As founders of a new social enterprise called SEED., Mackenzie Syiem and Grace Gehlken, both students at Sullivan Foundation partner school Wofford College, put a lot of thought into everything they do—including the placement of that seemingly incongruous period at the end of their company’s name.
It’s definitely not a typo.
The two young women—Syiem is a freshman and Gehlken a sophomore—are part of the growing menstrual equity movement, aimed at ensuring that girls and women around the world have access to the feminine hygiene products they need without stigma and without giving up their basic human rights. Period.
Syiem, who hails from Shillong, Meghalaya, India, and Gehlken, from Charleston, S.C., partnered up after meeting through Wofford’s Launch program, which supports students in establishing business ventures. Their goal: to create a social-impact business that helps artisans and craftspeople sell their products—such as jewelry, artwork and bags—internationally, with profits going to support the programs and people the founders care about. They also hope to help impoverished communities bootstrap their way to economic success.
Fighting Stigma of Menstruation
As a high schooler, Gehlken developed an interest in sustainable community development and economic empowerment. Syiem, too, was still in high school when she became passionate about menstrual equity after watching the Academy Award-winning documentary, “Period. End of Sentence.” The film explored the stigma surrounding menstruation in India and a group of women who make and sell their own low-cost sanitary pads.
“Watching that really clicked a lot of things in my life together,” Syiem reflected. “It verbalized for the first time this strange and unpleasant experience I had had my whole life of being shamed for a natural body process. Growing up in India, I saw firsthand how negatively menstruation was viewed and how women had to suffer from this shame, all because of a lack of proper education on the subject. This cause is very important to Grace and me because that experience isn’t isolated to India. There is a global problem surrounding menstrual equity that needs to be fixed because no girl deserves to miss school because she doesn’t have the resources or feel ashamed of something that is so incredibly natural.”
As global citizens and travelers, Syiem and Gehlken feel confident they can build connections in developing countries and build the network of suppliers they need for SEED.. “Our partners are both the artisans that we want to procure products from and the organizations and community leaders we want to work with to support social programs in those places,” Syiem said. “We find partners through our travels, research and mutual connections. Honduras and Tanzania are both places that Grace has been to and made connections in. She’s been traveling to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, every year since seventh grade. I have connections in India since that’s where I was born and raised. We’re always excited to travel to new places and find even more communities that we can work with!”
“We are very intentional when we choose our partners,” Syiem added. “We want to make sure our partners are dedicated to making true change. Our artisan partners will benefit from the work opportunities, and the organizations we partner with will benefit from our support financially. We will also work to highlight both the artisans and the organizations and make sure our customers know where and how they are making an impact.”
No Instruction Manual
SEED. will initially focus on selling its partners’ products on the company website (sowingempowermente.wixsite.com/website), but Syiem and Gehlken will also look for direct sales opportunities with farmers markets, boutique shops and other retailers. To raise money, SEED. marketed handcrafted “Dare to Dream” earrings created by a Spartanburg, S.C. jeweler—and quickly sold out. They followed up in May with their second product—handcrafted Bloom Bracelets—and donated a portion of the profits to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. They will also hold more fundraisers while applying for grants to support the business.
Meanwhile, Syiem got a confidence boost from attending the Sullivan Foundation’s Fall 2019 Social Entrepreneurship Field Trip to Raleigh, N.C. “I got to meet amazing entrepreneurs who had created powerful social ventures and hear directly from them about their experiences,” she recalled. “That trip inspired me and helped me feel like I could do the same thing that all those amazing founders had done as long as I had the passion and was willing to put in the work.”
“The greatest lesson I got from that trip was to just do it,” Syiem said. “There’s no real instruction manual to starting a business. So much of the experience is figuring out things for yourself and doing what works best for you. There’s always help when you need it, and you should never feel hesitant about reaching out for that help. But you can’t get that help if you don’t start in the first place. So, I’m very grateful for Sullivan and that trip. It empowered me and made me feel like what I had to offer was worth offering.”