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.
It’s a cause that’s dear to both of their hearts, as is the idea of using the principles of free enterprise to do good in the world. Syiem and Gehlken decided to partner up after meeting through Wofford’s Launch program, which helps students develop an entrepreneurial mindset and supports them in establishing business ventures.
Their goal: To create a social-impact business that empowers artisans and craftspeople to sell their products—such as jewelry, artwork, bags and more—internationally, with profits going to support the programs that Syiem and Gehlken care about. Along the way, they hope to use SEED. (which stands for Sowing Empowerment Every Day) to help impoverished communities around the world bootstrap their way to economic success.
“SEED. first became a concept around January 2020,” recalls Syiem, who hails from Shillong, Meghalaya, India, and plans to double-major in English and Spanish at Wofford. “My partner, Grace, and I have this overwhelming passion to help people. That’s where SEED. as a concept really originated … The inspiration for SEED. was really just the fact that both of us connected over our love for people, travel and service.”
As a high schooler, Gehlken, a double major in Finance and Spanish from Charleston, S.C., had developed a strong interest in sustainable community development and economic empowerment. Syiem, too, was still in high school when she became passionate about the fight for menstrual equity after watching the Academy Award-winning short-subject documentary, “Period. End of Sentence.” The film explored the stigma surrounding menstruation in India and a group of women who learned how to make and sell their own low-cost sanitary pads.
“Watching that really clicked a lot of things in my life together,” Syiem reflects. “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,” Syiem adds. “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.”
Syiem and Gehlken may be young, but they’re already global citizens and travelers. So they feel confident they can build connections in developing countries and put together 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!”
Although social enterprises like SEED. are designed to generate a profit, fostering social change is what Syiem and Gehlken are really all about—and they only want to team up with other serious changemakers. “We are very intentional when we choose our partners,” Syiem said. “We want to make sure that 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 that our customers know where and how they are making an impact.”
Including community leaders in solving social issues is crucial to real economic change, Gehlken notes in a blog on the SEED. website, and nonprofits can only help so much before their efforts become counterproductive. “Although charitable organizations who give money and resources to those in need provide short-term relief, charity is not the answer to ending poverty,” Gehlken writes. Citing a 2011 study showing that charity fails to significantly reduce poverty, she notes that it has, in fact, “contributed to the creation of a permanent underclass, the breakdown of family structures and the degrading of self-worth. Many nonprofits approach poverty alleviation with their own methods and solutions. They fail to recognize the need for community leaders to be included in identifying the problem and providing solutions.”
Gehlken stresses that economic empowerment is the best way forward for struggling and underserved communities—and for women as well. “At SEED., economic empowerment is ingrained in our business model,” she writes in the blog. “We buy our products from artisans in both local and global communities, such as handcrafted art and jewelry. We then in turn sell those products and donate a portion of the proceeds to our program partners. We believe in supporting already established organizations rather than trying to create our own in order to allow community leaders to develop their own solutions with tools and resources that will empower them. As a result, SEED. will not only support multiple community development projects but will also play a hand in economically empowering hundreds of local artisans.”
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 local retailers. To raise money initially, SEED. marketed handcrafted “Dare to Dream” earrings created by a Spartanburg, S.C. jeweler—and quickly sold out. They will continue to hold fundraisers while applying for grants to support the business.
“Finances are a big concern for start-ups and even more so for social ventures like SEED., but we are confident that we can gain the support we need to carry out our vision,” Syiem said. “We are very aware that we cannot do this alone nor do we want to. We believe in the power of community and feel very comfortable asking for help when we need it.”
Syiem also got a confidence boost from attending the Sullivan Foundation’s Fall 2019 Social Entrepreneurship Field Trip to Raleigh, N.C., last September. “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 continued. “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.”
And what Syiem, Gehlken and SEED. have to offer are products that can set off a chain of positive events globally, they believe. “Our products will stand out in the marketplace because when you buy a SEED. product, you’re not only supporting our social programs— you’re stimulating local economies and empowering artists,” Syiem said. “You are playing a direct role in shaping the world to be more mindfully interconnected and symbiotic. We want to empower people to do more with what they choose to buy. And, hopefully, that taste of mindfulness and empowerment will create a snowball effect that will allow them to feel empowered in other parts of their lives.”
In short, she adds: “We want to change the world and we want everyone to play their role in changing it. That’s it. That’s the vision. It’s that simple.”