What happens when you get an entrepreneur that walks like a “Bro-preneur” but talks like a rad feminist social entrepreneur? Answer: You get Miki Agrawal (photo above), founder of Thinx, a company that makes “period” underwear.
On March 14, Agrawal was outed as a marketplace feminist. Racked (A Vox Media imprint) broke the story first. A week later, Chelsea Leibow, the 26-year-old head of PR at Thinx and now former employee filed a sexual harassment suit. As more employees and allegations came forward over last week, mainstream media sources including Fortune, CNBC, New York Magazine revealed that what showed initially as a bit of immature leadership spotting turned into full-fledged company menorrhagia. And it doesn’t look like any super absorbent cool public relations fixes are going to work this time.
While positioning herself as a millennial “disruptive” feminist entrepreneur selling period underwear to empowerment-hungry women via clever shock-jock public relations tactics, Agrawal at the same time ran a decidedly unfeminist enterprise by paying below market salaries, brutally suppressing grievances, shaming employees and providing for only the legal minimum for maternity leave.
Thinx had 35 employees. As a result of the reveals, she recently announced that she is “stepping down” as CEO.
The press and Twitterverse were quick to weigh in. Some were surprised and appalled. How could a real feminist do that? (Answer: She wasn’t a feminist). Others wondered if Agrawal was too harshly judged arguing “If she were a man…”
But Noreen Malone (writer of the January 2016 New York Magazine cover story on Agrawal over a year ago) saw her true nature. She called it saying Agrawal was really just “… a tech bro — except she’s a woman, trying to sell underwear. Or, as she sees it, innovating in the “period space.” To Agrawal, women’s emancipation, equality, inclusion and dedication to corporate philanthropy (Thinx Foundation) and social benefit stories were just marketing tools.
Agrawal responded passionately to all the allegations in a Medium post on March 17 explaining that her behaviors and mistakes are totally excusable. Apparently, it all goes with being a “true” disruptive innovator, and things like this happen because running a ‘hockey stick” company is hard.
Sorry. Not Buying It. Behavior that disrespects others is about character. High-pressure environments don’t create opportunistic narcissists. It just reveals them.
What can we learn?
From a Liisbeth perspective, while it sucks when we find out someone we thought was real is a mirage, the story is not unique. Agrawal is certainly not the first or last celebrated CEO, either male or female, to be hypocritical when it comes to market message versus true practice (that list is long, gender neutral and goes way back — remember Jimmy Swaggart anyone?).
Agrawal is also not the only inexperienced, yet celebrated CEO in the innovation space which evidently cares more about social media likes than substance. It’s a Trump, Trump world. And let’s not forget. She was not alone. She had investors to please, and a board of directors whose job it is to ensure good governance and preserve arm’s length investor interests. She also listed Seth Godin as one of her advisors early on. Where were they on all this? If they were doing their job, they would have been fully aware of the issues. But as long as the numbers and likes rolled in, they clearly did nothing.
While Agrawal story is nothing new in the innovation space, and yes, women can be assholes too, this story does give rise to some important broader questions about the entrepreneurship and innovation industry.
Agrawal’s story reveals once again how distorted much of the entrepreneurship and innovation space has become in North America. Instead of celebrating authenticity, experience, character and principled execution, its players and the business media extol speed, youth, dorm-room behavior, narcissism and cult personality talent. This story and others like it show it’s time to innovate the innovation space or, at least, what we celebrate about it.
On the upside, perhaps, there is some good that will come of this. In reading the Thinx story, maybe more people will understand what the term marketplace feminism means.
The report also serves as a reminder that media continue to play an important fourth estate role (Racked broke the story). The actions of Thinx employees may well inspire others to speak their truth when faced with unacceptable working conditions and CEO behavior. Investors and boards might consider the importance of walking the talk to avoid the impact of market rage.
And finally, perhaps the trouble at Thinx will drive some business back to the real, unacknowledged but long-time authentic to the bone feminist enterprises in the period industry: Gladrags, Knix Wear, DivaCup and Lunapads.