Interview with Diana Sierra, co-founder of Be Girl

Diana Sierra co-founded of Be Girl, a social enterprise that designs and manufactures reusable, washable and high performance period panties and sanitary pads. They have pilot their product in more than 12 countries and are ready to launch in the US. Previously, Diana built her career in industrial design as a consultant, working for almost 10 years for different multinational companies and consulting firms such as Smart Design, Frog, Panasonic. Read on to learn what it takes to be successful as an entrepreneur and what you need to keep track of before launching your own social enterprise.

By Beatrice Troiano (SUMA 2016)

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 Please tell us about your organization, Be Girl, and your role

 I co-founded Be Girl, a social enterprise, together with SUMA alumnus Pablo Freund. My role constantly bounces between CEO and Creative Director.

Be Girl pads are the outcome of a collaborative design process. They are a basic yet extremely resourceful solution that features a reusable, washable and fast-drying waterproof pad-holder/pouch that can be attached to underwear like a traditional sanitary pad, and can be filled with any available safe disposable or reusable absorbent material – e.g. toilet paper or re-purposed cloth. This unique design gives women and girls the option to adapt it according to their access to water and available resources in their own environment.

What motivated you to launch Be Girl? 

During the SUMA program I participated in an internship with the millennium promise/ villages in Uganda. I was involved in two projects. One of them comprised working with coffee farmers and advising them in the technology they needed to go from wet to dry processing of coffee. I was also working with an arts and crafts cooperative. During this experience I met a lot of young girls who had dropped out of school and were looking to work in the shop.

This is when I became aware that menstruation is a huge issue in developing countries. Lack of access to proper menstrual management products is preventing millions of girls from completing their education.  These girls miss five days of school each month, which leads do a drop in performance and eventually to drop out of school as they are not able to catch up.

As a woman and designer, I felt a deep sense of responsibility to address this issue and create a solution, as designers do. Using only the materials I had on hand – an umbrella, mosquito netting, thread, scissors and a needle – I made the first prototype for a reusable and washable waterproof pad-holder/pouch that attached to the panties and could be filled with any available safe disposable or reusable absorbent material.

How does Be Girl support girls & women’s empowerment? 

In many countries, when a woman reaches menstruation, because of a lack of facilities she has to stop going to school during that period. This means she gets singled out and left behind because she cannot keep up with the workload. Essentially these girls are being denied the right of education because of their gender. One in ten girls worldwide is dropping out of school every year because of this issue, but in Uganda the rate is forty times higher. This is why we decided to test our product with millennium promise. I believe high performance and well-designed re-usable sanitary products will help these girls have a more fair shot at life with minimum intervention. There is no point in giving these girls a book and pen if systematically they are denied access to education just because of their gender. Lack of access to products to manage your menstruation with dignity is not a privilege but a fundamental human right.

You have recently launched a successful Kickstarter campaign. Tell us about your company’s next steps.

The first country where we decided to test the product was in Uganda with Millennium Promise. We piloted the program and interviewed women for a year and got our results in May 2014. The participation and feedback we received were incredible. I was amazed at how small products could have such an enormous impact.

After the pilot-test results we were featured on the Huffington Post. Then a foundation from Sweden read about our work and contacted us to see if we were open to seed capital. We also applied for an incubator in Washington DC – Halcyon Incubator (halcyonincubator.org) – which provided us with tutoring, mentorship and housing. Both these opportunities were crucial as they allowed us to continue pursuing our projects.

In 2015 we started developing the design of our sanitary pads to shape in the form of underwear, the same universal absorbent pocket construction but delivered in a panty for a 2-in-1 solution. We are now present in more than 12 countries and our core team expanded to 2 more amazing professionals, Maria Paola Navia and Stephanie Rapp-LeGrant. We also have interns and volunteers on a rotating basis who support us in our operations. At the moment Saron Simon, from Brown University, is in the field piloting our  program in Ethiopia and Laura Almonacid from Washington University assisting in the management of the EmpowerBank.

Our goal for 2016 is to enter the US market. We have decided to enter with a “One for one” model: for every US purchase of panties, we are giving one to a girl in a developing country. This way we are making a connection between developed and developing countries. We are partnering with NGOs to allocate products where there is the most need. Having Be Girl accessible in the US is crucial for us as, from the environmental perspective, the product removes millions of sanitary pads each year from landfill.

What are two most important skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Does this differ for a woman entrepreneur?

I would say a combination of discipline and passion are needed to be a successful entrepreneur. Passion will get you through the hard times, discipline will give you a structure to follow. This differs immensely for women as some things are expected more from women than from men. Moreover I believe women pitch differently to investors than men – we tend to be more reserved and more cautious and this can often make us look less ambitious. This is why gender lens investing is very important when making investment decisions. This is a way to increase access to capital for women entrepreneurs and businesses that have women in leadership positions.

Tell us how your industrial design experience and the SUMA program have helped you with starting Be Girl.

I worked for 12 years in the product design and product development industry. I decided to join the SUMA program to enhance my career. I was working on baby care products and their Life Cycle Analysis and I felt very frustrated that my clients would not consider more environmental products if there was not a direct money benefit attached to it.

The very flexible schedule is what attracted me to the SUMA program. I was able to tailor the program to meet my needs and learn how to put a dollar sign into doing the right thing. During the SUMA program Professor Louis Rosen, who was teaching the practicum class at the time, really helped me during my career transformation. She brought in all these incredible professors to give us a different perspective on sustainability. One of these, a mechanical engineering professor called Vijay Modi, explained to us how even a simple object like a cooking stove can prevent million of children dying form pneumonia and that for me was a life changing moment as a designer.

What do you find most challenging about your industry or role?

The most challenging part of being an entrepreneur is making the case of investment. I got very lucky and received seed investment right from the beginning. If you do not have investments or savings it is really tough to develop your idea and make this career shift. Unfortunately, there is a huge lack of platforms that help start-ups and people with great ideas plan their careers change, thus these people get stuck and have to go back to their initial jobs.

What advice do you have for young women interested in social enterprises?

If you have a great idea, do not immediately jump into it but start planning first. Performing a pilot or market test, to see what the results of your idea are, is crucial before jumping right into your project and quitting your job. Otherwise you are putting too much economical stress onto your idea and may break for the wrong reasons. I incubated my idea and tested it out 2 years before doing a full career switch  and starting Be Girl.

What are two companies you’re excited to follow over the coming years? Why?

I am a technology geek and I always like to follow technology and design companies like Tesla. I think Mars One will make it real to go to Mars in our lifetime and, not that I want to move there, but find it fascinating.

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