Story by Hilary George-Parkin
Last February, long before she stepped down as CEO of Thinx, the period underwear company she co-founded, Miki Agrawal published an open letter
on Medium asking women in media “to Respectfully Quit Telling Me How to ‘Do Feminism’ (and just support one another, please!)” Without naming names, the post alluded to the online backlash that ensued after Agrawal told an interviewer from The Cut that she didn’t relate to being a feminist until she started her company because “[e]very time I thought about the word feminist, I thought about an angry, ranty… girl” and distanced Thinx’s “accessible” feminism from that of “those spoken-word poets.”
In the Medium post, Agrawal pushed back against accusations that she was co-opting the term as a marketing ploy:
“The notion of feminism as a part of THINX was an organic realization — a perfect fit — because it’s what we exist to do,” she wrote. “Each and every word and image used in our communications and our campaigns is thought up and created by our team of young badass feminists (all of whom also have their own interpretations of the term). Integrating feminism into our marketing is not a ploy, and it is not exploitative; it’s reclamation of how brands treat and speak to women, and it’s an ideological pushback against generations of condescension and insulting marketing towards women. Plus, there’s nothing more refreshing than a nice, pink grapefruit.”
The latter sentence, as any New York City subway rider (or menstruating human with well-targeted Facebook ads) can tell you, is in reference to the company’s first provocative — and incredibly effective — ad campaign, which made headlines
in late 2015 when it was nearly banned by the transit authority’s advertising partner for “inappropriate” content — an ad campaign conceived of and created by a team of young, in-house creatives with no advertising experience rather than an agency commanding six figures for the project. Since then, Thinx has become known as much for its feminist values and chatty, millennial-friendly voice as for its products, which have expanded from ultra-absorbent, moisture-wicking underwear to dancer-friendly, period-proof bodysuits and now organic tampons and reusable applicators.
Agrawal, too, has developed a loyal following, especially among young, socially-conscious, entrepreneurial women, and has carefully crafted her own image as a taboo-busting evangelist for women’s rights and the reigning queen of feminine hygiene. She was, as the company’s origin story goes, first inspired to donate a portion of Thinx’s proceeds to support women’s organizations in the developing world when she learned that millions of girls there miss school because of lack of access to menstrual supplies and the shame associated with periods.
Suffice it to say, the company’s mission is an easy one to get behind, especially at a time when misogyny is openly wielded by those in the highest positions of power, and pink pussyhats and earnest Instagrams of Gloria Steinem quotes have become property of the mainstream.
But behind the scenes, many current and former employees paint a picture of dysfunction and hypocrisy, with clashes between Agrawal and key members of her team, employment policies that seem to fly in the face of the company’s women-first messaging, and an increasingly volatile work environment that’s led many of those who were instrumental in creating the brand to tender their resignations. According to several sources, ten people have left the 35-person company since January, and last Thursday, Agrawal announced to the staff that she is stepping down from her role as CEO of Thinx and Icon, the “pee-proof underwear” company she also co-founded — though, she clarified in the all-hands meeting, she will still be the “SHE-E-O” (the irreverent title she employs in most external communication) and face of the brands. Meanwhile, the board of directors is actively looking for a “professional
CEO” to fill the role.