By Allison Ward The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) 19 year old Claire Coder launched presales last week of "Aunt Flow" her buy-one, give-one subscription service for feminine-hygiene products. For every box of 18 tampons or sanitary pads -- customers can choose a mixture of types and absorbencies -- "Aunt Flow" donates another box to an organization that serves needy women.
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
Attending her first Startup Weekend competition a year ago, Claire Coder couldn't wait to brainstorm ideas with other budding entrepreneurs.
The young woman's body had other plans, though.
"I got my period," said Coder, an Ohio State University freshman at the time. "I couldn't stop thinking about my cramps." The ill-timed -- and all-too-familiar -- distraction inspired an epiphany of sorts.
"I started thinking about women in poverty. My mom -- she's an art therapist -- would talk to me about how a lot of women she worked with wouldn't have access to" feminine products.
Instead, her mom told her, they would use plastic bags or socks to stop the flow or wear multiple layers of clothing to mask the bleeding.
Why not figure out a way to make tampons or pads available to all women regardless of income?
She had 60 seconds to pitch her green idea that first evening of the "global startup battle," then build a team from conference-goers to bring her concept to life. Throughout the weekend, she created a name for her business, developed a brand and researched the problem. (Feminine products are not covered by food stamps. Forty-five states tax them. One in seven U.S. women live in poverty.)
By Sunday, Aunt Flow was born -- and had snagged second place.
Eleven months later, Coder, now 19, launched presales last week of her buy-one, give-one subscription service for feminine-hygiene products. For every box of 18 tampons or sanitary pads -- customers can choose a mixture of types and absorbencies -- Aunt Flow donates another box to an organization that serves needy women.
Think Toms shoes.
"The goal is to have tampons and pads accessible to all women in the United States," said Coder, a Short North resident, who plans to distribute 100,000 tampons in 2017 to organizations such as the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, OSU Star House, Brown Bag Food Project in Wood County and Tiger Pantry at the University of Missouri.
The Toledo native has long had an entrepreneurial spirit: She made her first $25 as a 7-year-old selling beverages to construction workers on her street.
As a high-school sophomore, she started There's a Badge for That, peddling buttons, magnets, compact mirrors and other trinkets featuring her own designs. "I'm still living off the money I made," said Coder, who focused much of her teenage attention on growing the business.
Despite battling dyslexia and boredom with classroom work, Coder said, she earned mostly A's in high school. When graduation rolled around, however, she felt frustrated with her options.
"I was owning my own business and working hard, and I couldn't get higher than a 21 on my ACT," Coder said. "It wasn't, 'What are you doing after college?' It was, 'Where are you going?' "
She looked for a different model but ended up enrolling in Ohio State last fall.
Her college tenure lasted only a few months before she became consumed with the idea of Aunt Flow and dropped out before her first semester ended.
"My parents thought I was crazy for wanting to talk about menstruation the rest of my life," she said.
Coder also wants to lessen the taboo surrounding the topic through her "periodical" blog, "menstruation nation" parties and the enlistment of men to become educated "Flow Bros."
"It's sexualized, but it's not sexualized," she said.
The cause is one that has been championed by another central Ohio woman, Nancy Kramer, founder of Free the Tampons, which seeks to have every public bathroom stocked with free tampons and pads.
"Every woman has a story when they've been caught without what they need," said Kramer. "Women are subjected to humiliation, a lack of dignity, because they don't expect to start their period and, then, they don't have a pad or tampon."
Menstruation shouldn't be a secret, she said, as all healthy women's bodies experience it: "Tampons are just like toilet paper in my mind."
She and Coder have chatted about ideas by phone, and Kramer thinks that the more people who talk about periods, the better, especially younger people.
Coder spent all summer talking with whoever would listen about the issue to raise $40,000 to launch Aunt Flow. The money allowed to her to buy products -- 100 percent cotton, chemical-free hypoallergenic tampons and pads.
She charges $13 for a box of 18, most of which covers the product itself and shipping. The package will also include coupons from area businesses, to help offset the cost of the second box donated to women in need.
The young women who are helped by OSU Star House, a drop-in center for youth experiencing homelessness in the central Ohio area, will welcome the donations, said Ann Bischoff, executive director.
Tampons and pads aren't the first priority for these women, who are "in survival mode," she said.
"Many of us take feminine products for granted, because we know we can afford them," Bischoff said. "These women have to choose between them and food or other needs.
"This will give them peace of mind."
Although the center received a generous donation of feminine products last fall, that stockpile is running low, Bischoff said. Tampons and pads have traditionally been a regular need.
Coder and Aunt Flow will work to meet that need while taking on a larger mission.
"She's engaging men -- there might be some red faces, but that's something I've never seen before," Bischoff said.
Calling them "Flow Bros," Coder said she wants to educate men about menstruation. Men have regularly told her, she said, that they thought tampons and pads could be found in all restrooms next to the toilet paper.
Barry Chandler, co-founder of the Short North brand-strategy company Storyforge, has become a mentor of sorts to Coder, guiding her in both logistics and in purpose.
He was motivated to lend his expertise not only because he believed in the idea but also Coder's "moxie."
"I didn't realize this was a problem," Chandler said. "Claire wasn't driven by, 'I want to make a lot of money,' but 'I want to solve a problem.'
"She's unbelievably creative."
She has to be, Coder said, to sell a product and concept most people are a little squeamish about discussing.
"What is it like when you don't have a tampon?" she said. "It's embarrassing."
She wants to make it a little less mortifying, especially for women who need help the most.
"It's a basic human right: I want to give them dignity."