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Empowering Communities with Leisa Hirtz of Bfree for Gender Equality

“It found me. And I thought, we can do this better.”

—Leisa Hirtz, Founder of Bfree

In this episode

Meet new SheEO Venture Bfree for Gender Equality! Founder Leisa Hirtz joins SheEO Activator Faryn Jacobs to talk about what makes the bfree cup different, what led her to solving the problem of period poverty, and her time in the SheEO community so far.

They also discuss:

  • Centering inclusivity for all menstruators
  • How the product is designed, and the benefits of being “last to the table”
  • What’s next for WGHI as well as their focus on health and education programs
  • Giving local communities the tools and resources to become financially empowered and independent
  • Her ASK: to continue having discussions about health, equality, and the sustainability of menstrual products

We invite you to join us as an Activator at SheEO.World.

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Podcast Transcript:

The podcast is being transcribed by Otter.ai. (there may be errors, run-on sentences and misspellings).

Leisa Hirtz 0:00
It found me. I’d known of some research that could create a antibacterial product that wouldn’t require boiling and it was just like, let’s marry this idea. The seed was planted. Again, I think it found me.

Vicki Saunders 0:16
Welcome to SheEO.World podcast, where you’ll meet women and non-binary folks who are transforming the world to be more equitable and sustainable.

Faryn Jacobs 0:29
Hello, my name is Faryn Jacobs and I am a Activator at SheEO. I’ve been an Activator for about a year, and that has been one mind blowing year. My passion is sustainable textiles. I’m inspired by people who are allergic to the phrase, that’s not how things are done. And I love people that love what they do. And I am absolutely pumped to be talking to Leisa Hirtz with the bfree cup today. Leisa, thank you for speaking with me,

Leisa Hirtz 1:01
Faryn, thank you for this opportunity. It’s an absolute pleasure to meet you. And I love your introduction. And looking forward to our interview today.

Faryn Jacobs 1:09
So let’s get right into it. The bfree cup — what makes it different?

Leisa Hirtz 1:14
Lots of things make the bfree cup different. To begin with, it’s the world’s first and only physically antibacterial menstrual cup. So it doesn’t require boiling between menstrual periods. It doesn’t even require water to wash, all you have to do is wipe it clean. But you can wash it with water, you can boil it if you wish. But it makes it a really, it was an important innovation for, as us being a social enterprise for the girls and women and other bleeders that live in slums and refugee settlements, where water was really difficult for them to access, and firewood to build, to build a fire to boil their cup in the pot that many of them didn’t have. So that, along with the redesign of the bfree cup, very much user centered design. Being one of the last to the table, it’s really interesting when you get to hear feedback from the many, you know, the thousands of users of menstrual cups around the world, in what challenges they were having. So using evidence based research, working with mechanical engineers, working with physicists, like how can we make something really innovative for women, for their periods, because it was about time. And really listening to women, what did they want? They wanted to forget they were on their period. So that was, that was kind of our goal. More comfort, more, more ease, more affordability, the environment is so important for us, as you know, as a company, and for so many of our users. That’s one of the incentives for using the bfree cup. So it’s hard to summarize, you know, but there were so many needs, right? There’s so much need in this space. So the bfree cup comes from starting to fulfill those needs of women and girls and other menstruators, all menstruators around the world.

Faryn Jacobs 3:09
That’s something I want to hop on is the fact that you use the term menstruators and not just feminized language. Why has that become important to you? Because it’s important to me, and it’s, it’s something that is really nice to see, finally. So how did that come to you?

Leisa Hirtz 3:29
Inclusivity. It’s really important that everybody that bleeds every month, how they define themselves and identify themselves is their personal choice. Again, going back to inclusivity, in regard to you know, what does, what does a menstruator look like? And it’s just like, no putting your finger on that because you know, we all come in, in our own unique, self defined as it should be self defined who we are.

Faryn Jacobs 3:58
You’ve got a pilot project in Uganda right now, how did you stumble on the problem of period poverty? What what first drew your attention to that need?

Leisa Hirtz 4:09
That’s a really great question. I was thinking about this last night, it actually came to me, and that’s my answer. It found me. I’ve always been a feminist in the sense of, you know, gender equality, that we’re all — there’s so much that there’s so much that we have not realized as as women or as humans or as people because for the most part 50% of the population has been restricted in you know, expressing their full potential. And I really kind of reduced that down to because we have a menstrual period. And that, our biology shouldn’t determine our destiny in any way, shape or form. We should be identifying with who we want to be. Looking at period poverty, I mean, it is global. It’s not just In Uganda, or Kenya, or, it’s just that I happen to one day reading through, I’ve been working as a product developer working specifically with silicone, and saw other products and silicone, one being a menstrual cup. And seeing that there was movement towards bringing these really affordable environmentally low impact products to girls and women in slums. We still use the term sort of girls and women when we’re in Uganda or Kenya, because legal reasons, we have to be very careful with our language, our language in certain contexts. But generally, like in high income markets, or we feel, you know, we talk about, you know, menstruators, or those that bleed. But it found me. And I thought, we can do this better. You know, the restrictions on the cups early on going into Kenya was because they needed to be boiled between, you know, between each period after each period. And that should not restrict, you know, a really high quality product, I’d known of some research that was coming out of Harvard University, as well as ESPCI, Paris tech, that could create a antibacterial product that wouldn’t require boiling, and it was just like, let’s marry this idea. Let’s, the seed was planted. Again, I think it found me, it was like an aha moment. And, and here we are.

Faryn Jacobs 6:29
You’re one of the few companies that has such a wide array of sizing, can we just talk about the sort of development of the product itself and how you got to its final design, its shape, its grip, all of these things, what sort of went into that?

Leisa Hirtz 6:53
Yeah, as I was saying, being the last to the table, so you get to learn where the challenges were in regard to from the design from the material from the usage, you know, many were complaining that the cup was leaking, that they had difficulty inserting the cup. I come from a science background and studied anatomy in, in university. And so had, you know, knew the vagina and, and the, the anatomical aspects of the vagina that, you know, like, I’ll be bold here, there isn’t two penises in the world that look exactly the same. Same with the vagina, they are each and everyone unique. And I always want to make the point, and they don’t change size, with our age, or if we’ve had a child or for these is really important points that, you know, they the muscles may get a bit looser in with age, but if we’re doing yoga for staying really in shape or if we’re doing our Kegel exercises, you know, and our pelvic floor exercises, these things, you know, the vagina doesn’t have to change change shape. So in regard to design, we went again, using evidence based research, working with physicists in France, I always say that it was engineered in France, because we were at ESPCI, Paris, the research institute there and work with mechanical engineers talking about the challenges people were having cleaning the cup, the challenges people were having with these tiny holes around the rim. And, and I always question, why are those holes necessary? Again, coming from a science and a technical background. It was just like, are they really necessary? And the answer is no, you know, the first menstrual cup had holes in it. So then those that follow it up, most not all, but most put the holes in there, and it was just like, that’s not really necessary. You can just break the seal by pinching the bass, which you have to do with every cup anyway. In regard to leaking, we worked with, again, physicists to say, how can we prevent leaking. It’s far too common an issue. When it comes to menstrual cups for it to be just a user, a user fallibility like the user is not using it properly, there’s got to be a design way, I always think that form following function, the function is not to leak. So we added this with like this piston, which we call a petal at the top, which better adheres to the walls of the vagina, which isn’t, as I use, the analogy isn’t a toilet bowl roll, you know, it isn’t just a perfect like canal, it’s very closed and you have to, you know, maneuver this so it has to adhere to the walls of the vagina. And to do that better, you want something that’s very thin on the edge. In regard to the stem again, most menstrual cups just have this kind of flimsy little stem, so it’s not very functionable except to grab it grip it to get to the base of the cup to remove the cup. For us, it actually helps to insert the cup, it helps to open the cup, it also helps to grasp the cup to get to the base. So it’s you know, everything about it is like a little bit more bold, go a bit more bold in regards to your functionality. We increase the mechanical properties of the cup so that it really pops open when you insert it. So it’s not just like oh, I have to spin it or I have to push it out. Pull it down and push it around, just increase the mechanical properties. Again, when you’re relying on engineers, you know, to to develop your cup, you know, you’re just kind of hitting on the right. It’s the mechanics.

Faryn Jacobs 10:11
If anyone hasn’t seen what this cup looks like, it is a beautifully engineered cup. And you have a design background too, if I read correctly,

Leisa Hirtz 10:19
Yes, I do. So I went to the Ontario College of Art Design. So you know, many years of fabrication, moldmaking. So I understand the mold making and the manufacturing processes work with a lot of silicones when I was in school, I was art and design, fine art and design. So all those creative, creative passions come through. And it was just like, how do you — I always think of this as an art, you know, call it an art installation or a piece of art. I mean, why not? I always thought that art could improve lives. And for me, design is art. And, you know, here we are. I paint and I draw, and I do photography, and But this to me is, you know, the absolute culmination of all of that, of all of those formal studies and, and investigations.

Faryn Jacobs 11:08
Now, let’s talk a little bit about the other things you’d like to see. So bfree is part of your larger business, Women’s Global Health Innovations. What else is sort of on the horizon for you in terms of things you’d like to address with, with well-engineered products?

Leisa Hirtz 11:27
Fantastic question. You know, this is just the beginning of innovation. And, you know, as a startup, we’ve been around since 2013. But we were in research for so many years, and my heart is always that there’s so much more that we can explore. Other products that, you know, does every is everybody going to use a menstrual cup? And I say, that would be shooting for the moon, or maybe for Jupiter, again, getting the feedback from women, so many women say when you’re coming out with a menstrual disk, you know, the bfree disk that would have the same technology, so that doesn’t have to be boiled. It is in prototype right now. We’re looking at other products to help you know lives, women’s lives, girls lives, you know, bleeders lives in, in particular low and middle income countries, those that don’t have proper sanitation, how do we make their lives easier as well, everything from the safety of a woman going out to to pee if she doesn’t have a safe, safe sanitation safe bathroom that’s, you know, user friendly, without water or whatever. So we look at other you know, she’s got to go and pee and she’s got to go defecate, how do we make her life safer and easier? So we focus on menstrual, sexual, and reproductive health products, consulting with researchers and looking to see what’s out there on the horizon? You know, what are women asking for? What are where are the gaps? And how can we fulfill those gaps? A big gap is the education around menstrual health. So we also develop education programs. And those education programs led us into how are we going to sell the bfree cup as opposed to giving it away in like a b by one give one type of program. So we’ve looked at working with our partners in consulting with our partners, and then looking at like women in our recent project in northern Uganda that you mentioned, it was the fifth grant that fund for innovation and transformation that was funded by Global Affairs Canada. And what we did there was we went in, and we trained women and some men, on how to be trainers in menstrual health management, and then train them in entrepreneurial training, as well as financial literacy. And they formed a kind of a collective, like a women’s savings and loans programs, youth savings and loans programs. And they went out and they they sold the bfree cup. So it was you know, they kept 50% of the profit, which helped them in turn, they learn how to some opened other businesses, you know, cooking business, one of the gentlemen opened a salon a hair salon with his profit. So the benefits of you know, when you’re thinking innovation, it’s also bringing people into the market. So there’s that socio economic benefit for women as well. And the impact that it has on their whole community. There’s so much opportunity there. And we’re still working on that with our partners in Uganda.

Faryn Jacobs 14:15
Yeah, that’s it’s really impressive because I think I think a lot of people do tend to opt to a, and there’s, you know, we’re all doing things, different ways to get different results. But yeah, the the buy one give one model is very easy, but it’s also very hands off, whereas your approach is very, very interesting. And yeah, putting the power in, in local communities to change the landscape of the economics there. That’s, that’s wild. I love that. So you’ve become a SheEO venture and so the community is here to support you. What are you looking for in the coming months?

Leisa Hirtz 14:53
First, let me wipe away the tears of joy like honestly my eyes water up, you know, we every time that I think like like we were successful. in becoming a SheEO venture and also an Activator. This was my third time applying for SheEO. I so admire the premise, the philosophy, the, you know, radical generosity of the community. And it’s, I mean, it’s just been a couple of weeks. But I had a sense. It’s really difficult to actually put into words, you know, the gratitude, the level of gratitude to be kind of, you know, there are certain aspects of it as like, I hadn’t considered that before, or, yeah, it’s really important that I take care of me, too. That’s an interesting concept as an entrepreneur, so all of these really important points that we kind of overlook, as, as entrepreneurs that are thinking we have to work 24/7. And then just reading Vicki’s book, and you know, pouring over it, actually, and it was just like, so many aha moments, but it’s the giving, as well as the receiving that I love. Like, there’s this reciprocation on every call that I’ve had, and speaking with, you know, I’ve heard from other Activators, we’re already looking at partnering, because there’s the synergies that are there, between our particular Ventures that, you know, that are that are, that are clearly evident. And it was just this opportunity, because of SheEO, that we had this opportunity to actually connect, to meet to talk. It’s so wonderful to see collaboration and that openness, and also the change in the name of SheEO even though you know, it’s kind of etched in my mind, but I understand the reason why, you know, we’re that the name is being changed. And how do we do that in an inclusive way. I was never somebody who joined organizations or groups, because I always thought everybody’s going to be wearing the same hat or the same T shirt or the same — but you come as you are. Or you show up and you can speak or you don’t have to speak or you can share something or you can just listen. The consideration of all of it in its entirety, is actually an extraordinary innovation in itself. And hats off to SheEO and Vicki Saunders and the entire SheEO team.

Faryn Jacobs 17:08
So what can we do, the community, this beautiful community? What can we do? And what can people listening? Do for the bfree movement?

Leisa Hirtz 17:19
I love that you call it the bfree movement, because really, that is exactly what it is, like, it’s so important to communicate to talk about women’s health, women’s issues, the inclusivity of you know, non binary people so that we’re able to like have this full and open conversation to promote gender equality, as well as you know, the really important aspect of you know, where menstruation plays a role in keeping women back socio economic, economically, psycho socially. Even from a mental health perspective, like it’s so vital that we have these open open discussions. And what is my ask, my ask is to have these open discussions. To reach out to me to really promote reusable menstrual products, be they you know, reusable menstrual pads panties, the alternatives, the menstrual cups, which you know, really have such an impact on lowering products that are going to landfill to really preach that, you know, that these products that were that were from the large multinationals, they’re not healthy, but they have so much power, they really do impact the way that you know, perpetuating ill health and an economic dependency on these these single use disposable products. And also, you know, always help in regard to helping us advising us on how to grow our business, which is still in its infancy. Those two things, just you know, and, you know, advice, you know, in regard to the business growth, but also in regard to having the open conversations like it’s happening. So let’s just, I ask for us just to keep going and keep promoting and keep talking. I want to say thank you to all the Activators around the world. Because, you know, it’s taking that responsibility to say I want to help other women and nonbinary in business and the entrepreneurial journey is extremely taxing. And you need so much support, we cannot get there alone. And really people coming forward, really leaning into I always say reaching beyond their comfort zone. You know, I was shy to become an Activator, like what am I going to do? It’s like you bring what you bring, you know, this little bit or that little bit or this much this year or this much this year, whatever. There’s so much to learn and thank goodness that people are out there willing to give their time. So thank you Faryn for being an Activator.

Faryn Jacobs 19:58
My pleasure. Thank you, Leisa for speaking with me today.

Leisa Hirtz 20:00
Thank you for this opportunity.

Faryn Jacobs 20:02
If anyone is looking to connect with bfree and all that Leisa is doing for gender equality with menstruation, check the show notes and you can be in touch with her. Thanks.

Vicki Saunders 20:16
Thank you for listening to the SheEO.World podcast. Like, comment, subscribe, and share this podcast with your friends. We invite you to join a global community of radically generous women and non binary folks at SheEO.World.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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