This CEO Thinks It's Time for Business Leaders to Get Political
“Why are you so political?”
It’s a question that Miki Agrawal gets a lot. The founder and self-described "SHE-E-O" of Thinx has built a company around breaking taboos, starting with her very product -- an underwear designed to replace feminine hygiene supplies.
Last year, Thinx launched a controversial ad campaign for the New York City subway -- one that was initially banned. The ads were provocative on purpose (in one, a broken egg symbolized an unfertilized egg during menstruation) and called inappropriate by the approving agency. Agrawal argued the decision was sexist -- that periods are a natural biological process. She won.
As an individual, Agrawal has been outspoken about her politics (she posted publicly about her support for Secretary Clinton during the campaign and she walked in last month’s Women’s March on Washington), but her brand also keeps a regular political dialogue with its followers. A number of weekly blogs cover everything from women’s health, pop culture and the news through a feminist lens. And since November, Agrawal has been devising a series of Thinx pop-up shops across the country to spark conversation with people in Red States and find common ground.
A photo posted by mikiagrawal (@mikiagrawal) on Nov 8, 2016 at 8:25am PST
Today, Agrawal is taking this one step further asking her followers to take a political action through an event dubbed “Flood the Phones.” From 12 until 3 p.m. today, Thinx is hosting a phone bank to call a select group of female elected representatives. The company’s goal is to call all eight phone lines within each of their offices simultaneously and ask the Congresswomen to stand up for women’s health.
Moves like these have their fans -- and their critics. Says Agrawal, “There’s definitely pushback, often, from people who believe that we shouldn’t be talking about anything political. We get that all the time. ‘Stick to selling underwear,’ ‘I want my money back,’ ‘You’re a baby killer’ and things like that.”
A heated political climate is sparking some difficult questions for business leaders and entrepreneurs as they balance individual beliefs with what’s right for their companies and customers. Last week’s travel ban, a decision that impacts talent at some of the country’s most high-profile tech companies, brought out strong responses from bold-faced names including Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin.
This climate is even more charged for social entrepreneurs such as Agrawal, whose businesses are designed to affect social change.
“I am an eternal optimist,” Agrawal wrote in an email blast and blog post announcing Flood the Phones. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you kind of have to be.”
Agrawal spoke with Entrepreneur about her Flood the Phones initiative, and the new challenges for business owners in a politically charged environment. Here she explains the role she thinks companies can play in this climate and the risks they face whether they’re outspoken or not.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.Entrepreneur: Tell us about Flood the Phones. What do you want to accomplish?
Agrawal: We’re very worried about the state of our country and our rights as women and our reproductive rights, and in order to not move backwards, we are playing our part to make sure that our voices are heard. Unless everybody, including brands who have a voice, can speak up, then our voices will continue to be suppressed. We’re going to ask [these 22 female GOP representatives] for a verbal commitment that they will stand up for intersectional women’s health, that we will make it clear that includes immigrants, refugees, people of color and the LGBTQ community in the United States. We want them to state it -- state that they support those communities, vocally.Entrepreneur: A range of businesses have been vocal about political moves this week -- both large and small companies. Why is this important?
Agrawal: Because we have a larger constituency than our individual voices. I think companies should stand up and share their opinions. It’s a collective voice. We have a larger reach than just ourselves and our Facebook pages, which are important for sure, but we have a larger thunderclap of a reverberative impact. We believe that it’s important to be loud and proud about the things that we believe in, like reproductive rights.
Agrawal: The risk is that you lose constituents who love your product but might not love your politics. They get upset. Post-election, I sent out an email to all of our subscribers and talked about my deep disappointments in the election turnout and what our plans are: to go to the red states and set up pop-ups there, talk to the other side and extend an olive branch.
We still got a ton of pushback from people saying, “Why are you so political?” And just defensive messages without actually reading the whole email, which was like, “We recognize that’s it’s really upsetting what happened, but we now have to unify this country, and we want to do what we can to do our part.”
I think it’s important to break bread together and to not be against each other, assuming what each other is thinking. We will continue to be vocal about what we believe to be true, even if there’s pushback.Entrepreneur: Authenticity is so important to social entrepreneurship. Why is it so important for Thinx, a feminist brand, to make political moves?
Agrawal: People crave authenticity, because it’s just the truth. I mean, why hide the truth? Integrity is really all about what you’re thinking, feeling and saying all aligning. If you’re thinking something or feeling something and not saying it, you’re not in alignment.
I’ve recognized very quickly that having integrity is actually being in alignment, which is what you need to grow as a human being or as a company. Oftentimes, you see people like politicians who think, feel completely different than everything that they’re saying.Entrepreneur: How do you know if you and your business should enter the fray?
Agrawal: When it talks about something that your business directly relates to.
We are related to reproductive rights. Periods are part of that process, and we know that periods have been a political conversation for thousands of years and used to keep women down. If you look at religious scriptures, they all talk about how you will be defiled if you touch a woman on her period. Some people blamed the Nepal earthquake that happened in 2015 on menstruating women. These are very real political methodologies to keep women down and to keep women controlled.
I think as women are getting more and more loud and actually earning a living and not having to be a stay-at-home mom and rely on the husband’s income, women are able to now speak their truth and say, “I am not beholden to anybody except for what I believe to be true.”
Agrawal: I think it does need to relate to their business at hand, because if it doesn’t, the lines could become a little bit blurred. So find a political issue that you truly care about, that relates to your company, and then get after it. Call your representatives, and create meetups and events that really support your beliefs. Don’t sit idle because you’re afraid of what customers might say. Speak your truth. The truth is always what drives people to like you more. People respect you because you’re speaking your truth.