m i k i a g r a w a l - T H I N X
This girl has been called a force of nature. She solves her own problems by creating businesses around them, that also happen to be doing a world of the good for everyone [pizza lovers and women with periods...so literally everyone]. She was named one of Forbes' Top 20 Millennials on a Mission in 2013 and her recent "conversation" with Outfront Media and the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York over the latest THINX ad campaign took the world by a storm. The ads (which were originally deemed too offensive) are now covering NYC. She tackles taboos. She has a rad tribe of people who are doing cool sh*t. And she's not slowing down anytime soon. Meet Miki.
How are you? How’s your day going so far?
Good, good! The life on an entrepreneur is a roller coaster. There’s a lot of exciting turns and twists and unexpected drops and trust falls, all the time.
Gotta love the trust falls. Let’s zoom out a bit. What were the seeds that led to your different projects today?
Necessity is the mother of all invention, for sure. So, they were all born out of necessity.Ten years ago, I started my first business, which was a restaurant business called Wild. It was born because I kept having stomachaches and I couldn’t eat pizza that everyone knows and loves in its current state at the time. I wanted to find an alternative and I couldn’t really find a lot of gluten free or farm to table or organic options. Pizza is a $32 billion industry. Americans eat 100 acres of pizza every single day…why is this happening? And so I was just wow, and from that stomachache, I just said fuck it—I’m going to open my first restaurant. And so I opened my first restaurant because I needed a place like that. The way I think about it is: before I start any business, I have to go through the lens of three questions. So question number one is “What sucks in my world?” So for me, having a stomachache sucked. Question number two is “Does it suck for other people?” One in five Americans are lactose intolerant. One in five Americans eat gluten free. So many allergies in the world, in America today, so clearly I’m not the only one having problems. And the third question, the most important, is “Can I be passionate about this issue, cause, or community for a really, really long time?” Can I settle in this for ten years? A lot of things may be a problem for me or a problem for a lot of people but I may not be able to find passion in something. But food and food issues, and the importance of nutritional food and whole foods, was important enough to me to start my first business.
"There’s a lot of exciting turns and twists and unexpected drops and trust falls, all the time."
As someone with allergies, I’m very excited to try Wild! I like that idea of sustainable passion. It seems that a lot of your projects—from Thinx to Wild to Tushy—center around breaking taboos. Has that been intentional or do you think that’s come up upon reflection?
Thinx was born again out of necessity. What sucked in my world was having period accidents. Does it suck for a lot of people? Every single woman has had a leaks or stains or issues with their underwear. Not to mention, there are 100 million girls missing a week of school when they have their periods. It’s a huge, huge global issue. And I can very much be passionate about women’s issues and women’s rights for the rest of my life, so that very much fell into the bucket of what I can be passionate about for a very long time. So I said, ok, go for it. So one of the things that got really interesting was the idea of breaking a taboo, and the idea of using innovation to change culture? Can I use innovation to break a taboo? It became intoxicating and interesting to think about. If we provide a product that actually works on women, will this completely shift the culture around periods? Will women be able to feel enough confidence because they now have a product that actually works for them to now be able to talk about the past problems that are no longer problems anymore? How you break taboos is by elevating the conversation. You just talk about it. More people can talk about it if they find a solution that works for them. Same thing with Tushy. Tushy was born out of necessity because wiping my ass sucks and the sanitation crisis is the number one killer in the world. 40% of the world don’t have proper sanitation. 40% of the world are pooping behind a bush and getting extremely sick. One child dies every 17-19 seconds because of poor sanitation, which is a basic human right to be able to defecate with dignity. And it’s extremely taboo. The question is: “Can I help elevate the American bathroom experience out of 1890, which is the current bathroom experience?” We’re wiping with toilet paper, which was was created in 1890 and Americans adopted it in 1890 and it has not changed and it’s 2015. We have not changed the way we clean ourselves since 1890. This is why people are getting urinary tract infections and hemroihds and yeast infections and all kinds of problems come up down there because people are not properly cleaning themselves. It’s like using paper to wipe your teeth versus trying to brush their teeth. It makes no sense. Again, it was a question of “Can I use innovation to change culture and elevate the conversation around the most basic human right, which is to just poop properly?” Both are very unsexy topics that you can make very sexy.
Speaking of elevating the conversation, Thinx just had the subway controversy with NYC Metro banning its ads. What did you find to be the most surprising aspect of that whole experience?
That the sexist double standard is still alive and well in New York City. That there is this much misogynistic mentality and that the patriarchal societal mind is still very ever-present in the most progressive part of the world. It’s because it’s being run by old white men who are scared. It's crazy. He [MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast] said that he found the ads offensive. I said, “Do you find the blood offensive that actually bore you? Is that offensive? Because that blood bore you.” It’s a lack of respect. Women also very much have a chokehold on this patriarchal society. So women are also ashamed to talk about it. I feel that lots of times women think “we shouldn’t be talking about this kind of stuff.” Meanwhile, the reason why they’re saying this is because they’ve been brainwashed by this patriarchal mentality. The goal is to shift culture and shift mentality around something that’s so natural and creates life, a life force for human existence. Can you do it using great branding, great product innovation and great design, aesthetic, and voice? Can all the touchpoints be extremely thought through so that when you put something out into the world, it’s accepted as culturally relevant? It’s all interesting.
So you were a professional soccer player. How has that affected your work now?
The New York Magic was the farm team for the New York Power. I was in the professional league, but I wasn’t playing for the Power. I was playing for the Magic—just clarifying that. Being a competitive athlete gives you the drive to keep going and to strive to win and succeed against all odds. You want to be the winner. It’s not like getting a participation trophy; it’s about winning. I feel like we live in a society often times these days where people are getting participation trophies even if they lose. It’s not teaching people how to be winners and how to fight through things and be a champion. I feel like the athletic part of me has helped give me the incessant drive to continue to do everything I can to succeed and win. It’s like a muscle that you develop over time. I’ve had three ACL reconstructions (twice with the New York Magic and once playing with a men’s German club) and I’d say you also learn a lot how to bounce back after injuries that are debilitating and really, really challenging. You get to learn how to fight through things that are unforeseen and that are super upsetting and tragic. I feel like I developed a pretty thick skin from playing sports, too.
"So one of the things that got really interesting was the idea of breaking a taboo, and the idea of using innovation to change culture? Can I use innovation to break a taboo? It became intoxicating and interesting to think about."
Awesome. You’ve spoken about your richly diverse background and upbringing. How has that influenced you?
My cultural background gave me a lot of context for what success is. When you think about my dad who came to this country with five dollars in his pocket, and in one generation, put three children through Ivy League schools (my sister went to Harvard and Yale, and we went to Cornell), that’s the American Dream. To know that it’s possible created this whole new “I can create my own reality” mentality. Someone coming from India with nothing to this country with nothing and building enough to send three kids [to college], within that generation, changing his family’s life is remarkable. And often almost only possible in a country like the United States. So that was very important. You don’t need a lot to succeed. By just being consistent and fighting through it, you can have a great life. That was a gigantic lesson. My mom, who’s from Japan, was a very consistent mother. One day, when I have kids, I would like to be a consistent and dedicated mother too, while also being CEO. That’s going to be a very interesting challenge.
Do you work a lot with your sister?
Not really. We share a lot of things, but we don’t work on the same things. We’re two alpha females, can’t work together. She’s a co-founder in Thinx. We partner on stuff, but we don’t work with each other ever because it’s not healthy. [Laughs.]
When you’re not working, what are you usually up to?
Either going to Burning Man or going to different festivals or speaking, playing sports, traveling. I love traveling and travel a lot. DJing…my sister and I DJ. We have a DJ group Me2Me2. Play is so important, to be able to find joy in playing and just being and having fun. Experiencing new experiences fuels the fire. You need that juxtaposition for sure. You need that balance.
Do you have a daily routine?
I actually do not have a daily routine, except for meditation. I do meditate four times a week. It should be a daily practice, but I’m working towards making it a daily practice. I do work out three or four days a week, so that’s a routine. The times are never set. I don’t really have a routine, except for eating and sleeping. [Laughs.]
That’s important! How do you see your work as contributing to the creative and entrepreneurial culture here in New York?
I’m very lucky to have an awesome community here in New York. We’re called the Boom Spiral. As a collective, you create a “boom.” It’s the opposite of a doom spiral. The founder of Artsy and General Assembly and Soundcloud and Change.org…they are all in the sphere of Boom Spiral. These are some of the most important young leaders of tomorrow and of today. These are the people that I cherish and spend my time with and inspire me to want to achieve and change the world. It’s a very cliche thing, but all of my friends are really changing the world in their own aspects—whether it’s through music with Soundcloud, petitions with change.org, or education with General Assembly or through art with Artsy or in the nonprofit space. I just had breakfast with Adam Braun (founder of Pencils of Promise). He’s not really in the Boom Spiral community, but he’s in the sphere. They’re all doing the coolest shit ever and to be around that is so special and important to fuel me.
What’s been the happiest accident you’ve had working on your projects?
I would say starting to see a life coach. One of my best girl friends is an amazing local artist. I don’t know if you’ve seen “In Pursuit of Magic” sprayed around the city, but that’s her art project. She introduced me to my coach, who is a creator of the Handel Method. Her name is Lauren Zander and she’s a witch—a good witch. I’ve never had a coach. I’ve been an entrepreneur on my own for the last ten years, bouncing ideas off my friends, but never having someone who’s been a coach for twenty-five years, who has coaching experience. It’s not like a therapist where you sit there and just spew; it’s someone who really gives you tools in your toolkit. That has completely changed my life. I never thought I’d ever see a life coach. The term has been bastardized by people who just want to be life coaches in their own lives that are not together. So her life is together. She’s doing incredible things in the world. She teaches at Stanford and MIT and she’s got an incredible method that she’s spent twenty-five years working on. It’s incredible. She’s really been a huge sounding board for me. It’s been a beautiful surprise for me to actually dive into that and really get the fruits of its labor. She’s been a huge game-changer for me.
Do you have a mantra?
In business and in life in general, iteration is perfection. I say it all the time. The minute you stand still is when you die. You iterate, you keep improving, you keep listening, you keep growing, you keep learning, you keep finding new things and you’re iterating all the time. Iteration is that motion, that iteration is perfection. That’s what’s perfect; it’s not about being perfect.