Hi I’m Amanda Brief, Cofounder and CEO of my.Flow, and we’ve created the world’s first tampon monitor to address the issues of period stigma, shame, anxiety, leakage, and risk of infection. More importantly, I am an MEng IEOR Class of 2015 alum - Go Bears!
It’s great to be back at Cal, thanks to the Fung Institute for having me back…any excuse to grab a slice at Sliver and then a second dinner at Toss. You guys have this fancy new hall with private rooms, and a garden?! “Back in my day…”
Anyway, it was here at Cal last year that my baby was born…and by my baby, I mean my company. It really is like my child, a next of kin; I’ve dropped and rearranged my life for her, flown over 7,000 miles with virtually no notice for her, stayed up nights to nourish her, even entered a shotgun founder relationship that my cofounder likes to say, is “just like a romantic relationship, without any of the fun parts,” for her.
So, I love my fellow IEORies; anyone in my cohort can attest to the fact that three of us, and an adopted MechE, were irritatingly attached at the hip all year. Industrial Engineering and Operations Research is a discipline that allowed me the much-needed room to explore several options for future personal expansion, from optimization to supply chain to financial engineering. But something felt missing – when people asked me what I built as an engineer, what I created – we IEORies don’t have as much to physically show for our efforts. And it was partially out of this insecurity; this need to feel like a “real engineer,” – and I do think some of that had to do with being female - that I enrolled in Critical Making, just across the way at the CITRIS lab – a mixed grad/undergrad Spring semester course in a maker space where I could 3D print, circuit build, laser print, and design my little heart out. And some pretty great stuff came out of that class – a lightup skirt that lets people know they’re getting too close, a garbage can that sings an Oscar the Grouch song to notify you to empty it, and…a tampon that tells you when it’s full? Needless to say, very Berkeley.
But that’s why Berkeley had always been my dream school – it’s where smart, open-minded people come to learn, right? And indeed I found evidence of this in my startup. Being a part of the Berkeley and greater Silicon Valley startup ecosystems has truly been a game changer, bleeding into my personal life in a very real way. Pun intended. In fact, when a Midwestern friend of mine recently told me that she just assumes my life is exactly like Richard Hendricks from the hit HBO show Silicon Valley, I had to admit that she’s really not that far off.
One huge difficulty he faces as a technical founder is making those that are behind the checkbooks understand the necessity and potential ubiquity of his baby. And I could not relate more. I’ve received every type of reaction to being the “tampon lady” that you could possibly guess. I wish I had a flipbook of all the reactions to my pitch. Laughter, to straight up walking out, and my personal favorite, a man saying “That’s a pretty funny joke” in a language he thought I didn’t understand. As Giselle eloquently put it when we were discussing this event - talking about menstruation is socially awkward at best--taboo at worst – so how do I deal with that?
Well, by sticking to the facts. The period is something half of us experience, for half of our lives. And by us I mean all humans. That’s a pretty big deal, and an even bigger oversight for something that’s missed the innovation train for so long. Most of us females – 70% in fact – are in some way unhappy with our bodies and the physical experience of being a woman. 61% of the over 300 women we’ve talked to dislike or dread their menses. For 27%, it is not a predictable event. 54% think periods should be more openly discussed, 48% address their menstrual needs as discreetly as possible, 56% would buy a product that would help them prevent stains and leakage, and 82% would buy a product that would help them prevent the risk of toxic shock syndrome, despite its lack of prevalence. So yes, I’d say we have something worth addressing.
While we’ve gotten a lot of exposure – we’ve been featured in over 150 news, blog, television, and radio pieces over the past 6 months, and are heading down to LA for the Hackaday Prize finals this weekend, it hasn’t always translated into fiscal success. It’s been a bumpy road, but most of us would agree with the fact that adversity breeds strength, and my relationship with my.Flow is no exception.
We’ve ultimately decided that we would benefit from an established industry partner; as such we’re in talks with Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly-Clark, and other major tampon manufacturers about moving forward together.
I’m not going to claim my graduate degree, or my startup, or even just being a woman in engineering, has led me to find an ultimate career “destination,” because in a way, I’ll always be searching. It’s who I am. But the things we haven’t discussed need to be brought to light, and it’s because of our unique perspective that I really believe we as women will play a huge roll in the engineering shakedown to come. It’s about Bloody Time!
Vyshaali Jagadeesan interned at my.Flow during the Summer of 2016, and is a member of the MEng Class of 2017 at UC Berkeley.
Working at my.Flow this summer gave me an insight into the dynamic startup environment and helped develop my technical and communication skills. I have interned and worked for small companies before but this was my first foray at a startup. I had an inkling this would be an excellent way to ease my transition from a regimented 40- hour work week to the pandemonium of a public, academic institution. I had quit my position in diagnostic device manufacturing to complete a Masters of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley to translate my background and interests to a career in medical device development. I met Jacob and Amanda over Skype as they were finishing up HAX, a hardware accelerator in China. I was enthusiastic about the groundbreaking product and their public reception but most importantly I was inspired by their mission to change the dialogue around menstruation.
I didn’t know what to expect when I hopped off the Caltrain for my.Flow’s orientation weekend less than 24 hours after I had returned from a six-week European adventure. I met the team in person for the first time, and I felt immediately comfortable. It’s hard to say if this was due to the sheer amount of time we spent together that weekend, working, planning, exploring the City or playing “would you rather” ceaselessly.
I had expected my first day at my.Flow would be similar to my first day at past jobs. I would read the company policies, get acquainted with their products, and learn their protocols and procedures. Within the first hour of meeting Amanda and Jacob, I was giving my feedback on my.Flow’s current product iteration and contributing to the company’s summer plan. I found this efficiency refreshing after 18 months of stifling adherence to protocols and rigid schedules.
At first, I struggled with the lack of structure coming out of a highly controlled manufacturing environment. As my.Flow only had two full-time employees there were no established procedures. After my initial hesitation, I was able to bring structure to my work, and I realized that I was able to finish tasks more efficiently when I created my own formats for documents rather than working within existing frameworks.
I didn’t just contribute to the design of the product, I also worked on various other projects as roles in a startup are fluid. I not only learned a lot about saturation sensor technology, but I also learned how to pitch to different audiences and conduct market research. I learned a lot observing Amanda pitch at the events, tactfully sidestep questions that could reveal proprietary information and remain composed even when her pitch was followed by snickers in male dominated environments.
In an atmosphere where everyone is vying for a finite amount of capital, competition is inevitable. But at many events, I was pleasantly surprised by the support the startup community provided. We were often given useful feedback, suggested potential user groups and provided fruitful leads.
Working at my.flow I not only learned about saturation sensors but I also got a glimpse into the inner workings of a young start up. Thank you for the immersive eye opening experience. I look forward to seeing my.Flow succeed and bring peace of mind, period.
Amanda Brief and Jacob McEntire are cofounders of my.Flow, a startup developing the world’s first tampon monitor that aims to solve the issues of period stigma, shame, anxiety, leakage, and risk of infection.