Not unlike our own founder, Sarah started her business after witnessing first-hand the consequences that deep rooted menstrual taboos have on girls in Asia. From schools in Malaysia that judge reproductive health as a dangerous subject for their female students, to the 23 million girls in India forced to drop out of school because of their periods. Tired of these injustices, Sarah and her team set out to create a female-forward product which allows girls everywhere to have control over their cycles.
The "immi watch" - empowering girls everywhere to take control of their cycle (without compromising their style ;)
Guided by the memory of her grandmother, a fierce midwife and advocate of women rights, Sarah is not just launching a revolutionizing product, but designing an entire system to give back to communities in Asia.
Eva: Immi is inspired by your grandmother. What can you tell us about her?
Sarah: Hmm.. where to start? (laughs)! She was one of 12 children from a Catholic family, and lived on a farm in Monaghan, Ireland.. My grandma was the only girl who was allowed to continue her education past aged 14, while her brothers and sisters started to work. The nuns actually came to the family house one day and practically begged her parents to let her stay in school. Crazy when you think that was only 2 generations ago!
She was the best, really amazing and such a strong woman.
Eva: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from her?
Sarah: I think just to trust yourself and do the right thing. Family was also very important.
I remember when I was 16 she asked me to help one of my 9yr old cousins with his homework. I was so against it because I was 16 and wanted to do other things in my spare time, but she wouldn’t have it. So every Wednesday I’d take the bus to his house and help him with his homework. I ended up really enjoying it. I don’t think I was any help whatsoever, but it was really good to spend time with him.
That was always a really big lesson from her: family first and doing what’s right.
Eva: Why did you decide to focus your work on menstruation awareness and education?
Sarah: In a way it was always in my head, just buried deep. I wouldn’t say I grew up always talking about menstruation, but I do come from a family more involved in women issues and helping women.
But I really realized this should be my focus while I was working in the Philippines, during my eight years in Asia. I was working in a philanthropic foundation and so we were funding social enterprises, which mostly focused on women and youth. Almost every project had some kind of focus on girls and reproductive or sexual health, you can't avoid it – but it was just such a difficult topic to penetrate. There’s so many cultural and religious stigmas and taboos around this topic that talking about it was often a no-go. And I just kept on seeing the consequences of what happens when women aren’t empowered to learn about their bodies.
I started thinking: how can we provide women with a practical tool to help them track their cycle, but one that is useful too – that will fit in with all of the cultural and religious taboos present in these communities. To track your cycle days, all you need to know is your day one. We should all know what day of our cycle it is like we know what day of the month it is – but most of us don’t.
How can we combine all that into a product? And that’s really where the watch came from. I was on a plane – where I get all my best ideas - looking out the windows and the clouds were so nice and fluffy, the sky so blue, I was listening to my music and went… oh shit. This could be it.
"We should all know what day of our cycle it is like we know what day of the month it is – but most of us don’t."
Eva: What are the barriers you’ve seen women and girls in South East Asia face when it comes to menstrual health and education?
Sarah: I encountered many different extremes - but in all these cases, societal menstrual taboos limited girls in one way or another.
In some communities in Nepal, Chhaupadi is still practiced, which involved girls going to a shed in the garden during their period. While in the Philippines, for example, it was accepted that menstruation is something that happens, but that’s the end. They're not going to talk more about it, not going to educate you or show you how it’s related to anything else like fertility or your mood.
Even in Malaysia we tried to survey some young girls in a school. The school administrators took quite a long time to get back to us, until finally we discovered we had actually been banned from the school. When the headteacher saw one of the questions on our survey was “do you know what days you’re most likely to get pregnant?” he thought this information was too dangerous for girls to know!
I think what became apparent to me when I moved back to England, however, is that this problem is not limited to Asia, it's global. I saw a study recently that said that over 100,000 girls in the UK are missing school during their periods, which is crazy! And menstruation is only becoming compulsory on the school curriculum next year – we’re all so behind on this subject!
One of Sarah's partners, Roots of Health, teaching young girls in the Philippines about sexual & reproductive health
Eva: Why do you think it's important for young women to learn about their cycle?
Sarah: I think globally we’ve forgotten this is a normal bodily function! It can be empowering knowing about it: we can learn so much not only about our body and fertility, but even our emotions. There’s some days of the month where I know I shouldn’t make important decisions because my hormones are going crazy and I know it won’t be a good use of my time.
So it’s important because it’s something to do with YOU – it’s your body, why wouldn’t you know about this?! Everyone is so different and you can take control and empower yourself by knowing more about you.
"knowing your cycle is important because it’s something to do with YOU – it’s your body, why wouldn’t you know about this?!"
Beyond that, something we're really trying to focus on is this high rate of school dropouts I mentioned. In India, it’s estimated that 23 million girls drop out due to menstruation – there's not a single reason for this: they may not be able to afford proper menstrual hygiene products, the toilets and sanitation facilities are not adequate at school, or they’re considered adults and begin working or are given off for marriage.
So part of our mission is to complete this jigsaw puzzle and that’s why we’re partnering with organization that are focused on menstrual health and education, because if we can provide the right menstrual products as well as education and a tracker, girls can be prepared for their period.
Eva: How does the immi watch work?
Sarah: A big design feature that we kept in mind while creating this product is that it has to basically be self-explanatory. Kind of like IKEA furniture – in theory I mean, in practice this may not be a good example (laughs)
To start, we had to figure out what are our key assumptions. These are communities where girls might not know anything about their periods or just the very very basics, so we need something that’s super easy to use and doesn’t require a lot of data entry points.
So the watch works by you pressing and holding down a button on day one of your period, which will reset a counter. From there the watch will start counting the days of your cycle, so you can look at the watch and know what day you’re on. You’ll also be able to see the start date of your last period. This information is all conveniently there on your wrist.It will also tell you your average cycle length.
It will start to learn your cycle length and get smarter over time, and have warning icons come up three days before you’re due on your period. We also have warning icons to indicate your most fertile window. In summary, it shows the start date of your last periods, your average cycle length, your current cycle day and any warning icons.
Eva: What is your biggest goal with this launch?
Sarah: There’s two. One is more tangible and one more behavioral, I guess. The tangible one is more knowledge, more control and ultimately more girls in school. And this is global, not limited to low-income countries.
The big big goal is a complete behavioral shift in how menstruation is viewed. We’re linking menstruation now to this cool, fashionable accessory. A watch that looks good and makes you feel good – it’s like a statement. By linking this to our periods, I hope we can stop thinking of periods as bad but rather see them as something normal, in the same way we view telling the time.
So basically the goal is complete world domination (laughs!)
Eva: How is your business setup to achieve this social impact?
Sarah: Our model is really about creating a true social enterprise. Our social impact won’t be a result of our commercial success, instead it will deepen as our commercial success grows. And that’s why we're starting off with the philanthropic side of the company and our crowdfunding (which just launched here!) is really focused on piloting this with our non-profit partners. We want to get this watch right for that market first, and once we’ve got that then we will shift our attention and focus on launching the commercial sales. A percentage of those sales will always go back to support our non-profit activities.
I’m still trying to come up with the right catchy sentence to explain our model in the simplest way…but I’m not quite there yet. Working in the philanthropic industry I’ve seen a lot of hybrid models of for-profit and non-profit, and saw what worked and didn’t - this is what I landed on for us.
The profits we make from commercial sales will allow us to reduce the cost for our social impact partners. . We’ll also be working with big international foundations who can help us to further off-set the cost. This way, the non-profits themselves won’t have to pay, or if they do it will be minimal and in-keeping with their budget restrictions.
I think that by embedding our social impact into our business model from the start, we can ensure that we will be a sustainable company and continue to create impact. It might be harder this way, but I think it's the right way to grow our business.
Eva: Can you describe your period in three words for us?
Sarah: I'd say for me it’s kind of everything... So I will say: everything, frustrating and beautiful.
Eva: What's your period animal?
Sarah: During or before? My PMS animal would be a rattle snake probably (laugh). During my period, I’m actually quite nice so I’d say a really cute possum (not a dangerous one!)
At immi, we’re creating the first battery powered watch with inbuilt technology that allows you to track your menstrual cycle. It’s a simple, convenient, and stylish way to connect with your cycle, without being connected to a smartphone or an app. As a social enterprise, we're committed to empowering women and girls globally to know more about their own unique cycle so as well as selling to consumers, we're partnering with non-profits globally who focus on menstrual health and girls education. With a minimum of 10% from each commercial sale going to our social impact activities, we’ll be able to recruit more non-profit partners and provide them with the watch. You can feel confident that your purchase is helping to educate women globally and keep millions of girls in school.