Kiwi entrepreneurs on a mission to bring Dignity to girls in school and woman in the workplace

By Fiona Stephenson

Young, Kiwi entrepreneurs on a mission to bring Dignity to both women in the workplace and girls in school, by providing them with access to sanitary items. We talk to Jacinta Gulasekharam of Dignity to find out how the business came about, and what inspired them to take the sustainability journey.

Periods. Time of the month! Menstruation. The average woman has more than 450 periods in her lifetime, and along with the physical and emotional effects, there is a financial cost associated with it – estimated at $5000 for each woman over her lifetime.

As TVNZ has reported this year,  there are Kiwi families who have to keep their daughters home from school when they can’t afford sanitary items. Women and girls should not be facing preventable barriers to education and/or work. They deserve the opportunity to participate fully in society.

Earlier this year, the inaccessibility of sanitary products once again hit headlines following Pharmac’s decision not to help fund the cost of pads and tampons. The refusal was made on the grounds that sanitary products weren’t “medicines or medical devices”, with Pharmac’s director of operations arguing that menstruation was ultimately “a normal bodily function”.

There are a sizable number of women and girls who struggle to keep up with the cost. Some retailers, such as SBN member Countdown have made a commitment to cut the cost of their in-house sanitary items, and urge customers to make donations.

Donations received, however, are rarely enough.  This is why start-ups like Dignity have begun to think in innovative ways to tackle the problem. Using the buy-one-give-one model, Dignity aims to provide free tampons, not just to high school girls, but for women in the workplace through corporate partnerships.

Jacinta Gulasekharam co-founded Dignity with Miranda Hitchings. She explains how it all started, and their sustainability journey.

What was your inspiration behind the project and how did you get started?

Access and affordability to sanitary items have always been our mission, but it really hit home for us when we saw the story about period poverty on TVNZ’s Seven Sharp. We saw high school students were missing school due to not having access to these items, and it really upset us. It seemed so out of place in New Zealand that such a basic item was causing this, so it mattered to us.  We wanted to incorporate a model that was able to support girls in school.

Also, it arose out of a selfish problem – we hated the high cost of sanitary items and being caught short. Some of the best businesses are built from selfish problems and that idea really motivated us to come up with a solution.

Straight out of university, we went through a three-month accelerator programme with the Victoria Entrepreneur Boot Camp – that gave us the business model and helped us to get our first customer.  We reached out to schools and MPs to make sure the products got to where they are needed.

We were able to work with clever people, like accountants from Deloitte who gave us our price point.  This allows us to service the buy-one-give-one model and pay staff a living wage.

What made Dignity take the sustainability journey?

Setting up Dignity as a sustainable business is a no-brainer. We believe in sustainability. We want to make sure we provide only organic certified sanitary items to both students and women in the workplace. We want to make sure staff are paid a living wage. We make sure we are sustainable as possible in our office operations through recycling and reusing as well as ensuring we are carbon neutral. It’s inherently a part of who we are, it’s just what you do when you set up a business.

You can meet Dignity founders Jacinta Gulasekharam and Miranda Hitchings at our Homegrown Conference – Inspiring local stories of sustainability success. Discover businesses that are booming while building a better world. It’s on Tuesday 16 October from 8:30am at Orākei Marae in Auckland.