This London Startup is Tackling Period Problems

Affi Parvizi-Wayne aims to improve access to menstrual-hygiene products by sending boxes to subscribers’ doors and reaching out to women in need.

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

Affi Parvizi-Wayne is the founder of Freda, a subscription service for period products. (Credit: Freda)

Affi Parvizi-Wayne is the founder of Freda, a subscription service for period products. (Credit: Freda)

Affi Parvizi-Wayne is on a mission to make periods easier for women and girls.

In 2016, the entrepreneur launched Freda, a subscription service that delivers organic menstrual-hygiene products to subscribers’ doorsteps throughout Europe, and donates to organizations who make these products more accessible for women in poor communities.

Parvizi-Wayne was inspired to start Freda by the 2016 refugee crisis, when news of displaced Syrians seeking aid flooded the airwaves. Their plight reminded Parvizi-Wayne of her own childhood struggle as a refugee fleeing Iran. “I experienced the sense of displacement and isolation,” she says. “Those images of refugees without shelter not only resonated with me as a human, but also as a woman, knowing that shelter provides more than a roof over your head — it provides privacy.”

Poor women, and especially refugee women, often lack access to menstrual-hygiene products as well as bathrooms and privacy to manage their periods. The problem goes beyond everyday comfort — when women don’t have the tools and space to handle menstruation, their educational and professional prospects suffer if they stay home during their periods.

Even in the United Kingdom, where Freda is based, one in 10 girls between ages 14 and 21 can’t afford sanitary products, and about 12 percent have had to improvise solutions due to cost, according to Plan International UK. A box of tampons or pads costs, on average, £13 per unit in the U.K., or around $18, though affordability may improve in April when a tax on sanitary products is expected to end.

Freda works to address accessibility by sending supplies directly to consumers, and through several charitable partnerships. Relationships with two eco-conscious European suppliers that make sustainable pads, tampons and liners in bulk enable the startup to offer customers chemical-free period products for £6.99 per box, or just under $10, per month. Freda also makes deals for larger shipments of products to workplaces that provide them to employees for free.

The Way to Freda

Parvizi-Wayne spent her earliest years moving around the Middle East as the daughter of an Iranian diplomat. But after the 1979 Iranian revolution, she and her family became “Iranian asylum seekers in the early 1980s, and we were very fortunate that, at the time, we were given a new home in” the U.K. The family settled there when she was a teenager, allowing her to get an education. In 1986, she earned a bachelor’s degree in modern languages from the University of London.

Her subsequent, decades-long career in management consulting for companies of various sizes “gave me a really good grounding in how to efficiently run a successful business.” And working with startups proved particularly helpful. “I was able to learn from their mistakes and avoid many of the pitfalls they encountered as I built Freda.”

Parvizi-Wayne started with a beta run of her online ordering system, and kept operations small until last summer. In its early months, she was only able to offer a few hundred subscriptions due to lack of inventory. After press coverage from the likes of The Guardian and The Huffington Post elevated its profile, she had to put additional interested women on a waiting list.

Freda has expanded slowly since and has been able to provide products to more subscribers, though it has not yet turned a profit. Parvizi-Wayne says her manufacturers have worked with her by adjusting orders to keep pace with gradual expansion. And in September 2017, an angel investor made it possible for her to hire one full-time and one part-time employee. The female founder also has a board of advisors who are helping her navigate the bumps in the road to expansion.

While her primary goal is to improve product access for girls and women in need, Parvizi-Wayne also sees an opportunity to address other gripes she has with the menstrual-hygiene industry. “I think many women find [advertisements] patronizing,” she says. One peeve: “depictions of women roller-skating in white jeans” to showcase absorption. “Actually,” she says, “your products should offer protection as a bare minimum, so this doesn’t need to be demonstrated. Nor do we need to be shown how to use these products. We already know.”

What women really need, she says — particularly women in crisis — is easy access to menstrual products, and no shame about using them or condescension from companies selling them.

A selection of organic menstrual hygiene products offered by Freda. (Credit: Freda)

A selection of organic menstrual hygiene products offered by Freda. (Credit: Freda)

Eco-Friendly and Embarrassment-Free

Stigma is a significant issue when it comes to periods, Parvizi-Wayne says, so she seeks to ease discomfort with the subject by discussing menstruation openly, and in frank terms. Freda hosts a blog that talks about taboos, shares personal menstrual stories and promotes other female founders selling period products.

Ecological sustainability is also a high priority for Parvizi-Wayne. Disposable tampons and pads make their way into growing landfills, and the processes used to make plastic applicators and packaging are energy inefficient and contribute climate change. To do better, “I visited a few suppliers and had certain criteria that I needed to be met, such as the sustainability of the products themselves and also the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process,” she says.

Parvizi-Wayne also donates a portion of subscription revenue to like-minded, charitable organizations. Among them are A Bloody Good Cause and Bloody Good Period, two U.K.-based operations that provide pads “to homeless shelters, food banks and refugee drop-in centers, where women who can’t afford these products can access them for free,” she says. And in Tanzania, Freda coordinates with KiliPads to “fund local, women-run micro-enterprises who manufacture reusable cloth pads and provide these to local school girls along with menstrual education.”

Where This Goes

Parvizi-Wayne has high hopes for the future of Freda, and plans for achieving them. “Our growth so far has been organic and by word of mouth. However, to scale up, we need to invest in paid social [media] and continue our collaborations with influencers and female-led platforms.” Within the next 3 years, she aims to push subscriber numbers closer to the 100,000 mark.

Looking further ahead, Parvizi-Wayne wants to inspire a societal shift in how periods are discussed. She is especially hopeful that she can spark this change in schools and offices through corporate deals, which she believes can help create a culture where period products are considered essentials that are ordered alongside other necessities like toilet paper and soap.

Her ultimate goal is for “periods to be a non-issue, and for the conversation around menstruation to be so normalized that we look back in disbelief that access was ever an issue.”

Posted: February 28, 2018

Candice Helfand-RogersThis London Startup is Tackling Period Problems