Entrepreneurship

Innovation for Women, by Women. Period.

Presented by Columbia Business School

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With the co-founding of LOLA, Jordana Kier aims to revolutionize feminine care.

It all started in 2013 with another frantic trip to the drugstore. Like clockwork, Jordana Kier found herself once again desperate to purchase the same personal-care items that she’d needed the month before: tampons. “You don’t want to think about it until you have to, and then you really have to,” she says. “I knew I needed this thing every single month, and yet there was never any sort of planning to get the product in advance.”

So Kier began to hunt around for services that would allow her to discreetly plan ahead for her period. Not only did she come up empty, but as she dug a little deeper, Kier stumbled upon a startling fact: because tampons and sanitary pads are classified as medical devices — as opposed to goods for consumption, for example — the US Food and Drug Administration does not require manufacturers to disclose all their ingredients. In other words, women often don’t know exactly what’s in the feminine-care products they’re using. And those products usually include varying amounts of fabrics such as rayon and polyester, the long-term effects of which have not been fully studied.

“As somebody who generally knows what I’m eating or what my clothes are made out of, it felt like a massive oversight,” Kier says. “Big brands aren’t held accountable.” (Under pressure from consumers, some brands have begun voluntarily disclosing their ingredients online but still are not required to do so by law.)

So Kier decided to do something about it. In 2015, she and her business partner, Alexandra Friedman, launched LOLA, the first 100-percent-cotton, direct-to-consumer, customized tampon-subscription service. The business aims to disrupt the powerful $15 billion feminine-care industry, which, remarkably, has seen only minimal innovation over the past century or so. (The biggest development in tampons since their introduction in the mid-1930s? “Moving from a cardboard to a plastic applicator,” says Fortune, which included LOLA in a story on emerging entrepreneurs in the industry.)

“Nobody has really thought about tampons before in an objective way,” says Kier, noting that the lack of progress is perhaps partially due to the fact that it’s considered an embarrassing topic. “Women [have] never been given an opportunity — or never thought they wanted an opportunity — to talk about their periods.”

Kier wants to change that. She is part of a growing movement to destigmatize menstruation that includes the proliferation of tracking apps like Clue and Glow, the invention of new collection methods like Thinx’s “period-proof” underwear, and widespread support for London Marathoner Kiran Gandhi’s decision to run without protection during “that time of the month.” During the 15 to 20 nationwide focus groups that Kier and Friedman held as they were developing the company, which is based in a shared workspace in New York City, Kier says it was clear that women were looking to bond with each other over the topic but often felt held back.

“The first five minutes, it’s a little awkward. Nobody really wants to talk about [it],” she says. “But after a few icebreaker stories of ‘How I got my period’ or ‘The first time I used a tampon,’ the stories just start overflowing into the room. … Alex and I realized there was an opportunity to build a community based on these topics that have been stigmatized for so many years.”

It was for this reason that the duo chose the name LOLA for the brand, in fact. “We loved the idea of creating a real persona of someone you can trust. [The name] evokes a woman who is sophisticated, informed, trustworthy, and a little sassy,” Kier says, noting that Lola was also the name of her husband’s grandmother, a sharp, college-educated woman who “always spoke her mind.”

A Business Is Born

With LOLA, Kier and Friedman are taking the menstruation movement a step further, intertwining it with society’s increased emphasis on brand accountability and appetite for natural products. LOLA promises women that they’ll know what’s in the product they’re buying — just as they have come to expect at the grocery store or cosmetics counter.

“There’s a general trend toward brands providing that level of transparency,” Kier says. “Consumers expect more from their brands and expect to know exactly what’s in the product and how it’s made and who’s behind the team. [There’s a focus on] authentic, relatable communication.”

LOLA tampons are 100 percent cotton, hypoallergenic, and biodegradable, with a compact, BPA-free plastic applicator. (While the long-term effects of both synthetic materials and cotton are unknown, a 2014 National Institutes of Health report found that cotton is the safest option when it comes to the likelihood of toxic shock syndrome, and Kier adds: “Cotton was something I understood. It is a fiber that is natural. It’s used in hospitals.”) Women can choose their own preferred mix of light, regular, and super in each 18-count box.

“Women in the focus groups were always talking about how they would have this drawer of ‘lights’ or a drawer of ‘supers’ they never needed,” Kier explains. “Maybe they needed one, but every time you buy a box, you get eight more. That’s a big value proposition that we like to offer — flexibility and customization.”

INDUSTRY AWARENESS. The average woman will use 11,000 tampons or pads in her lifetime. Roughly 70 percent of American women use tampons. Over the course of her life, the average woman will spend about $1,770 on tampons. Thirty-seven US states impose sales tax on feminine-hygiene products because they are not deemed necessities like food or medicine (which carry no tax). It’s why, in some states, tampons and pads are taxed but soda, ChapStick, and Viagra aren’t. There is a movement afoot both in the US and abroad to abolish the tampon tax, and so far several states, including New York and Illinois, have eliminated it.LOLA customers can also choose how many boxes they want to receive in each shipment and the frequency of delivery, as well as modify, pause, or cancel the subscription at any time. LOLA subscribers “love the fact that they’re owning the whole process now,” Kier says.

Even LOLA’s packaging aims to embody the maturing conversation around periods and reflect its consumers’ discerning tastes. “The brand that we are trying to create and cultivate is simple, natural, elevated. To us, less is more,” Kier says. “We weren’t looking to other feminine-care brands for inspiration. We were looking to beautiful lotions, candles, high-end makeup.”

The minimalist, mostly white boxes are marked only by LOLA’s simple, elegant logo and a clear list of ingredients and absorbency information. “We really wanted to ensure that a woman would look at her box of tampons and not be reminded of how annoying her period is, but maybe how beautiful it is,” Kier says.

That isn’t to say the LOLA founders don’t also acknowledge that annoyance, though; they simply address it with a sense of humor. “This too shall pass,” reads an inscription on each box’s inside cover, bringing a smile to a user’s face as she reaches for one of the tampons, each of which is wrapped in nonporous plastic designed to keep the cotton sanitary and protected from humidity — a concern for items made entirely of the fiber.

From Tickling the Ivories to Running a Startup

Kier, a native New Yorker who is a pianist by training — “I wanted to run Lincoln Center; that was my dream,” she says — got the itch to go into business during a stint at the New York City Opera after earning a bachelor’s degree in music from Dartmouth College. For seven months, she was involved in the opera’s contract negotiations with musicians’ and singers’ unions. “All of a sudden, I found myself pivoting from feeling so passionate about the artistic output to feeling so passionate about what goes into building a business, particularly one where there are a lot of different players — literally — in the room,” she says. “The whole experience made me realize that while I always would be passionate about the creative piece, I wanted to learn and refine my skills on the quantitative side: building models, understanding how you craft a marketing strategy, how you manage people. That’s what led me to Columbia.”

What followed was two years of soaking up as much Columbia business education as possible, Kier says, as well as a summer internship at e-commerce platform Quidsi and a second-year internship at clothing-rental startup Rent the Runway.

“Being in that environment — seeing how, every day, new decisions were being made, people were iterating off of other people’s work, asking questions, and really creating something out of nothing — was really exciting to me,” says Kier.

A Free-Flowing Future

Kier initially presented the idea for LOLA to her male Entrepreneurial Law for Startups professor in the spring of 2014. At the time, she felt her own cheeks turn “beet red,” she says, but her professor was very encouraging of the idea, and Kier quickly realized that “you have to step outside that and be like, Why is it embarrassing? Even just answering that meta question helps to re-center a lot of people’s perceptions on this topic.”

Since then, Kier and Friedman — who, though they both attended Dartmouth, actually met because their husbands are colleagues (“They work together; now we work together, and they never see us!” Kier says)—have made countless investor pitches, at the start of which they typically unwrap LOLA tampons and soak them in participants’ water glasses, partly to show how the product works but mostly to dispel any elephant-in-the-room discomfort.

LOLA has garnered more than $4 million in funding, media coverage in outlets as diverse as the New York Times and Vogue, and Instagram shout-outs by the likes of supermodel Karlie Kloss.

“This is a very female-centric brand, and yet we have both women investors and male investors who are just as passionate, which feels really cool,” Kier says. “They’ve drunk the LOLA Kool-Aid.”

The company now has nine full-time employees and subscribers in all 50 states. The level of customer engagement with the brand has also been a remarkable achievement. “Women are e-mailing and calling us all day to talk about their periods or ask questions about the product,” Kier says. “In no time in my life would I have ever picked up the phone and called Tampax or Kotex or any of them. It’s kind of amazing. It’s really differentiated us.”

In the short term, LOLA is working to partner with gyms and hotels to stock bathrooms and locker rooms with LOLA tampons, ensuring that there is no interruption in a woman’s routine and that “she does not have to compromise” simply because she’s out of her home or office. In the long term, Kier wants LOLA to become “a go-to destination for all things feminine care.” From her first period to her first baby to her first experience with menopause, “there’s no holistic brand that can really speak to a woman throughout her whole life, and that’s what we’d like to be,” says Kier, adding that she’d also like to be able to conduct more research on the long-term effects of synthetic fabrics like rayon and polyester. “We can engage with doctors and other healthy-lifestyle professionals to provide not just the products that a woman needs but also the answers to her questions and a place for her to have these conversations with other like-minded women.”

Already, the brand has been working with Young Women’s Leadership Network in New York to help educate women about reproductive and sexual health and provide broader female empowerment opportunities. “ [Women now] think twice about their embarrassment and then find confidence in the realization that they shouldn’t be [embarrassed],” Kier says.

The primary challenge for the brand has been building a team with the dynamic she’s looking for, Kier says. “Finding the right type of people who feel the same amount of passion for this mission and have the willingness to get their hands dirty but also think really big and identify tactics [to help us reach] that long-term strategy has been a fun challenge.”

Ultimately, Kier says, she has been “amazed and astounded” by the way that this concept has resonated with women. But, she adds pointedly, “maybe deep down I knew this already.”


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