Meaningful Business (MB:) Please tell us a bit about your background.
Emily Ewell (EE): I grew up with a strong admiration for inventors and passion for science and math. Being from the Washington DC area, I loved visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to learn more about the great innovations of our time and the people behind them. After earning my degree in chemical engineering from the University of Virginia, I became passionate about healthcare and worked at Merck in both R&D and manufacturing divisions. After spending time doing science in a lab, I decided that I wanted to work at a more systemic level to solve healthcare issues and improve quality of life for people.
I then worked in Strategy Consulting at Deloitte and fell in love with disruption theory and the power to transform products into solutions with a more holistic concept of customer “value.” After a few years in consulting, I went to Berkeley to earn a dual MBA/MPH (Masters in Public Health). Working in the US, Latin America and Europe, I was focused on using digital transformation to bring patients closer to their doctors and deliver digital services that could improve health. During this time, my technology team was based in Brazil and I found myself intrigued by the market which is rich in creativity, talent and innovation potential. I moved to São Paulo in 2013 and in 2017 founded Pantys as the first menstrual underwear brand in Latin America.
Emily Ewell, Founder & CEO of Pantys
MB: Please introduce your business and the problems you’re trying to solve.
EE: Pantys is a leading fashion fem-tech brand in health and sustainability. We are a certified B Corp and the first lingerie brand globally to launch carbon labels, making all our products 100% carbon neutral. We launched with a core line of menstrual underwear with our proprietary technology that is the first and only clinically approved absorbent line technology in the world, in partnership with Johnson & Johnson. Today, we have the largest Instagram following of any menstrual underwear brand and work closely with our community (and followers!) to help us identify unmet needs and bring new innovations to market. We now offer one of the largest product portfolios with fashion lines for menstruation, maternity, incontinence in intimates, swimwear, sleepwear and even a trans boxer for men who menstruate.
When we look at the problems we’re trying to solve we look through two main lenses: people (social impact) and the planet (environmental impact). Socially, our number one priority is menstrual poverty and through donations and government education programmes we work to bring access and information to help solve this issue. We also believe that reusable menstrual products will help close the gap on period poverty since disposable products need to be provided monthly, and our products provide access for years (up to 100 uses). On the environmental side we launched with a focus on eliminating menstrual waste and the billions of single use products discarded annually, which take over 500 years to decompose.
Over time we started looking at our product lifecycle and became very careful about the raw materials we use. All of our underwear is made with biodegradable fibres Amni Eco Soul, a Brazilian technology that biodegrades in 3 years vs. 100 years for traditional nylon. We also actively track and work to reduce our carbon footprint so we can offset it from cradle to grave. As a B Corp, we strongly believe in social and environmental accounting, not just financial accounting, as the future of responsible business.
Carbon footprint of Pantys’ menstrual underwear
MB: What is your biggest challenge right now and what support do you need?
EE: Our biggest challenge has been constant since the day we launched: consumer education. We know that our product brings more comfort, freedom, security, sustainability AND economy to menstrual cycles – so why wouldn’t everyone use them? Changing consumer behaviour and preferences is one of the most challenging things you can do in a market. Menstrual product preferences are highly cultural as well – if you grew up in the USA or UK, for example, your mom probably taught you to use tampons. If you grew up in India or Brazil, it’s possible you have never tried a tampon and perceive “internal” menstrual products as taboo. Fortunately, all traditional menstrual products are used with a pair of underwear – and this is why we believe our product has huge potential to become the largest category in the feminine care segment.
We receive messages from customers daily describing how our product has changed how they relate to their menstrual cycle, that they “forget” they’re on their period. Our products are also fashionable and fun – which makes menstruation also fashionable and fun. We have girls and teens that come to our store to buy underwear before they are menstruating and leave excited to have their first menstruation – what a revolution! We are dedicated to bringing the reuse movement into menstruation by delivering world-class technology, fashionable designs, relevant branding and real-life storytelling of the impact we’re delivering.
MB: What is your ambition for the future of your business?
EE: Our ambition is to become the most trusted product and loved brand globally in our space and help end menstrual poverty through a market shift to reusable women’s hygiene solutions. We are making great strides in Brazil by actively working with public and private partners to bring access and affordability. When we started our donations programme, the first group we targeted were tribes in the Amazon that already had access to “modern” disposable pads and were burying used products in the forest.
This was a clear win-win to help address the needs of the community and protect one of the most important ecological regions of the world today. Health is a trillion dollar business, but also a human right and we take that with a lot of responsibility as a company.
MB: What is your advice to other leaders who want to combine profit and purpose?
EE: First, find your passion. What do you really care about? What is the unique way you can and want to make the world a better place? Passion and purpose are essential to help ground you as an entrepreneur. It is often said that being an entrepreneur is like a rollercoaster; there are lots of emotional ups and downs and you are constantly managing a high level of uncertainty. Purpose will help keep you sane when things are tough. Purpose will keep you humble when you get that deal that took over a year to land, or earn that award that you never imagined was possible.
MB – Tell us a mistake you’ve learned from:
EE: Time is your most precious resource! Treat it like the most valuable asset you have and be very careful how you use it!
MB – How do you spend your time away from work?
EE: Family time and travel are my best sources of joy and inspiration.
MB – What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
EE: Comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t get distracted by competition – focus on your work and the unique value you are building with your team, resources, and capabilities.
MB – What is the one book everyone should read?
EE: Innovator’s Dilemma series by Clay Christensen & Michael Raynor. Close second, The Almanack of Naval Ravikant.
MB – What is something you wish you were better at?
EE: Languages! It took me almost 3 years to learn Portuguese, but I’d love to speak more languages.
MB – What’s one thing you want to achieve in 2022?
EE: I’m hoping 2022 brings us more Pantys flagship stores! I strongly believe in physical retail to build brand and customer relationships.
Discover the other leaders recognised on the 2021 MB100, for their work combining profit and purpose to help achieve the United Nations Global Goals, here.