blood?” Five years later, Agrawal was on vacation in South Africa, where she met a young girl on the street who was missing school because she had her period. She then learned a statistic that helped her see a way to elevate her business idea into a cause: One in ten African girls miss school every month because of their periods. This was, she said, another aha moment. “I came back super-jacked” and decided to pursue something a little like the Toms Shoes model: For every pair of Thinx that’s sold, the company will donate toward the cost of one set of reusable pads for a Ugandan girl, via a company called Afripads that was started by “a beautiful Canadian couple who were traveling in Uganda, discovered this problem, and wound up staying.” Reusable pads like Afripads “do exist in America, but they’re, like, the most uncomfortable,” Agrawal explained. “You’re like, why do I have fleece in my crotch right now? This is, like, a joke. But for people who literally have nothing, it’s a dream come true. For us, we’re like, I just want to wear underwear and bleed in my underwear. You know what I mean?” She laughed.
I didn’t, actually, having spent the past 18 years trying to avoid exactly that scenario, but Agrawal wanted me to try a pair, especially when she found out the timing of my visit was felicitous. “This is happening right now,” she said with delight. “You’re going to take your tampon out, and you’re going to put this underwear on.”
Agrawal ripped open a cardboard box and pulled out a pair of Thinx’s new boy-short line — meant to be transmasculine-friendly, an innovation that led to the company’s fifth viral bump — and dispatched me to the bathroom, where a pair of her own just-washed Thinx were dripping into the tub. The underwear, which costs between $24 and $38, comes in a range of styles, including lace, and absorbencies, including a thong for light days and a brief that can absorb two tampons’ worth for heavy days. The technology behind it is a little murky — Thinx’s patent filing refers to layers of fabric, including a “moisture-impermeable polymer layer,” a “moisture-absorbent layer,” and a "moisture-wicking layer" — but the promise of the garment is that, if used as a backup, waiting too long to change a tampon will never result in a spoiled pair of underwear. Or they can enable a more radical “free-bleeding” approach, for those who, like Agrawal, are suspicious of Big Tampon. “What kind of tampon are you wearing? Did you not read the article that just came out about them causing cancer? You need to be wearing organic cotton tampons if anything,” Agrawal said. “Which, by the way, we’re introducing. Just friend to friend, don’t wear that regular shit! You have no idea! Toxic shock syndrome starts after three hours, and there are so many cases that get, like, pushed under the rug by tampon companies.” (The FDA does not consider either Toxic Shock Syndrome or cancer a serious risk of using tampons, and while it's true that there are no studies of long-term tampon use, there's also no medical data suggesting women should use organic products instead.)
Agrawal frequently speaks in data-driven, consciousness-raising sound bites — many of which, upon closer inspection, turn out to be exaggerations, the kind of apocryphal stats that get repeated by celebrities and recirculated on blogs. “Twenty billion plastic applicators end up in a landfill every year,” she says, though technically that number also includes pads. (Thinx is also, as it happens, introducing silicone applicators that women can carry in their purses that look like a stylish lipstick and are supposed to last up to a decade.) There’s lots more that worries and enrages her: “The average American goes through 57 sheets of toilet paper a day.” And! “There are 500,000 women in America that are victims of female genital mutilation.” (That’s the number who are at risk.) Plus! “There are a million women who are sold in the sex trade in America.” (It’s difficult to quantify this one, but …) And! “95 percent of women in porn are victims of abuse and sexual abuse,” a friend who works in the industry told her. And! Plus! “My sister is a surgeon at Hopkins and was given 20 percent less than her male counterparts, and she graduated top of her class at Harvard, Yale, and Hopkins. You know what I mean? And this is happening RIGHT now.”
But Agrawal, like many in the tech and business worlds, believes that all this overwhelming awfulness can be gradually fixed — without sacrificing profit. “I would not be able to be super-jacked about a product that’s just a product,” she explained. “I need to feel like there’s a great cause.” But on the other hand: “If you just do good, you’re a nonprofit. And they are just shit, the way they’re designed, the way they’re marketed. You have to have a level of motivation to make a big dent in the universe.”
Canny marketing is what Agrawal sees as central to her company’s success. The traditional way that “feminine hygiene” products have been marketed is as sanitized as the name of the category itself. Ads for pads and tampons use a blue fluid as an improbable stand-in for blood and employ images of women frolicking in fields of daisies or swimming in white bathing suits: happy, tidy menstruators. But in recent years, young women especially have taken pride in not shying away from talking about the gorier aspects of their monthly uterine exodus. BuzzFeed ran a popular, memorable quiz called “How Metal Is Your Period?” (“Have you ever needed to use two tampons?” and 104 other such questions.) A woman ran the London Marathon last year while free-bleeding, blood visibly staining her bright-orange leggings as she traversed 26 miles. “I thought, if there’s one person society won’t f*** with, it’s a marathon runner,” she wrote on her personal blog. “If there’s one way to transcend oppression, it’s to run a marathon in whatever way you want.” Her story went viral, crystalizing a new online movement: period feminism, in which frankly confronting the world with the biological realities of being a woman has become a cause — sometimes a slightly ironic one, sometimes a completely earnest one. The idea, in a reductive nutshell, is that menstruation is a wholly natural part of life for anyone born a woman, and feeling obligated to hide the smells and the stains and the cramps is as symptomatic of the patriarchy as unequal pay and sexual harassment. And there’s a little fun to be had in the shock value of it, too: the modern day equivalent of bra burning.
Thinx is unapologetically riding this tide of period feminism, to great success. The company sends out a weekly newsletter called “This Week in Feminism,” with subject lines like “On Thursdays We Wear Feminism” (a reference to a line from the movie Mean Girls), and “Season’s Bleedings” and “Fa-la-la-la-la-la-va-gi-na,” for the holidays. Interspersed with hashtags like #periodproud, there are links to stories about voting rights for women in Saudi Arabia and sexual assault in the United States and updates on anti-abortion legislation, on Emma Watson’s feminist book club, and on the State of the Union. (“Who else remembers Shania’s hit single “Man! I Feel Like A Woman (Because I Am Being Ignored Again)”???) There are inspirational lines like “When life hands you lemons, you squeeze them into the eyes of the patriarchy.”
“I only started relating to being a feminist, literally, right when I started my company,” Agrawal told me. “Every time I thought about the word feminist, I thought about an angry, ranty … girl. When you hear those spoken-word poets and feminists, who are just like” — she made a high-pitched version of the Charlie Brown grown-up wah wah white-noise sound — “I just couldn’t relate to that. I was always on the ‘women are equal’ front and into empowerment and laughter and inspiration,” she continued. “But I learned so much in the past few years about the plight of women … What I tell my team every day is that we have to be accessible. We have to build a bridge to redefining what feminism is, and we have to do it in a way that makes your mouth go like this,” she said, forming her mouth into what she termed a “smirk.”
Last fall, Agrawal and two other Thinx employees visited Gloria Steinem to talk about period feminism. Steinem had printed out a copy of the fourth Thinx newsletter — which included stories on John Oliver’s feminism and the pros and cons of decriminalizing sex work — for discussion. Agrawal said she loves Steinem’s sense of humor, especially as it was on display in her classic 1978 Ms. magazine essay “If Men Could Menstruate.” “We helped her rewrite the piece with all current references, because before she was referencing dead people who are now dead,” says Agrawal. (A fictional Paul Newman’s Tampons was replaced with Channing Tatum’s Tampons; Muhammad Ali was updated to Tom Brady.) Sitting on Gloria Steinem’s couch was srsly the epitome of fempowering,” reported the next edition of the newsletter.
At 37, Agrawal is a veteran “serial social entrepreneur,” as she likes to put it. In addition to Thinx, she is a partner in her twin sister’s company Super Sprowtz, which involves puppets teaching kids about nutrition, and helps out with Daybreaker, a monthly morning “rave” that Radha started. (The parties begin at 6 a.m., are completely sober, and often include a yoga class.) Agrawal grew up in Montreal, with a father who’d immigrated from India and a mother from Japan. Shortly after graduating from Cornell, where she and her twin were both soccer stars, she began working as an analyst for Deutsche Bank, next to the World Trade Center. On September 11, she woke up very late, only to discover that a terrible hangover had possibly saved her life, she says. Two of her colleagues died that morning, she says, and that led her to the very first of those aha moments: Why waste time not living your real dreams? At first, this meant trying out for a semiprofessional women’s soccer team, the New York Magic. Then, after she blew out both of her ACLs in subsequent seasons, it meant quitting her job to try writing screenplays and working as a freelance film and TV producer. But then, after diagnosing herself as lactose-intolerant following a particularly painful experience with craft services, Agrawal had the idea to start an organic, vegan pizza place. She had no experience, or capital, but she did have a tenuous connection to Richard Wolf, an owner of Tao (her sister’s boyfriend’s sister was friends with his wife). She needed to turn that tenuous connection into a real connection, so she planned a supposedly serendipitous run-in where she told Wolf she was “proud” of him for his success. This is standard operating procedure according to her 2013 self-help-autobiography, Do Cool Sh*t: Quit Your Day Job, Start Your Own Business, and Live Happily Ever After, a book full of exclamation points, acronyms, action items for self-actualization, and a cover blurb that begins “Miki Agrawal is a real piece of work.” She writes, “I often find myself saying things like, ‘I’m proud of you.’ It implies familial bond, like a proud parent.” She offered Wolf an “MB” — a mutually beneficial experience — in which she would follow him around during the run-up to the opening of his new Lower East Side restaurant, to learn the nuts and bolts of running such a spot, and he would get free assistance. “I think he probably felt a bit on the spot with his wife and friends right there watching, but regardless, he agreed! Yes! I was so excited!” she writes in Do Cool Sh*t.
Agrawal networked her way into a series of meetings with small-scale investors, borrowed a boardroom from a friend who worked at MTV, and cold-emailed a Food Network producer, successfully offering herself as the subject of a “Recipe for Success” episode by promising, she wrote, “that this show will be the train-wreck show that they’ve been waiting for. Reality TV is all about chaos, and I would give them chaos on a silver pizza tray.”
As promised, the opening of Agrawal’s new restaurant, Slice, was a disaster. In her excitement, Agrawal had ignored Wolf’s advice to soft-open the restaurant and had instead spent the weeks in the run-up to the launch hand-delivering press kits to every media outlet in town, including Daily Candy and the New York Times, which ran prominent coverage that sent an overwhelming tide of customers to the new restaurant — one of the first places in New York to offer gluten-free crust — to eat pizza that was, by her own admission, not good. The reviews weren’t kind. So Agrawal hand-delivered 5,000 letters of apology to residents of the neighborhood. Once she got the recipe worked out, she began going to playgrounds and giving free pizza to mothers; she became a spin instructor so that gym managers would let her set up a table where she could hand out Slice samples. “A lot of people have a lot of pride. I just didn’t give a shit,” said Agrawal. Eventually, she hired someone to manage operations and rebranded the restaurant as Wild. It worked — the restaurant now has two locations, in Williamsburg and the West Village — although Agrawal said the whole experience helped her realize that logistics weren’t her strength: “I am a creative.”
As the pizza restaurant became a grind, Agrawal was ready for the next idea. In 2009, she tried creating fresh, organic, make-your-own-pizza kits, but after about a year she pulled the plug. It’s not something Agrawal highlights on her résumé, but neither is she embarrassed about it. After all, failure is almost a rite of passage in the tech world, and that’s how Agrawal thought of herself when she started formulating her plans for period underwear. When I wondered if the name Thinx was perhaps an attempt to call to mind Spanx, Agrawal told me no. “Originally we were calling it Prance, which was … we don’t want to be a fashion brand, we want to be a utility brand,” she said: “the Goretex for underwear.” Plus, she added, it’s smart underwear—“underwear that thinks about you, underwear that thinks for you and thinks about girls around the world.” The “x just feels very tech.” In 2010, she began working on the new project in earnest, and the following year, trying to make connections she might parlay into investments, she signed up for Summit at Sea, an invite-only cruise in which young entrepreneurs pay a few thousand for the privilege of mingling with one another and dancing to house band the Roots. The year she went, the big names included web-entrepreneurial guru Gary Vaynerchuk, Richard Branson, and Zappos’s Tony Hsieh — the last of whom Agrawal zeroed in on. She parked herself across the bar from him one night and stared until she caught his eye, then waved until he smiled. “And that was it,” she wrote in Do Cool Sh*t. “It didn’t matter that he didn’t remember me at all. I had the smile, which meant I had the in!” She didn’t ruin the moment by talking to him — instead, she sent him an email after the cruise pretending they’d actually met and inviting him to lunch to talk about Thinx. To Agrawal’s surprise, when they met up, Hseih instead said he wanted to invest in her restaurant, which could open a new location in Las Vegas, where he was trying to engineer a thriving downtown district. (Wild Las Vegas has since closed, and Agrawal sold half her stake in the two New York locations.) Jonathan Swerdlin, who is chairman of the Thinx board — “I’m a man, but I’m also a feminist” — said that it’s obvious Agrawal’s charm is part of what’s propelled her forward: “There are very few people who can be as present as she is in conversations,” he said. “A large part of her success is meeting a lot of new people and a lot of the right people.”
Hseih wasn’t the only meaningful connection Agrawal made on the Summit at Sea cruise — later that year she decided to go to Burning Man with a pal she’d met at Summit at Sea. By day three on the Playa, she and Andrew Horn had decided to get “Burning Man married” by the Reverend FunkPocket on the Pier to Nowhere, overlooking sand with the piped-in sounds of waves. Agrawal wore an impromptu sari she’d fashioned out of cloth from Walmart. “It was this trust fall,” said Horn, of their headlong romance. Horn and Agrawal renewed their vows at the next year’s Burning Man, proceeded by what Horn called his alternative bachelor party: “We had these very vulnerable conversations about our fears. It was very powerful.”
They plan to get properly married sometime soon, for their parents. (Horn has a startup of his own, Tribute, to help people put together video compilations, meant to be “the Hallmark of the digital age.”) She chalks up their success together to factors described in an acronym Horn developed even before they met to measure what he wanted in a partner: LACE, meaning Looks, Adventure, Challenge, Enhance.
When Agrawal was trying to raise funding for Thinx (most of which ended up coming from the Sri Lankan company that manufactures the underwear, along with products for Spanx, Victoria’s Secret, and Nike; her COO is the daughter of the factory’s owners), she didn’t talk about feminism — because most investors are men. Instead, she talked about data. I asked her to give me the man pitch, and she rattled off that feminine hygiene is a $20 billion category that women use for the better part of their lives and that there have been only three major innovations in the past hundred years: the invention of the commercial tampon in 1933 (“By a man!”), the addition of the adhesive strip underneath pads in 1969, and the menstrual cup in the 1980s. That there are more than 20 million millennial women in this country, and that at least 10 percent of them — educated, relatively affluent urban dwellers — would be intrigued by the design focus and “yas, queen”–filled messaging that Thinx intended to offer. “I also had one guy put a pad on and walk around,” said Agrawal. “I said, put it underneath your balls. He was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and I was like, ‘YEAH, that’s what we have to deal with.’” Thinx also created a 13-minute documentary in which Agrawal lays out the company’s mission while wearing three different hats, a dream-catcher necklace, and a feather in her hair. (From Do Cool Sh*t: “Step 1: Wear a cool, eyecatching outfit.”) In the film, she heads to Uganda to meet with girls using the Afripads that Thinx provides, pulls up Leviticus on her smartphone and reads the passage that refers to women being unclean, explains that the linguistic origins of the word taboo are related to the Polynesian word for menstruation, and asks friends like CW star Sophia Bush and Rabbi Debbie Newman to talk about their periods. (“Periods are dope,” says one.)
“We get a new phone every single year, but you’re telling me that 50 years have gone by since there’s been a new innovation in periods?” demands Agrawal in her doc. But it’s not entirely true that no one else has tried to “disrupt” periods recently. Patents exist for a “cell phone based tampon monitoring system,” a vibrating tampon (to, supposedly, aid cramps), and a combination pad-tampon — kind of like a spork for your vagina. There are a few other companies currently offering period underwear — Dear Kate, Lunapads, and PantyProp — but none has acquired the brand recognition of Thinx. I mentioned that I was working on this story to a few friends, women in their late 20s and early 30s who fit precisely the demographic Agrawal sees as her target, and they all had heard of them. “They serve me a ton of Facebook ads,” said one. Along with these, there have been copious Instagram ads, YouTube vlogger outreach, and a spate of excited coverage in places like Forbes, BuzzFeed, and the small but beloved Toast. (Sample headline: “In Which I Freely Endorse THINX Period Underwear.”) My friends were curious: How do you wash them? Rinse by hand, they were dismayed to learn, before using a cold-cycle wash. What had it felt like to wear them rather than a tampon on a heavier day? A not dissimilar sensation, in some ways, to wearing a pad; I wound up reverting to my usual tampon. One friend of mine who has especially torrential periods and can bleed through a tampon in the course of her commute to work declared it a “billion-dollar idea” to use them as backup. I said that I’d found them most potentially useful at the barely there tail end of my period, and another friend shrugged: “I just don’t wear anything those days. I wear old underwear.” Or just black underwear, as lots of other women do — but don’t often talk about. That gets at the paradox of period panties: Thinx’s marketing tells women that they shouldn’t feel shame about menstruation, but to some degree actually selling the product to them rests on there being a deep reservoir of it. It's about keeping things clean, containing the mess, avoiding embarrassment.
Agrawal and I headed to the Sweetgreen a few blocks from her apartment. After complimenting the salad-maker’s tattoo, Agrawal asked her for a single tortilla chip to munch on while her salad was made. She is, in addition to being gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-free. When we met, she was a recent convert to veganism (she’s since dropped it), an experiment she’d been trying ever since she had become friends with John Mackey, the Whole Foods founder and a vegan activist. She and her sister had met him this fall at a CEO summit where Agrawal had given a talk about Thinx “in front of the most epic CEOs EVER.” Mackey and his business partner had given their talk about the recent difficulties of Whole Foods’ first-ever round of layoffs. “I was crying,” said Agrawal. “It’s a $14 billion company, and here are these two beautiful human beings who are just pouring their hearts out onstage.” She and Radha “just bum-rushed them and were like, ‘We want to help you guys bring Whole Foods to the next level and make it more relevant to millennials.’” The Agrawals arranged to have dinner with them that evening and used the intervening hour to prepare a 40-page deck of ideas — creating imaginary characters, like Whole Foods shopper Jackie, from Portland, Oregon, an avatar of locavorism with whom shoppers could identify; sprucing up the tone of their ads and social media to be “cheeky, clever, confident, energetic, perky, irreverent — because their voice was fucking boring”; telling the stories of a handful of urban farmers. “We don’t want to be Trader Joe’s. We’re cooler than them,” said Agrawal. “Their food just blows.” Mackey invited them to spend a few days at his house and later recommended the sisters be hired as consultants. When I asked Agrawal to put me in touch with a few people, she signed the emails to both her sister and Mackey the same way: “LOVE YOU!!! Xoxo.”
This is poised to be a big year for Thinx: The organic tampons will roll out by the summer, as will the silicone applicators. While Agrawal won’t share specific sales figures (Thinx is a private company), she says it has sold “hundreds of thousands of pairs” of period panties “for multiple millions of dollars.” The staff has grown from five employees to 30 in the past six months. She hopes there will soon be ads in L.A., Portland, and Seattle. In New York, the ads are blanketing Grand Central and the Broadway-Lafayette subway station; in February, one out of every ten New York City subway cars will contain a Thinx ad. “Now the MTA is literally green-lighting everything,” says Agrawal. “We have a relationship that is awesome, and they’ve given us carte blanche.” The newest copy is less coy than the grapefruit version: “Thinx is a security blanket for your vadge,” reads one ad.
Agrawal has also begun to think more about how to market Icon, the company’s new underwear line for new mothers who are experiencing bouts of incontinence. (Tagline: “For women who tinkle.”) A portion of each Icon sale goes to help fight the obstetric-fistula crisis — bladders torn during childbirth are often not repaired in certain parts of the world, and that can be deadly.
And of course Agrawal has a “side hustle,” as she calls it: bidets. For Tushy (tagline: “For people who poop”), she’s partnering with Charity: Water to work on sanitation in Africa. This time around, environmentalism (toilet-paper overuse) and general health (Agrawal mentioned hemorrhoids) will be the animating causes. “I’m realllly passionate about it, because when people take a shit it’s literally like wiping shit around. GBS: People have straight-up gross-butt syndrome,” she said. “Periods, pee, and poop. I’m not going to do a business unless I feel like I’m approaching a taboo head on anymore. I just love the taboo space.” (She is personally impatient with taboos, too: While on a call with a fact checker from New York, Agrawal switched over to speakerphone and audibly urinated, then flushed.)
There are currently two models of Tushy available, both for under $100: white and silver, and a shiny black with gold trim, “so you sit on the throne.” Agrawal is confident she can get people to buy the Tushy, that she will be able to spin shit into gold. “It’s a brand play,” she told me, simple as that.
An earlier version of this article misspelled Tony Hsieh's name. It has also been updated for clarity.