Lindsey McEntee isn't a fan of the term 'feminine hygiene products.'
"What the hell is a 'feminine hygiene product'? Something about that phrase has always seemed ridiculous to me," she says. "You don't call shampoo 'hair hygiene products,' you know? Periods are already considered gross by some people — the word 'hygiene' adds to that. Every word counts, whether you intend it to or not."
McEntee is familiar with the power of words; she majored in marketing and English in college, with a minor in gender studies. At 24, she's the COO ('Chief Ovulation Officer') of Aunt Flow, a buy-one, give-one subscription service for menstrual supplies. For every box purchased, another is donated to a non-profit organization that supports people in need.
Aunt Flow is the brainchild of CEO Claire Coder. At 19, Coder was attending a tech start-up conference when she unexpectedly got her period and didn't have a tampon. The experience made her realize that what was a minor inconvenience to her posed a major issue to people without access to basic menstrual supplies. Coder drafted a business plan that night, which she presented at the conference that same weekend; she won second place. Sensing the potential behind her idea, Coder dropped out of college to focus on Aunt Flow full-time, and a start-up was born. Since its official launch in October 2016, the Columbus, Ohio-based company has grown to nearly 500 subscribers.
Each customizable subscription box costs 13 and includes 18 tampons or pads, a sample gift from a woman-owned business, and a card that proclaims, 'You Changed a Life.' All of Aunt Flow's products are 100% cotton, biodegradable, and chemical free. The company also accepts donations; just 5 provides supplies for one person in need for an entire month.
McEntee came on board last fall. A recent college graduate looking for something more inspiring than a typical 9-to-5, she stumbled across the link to Aunt Flow's site while browsing nonprofit jobs. She reached out to Coder, and they clicked right away.
"Claire was looking for help with marketing, and I asked, 'Do you want me to send you my resume?' And she was like, 'Oh, no, I don't care about that!' That's just the sort of person she is," McEntee recalls. "Claire and I are a great team — we balance each other out."
As Chief Ovulation Officer, McEntee handles front-end communications, marketing, and social media. She's also responsible for maintaining relationships with the non-profits Aunt Flow donates to. "Oh, and yesterday, I packed and shipped all 350 subscription boxes for the month," she says. "I have some really awesome friends who spent the day with me in the warehouse."
Aunt Flow's slogan is "Taking care of your flow takes care of their flow." Putting menstrual products in the hands of people that need them is at the heart of the company's mission. Aunt Flow originally started out with two local partner organizations, OSU Star House and Mid-Ohio Foodbank. "Since then, we've been lucky enough to have non-profits come to us!" says McEntee. "We actually have a long list of groups that want to partner with us at this point. Menstrual products are top of the list as far as what they need, but nobody ever donates them, so they're jumping at the opportunity to get that need met." Aunt Flow now partners with organizations across the country, such as food banks, sex trafficking survivor groups, and homeless shelters.
Inclusivity is incredibly important at Aunt Flow; as a result, they recently made the decision to use gender-neutral packaging and language on all products, setting the company apart from big-name alternatives.
"There are people who menstruate that don't identify as female, so we want to include everyone," explains McEntee. "Trans and non-binary people are often excluded from the discussion, so that was something we felt a responsibility to take on. We don't say 'women' anymore, we'll say 'menstruators' or 'people.' Women aren't the only ones with periods!"
Working at Aunt Flow has been a learning experience for McEntee. She recalls being "blown away" by the hustle and talent within the start-up community. "I've had people say, 'Wait, it's just you two? You mean you don't have a fancy office?' And I'm like, 'No, we work at a broken kitchen table!' Claire never stops. We text each other at 3 AM: 'Hey, did you answer that email?' It's a great experience, and you learn so much because you're doing everything."
As with any new endeavor, there have been a few obstacles along the way. Coder and McEntee have sometimes struggled to be taken seriously, both because of their ages and because the start-up industry is typically male-dominated.
And then there's the unique challenge of producing a product that deals with menstruation — a topic that still skeeves some people out.
"Yeah, so we kind of embrace that," McEntee says with a laugh. "Aunt Flow is more than just a subscription box; it's a movement. That taboo is part of the reason people don't have access, so educating people is the first step in getting our products into the hands of those that need them. But also? It's ridiculous that we're all walking around ashamed to have our periods. That's why our logo is loud — it's not quite red, but it's close — because we want all elements of our branding to go into breaking that stigma. We're super frank, and people are really receptive to that. It's like people have been dying to talk about it, and as soon as you open the gates, they do.
"It even comes up with investors," she continues. "We've been on a couple of calls where people are snickering, and it's like, 'Okay, get your giggles out, and let's get down to business.' We had one man come up to us after an event and ask, 'Why do your subscription boxes come with 18 tampons?' He thought that women only needed, like, one tampon a month. But that's not going to stop us — it's a core part of our mission, to destroy that."
Aunt Flow uses social media as a tool to educate people on how lack of access to menstrual products affects lives. As their website explains, menstrual products aren't covered by WIC or food stamps. This can mean having to choose between food or tampons — a choice nobody should have to make. "Also, tampons are taxed as a luxury item, when really, this product is as necessary as toilet paper," McEntee notes. "Having a period is not a choice."
Homeless menstruators face unique issues as well. "Homeless people not only lack access to tampons, they don't even have somewhere to go and clean up," she continues. "When people hear these stories, it really humanizes the problem, and that is what we think is most effective."
In addition to social media, Coder and McEntee host community events to get people comfortable with talking about periods. One such ongoing event is called Menstruation Nation. "There's poetry, live music, personal testimonies, and something called a 'man-el,' where you get men up there and ask them questions about menstruation and have them hold a tampon and stuff. They're half of the population — we gotta bring 'em in."
Aunt Flow calls these men Flow-Bros. "Men benefit from being able to talk about these things, too. A lot of the shaming that goes on is from men — you know, when you ask them to run to the store and they're horrified, or you can't say the word period because they're like 'Oh my god, this is a lady problem!' We've asked men, 'What would you do if you didn't have toilet paper when you needed it?' And when you make them think about it in a way that relates to them, it becomes a humanity thing — just people taking care of each other. Plus, it's fun to say Flow-Bros."
Above all, the mission behind Aunt Flow is what keeps McEntee going. "We just put in our orders for this cycle of donations, and we're going to donate 22,000 boxes," she says. "Getting the products together and putting them into the hands of those that need them — that's the best part. I love interacting with the community in a way I never did in college, when I was in the academic bubble. It's also fun when you get messages from people that are like, 'This is awesome! I want to help!'"
Going forward, the company plans to offer more products, such as different pad options, applicator-free tampons, and reusable menstrual cups. They envision the company as a brand, not just a subscription box, and have big plans for the future.
In the meantime, McEntee will keep spreading the word about Aunt Flow, and she hopes to get everyone on board: "Never did I think that I would be walking around using the words 'tampons' and 'menstruation' every day — and if I can do it, anyone can!"
More from BUST