Chemicals are not for pussies: how Yoni is giving women the options they didn’t know they needed
A conversation with Mariah Mansvelt Beck of Yoni
Like many great businesses, Yoni was born out of a personal need. When Mariah Mansvelt Beck was advised by one of her doctors to use organic cotton pads and tampons to prevent irritation in 2014, she realized that not only had she never stopped to consider what was in her pads and tampons before, but also that organic options were disturbingly hard to find. That’s when she got to talking with her longtime friend, Wendelien Hebly, and they decided to do something about it. They created Yoni, a feminine care brand that makes 100% certified organic cotton pads and tampons. Fast forward to today, and Yoni is carried in major stores like Albert Heijn and Etos across the Netherlands and available to order online throughout parts of Europe. Mariah tells us more about her drive to create Yoni, why measuring impact can be a slippery task and how she is inadvertently breaking established paradigms in the feminine care space and beyond.
Yoni was born out of your personal health issues and the realization that you didn’t know what was in your tampons and panty liners. I’m curious about what happened after that. In another interview, you said that you researched the market and realized that the feminine care industry wasn’t going to be an easy one to break into, but you decided to move forward anyway. What was the driving factor?
I think it was my personal motivation. Without my personal story, I probably wouldn’t be in business at all. When we did our research, Wendelien and I realized that there are only four big companies — the Johnson & Johnsons and Procter & Gambles of this world — that dominate the feminine hygiene industry worldwide. Therefore, we realized it wasn’t going to be very easy because, obviously, the people you’re up against have very different budgets. But we decided to keep going because we saw that more and more people were becoming conscious. We saw the changes with organic food and then more conscious cosmetics, and we thought that feminine care should naturally follow as it’s one of the most intimate products out there. So, we saw that there was a need for it marketwise. I could also see that I wouldn’t be the only one who thought that — we just needed to tell the story.
Some people may argue that a menstrual cup is a more sustainable option than disposable tampons and pads. Why did you guys decide that organic cotton tampons and pads were the best way to make an impact?
I don’t think it’s the best way necessarily, but that wasn’t our aim. Our aim was to change the industry. Now we are actually coming out with a cup and another more sustainable option soon, but when we started, there was no awareness about these products and the options. Nobody knew about it. Nobody talked about it. We felt that to change and really challenge the industry, we needed to provide products that had the exact same usability but would be a step forward in terms of sustainability, and, very important to us, transparency of ingredients. We wanted to come out with a brand that would really make it on a mainstream shelf.
How do you define the impact you hope to make with Yoni?
The overarching vision is for all women to be in the know about all things vulva related, and specifically, about the choices they have when it comes to feminine care products. I think that there’s still a long way to go there. I would then hope that all women know what those choices are and that the choices are available on a store shelf, meaning you don’t have to go anywhere special to buy the tampons or pads you want.
The overarching vision is for all women to know that they have choices.
A big part of that mission seems to lie in education and awareness because a lot of us aren’t aware that there is an issue with conventional tampons and pads. Many of us don’t know what we’re putting inside our bodies.
Exactly, and for me, regulation is a big part of that. Feminine care products fall under general product regulation, which is strange since they’re really intimate products. Essentially that means that there are no specific rules in terms of what should or should not be mentioned on the packaging or what should or should not be in the products themselves. Those are things that I’d like to see changed. Since we are a company and not an independent party, we can only help lobby to a certain extent, so there’s going to have to be other movements — and there are other movements — lobbying for those types of changes.
How do you measure your impact at Yoni?
It’s difficult. We’ve looked at this question quite often, even with the impact department of PricewaterhouseCoopers, but all of the ways to measure impact and everything that came out of it was so complicated that I found it rather un-useful. If you have a product in which part of the proceeds go to a specific cause, for example, that’s very measurable. Or if your purpose is to reduce plastic, you can benchmark that easily. For us though, it’s been more difficult to quantify. A lot of people want to go down the health route, but then there’s so little research around women’s health that it’s difficult for us to put a benchmark there. At the end of the day, I know that what we’re doing is a step in the right direction and beneficial. I think the more we grow as a company in a traditional sense, in terms of what we’re selling and how many shelves we’re on, the greater our impact. There’s also an impact we’re making in terms of the reduction of plastic and health benefits (i.e. how many women we’ve helped with irritation, etc.), but those things are quite difficult to measure. At the moment, as we’ve been leading a small, growing company, quantifying our impact wasn’t where we wanted to place our focus.
It’s tricky. Even defining impact is already a slippery subject, especially in the startup world.
Yes, it is. One time we were pitching for some investors who were very into impact. They loved Yoni and what we were doing, but we didn’t fall into the “do-good” category, in terms of giving money or products to people in need or in terms of measuring our environmental impact. We explained that we wanted to focus on transparency, but people are unsure of how to put a value on that. They aren’t able to, in a conventional sense, embrace that. So that’s given us difficulties even though I think everyone understands that we are an impact company and, together with a number of other initiatives, are making a real change in the feminine care industry.
On your about page, “sharing knowledge about all things vulva and starting a proper conversation about menstruation” is listed right alongside your mission of making organic cotton pads, tampons and liners. You also have The Pussycast where you share stories and information from experts on all topics related to vulvas, vaginas, sex, reproductive health and more. How did breaking taboos around menstruation and sexuality become part of Yoni’s mission?
We didn’t go into this to break taboos, but just the way we were doing things, from our package design to the way that we were speaking about things — using the words “period” and “vagina” — was taboo-breaking in itself. Even trying to get people in magazines to talk about menstruation or run an article on our product was taboo-breaking. So, I believe it is inherent to the brand. Further along, when we realized how difficult it was to actually do what we were doing, we understood that there’s a real importance to continue to talk about this subject and to have real conversations about these things. That’s why our social media and marketing campaigns generally have an educational aspect to them.
You wrote on your blog that resistance to these topics stems from insecurity. Why does so much insecurity and taboo exist around normal female bodily functions?
For a very long time, and still to a certain extent, people didn’t understand why women bled every month. When something wasn’t understood, it was either magical or potentially dangerous. If it’s something potentially dangerous, then you need to make rules around it. You can see that in all major religions for a certain time, and for some religions still now, there are things that women can’t do when they menstruate. That still permeates our society and how we feel about menstruation today. These big companies that dominate the feminine care space play on that taboo, perpetuating the idea that menstruation is something that should be secretive. The messages are: you definitely don’t want to leak, nobody should know about it, you smell, and we have a solution for you. That works really well with marketing. You make a problem and then offer a solution, and that’s the way menstruation has been dealt with for ages.
There’s also this link you make at Yoni between the fight for transparent and safe feminine care products and other impact topics like climate change and better working conditions. You highlight this on your website — how buying Yoni is not only good for your health, but it also reduces plastic consumption and supports fair trade. Do you think it’s important for companies today to consider impact holistically?
I think everyone, in whatever they are doing in their life, has choices to make, especially if you have a business. In all those choices, I believe you should always see the larger perspective — not only choosing what makes sense for your business or your family or yourself, but also what makes sense for everyone. From that perspective, you need to make choices that are fair, sustainable, transparent, etc. It’s common sense to me, but it’s not necessarily the common business practice. As a child, most of us learned to treat others as we want to be treated, and I mean “others” in the widest sense of the word. This is what I think we should be moving towards. I believe we made a mistake when we said, “This is my personal life. This is my professional life. This is my spiritual life.” These aren’t separate things. We need to integrate them all, and only in that way, do I believe we will start to use business as a force for good.
I believe we made a mistake when we said, “This is my personal life. This is my professional life. This is my spiritual life.” These aren’t separate things.
How have you tried to integrate that philosophy into Yoni’s company culture?
We’re trying the best we can to be fair, transparent and good people. Of course, that doesn’t mean that sometimes there aren’t tensions from a business perspective. Sometimes you do make a choice that is not the most sustainable because the most sustainable choice will put you out of business. But I think it’s about being aware and having that as your starting point. I’m idealistic, but in business, I’m also pragmatic.
I think it’s about being aware and having that as your starting point.
Yoni created a forward-thinking #ChangeMakers campaign last year where you talked about ambition, taboos and “new feminism”. What is “new feminism” and what does it mean for you?
A lot of thought leaders talk about how we’re moving from five-sensory to multisensory awareness, and in that, there’s a shift from old male/old female to the new male/new female — aka to more gender fluidity. In the past, the man was the protector and provider and the woman was the caretaker. Those roles were dependent on each other. Now those roles are not necessarily defined by gender. I often get the question, “How is it to be a woman in business?” In the beginning, I thought that was a really annoying question because when do we ask men, “How is it to be a man in business?” But when I looked at it from the perspective of where we are at this moment, it makes sense that it’s being posed to me, and it’s an important question to address. A lot of our current system is still built on this old male/female division, and we often see that women still have more caretaking responsibilities. I think that makes it more challenging to be a woman in business and changing that paradigm will hopefully make it easier for women to be in business or to do whatever they want.
As a mother and coauthor of the book, Van Vulva tot Vagina, what’s your vision for how we should educate the next generation on menstruation and women’s health?
I hope my daughter will learn that the clitoris is not just a little dot, but way more than that, and I hope that the boys in her school will also learn what periods are. For real change to be possible, it’s not only women who need to be educated, but everyone. I think sexual education should start at a very young age. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily sexual at that age, but there is a bodily interest that should be addressed. I think a lot of adults accidentally project their own fears and shame onto their children which makes things quite difficult. With Van Vulva tot Vagina, I was hoping to create something that would be both educational and inspirational in terms of the types of literature you see for women and teenagers. The book dives into topics ranging from the HPV virus, menstruation to menopause and the representation of the vulva in the media. All the women I’ve spoken to who’ve read it, even those that were closer to my age, said they learned new things. The best stories I’ve heard have been from moms with teenage daughters who bought the book, put it out discreetly on the table and watched it disappear for hours on end.
Do you have any advice for people looking to start impactful companies?
I would say to anyone wanting to start anything to do it from a place of impact. Do it with the idea that we’re here to serve. Don’t do it just to make money. I’m all about setting up sustainable and viable businesses, but what we need now in the world are things that are working on our societal and environmental issues. What are you adding to the world? What’s your positive value?
> Learn more about this project at moments-of-impact.com.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.