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Dec 4, 2017

Aunt Flow Founder Challenges Taboos While Fostering Change

Claire Coder is a remarkable entrepreneur: She launched her second startup at age 19, has relied heavily on social media and reality TV to build awareness of her product, and is on the cutting edge of a movement shared with a national foundation founded by local entrepreneur Nancy Kramer. Aunt Flow, whose tagline is “Helping People. Period.” is a buy-one, give-one social enterprise that sells 100 percent cotton tampons and pads. Launched in October 2016, it already has customers in 47 states and a rapidly building base of corporate customers. In one year it has donated more than 100,000 tampons and pads to national and local nonprofits.

Aunt Flow challenges historical taboos surrounding menstrual issues through its language, packaging and promotional merchandise. It is also challenging companies to stock their bathrooms with free menstrual products for employees and guests through bathroomcertification.com which lists companies that are already doing so.

Photo of Claire Coder, Founder, Aunt Flow
Claire Coder, Founder, Aunt Flow

We sat down with Claire to talk about the challenges of creating a new business at the same time as creating a new channel for social impact. This Q&A was first published in Columbus Business First on November 16, 2017.

Menstrual products is a competitive business. What makes Aunt Flow products different?
First, our products are 100 percent organic cotton with no bleach, dyes or chemicals. They are flushable and reduce waste because they don’t have an applicator. Second, we are the only business that sells menstrual products directly to business. The largest competitor, Tampax, sells to business but only through distributors. We sell to business as a service to their employees. Tampax sells only in large minimums and it has no strategy for bathroom installation. Businesses can get this service only through Aunt Flow.

You raised $40,000 of startup capital from competitions and crowdfunding. What advice do you have for others about using that approach?
Don’t get distracted about whether you win or not – it’s all about getting publicity. I used competitions to raise visibility, and sometimes money. If you don’t win you at least get publicity. Competitions are also a cheap way to get exposure to potential business customers. TV exposure was more to create connections; it did not help in building the brand.

What inspired you to start your second business as a social enterprise?
I was at Columbus StartUp weekend in November 2015 when my period started but none of the restrooms had any menstrual products available. It reminded me how my mom would share with me that many of her therapy clients would come to group sessions wearing multiple layers of clothing or plastic bags to stop the flow because they were so poor they had to choose between food and menstrual products, which are not covered by WIC or food stamps.

You started just as an online retailer but now have a significant B2B clientele. How did that evolve?
I needed to start B2C to acquire consumers who would convince business of the importance of having menstrual products available at work. Then I began tapping young women I met from being a fellow in the Distinguished Young Women program for high school youth. These women are now leaders in higher education student government. My first sale was to the Harvard student government, which bought the products and undertook distribution to bathrooms throughout the university. Then we sold to Stanford and Ohio University student governments. Now we are working to contract directly with the universities and with companies. The channels vary by company, sometimes through human resources, operations, or facilities departments, depending on where there is a strong supporter for free access to menstrual products in their bathrooms. We now ship 600,000 units per month to business customers.

Describe the social impact you create.
We donate free products to nonprofits that support people in need. We get hundreds of applications and we choose based on how effectively they help the needy and how well they can spread the word about Aunt Flow and our cause. We donate one tampon or pad for every one we sell to consumers and 10 for every 100 we sell to corporate clients. The nonprofit changes every month. In November 2017 our donations will go to Choices, Lutheran Social Services’ program for victims of domestic violence.

How is this social enterprise different from your first startup?
Delivering social impact is much more complex, requires more operational time, and is less straightforward to implement than the routine product distribution channel. Also, the cost is 20 percent more than just the cost of the goods we give away. My greatest learning curve has been to manage impact without compromising the budget.

How does your social impact overlap with Nancy Kramer’s foundation?
Her Free the Tampons Foundation is dedicated to research about and advocacy for the provision of free menstrual products in public bathrooms, just as toilet paper is now provided free. We complement that with our business certification program that lists businesses that offer free menstrual products in their company bathrooms.

To learn more about Aunt Flow, please visit auntflow.org/.