There’s an App for That: Can For-Profit Companies Fix Social Ills?

two birds postHygiene Campaign founder Eudora Olsen, photo by Jess Benjamin

On its surface, the tech industry is one that’s steeped in optimism and altruism. Thousands of the world’s smartest people are teaming up to find solutions to even the most minute problems. They’re building apps that aim to make customers’ lives healthier, easier, more organized, more peaceful—or even more meaningful (yes, there are apps for inspiration, meditation and mindfulness).

Everyone is scrambling to find the Next Big Idea—the one that will revolutionize or disrupt an industry, much like Uber did to taxis. But sometimes, it’s not an industry that startups are set on disrupting; sometimes it’s a social construct, a void of service. This task is traditionally left to government, nonprofits or community activists, but more and more, the private sector is shifting its focus toward social impact causes. There’s Drinkwell, a company trying to fill the gaps in global water purification supplies; GuideOn, a web application aimed at helping veterans turn their military background into a civilian re?sume?; and Sisu Global Health, which created a medical device that will drastically lower the cost of a procedure called autotransfusion, just to name a few.

This is a capitalist dreamland. But while the free market might be beating NGOs at their own game, the landscape is fraught with both ethical and logistical questions. That autotransfusion device is aimed at emerging markets in Africa, where its founders note that this is a $6 million industry. And their profit comes from “selling a packet to wholesalers at an 80 percent margin.” How do you marry social consciousness and financial gain? Can a charitably minded startup attend to the needs of an underserved population and still meet its bottom line?

It was in this climate that two groups of Harvard students—one a for-profit microbusiness, the other a nonprofit, donation-based advocacy organization—set out to help homeless women in the Boston area. While their approaches differed, each sought to solve a problem very few ever think about—including, ironically, those who work with these women the most.

A DIRE, YET UNSPOKEN, NEED

During the winter months, especially those close to the holidays, boxes appear in offices and schools, awaiting donations of canned foods and winter clothing for those in need. But as thoughtful gifts of socks, toothbrushes and non-perishables begin to pile up, one category of item is conspicuously and routinely overlooked: feminine hygiene products. It’s an oversight that hurts women in need, and it hits the pocket books of already strapped relief programs.

Rachel Klein, who runs the women’s center at the St. Francis House homeless shelter in Boston, explains: For women without a home, “[getting your period] changes your whole day until you can take care of yourself.” Even for women who do have shelter, “a box of tampons could be $7 to $10 each. If you can’t make ends meet, that’s not your top priority, even if you wish it could be.”

According to data collected by the Department of Human Service Programs, 153 women were homeless within Cambridge’s six square miles last year. That number is only a fraction of the homeless population in the Greater Boston area who rely on shelters and other relief programs for daily needs, including tens of thousands of tampons and pads, each year.

Because they are so rarely donated, the cost of providing these hygiene products to homeless and low-income women inevitably falls on shelters and the people who staff them. Rosie’s Place, a women’s shelter in Boston, serves 12,000 women per year. The staff distributes 750 pads per week to the women visiting and staying at Rosie’s—a costly service. Michele Chausse, director of communications at Rosie’s Place, said that the expense is “easily over $5,000 per year” when both tampons and pads are taken into account.

Even outside the shelters, human services staff feel the quiet but persistent need for feminine hygiene products among their clients. One case manager at a prominent local homelessness prevention center (who requested that her name be withheld) said she’ll give out several of her own tampons to clients each month, usually when a client’s benefits have run out or when they would have to choose between food and feminine hygiene.

ENTER TWO BIRDS

Upon realizing how widespread this problem was, and how little was being done to combat it, a group of Harvard Business School students decided to try and solve it. They founded Two Birds Post, a one-for-one feminine product delivery service, as a class project early last year. For every box of pads or tampons a customer purchased, Two Birds would donate a box of feminine hygiene products to Rosie’s Place. They had a strong start: By early summer, The New York Times had highlighted the company as one of a few initiatives that were quickly mobilizing to address an oft-overlooked but critical issue.

The group opted not to make Two Birds a nonprofit. Instead, cofounder Natalie Allen said her group wanted “a for-profit, social impact business that [could] sustain itself and not be reliant on outside funding.” She and her classmates thought that if the business could depend on its own revenue, as opposed to soliciting donations and competing for grants, it would be more autonomous. Moreover, they reasoned, when too many nonprofits are tackling the same issue, the competition for funds becomes more intense. Resources are spread too thin.

Identifying the need and a recipient for their donation proved easier than getting new customers to sign up for their service. Of the women they approached, only 25 percent actually signed up, and much of that participation was linked to a promotion that gave women Pinkberry gift cards for enrolling.

Despite the lackluster response from potential clients, professors deemed Two Birds viable. Yet the group decided to discontinue the business, in part because of diverging interests, but mainly because of the business model itself.

“The unit economics just didn’t work,” Allen says.

For Two Birds or a similar model to work, the key would be the cost structure. “At the same price, people want to choose products that have a social mission,” says Caroline Boulos, another of Allen’s cofounders. “As soon as you charge more than what someone would otherwise pay at a pharmacy or grocery store, it becomes a lot harder to convince customers, even if you have a really compelling social cause.”

Since Two Birds essentially had to provide two boxes of tampons for the price of one, the company would have to stock tampons in volumes “like Amazon” to get a price break from a tampon manufacturer and keep prices competitive, according to Allen. Moreover, they would have had to find their own tampon manufacturer, most likely in China, and create a fulfillment system. For their scholastic experiment, the five team members were their own factories, opening packages of Tampax products, placing the correct amount in boxes and shipping them to customers all by themselves.

Overall, Allen seems upbeat about the experience. It felt good, she said, to be able to give a much needed and appreciated donation at the end of the class, when they could have created a non-social impact venture. Other businesses created in the same class included apparel companies, fitness wearables and dog treats made with cricket powder.

Even with the coolness of prospective customers that Allen and Boulos approached in Harvard yard, at the end of that semester, she and her team members delivered a pallet’s worth of tampons and pads from Costco to Rosie’s Place. “They seemed confused when we showed up,” Allen laughs. “Our contact [at Rosie’s] wasn’t there that day.”

THE NEW COLLEGE TRY

You might say that Eudora Olsen, also an undergraduate at Harvard, is carrying the Two Birds torch. As business school students pursued their social impact business project last spring, Olsen simultaneously started The Hygiene Campaign. (Neither of the groups would hear about each other until later.) The Hygiene Campaign is not a business at all, but rather an organization that’s part donation model, part women’s advocacy group and part public health education platform. Olsen’s mission is to not only supply women with donated feminine hygiene products, but also to further stimulate public consciousness about the issues low-income and homeless women face during menstruation.

Working with a friend at Tufts, Olsen started a GoFundMe campaign over the summer to raise money to purchase tampons, pads and diva cups for women in need—she believes it gives a “sense of empowerment and ownership” for women to be able to make a choice about how they manage their periods. She’s also bought products using funds from selling used clothing on the campaign’s site, pricing items in increments of $7, which is about the price of a box of tampons. Still, she prefers receiving donations of the products themselves to taking cash contributions. She wants the public to physically handle the products and to engage directly with the fact that there is still shame about women’s periods and the needs surrounding them. As the fall semester began, Olsen took it upon herself to collect feminine hygiene products directly from students.

Olsen’s campaign has not been without its own challenges. When she requested to place collection boxes for tampons and pads in accessible student areas—near dining halls or bathrooms—facilities managers refused, telling her the boxes would either block traffic or be burgled, or that they would be a sanitation issue (the latter point was not elaborated upon).

“I’m not sure where [the denial of my request] stems from, but I have my speculations,” Olsen says. “People are not used to seeing tampons and pads readily donated.”

Whatever the reasons, that initial setback has not kept Olsen from pushing forward with The Hygiene Campaign, and she explains that, overall, Harvard has been “very supportive” of the university intermail system that she currently uses to collect donations. In this model, Olsen has tutors collect donations from students in large envelopes and then send the envelopes to the university’s inter-office mail center, where she can collect them. In an email, a Harvard facilities official confirmed that he had “been working closely with Eudora on her important Hygiene Project,” and even referenced initiatives in other states that might be of interest for this article. If Olsen was met with some pockets of stigma or discomfort, it was not universal.

The expense of these necessary goods is a fact that Olsen says has caused resentment among the low income and homeless women she has spoken to about the issue. “Men’s razors have come up multiple times in my conversations with women,” Olsen says. She explains that women have witnessed men being given razors—which are apparently donated on some level of regularity to shelters—while women struggle to come by a tampon or a pad in a shelter. Rosie’s Place, for example, has always simply incurred the expense of feminine hygiene products. To their rep’s knowledge, until Two Birds Post, no group had ever donated tampons or pads to the shelter.

Olsen hopes to make The Hygiene Campaign an initiative that could easily transfer to other universities. She envisions bundling a campaign starter package and sending it to other schools for their own student body to establish and manage. Olsen is currently running the Hygiene Campaign at Harvard on her own, although she plans to create a formal club for the campaign this spring.

Thanks to the GoFundMe campaign, Olsen has around $1,000 worth of feminine hygiene products stacked up in her room, which she carries over piecemeal to the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter on her way to class.

She recalls the bemused and bewildered looks bystanders gave her recently as she waited in line at the dining hall and called Costco to see if they had $1,000 worth of tampons and pads in stock before she went all the way to their Everett store to spend the donated funds.

Olsen doesn’t mind these moments of notoriety, of course. With a chortle and an easy grin, framed by her somehow still subtle pink hair, she says she’s fine with becoming “the tampon girl” on campus.

It’s feasible that a one-for-one operation like Two Birds Post will one day deliver thousands, even millions, of boxes of pads and tampons to women in need. After all, TOMS shoes, which is probably the most famous one-for-one model, has given over 45 million pairs of shoes to children in need since 2006.

In the meantime, however, campaigns like Olsen’s get at the here-and-now need without having to also appease a consumer. One box at a time, gifted from one person to another. It’s slow and steady, but it’s dutifully chipping away at the mountain while we wait for disruption.

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