Period Power

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.

Mackenzie Syiem, co-founder of SEED.

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!”

SEED. co-founder Grace Gehlken and her mother pose with the social enterprise’s second product, Bloom Bracelets.

“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 (, 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.”

Scotland’s Parliament Makes Sanitary Products Free to All Women

Scotland’s Parliament has passed legislation that would make sanitary products free for anyone who needs them, marking what Upworthy describes as a “landmark event in the movement to make menstrual hygiene a basic human right.”

Labour Party lawmaker Monica Lennon proposed the Period Products Scotland Bill, which makes products such as tampons and sanitary pads free for all women and available in pharmacies, community centers and youth clubs.

The bill passed on Feb. 27 by a vote of 112-0 with one abstention. But according to the New York Times, obstacles still loom, particularly as lawmakers try to figure out how to cover the bill’s projected $31 million price tag.

In 2018, Scotland became the first country to provide free sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities. It will now be the first country to offer the products for free to everyone.

a photo of a period tax protester at Ohio State University

An anti-period tax movement is underway in the U.S. too. Here, a student at Ohio State University took part in a protest against the tax on the inaugural National Period Day, October 19, 2019. Ohio has since repealed the tax.

Great Britain levies a 5 percent tax on tampons and can’t lift it due to European Union rules that designate them as “luxury products.” However, the EU has pledged to abolish all taxes on menstruation products by 2022, the New York Times says. Meanwhile, about 62 million pounds, or $80 million, collected in Britain’s period-tax revenue has been diverted to women’s charities for the past five years.

Still, nearly 10 percent of girls in Britain have been unable to afford menstruation products, and 19 percent have had to use substitutes like rags, newspapers and toilet paper because of the expense, according to a study on period poverty and stigma by Plan International UK, a charity supporting girls’ rights.

According to The West News, Lennon has long objected to classing tampons and similar products as luxury items. “They are indeed essential,” she said, “and no one in Scotland should have to go without period products.” She added that the bill is about “period dignity.”

The battle for “period dignity” continues to rage in the U.S., where 33 states charge a tax on sanitary products, according to Fortune. American women pay an estimated $150 million a year in period taxes. Not counting states that have no sales taxes at all, states that exempt feminine hygiene products from sales taxes include Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Utah.

To call attention to the tampon tax in other American states and to overcome the stigma associated with menstruation, Harvard University changemaker and activist Nadya Okamoto co-founded a nonprofit called Period in 2014 – when she was just 16 – and launched National Period Day, observed on October 19, 2019, for the first time. Period is pushing bills to lift the period tax in every state that has one.

this photo shows Nadya Okamoto, an activist trying to repeal the period tax

Nadya Okamoto is the cofounder of the nonprofit Period, creator of National Period Day and a leader of the national movement to get rid of the period tax.