Julie Sygiel is the inspirational woman behind the company Dear Kate, the underwear brand with built in menstruation absorption tech that means you can work out/ go about your daily life in a truly revolutionary way. Having moved on from the company in 2016, we talk to Julie about the thought process behind the brand and why the product was such a drastic step in the right direction for period products.
For those who don't know, explain the concept behind Dear Kate.
It took almost two years to develop the initial line of underwear created at Dear Kate. Using my degree in chemical engineering, I designed a three-layer patent-pending blend of fabrics that lined every pair of our underwear, and subsequently, yoga pants. The inner layers are moisture-wicking and stain-releasing so you never need to soak or scrub garments at the end of the day. The outer later is silky soft and provides an extra layer of leak-resistant protection for everything from cardio to periods. In addition to being super comfortable, the lining is breathable and all pairs are machine-washable.
What inspired you to solve the problem of period stains?
My junior spring in college I took an elective entrepreneurship class and our professor tasked us with writing a business plan that offered a solution to an everyday problem. The two other girls in my group and I started brainstorming and realized that every woman has a horror story from that time of the month, even though at that time, no one ever talked about period issues. Given the many new innovations in textiles, we wondered why no one was creating better underwear for women. Wouldn’t it be cool to create a revolutionary stain-and-leak-proof fabric that is built into a beautifully designed pair of underwear? It would mean no more reaching for the reject pairs we all had in the back of our underwear drawer. After receiving positive feedback from friends (and posting surveys in the women’s bathroom stalls on campus asking for feedback), we compiled the data to back up our claim to our professor that, yes, there was indeed a need for our pioneering underwear. And then we decided to try to bring it to life.
It seems mad to me that it's taken this long for someone to develop this product, why do you think it is that no one looked into solving this problem before?
I think there is little incentive profit-wise for large companies making pads and tampons to innovate in this area because they are quite satisfied with the status quo of disposable products. The thought of innovating to provide a reusable option that would replace pantiliners like our product didn't make sense financially, and of course, many of the innovation leads at large corporations are male. The manufacturing and textile worlds are also male dominated and it was fascinating as I spoke with potential textile partners how many assumed that I wouldn't understand detailed processes. It wasn't until I mentioned my degree in chemical engineering that they would be willing to go into detail about the technical specifics of different fabrics. So there were a lot of barriers to making the actual product, particularly in the way we did which doesn't require the use of a plastic polyurethane film like many of the competitors that came after us.
Do you think the taboo around periods is changing?
Absolutely. When I first started doing research on our fabric, it was 2008. Compared to now, that time could be called the "Dark Ages" of periods. Many people, even women, didn't know how to react when I explained that our underwear designed to act as a backup for regular period supplies. Some immediately changed the subject and others tentatively asked for more details. The first line, called Sexy Period, launched in early 2011 and you can imagine the issues people had with our name. A journalist interviewed me for two hours for a feature article in a newspaper that shall remain nameless, only to later be told that the story was too controversial to print because of our name. In 2012 we rebranded to Dear Kate as we realized that many customers were wearing the underwear when they worked out and on an everyday basis, not just during their period.
Around 2014 we started to see a real change in individual reactions to periods as well as press responses. All of a sudden instead of journalists going silent when they heard that our underwear was for periods, they would write back immediately asking for more details. I attribute much of the changing attitudes surrounding periods to the culture shift embracing feminism, and also more specifically, to HelloFlo's viral videos Camp Gyno and First Moon Party.
What do you think it will take to finally break the taboo of periods completely?
I think celebrities that continue to mention periods on-screen contribute immensely to breaking down the taboo. Also media coverage of provocative period-related campaigns is vital. It's the role of not only men stepping out of their comfort zones to have conversations with their female counterparts but also women can play a part in decreasing the level of shame and secretiveness associated with periods. We need to start being role models for our younger girls to show them we don't have to whisper about it or hide our tampons up our sleeves when we go to the restroom. If you think about it, many of us were never told as children not to mention our periods, but because our mothers and older sisters rarely discussed them, it was implied that the topic was one to conceal.
What advice would you give young women looking to start their own businesses?
I would say that if you feel something deep inside your heart telling you to start a business, do it. Starting something new is incredibly challenging but I always knew it was the right thing. I was able to find a product that I believed in aside from potential monetary gain, and that made it so much easier to keep going even when things weren't sunshine and roses. In the beginning, I think I was always looking for the "right" answers, and it took a long time for me to realise that sometimes you just have to try things and see what happens. One of my strongest recommendations is to build a network of friends starting businesses because they will understand the challenges, fears, and triumphs of running a business. You can pay money to consultants and experienced business advisors, but at the end of the day it was my founder friends who consistently provided the best sounding board when I needed advice.
What female leaders/ inspirational women in general did you look up to when you were younger?
I've always admired the work of Gloria Steinem, particularly her essay titled, "If Men Could Menstruate." When I was young my parents were constantly pointing out strong women as they have both always been feminists. My Mother was the primary breadwinner in our household as a lawyer while my Father stayed home to take care of me when I was younger, so from an early age I learned that women can be powerful and don't have to stay in traditional gender roles.
2016 has been a pretty terrifying year for women in the US, what advice would you give to those young women who are nervous about the future?
I would say never doubt that your voice and actions matter. Every social media post, every conversation with friends, every phone call to elected officials is relevant. I encourage all women to have empathy for one another, to try and really put ourselves in someone else's shoes, and think how we would want to be treated if we were in their situation. As a Girl Scout, every meeting when I was a girl we promised to "be a sister to every Girl Scout" and "make the world a better place," which I think is exactly what the world needs right now.
In January 2016 I moved on from Dear Kate and am now studying Polish in Krakow, Poland. I consult remotely on marketing strategy for a handful of companies in the USA as well as write a column as a Forbes Contributor where I interview female founders. I have a couple other fun projects in the works too. If you want to stay in the loop on what I'm up to as well as receive updates when new Forbes columns are posted, you can sign up here.