Did you know that almost 70 per cent of the menstruating women in India can’t afford to buy sanitary napkins?
A depressing fact it is!!
When Bengaluru-based Ira Guha, 28, first began researching period poverty in India, she was astonished by the fact that nearly 50% of girls and women in developing countries cannot afford a safe period solution — which leads to poor health outcomes and prevents them from going to school and work.
This very fact led her to create something that is changing thousands of women’s lives today along with protecting our precious planet.
“I grew up in an unusual household in Bangalore. My mother is a designer and entrepreneur, and she was the main breadwinner in our family. She set an example that women can excel in their careers, have a family, and do whatever else they like,” Ira shares. “My father is a writer, and both my parents have always encouraged me to follow whichever path I want, which is what inspired me to start Asan.”
Asan is an eco-friendly, sustainable and safe menstrual cup which Ira designed with her team from scratch.
Rewinding to 2017, when Ira was studying Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and was in her hometown for Christmas — “My parents had a cook named Mary. I remember, when I was home, she missed work for 3-4 days. We thought she was unwell, but when I asked her, she told me that she had got very bad rashes and a UTI caused by low quality plastic sanitary pads,” Ira shares how shocked she was on hearing this.
This led to her research on period poverty and putting together a team at Harvard to create a safe and sustainable menstrual product. “We spent two years researching and designing the Asan cup. The aim was to make a high-quality menstrual cup that is much easier to use compared with existing products. Our cup went through four rounds of user trials to ensure that every aspect of the design was perfected. It is leak-proof and has a unique removal ring, making it much easier to remove. Our design has registered rights in the US, UK, Europe and India,” Ira added.
Currently, the most popular solution to the crisis of period poverty in India is to distribute low quality plastic sanitary pads. There are three issues with this solution. Firstly, pads tend to be uncomfortable, as they cause rashes and leaks. Secondly, they are expensive as women have to buy them every month. Thirdly, there is a huge environmental challenge as 12.3 billion plastic pads go to landfill every year.
“Asan’s mission is to solve these three problems. Firstly, we believe that every single woman (irrespective of income) deserves access to the highest quality and most comfortable period product. Secondly, we believe that period products should be made as low cost as possible (or ideally free) so that they do not make up a large part of the monthly household expense for low-income families. Thirdly, we are trying to eliminate the waste management challenge in villages, where it is extremely complicated and stressful to dispose of pads safely,” the Bengaluru based entrepreneur shares.
“For this reason, Asan started the 1-for-1 donation scheme. For every single purchase that we get, we donate one Asan menstrual cup for free to underprivileged rural girls and women. We partner with highly experienced women’s health NGOs for our donations. In addition to distributing cups, we conduct menstrual health education workshops and train our beneficiaries on how to use the cup. Every beneficiary receives a user guide in their local language as well as an in-depth training video,” Ira further adds. Currently, the startup operates in Hindi, Kannada and Tamil languages.
Even before starting Asan, all Ira wanted was to bring a difference in society! She was 18 when she left Bengaluru to study Geography and Politics at the University of Cambridge. In 2017, she left her London-based corporate job to do a Masters in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. And that is when Asan was born!!
But creating something merely out of passion has never been possible — “So far, we have not raised any investment. Our entire product development process was funded by prizes and grants,” Ira shares.
She was awarded first place in the King’s College Entrepreneurship Competition at the University of Cambridge (20,000 GBP prize) and received a Warner Fellowship grant from Harvard’s Women and Public Policy Program ($7,000 prize).
Asan launched its commercial sales in February 2021, and now, being post-revenue, will be raising an equity seed round to fund global expansion in the next 3-6 months.
Ira is backed by her co-founder and COO, Anuradha Mahadevan – a trained engineer who worked as a consultant for Ernst & Young for 8 years before joining Asan — only because of her commitment to environmental sustainability and social impact.
“Anuradha runs all of Asan’s Indian operations, including our supply chain, logistics, sales and customer care. She also conducts menstrual health training sessions and workshops. She is a real people person and can convert anyone — even the most sceptical woman — into trying the Asan cup,” shares Ira.
After being in the business for quite some time, running Asan and observing rural women, one thing that Ira realized is how open-minded and independent women in rural India are!
“Very often we are told – “women don’t like to insert anything”, “rural women don’t know what a vagina is”, “women don’t want to try a new product”, “sanitary pads are the best solution”, etc. etc… However, these beliefs are misinformed and completely contrary to what we see in the field. From our own experience — from distributing menstrual cups to conducting workshops — we have found that, when given adequate information, rural women are extremely open-minded and make the best choice for their health and their body. We have women of all ages who use and love the Asan cup, including unmarried girls and teenagers,” Ira further continues.
So why are there so many misconceptions and hesitation in adopting menstrual cups? From my experience, I realized that either half of the girls/ women are misinformed, or half of the menstrual cups’ brands fail to live up to our expectations!!
Ira believes that for any entrepreneur looking to solve a challenge, scaling shouldn’t be the first priority. One must check and see if s/he can really solve the problem for one city or one community or even person — if you can perfect your solution even for a few people, it will be easy to scale.
“When I was developing the Asan cup, people always asked me – “why are you spending so long on product development? You have a prototype, now just start selling it because you need to scale”. However, I wasn’t ready to sell a product that was not perfect in every way — it had to be comfortable, cause zero leaks, and be easy to use. It took 4 rounds of prototyping to get to that ‘perfect cup’. But yes, it was worth the effort, because now 100% of women who try our cup love it and recommend it to all their friends,” the 28YO CEO shares.
On asking her biggest regret, Ira says that it is not concentrating enough on her language skills, “growing up, we were encouraged to speak English both at home and in school. I can speak some Tamil, Kannada and Hindi but am not 100% fluent in any of these languages, and it has been an impediment for me when working in the field. Talking about periods is already difficult enough since it is a taboo subject; the language barrier makes it even more difficult!”
The startup feels grateful for having some amazing translators from the NGOs who make sure that all the information is delivered correctly and completely.
But then, hey, skills can always be improved and enhanced!!
And now that the team has achieved their proof of concept, Ira is planning to scale Asan. After stopping countless amounts of plastic ending up in landfill, getting thousands of underprivileged women their first-ever menstrual cup and saving many more Marys from UTI, Asan is partnering with new distributors to grow its sales in India. Ira will also be launching Asan in the UK and Europe soon.
The journey is long but will be more impactful. And as Ira gears up for the next phase of her journey, she encourages every woman to follow her heart, “don’t let anyone bring you down! Focus on the problem you are solving and create the best solution. Everything else is just noise!!”
Stay tuned to this space and our series #PassionToProfession to read about more such women, their inspiring journeys and stories.
Write your story to us and let the world get inspired by your wonderful journey!
Author’s update: “Checked and tried Asan menstrual cup and it definitely is worth a try. Best part is knowing the fact that your purchase will also help someone who cannot afford a quality period product. For someone who never used a menstrual cup can consider giving Asan a try! : )”
Note: The author’s update is non-promotional and purely by herself. This is not a sponsored post and Infano doesn’t endorse it.