When Eileen Stephens‘ college-aged daughter brought home Half the Sky, a book about women in the developing world, Stephens expected to read about oppression, malnutrition and inequity. But there was one situation detailed in the book that she had never heard anyone talk about, much less try to solve: the challenge that school-age girls in developing countries had in accessing products to manage their menstrual cycles.
In fact, Stephens discovered that these girls were dropping out or missing school at alarming rates — one in ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa are forced to stay home from school during their period, for as much as 20 percent of the school year; around the world, hundreds of millions of girls simply drop out when they reach puberty.
“They actually call it the week of shame,” explains Stephens. She also learned that this problem had a broad economic impact on the overall communities — the UN reports that, when trying to bring communities out of poverty, three changes are most impactful: access to clean water, access to food and education for women.
“The reason being that, women put 90 percent of their income back into their families and communities, compared to men at about 20-40 percent,” says Stephens. “In addition, the women then educate their children. So this is a real impetus for bringing communities out of poverty.”
While researching this global problem, Stephens saw an ad for Dollar Shave Club, the customizable shaving kit subscription service. And inspiration struck.
“I thought to myself — that’s it. A subscription service that just asks women not to change what you’re buying, but just where you’re buying it from.”
Stephens paired up with co-founder Skip Amos, a business consultant and former sales guy, to create a subscription box business model where, for each paying customer, the company could fund menstrual products for girls in developing countries.
After a trip to Uganda and securing their first partner, a non-profit that works with women in the East African country, they determined that would be their first market. They named the Charlotte, NC-based startup Tavia, a shortened version of a Ugandan girl named Octavia they met on their trip.
Through their non-profit partner, Tavia adopts schools, using their local employees to deliver product kits directly to the girls — rather than to the school headmasters or other officials who could, out of desperation, sell the products instead — and also educate them on things like proper hygiene, usage and safety.
“There’s a huge lack of education around this because of that shame,” says Stephens.
“What we don’t want to do is just drop in, give these girls some products and never show back up again. I think that’s even worse in some ways than not going at all.”
Tavia customers get to see firsthand what their money is going to — inside their subscription box is a photo and short bio of a girl served by Tavia.
“People get a real sense of who they’re helping — here’s a girl that wants to be a doctor or a nurse or a teacher, that now has that much of a better chance of finishing her education because she’s not missing school.”
The boxes are fully customizable based on how many products you think you need and which kinds — the startup even offers a helpful calculator to help you figure out what size box you should order. Stephens estimates it only costs about 15 to 20 percent more than buying products in the store.
Thus far the startup has delivered 550 kits to girls in Uganda, with plans to deliver between two to five thousand in 2018.
They’ll also expand, first though the East Africa region and then to other countries where this is a problem such as Haiti or India.
Stephens explains that they try to source locally whenever possible to stimulate the local economy. They also want to hire women in these communities to develop the culturally-appropriate products that will be delivered to the girls.
“So it’s almost like buying once giving twice, because you’re not only giving the product to the girls, but giving the jobs to women in the community.”
Tavia was funded by the founding team as well as three Charlotte-based investors, one being their distribution center. Stephens says they are still refining their business model but, as they expand, will likely need to raise additional capital to scale.
Next they’re focused on ramping up marketing and sales, along with hiring ambassadors — teenagers, college students and adults — to spread the word on what they’re doing.
Photos provided by Tavia