Avni Founders Reflect On Their Journey Of Launching A Menstrual Care Startup During Lockdown
“People have become very observant and are open to trying eco-friendly products. People have money that they are willing to pay; just that your product has to be really good, really innovative,” shares Sujata Pawar, founder and CEO, Avni.
Gone are the days when sustainable and eco-friendly products were seen as luxuries, with the climate crisis at this critical juncture, they have become the need of the hour.
But when it comes to building such businesses or products, even the most ambitious entrepreneurs are doubtful as to how scalable these ventures really are. Simply put, people wonder if anybody would even want to buy such products when there’s always a substitute that is cheaper and often more accessible. These are some of the myths that husband-wife duo – Sujata Pawar and Apurv Agrawal are busting with their holistic menstrual care startup – Avni.
At the young company, the founders are on a mission to make sustainable and accessible menstrual care products. The brand also creates awareness about safe and poverty-free menstruation and runs India’s first 24x7 period helpline.
For National Entrepreneur Day, Sujata and Apurv share why they chose to grow a menstrual care startup and how their digital-first D2C brand is touching the lives of thousands across India.
Turning her problem into a business idea
Unlike most other founders, Sujata didn’t have to sit and wait for a business idea to find what she wanted to build. As a woman, she was no stranger to the rashes and irritation that accompanies every period while using conventional sanitary napkins and she wanted to create a solution to address this issue that such a large part of the population faces.
While pursuing her undergraduate degree in pharmacy from 2006 to 2010, she delved a little deeper to understand why she was facing this. As a result of her research, she learned that the top layer of these pads is made of plastic to keep it firm. Over the years, there have also been massive concerns about the harmful chemicals used in the manufacturing of sanitary products as well as the risk of cancer that they may pose. Women’s Voices For The Earth tested one of the sanitary napkin brands and found that they release chemicals linked to cancer.
After being unhappy with the lack of alternatives, she thought about switching to cloth for some time, the very first absorbent she had used when she started menstruating. The experience of the cloth, in her opinion, was much more comforting and that’s when the idea of developing a proper product out of the material that neither hurts the woman nor nature, was born.
Today, their product line includes reusable cloth pads, natural cotton pads and menstrual cups as well as other intimate care solutions. They have also partnered with women from various parts of rural India who are a key part of the manufacturing process.
Launching a brand in the middle of a pandemic
With the aim to revolutionize period care in India, the couple launched Avni in August 2020. During this time, India had just begun recovering from the first wave of COVID-19 and had just started lifting lockdown protocols.
It was proving to be a task to even run existing businesses due to tight restrictions, forget about launching something new.
“It was difficult because there were a lot of things which we had to figure out, right from logistics, how we will get the products at the warehouse, how we will get it delivered, there was uncertainty everywhere,” says Apurv about the first two months post-launch. But, he adds that in a way the pandemic also served as a boon for them because people were becoming more aware about their health and well-being.
Despite these hurdles, Apurv thinks the lockdown played a great role in helping them understand ground realities in a much more transparent manner. Despite having doubts while making this move, they still started because they knew how inconvenient it had already become for people to access health care products due the lockdown restrictions. Even though the first two months were the hardest, especially with shipments and deliveries, the duo is content that they got the ball rolling and think it was a blessing in disguise.
Creating sustainable work practices
Having been in business for over a year and a half, Sujata and Apurv have had to make conscious decisions about the way they grew their operations and their teams. They have a core team of seven full-time employees as well as freelancers and consultants who mostly work remotely.
Keen on establishing a culture that is equally welcoming for every single person who works with them, the founders place a strong emphasis on cohesion within the team. The Indian startup space has often been called out for its toxic work culture and harmful habits so Sujata and Apurv have tried to ensure that their work practices are just as sustainable as their products.
Since day one, they have a strict policy of not contacting employees post work hours unless there is an emergency. They also strongly motivate employees to take time off for festivals and other occasions. The company also arranges small get-togethers, lunches, either in the office or outside at regular intervals to enhance employee engagement.
Apurv feels that since these are the formative years of their company, the founders should be involved with the team in the right sense and in the right way, as much as possible for them.
Bringing together the wisdom of running 2 startups to build Avni
Sujata grew up observing how her father transformed his dreams into a thriving business. So, when she had her own ideas, she tried to pursue and grab every opportunity that took her closer to understanding entrepreneurship.
Before Avni, she was the co-founder of SuperBottoms, a clothing diaper brand and Publicare India, a brand marketing firm for pharmaceutical companies. The former helped her get a hang of how to convert cloth into a personal care product. Whereas, with the second one, she gained a better understanding of the pharmaceutical field. She acknowledges how important it was for her to go through those challenges to bring Avni to life four years later.
Sujata underlines that gaining trust as a female business owner was one of the more significant challenges that she faced in her journey. She has faced several interesting reactions from retailers, investors and even the general public when she identified herself as an entrepreneur. According to her, there are always two kinds of reactions: The first kind would be driven by a lack of trust in a female entrepreneur while the second set of people would be in awe of her inspiring journey.
However, the founder firmly believes that you can overcome negative reactions only with experience, by showing up more. And she did. She notes that there has been a tremendous shift in how the investors, customers and the startup space see women entrepreneurs today compared to even half a decade ago.
Now with the Nykaa IPO, she believes that the ecosystem is embracing and trusting more and more women as entrepreneurs. Talking about the booming cosmetics and wellness marketplace, she shared how she idolizes Falguni Nayar for the way she has led the company so far. Building a profitable brand that is not just focused on pumping money for marketing but is also making a huge impact, is what excites Sujata the most.
Having tested the waters of launching an impact-driven business herself, Sujata believes it is completely possible to build a good profitable and scalable business while keeping sustainability at the core.
Sujata and Apurv are amongst the thousands of hopeful and ambitious founders that are key to the Indian startup space today. From Byju’s to Freshworks, Indian startups are transforming the landscape and we celebrate the spirit of entrepreneurship that keeps propelling the momentum forward. The journeys of entrepreneurs can often be an arduous one, but at the end of the day, everyone hopes to be a catalyst for real change and leave behind a rich legacy to be remembered by.