A Q&A with Molly Hayward, the Founder of Cora
Periods are a dreaded time of the month for billions of women across the globe. From cramps to cravings, there seems to be no end to their miserable side effects. But often we neglect to remember how much worse periods are for those living in extreme poverty. 300 million girls and women use rags, plastics, sand, and ash to manage their periods. 70% of Indian girls and women cannot afford menstrual supplies.
Cora is making periods a little less painful for everyone.
Dedicated to organic, ethically sourced cotton, Cora creates period products that are not only better for the body, but also for the farmers behind those products. Cora also partners with ZanaAfrica Foundation, which delivers reproductive health education and sanitary pads to girls in Kenya, and Aakar Innovations, which empowers women in India to run mini-factories that manufacture environmentally sustainable pads. From employing women rebuilding from homelessness, addiction, and incarceration to pack and ship their goods, to paying the sales tax on all online products in protest of the tampon tax, Cora is fighting the stigma and struggles that come with periods from all different angles.
We interviewed Molly Hayward, the founder of this incredible business.
What were the first few steps you took to launch Cora after conceiving the idea?
Molly: The idea for Cora really occurred to me when I found out that girls in many developing countries will simply miss school during their periods because they stay home when they don’t have pads. I really wanted to create a brand that spoke to what I considered the modern woman and tie that back to providing products to girls in need. The first thing I did to kind of get the ball rolling was to start thinking who the customer was going to be. Who is the woman here in the US who wants the healthier product for herself, wants a more sophisticated experience when it comes to managing or talking about her period, and what is the way in which she wants to understand the mission of the business and be a part of that social impact aspect?
From there, the tangible thing I started doing was actually talking to the women in my life, so friends and family members. This was before anyone was sending period care in the mail and certainly, no one was sending organic period care in the mail. So basically it was a very new concept. I just said, “If I offered to allow you to customize a box of products and ship it to you every month, is that something you would pay me for?” The overwhelming response was yes.
I literally started to source organic tampons, pack up the unique orders that I had received from friends and then friends of friends. They would tell more people and more people and more people. I was packing them out of my living room and shipping them.
I found the social impact partners that we still work with today in Kenya and India and I really just started to experiment. I didn’t wait to raise a bunch of money, I didn't want to have a perfect offering or solution, I really wanted to just start shipping the product to women, start giving them the experience, start providing product to girls in India and eventually Kenya.
It was really a process of first understanding what the need was of women here, assembling the pieces that I wanted to provide for them, and giving them a way to make that transaction, and thankfully the response was really positive.
Did you initially encounter any opposition or doubts from others about Cora’s mission?
Molly: I think interestingly the resistance to the mission didn’t actually come until a little later, when we started to really grow. Some of the interesting perspectives that we got, especially from certain investors we were pitching to, was that our social mission would become less important to our customer over time, as we grew. There was this idea that yes, this is really important and significant to your core evangelical customers, but don't expect it to be a reason that women adopt the brand later on, as you reach a larger segment of the market. We found that the opposite is true, that our social mission is just as important to our customers today, as when we were much much smaller.
Mimp: What was the most difficult challenge when founding Cora? How did you overcome it?
Molly: I think one of the biggest challenges was working on the concept prior to having a team. I worked on the idea for Cora and started shipping to women for about two years before I met my cofounder. In that time, there were certainly a lot of moments where it’s really lonely. It was a lot of challenges and a lot of long days and a lot of problem-solving. It was just a stressful time, and sort of even more so when you’re going alone.
Thankfully, eventually through keeping my eyes open and talking to a lot of people and sharing the idea of Cora, I ultimately got connected to my now co-founder. As two people, we were able to actually go out, raise money for the company, and start to grow it in in a meaningful way that is just a lot different and a lot harder when you’re the lone founder.
I think keeping the faith, continuing on before there were other people involved and other people giving their time and resources to helping it grow, was probably the biggest challenge in the early days.
Why did you specifically choose ZanaAfrica Foundation and Aakar Innovations as partners?
Molly: When I was looking for our social impact partners, I had a background from college, where I studied economic development, specifically related to women’s economic development, humanitarian aid, and a bit of public health. I really wanted to find a partner that was addressing the issue of menstrual hygiene and menstrual management in a holistic way. For me, that meant an organization that was not just looking at how to provide a sustainable and scalable product to that population but also was thinking about how to provide health education to those girls and create a model that was more based on the idea of a social enterprise, rather than a traditional non-profit organization. ZanaAfrica and Aakar Innovations to me both exemplified what it means to really own a single issue. Both of them are really solely focused on menstrual hygiene but look at that from multiple perspectives.
Aakar is a great example I can give a little more colour to. They are a social enterprise based in Mumbai, India, so they have essentially developed a plant-based, the compostable sanitary pad that can be made in small manufacturing units that employ local women. They can be set up in a rural village or urban slums, and they train and employ women, giving them skills training and jobs through small production units.
These are women who otherwise would be unemployed or underemployed. Some have been employed previously in the sex trade. Aakar gives them an above living wage, skills training, and opportunity that empowers them economically. It also helps the local community by creating a business, it provides a source of affordable sanitary pads to that prior community.
Essentially the way we work with them is that we purchase the product they produce. We are actually generating revenue for these small businesses across India, rather than importing Cora’s products into India. As we scale and grow, we purchase more and more product from them, so that allows them to scale and grow. We purchase the products from them, and they help us to distribute the products to girls in local schools that are surrounding specific units that they have across India. They also have developed a reproductive health curriculum that we help to provide funding for so that more girls can have access to that type of education, which they would normally not receive just through their school.
Where do you hope to see Cora in the next five years?
Molly: I think there is just such an opportunity in the women’s wellness space right now. I think that right now we’ve seen such a shift in the way periods are treated and regarded and thought about and talked about in the general population, in the last five years. Where prior to, it was still extremely stigmatized and you would rarely see media coverage about something related to menstruation. There were certainly very few brands or companies that were working, outside of the traditional players. Most players that were not the traditional players were the fringey, super eco-sustainable brands that just didn’t have very wide distribution or visibility in the market.
In five years from now, I really envision Cora standing for women’s health in period care and eventually other spaces as well, and being a leader in terms of changing the conversation around these experiences that are completely natural to the female body. I think Cora will represent a wave of change that encompasses the health of those products, the health of the woman, the perception of the body, the experiences of the body, and hopefully the way that business can be used as a tool for greater social change either here in the US, or globally.