Talking periods and purpose with Sarah Hewett, founder of Monthlies

I first met Sarah in early 2013 at a training day for Student HubsSocial Impact Internship Scheme, when she was a recent graduate working on Oxford Hub’s programmes and I was a first year student at Southampton. We were brought together again at the start of 2016 through Worthwhile’s mentoring stream.

Since then, we’ve discussed goals, decisions, wellbeing and challenges – both global and personal. I appreciate our conversations as a place to share current experiences and longer-term plans. I also enjoy hearing about Sarah’s career, including her work on Monthlies, the social enterprise she started in 2015.

For these reasons, I recently asked Sarah if she would be interested in being featured in an interview on this blog. Read on for highlights from our conversation about feminism, social enterprise and life decisions.

Molly: For the benefit of readers who might not be familiar with Monthlies, what is it?

Sarah: Monthlies is a subscription service for period products founded on the principles of environmental protection and feminism. The boxes are filled with environmentally friendly, biodegradable tampons and pads – ones that won’t wash up on beaches in a hundred years’ time.

Monthlies aims to break the taboos surrounding periods. I’m trying to get people to talk more openly and honestly about menstruation through various campaigns and activities, as well as the subscription boxes.

Molly: I admire the proactivity you’ve taken to tackle issues you care about. Can you say more about what led you to start Monthlies?

Sarah: I’ve always been interested in environmental issues – I remember doing a presentation on saving penguins when I was in primary school. Later, I studied Geography at university, engaging more with the science of climate change and the risks we’re facing on our planet. I’m really interested in facilitating individual behaviour change to lower these risks. This got me thinking about the environmental impact of period products. I researched options (Mooncups are great, but not for everyone) and found ones that were environmentally friendly and less well known.

I became interested in feminism at university, too. I realised that I cared a lot about issues facing women – anyone who identifies as a woman – today. I read more about struggles for gender equality and the various changes people are campaigning for, such as equal pay for equal work and ending sexual violence around the world. These causes can seem separate, but learning more about them led me to think about the many interconnected things putting women in a position of greater risk and disadvantage.

I considered how periods may or may not be affecting women’s life chances and opportunities. As a woman in the UK, you may worry about having to get through a meeting with cramps or a leaking pad, needing to leave and not getting promoted. Meanwhile, many girls and women in Africa don’t have access to period products – often they can’t go to school or leave their home due to illness or shame relating to menstruation. Periods aren’t a universal female experience (for example, older women and trans women may not have them), but I recognised that they were a significant aspect of women’s lives that I could take action on.

I have also been interested in social enterprise for a long time, so I wanted to combine these things in a product that could benefit women and the environment.

Molly: That’s really interesting. I remember seeing you put out a call on Facebook asking for people to take part in your pilot scheme and thinking that it was a great idea.

Sarah: Oh, that’s lovely to hear. I don’t think I was very brave at the start, just reaching out to my Facebook friends. It was proactive, but a small step. After seeing that quite a few people were interested, I felt more confident.

Molly: It was refreshing to see someone mention periods on social media at the time. I find the relative silence around periods, hormones and options for women frustrating. The Bodyform advert that actually showed blood is a step in the right direction and your logo being red is a good statement. What conversations do you think we need to be having, or what other things should we be doing, to change this?

Sarah: I really like that Bodyform advert, but I also wish I’d done it first! The key message for me is that the blood represents women’s strength, not their weakness. As for next steps, I think there is loads of internalised misogyny that we should shout about – like when media coverage of the Olympics focused on female gold medal winners’ figures or husbands. We should celebrate women for their strengths and diversities, not what they look like or whether they are in a relationship.

There is still a lot to do, but more and more people are starting to recognise that. It has become more mainstream to examine how certain media portrayals and behaviours are harmful and to say that we can do this a better way.

Molly: I agree. How has feminism changed your thinking?

Sarah: My position as a feminist has evolved regularly, I suppose. I remember going along to a RAG meeting at university and finding myself at a women’s event, where everyone was sitting in a circle sharing ‘I am a feminist because’ statements. By the time it was my turn, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a feminist. Street harassment is not ok, women getting paid less is not ok, the fact that most rape cases are not reported is not ok. I’m definitely a feminist’.

At that point, feminism became necessary to me because I saw that there were a range of experiences that women either had to go through or weren’t able to access as easily because of their gender. I try to take an intersectional approach, focusing on understanding other people’s perspectives as much as possible. I think we need to be really open about how privilege – of gender, race, class, ability – affects people. It’s like an invisible scale that some people don’t want to acknowledge.

Molly: Yes, sitting here as two white, university-educated cis women, we need to continually learn about other people’s experiences and support them in ways they want to be supported.

Sarah: If you’re not looking at other people’s experiences, you’re fighting for a narrow version of equality that only benefits people very similar to you. I think there’s strength in having your assumptions challenged and developing ideas.

Molly: Definitely. So, here’s another question: what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since beginning your career?

Sarah: I guess there are three main lessons: try not to take it so personally when stuff goes wrong; don’t underestimate how much you can get done in a day; and tell people when you can’t get things done, without stressing about it. That’s something I’m still learning.

Molly: Those are all good points. I think it’s especially useful to be able to admit when a project or a task is bigger than you expected.

Sarah: I feel like I should say something more profound… How about ‘you can change your career or job if you don’t like it’? You’re not tied to anything forever.

Molly: Yeah, we’ll go with that. Letting yourself change your mind or deviate from a plan is an underrated skill. When I was 19 and working for Teach First, I applied early to their Leadership Development Programme and didn’t get a place. I was upset and disappointed at the time, but I realised that I enjoyed the communications and outreach side of the role I was already doing, which led me to my current job.

Sarah: That’s interesting – I didn’t know you’d applied! I think a good lesson is that it’s fine not to know where things will lead. Enjoy the experience as you go along. Trust your brain and your ability to sort stuff out, because you’ll be able to when the time comes.

Molly: I try to go with that approach now. Do you have any specific tips for hopeful social entrepreneurs?

Sarah: Give yourself time to think it all through. When setting up any project or business, there’s a lot to do. Don’t taper your ambitions, though. Take things one step at a time, but still aim big. I think that’s the O2 Think Big motto. Another piece of advice – apply for O2 Think Big funding!

Molly: Wise words. Do you have any role models or people whose approaches to work and life you admire? If so, why do you admire them?

Sarah: I’m drawn to strong women as role models. At Innocent, there’s a woman at the top of the finance team who’s widely respected and hugely invested in supporting other people’s development. There aren’t that many women in senior management and she’s a good example of balancing life inside and outside of work. I especially like her because she’s very authentic, has worked hard and is interested in people.

Molly: She sounds great. Now for a slightly harder question: if you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Sarah: Oh, that is a tricky one. I suppose I’d say that whatever decision you have to make, seek out people who inspire you. That way, you’ll end up doing the most interesting things. The same goes for boyfriends – seek out the most interesting people.

Molly: That’s good advice. The people I’m drawn to most are those who are really interested in something – it doesn’t necessarily matter what it is.

Sarah: People who can challenge your views are helpful, too.

Molly: Yes, it’s beneficial to have relationships with people who will support you, but also call you out when necessary. Ok, finally, here’s a question I try to ask as many people as possible: what’s your favourite book to recommend at the moment?

Sarah: One of the best books I’ve read about getting people to start businesses is Do Cool Sh*t by Miki Agrawal. That said, it should probably come with a health warning because it doesn’t really factor in self-care. The book is full of great tips, but it also features some questionable advice about eating. For example, she suggests always taking away half of the food on your plate when you go to a restaurant. That might make sense for her as a New Yorker who dines out a lot, but to me it seems like a harmful thing to be recommending to ambitious young women.

Molly: I agree. I’d be interested in reading the first part of the book, but I might give that chapter a miss.

End of interview.

I’d like to say a big thank you to Sarah for sharing her experiences and advice with me. You can learn more about Monthlies here. (This post isn’t sponsored, I just like what she’s doing a lot.)

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