By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,
Arion Long was working with MedStar Health when she began experiencing agonizing periods. The New York native had just completed her degree in family and consumer science at Morgan State University (MSU) and she knew she had a problem.
Her flow was heavier than normal. She often bled through her clothes while at work.
“I was unfortunately in a position where I was battling period poverty,” said Long. “Period poverty is the term coined for a lack of access to feminine care products or waste facilities. Though I could afford these products, I often found myself in a position where they just weren’t available. I didn’t have them on me, and I would have to leave work.”
During an appointment with her OB-GYN, Long was diagnosed with a cervical tumor directly connected to chemicals found in popular menstrual care products. This experience motivated Long to launch her tech-enabled, feminine care company, Femly. The business provides menstruating people with access to natural, eco-friendly feminine hygiene products.
Every pad and pantyliner is made with 100 percent organic cotton, grown without pesticides from sources in Houston, Texas.
“Your products on the market contain ingredients like nylon, which is a synthetic material. They can contain BPA, which is one of the forever chemicals that were found in water bottles, and dioxins, which are now known carcinogens and are linked to cancer,” said Long. “When I found that out, I couldn’t find an option that was healthier and comfortable. That caused me to launch Femly.”
Initially, Femly delivered period and self-care products to customers’ doors. But, Long quickly began devising a first-of-its-kind menstrual product dispenser that she believed would disrupt the restroom space.
But, she struggled to attract investors.
“This was circa 2016, 2017 where less than 40 Black women in the United States had raised $1 million in venture capital investment dollars. I knew that I was building a company that was highly scalable. Venture capital was my go-to for funding because I knew where Femly could go, but people just didn’t see it,” said Long. “I wasn’t an engineer, I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I’ve been in investor meetings where they laughed or I had to tell them where MSU was, and it’s one of our nation’s treasures.”
Long pivoted and began entering pitch competitions to raise funds for Femly. In her first competition, she won $125,000. Today, she’s competed in over 40 pitch competitions and raked in a total of $1.2 million.
In 2021, Long used the funding to create the EcoLite Dispenser, a touchless restroom dispenser that delivers Femly’s hygiene products. The dispenser leverages smart technology to be able to recognize all skin tones.
“Unlike soap dispensers and restroom faucets, which are not always designed to recognize Black and Brown skin, we’re using sensors that recognize all skin tones,” said Long. “They allow people to walk up and wave hello in order to get free, organic feminine care products from the Femly brand.”
Once the first dispenser was produced, Long went to TikTok to spread the word. The video went viral with 70 million viewers, and Long leveraged the publicity to engage venture capitalists. Today, she’s backed by TEDCO, Overlooked Ventures and Pharrell Williams’ Black Ambition.
Femly has already become the feminine hygiene provider for a number of schools, corporations, colleges and hospitals across the country, and the company even has a partnership with the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank stadium.
“For me, period equity means that no one goes without access to the hygiene products that they require whether they can or can’t afford them. That is Femly’s goal,” said Long. “That’s why we don’t charge money on our dispensers, and that’s why we work with organizations to de-risk that access and to ensure that financial barriers are never present with regard to our products. We don’t believe that high-quality products should be reserved for people that can afford them.”
According to Karen Dudley-Culbreath, executive director of The Period Project, menstruating individuals require a minimum of $15 to obtain essential period care products each month. Costs are also escalating as a result of inflation.
“These are not products that are a part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or any other government programs, and often, they are not items that you can go get at a food pantry,” said Dudley-Culbreath. “The one thing that keeps our young ladies out of school the most is because they don’t have these products at home.”
Dudley-Culbreath added that those who reside in rural areas also face challenges to access period care products. Much like food deserts, she said there are feminine hygiene deserts, where women cannot easily obtain pads and tampons.
“It’s something that’s not only a health crisis in our society, but it becomes an economic crisis. When women and girls are not present in schools, they fall behind. When women are not present in the workplace because supplies are not available that affects women’s ability to advance in their field,” said Dudley-Culbreath. “When women are not present in the economic system, being able to contribute and be self-sufficient, our society suffers.”
Megan Sayles is a Report for America Corps member.
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