Five continents, 13 countries, eight years – This is the journey that Molly Hayward, founder and CEO of Cora Women, embarked on to launch the buy-one-give-one subscription box business. Cora Women offers a monthly service in which consumers pay for a package of organic tampons, pads and liners. Along with a member of the U.S. receiving one for her, Cora also delivers the same type of box to a girl in a developing country. With its “Woman for Woman and Month for Month” motto, Cora is changing the way we think about periods.
How did you get the idea to start Cora?
I spent my four years of college studying women’s rights, human rights, and economic development and traveling the world. A couple of years after graduation, I was reading an article in The New York Times Magazine that talked about girls in developing countries missing days of school each month during their periods because they lacked access to menstrual products. I immediately thought of TOMS Shoes and Warby Parker, and thought, why not create a way to connect women in the U.S. with women and girls in need through a one-for-one menstrual product company.
Shortly thereafter, on a trip to Kenya, I met a girl who told me that she was home from school because she had her period but couldn’t get sanitary pads, and I knew in that moment that this was a company that I had to create and build.
Why did you want to start it?
As a woman, I felt such empathy for the girl I’d met in Kenya, and for every girl and woman facing her period without adequate products. I wanted to create a way for women in my society to contribute to solving this problem for girls in need with a buy one give one model. And when I started learning about the products most of us use, I was horrified. Conventional tampons and pads are made from chemical synthetics and cotton that has been sprayed with pesticides, and then bleached in a way that contaminates them with cancer-causing chemical byproducts.
We then place these products in or next to some of the most absorbent and delicate tissue in our bodies. I was afraid for my own health, and for all of our health. I knew I only wanted to offer safe and healthy organic products to Cora customers, but most organic tampons and pads are only available at stores like Whole Foods or independent natural food stores, or online. In addition, I always seemed to need one more tampon than the number that came in a standard box, but only two panty liners from the pack of 18. So each month I had too much or not enough of the products I needed and ended up having to run back to a specialty store to get what I needed.
I knew I wasn’t the only woman who was silently fighting this battle each month. I wanted to create a company that actually honors every woman as an individual, and meets her unique needs during menstruation. I wanted to turn the typical experience of menstruation on its head by making it personal, convenient, thoughtful, and connective.
How has Cora grown since you first launched it?
When I first started, I simply asked a group of female friends and relatives if they’d be willing to try out a service that let them create a customized monthly box of organic menstrual products that would be shipped to them monthly by mail. They all loved it, so six months later I launched a crowdfunding campaign and raised $30,000 in startup capital to officially launch the company and work on Cora full time. That brought a lot of media attention and great publicity, and our subscriber base has continually grown since then.
What’s in the future for Cora? And for you?
After a year of being in business, we’re focused now on engaging more high school and college age women. They’re passionate and socially conscious, and we want to share our mission and vision for women with them so they can have a better experience of their bodies and periods from the beginning. Personally, I’m trying to become a better leader. As our team grows, I want to do my best to build a family around our company and this movement.
What does a typical day for you look like?
I don’t have a typical day! It seems like every single day is different. Sometimes I’m in my office all day on my computer, other days I’m out giving a talk about my journey and the issue of menstrual health to groups of women.
What advice do you have for girls who want to make an impact in the world?
My advice is to go out and see the world first, whether it’s a trip to another country or just to the other side of your town. Do that until you find the thing that pulls at your heart and lights you up inside—whether it’s environmental issues, poverty, homelessness, or hunger. That’s the thing to go after and build your dreams around. Always be looking for ways to serve others in need.
What challenges have you come across while on your journey to growing Cora and how did you overcome them?
There are way too many challenges to count! I think the biggest one is being my own cheerleader. Building a company can be a long and lonely road. I’ve really had to learn how to take care of myself in the process to avoid overload and burnout. Last year, I had Lyme’s disease and it really took a toll on my body. I had to force myself to slow down, meditate, eat more greens, get more sleep, and just generally care for my body, mind, and spirit.
You’ve travelled a lot and all over the world. How have your travels affected you?
Having so many opportunities to travel the world has been the greatest gift of my life so far, but the places that have most affected me are the ones where people are struggling the most. Those trips opened up a place in my heart that I didn’t know existed. The first impoverished country I visited was Vietnam. When I stepped out of the airport, my whole life changed. Nothing mattered except to use whatever power or influence I had, as an educated woman from the U.S., to change what I see as an economic injustice affecting societies of people around the world.
Have you met with women in developing countries that have been affected by Cora? If so, how have they changed since Cora came into their lives?
We’re at the very early stages of our giving initiatives, so the long term affects of our pad contributions are yet to be seen, but I have met many of the girls we serve who are disempowered by the fact that they can’t afford or access adequate menstrual supplies.Having the pads we provide and being able to go to school or play with friends during their periods is life changing for them.
How did your education at Connecticut College affect you?
My time at Connecticut College was the most transformative of my life. When I started, I thought I wanted to study economics so that I could go work in a big bank on Wall Street. But the opportunities for travel and social impact work at Conn opened my eyes to the bigger world, and inspired me to change my path and devote my life to using business to solve the world’s problems. While I was there I was given academic and work opportunities that took me across Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia. I couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring education.
Who and/or what inspires you?
The girls and women we serve in India are my greatest inspiration. Their bravery, strength, and loving spirits teach me to be grateful for all that I have, and to find my inner fortitude whenever I feel discouraged or challenged. I’m also inspired by other entrepreneurs that have created companies for good, like Yvon Choinard of Patagonia or Anita Roddick of The Body Shop. I love seeing companies that start with pure, humble beginnings for a social purpose and grow stronger over years and decades while maintaining their values and integrity. The leaders of those organizations are my greatest role models.
How can girls get involved with Cora?
The first thing girls can do to get involved is to visit our website, get familiar with our mission and our boxes, and become a member by creating your customized monthly box of organic period products (plus tea and chocolate!).
Every time we ship your monthly box, we’ll provide 16 biodegradable pads to girls in need in India.
Do you have any mentors? If so, how have they affected you?
I’ve had so many over the years, at various stages of my business and in different capacities, and I’m extremely grateful for that. I believe that having the wisdom of others to guide you on a difficult journey is the most precious gift you can hope for.
What is one business/entrepreneurship tip you can give to our readers?
If you’ve got an idea, just build your product/service as quickly as you can and start selling! See if people want and need what you’re offering. Think about how you can create something that serves people and planet in a new and creative way. Don’t be afraid. The first step is the hardest. Ask an experienced professional in a similar role to be your mentor to help coach you and offer advice, and then just go!
What does it mean to be a smart girl?
In my eyes, a smart girl is a courageous girl—one who realizes that she has nothing to fear when it comes to dreaming big and then figuring out how to manifest what she envisions for her life and her work.