How did Sparkle get started - what was your inspiration?
My knowledge about periods and pads was very limited before I started working with different NGOs. I was aware of the biological process, but I had no idea about the immense physiological or socio-economic issues women faced during their periods.
After completing my grad program at UC Berkeley, I took a gap year to pause, unplug and rediscover myself. I wanted to put my engineering and business skills to good use while volunteering at different NGOs in Kenya, Tanzania, Vietnam, South Africa, India and Costa Rica.
I participated in different outreach programs which included medical camps, HIV counselling, teaching and feeding programs. Through that experience, I witnessed the problems millions of girls and women faced during their periods. Girls missed school and women missed work simply because they could not afford sanitary napkins. In fact, they used unhygienic rags, papers or ash to manage their periods. In many developing countries, menstruating girls and women are still considered impure or dirty.
After meeting Hetal, co-founder of Sparkle, I realized that commercial sanitary napkins available in the market contained roughly 90% plastic and harsh chemicals that may be harmful for personal health and the environment. She was looking for natural, plastic-free and affordable alternatives that do not cause skin irritation and allergies.
The fact that I come from a family of farmers became the missing piece of the puzzle. My family has banana plantations near one of the biggest banana growing belts of India. Banana plants grow rapidly in just 9-12 months. Once bananas are harvested, these plants become agro-waste. We realized that banana fibers are naturally super absorbent and highly effective at locking away menstrual fluid.
With Sparkle, we aim to fight social stigma surrounding periods and help young girls and women reach their full potential by providing them natural, affordable and effective period products. Transforming banana stem agro-waste into sustainable Sparkle sanitary pads has been an amazing journey.
What's the meaning behind the name “Sparkle”?
To break the social and cultural stigma surrounding menstruation. Hetal and I conducted a number of awareness seminars through our NGO, United World Foundation, even before Sparkle was founded.
In many parts of India, especially in remote villages, talking about periods is challenging due to myths and taboos. Women are not allowed to leave home or interact with family members while they are bleeding.
As we were searching for possible names for our company, we wanted to ensure it was both empowering and exciting. We chose Sparkle to tell all the girls and women who ever felt embarrassed for having periods or had to miss any opportunities to reach their full potential at school or work due to lack of access to sanitary pads. DON’T LET ANYONE DULL YOUR SPARKLE. You are born to shine; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
How did you meet Hetal?
I met Hetal in kindergarten when we were both 5 years old. We went to the same school until grade 9. We have seen each other grow-up and go through many ups and downs in life. When we decided to start Sparkle, we found something we were both passionate about. With over eight years of experience, Hetal is responsible for day-to-day planning, implementing and managing all finance and operations related activities of the company. Her passion for promoting equal opportunities for women and expertise as a chartered accountant and cost accountant allows us to manufacture superior quality Sparkle pads while keeping the overhead costs as low as possible. She has successfully developed the ‘Buy One, Give One’ program at Sparkle through which a pad is donated to a girl in need with every Sparkle purchase.
What’s it like leading a company with your wife?
For most founders, entrepreneurship is a lonely journey and as you embark you realize that people around you may not share the same dreams, vision or passion.
Since you only have 24 hours in a day, there are many instances where you may have to choose between relationships, friends, family and your start-up. If you can share this journey with a co-founder who is equally passionate and driven as you are, and who is your best friend, life partner and business partner, the journey becomes more exciting and less stressful.
Honestly speaking, for the past couple of years, the thin line between work-life and personal-life has gradually become blurry. We would be having a business meeting while having breakfast or dinner, or while driving to our office in the same car. Similarly, if we are having a hard day or need to celebrate a small victory, we would go on a coffee date in the middle of a work day while taking a break.
I couldn’t have asked for a better co-founder.
How did you get interested and involved in this space?
For me it wasn’t one of those single “aha” moments. It was rather a slow, gradual process. Something was always there at the back of my head, in my subconscious mind, waiting for the right circumstances to reach the tipping point.
After learning about the issues faced by millions of girls and women due to a lack of access to sanitary pads, my wife and I decided to purchase conventional sanitary pads that were available in the market and simply started donating pads to girls in need. In the process, we started our NGO, and as we searched for long-term and scalable solutions, we realized that simply buying sanitary pads from the market and donating them would only solve the problem temporarily. We also realized that while solving the problem of accessibility and availability of sanitary pads, we were also creating plastic pollution as conventional pads that we were donating contained up to 90% plastic.
As a mechanical engineer, I love to build things and design new machines. My wife often finds things around the house that she knows have been opened up and put back together by me while doing some sort of experiment.
Both of us were working full time jobs at our previous companies and started working on Sparkle during the evenings and on the weekends until the first functioning prototype was developed successfully. We have been bootstrapping from the very beginning. We started developing a sanitary pad from scratch by using $10,000 from our own savings in mid-2017.
After spending over two years developing a scalable business model, we launched Sparkle pads in the market in December 2019.
What’s it like being a male founder selling female products?
It has definitely helped me grow and develop a deeper understanding of how much work still needs to be done for spreading awareness about gender equality and breaking the taboo surrounding menstruation in different parts of the world.
I still remember some of my guy friends making fun of me for having sanitary pads in my laptop bag during the product development stage. As I started talking to girls and women about differences between conventional plastic pads and Sparkle pads, a few of them laughed and told me, “No vagina, no opinion. You are a guy, who are you to tell me what I should and shouldn’t use?” When I started pitching our start up to potential investors, an investor told me, “I would invest in your venture if a woman was pitching it to me."
I can’t afford to focus on negativity when there is so much work that still needs to be done. With that being said, there are also many amazing people who have supported and truly admired all the work we have done so far.
The whole idea of gender equality is that no gender is superior or inferior. All genders should be considered equal, period.
The fact that menstruation is still considered a taboo shows that we still have a lot of work to do as a modern society.
What’s been the #1 (or two) top challenges you've faced launching Sparkle?
Breaking the stigma surrounding menstruation and educating girls and women about the differences between conventional plastic pads and Sparkle pads so that they could make informed purchasing decisions.
Have you learned anything new or surprising about yourself through this process?
I used to get a little nervous when it came to addressing a large number of audiences. I learned that the hesitation I had for public speaking was not as frightening as I had thought. I still get butterflies before I host a large scale public seminar or go on radio talk shows, TV shows or live interviews, but after I start talking about the issues I am passionate about, the nervousness quickly disappears.
What is your superpower?
My superpower is my work ethic.
I may not be as smart as some of the gifted people I have met in my life, but one thing that I have control over is my own actions, consistency and discipline. Whether it is learning a new skill I might need to grow our company, or improving my ability to connect the dots between my vision and current reality, I strive to keep observing, learning, practicing, adapting and working until I get what I want.
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
When I get stuck on a problem, I just can’t stop thinking about how I can solve it and move forward. I would keep researching and thinking about possible solutions during day time while I would be eating, drinking, walking etc. Some of my best business ideas, concepts for machine designs, technologies worth patenting, come to me when I am half awake, half asleep or in a meditative state in the middle of a night. Just to make sure I don’t forget these ideas when I wake up in the morning, I sleep with my “idea book” and pen next to me on my side table. If in case, I don’t find my “idea book” next to me, I write them down on my phone and email them to myself. There have been many instances when I would wake up in the morning and check my emails to get a surprise idea that I would have most likely forgotten if I didn’t email it in the middle of the night.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do in your spare time?
I like to travel. I have had the privilege of visiting over 30 countries before I turned 30. I love to experience different cultures, visit unseen places, meet new people and explore as many dimensions of life mentally, physically and spiritually as I can. I also like to try adventurous activities such as bungee jumping, skydiving, shark cage diving, whitewater rafting, flyboarding, etc. I love the ocean. Besides extreme sports, I like surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling or just doing nothing on a beach.
What advice do you have for companies interested in integrating philanthropy into their business model?
I strongly believe if every company takes at least one positive action or initiates one socially responsible campaign, we can make this world a better place. As responsible individuals and entrepreneurs, we should aim to find innovative solutions to today’s key challenges.
It doesn’t have to be a “Buy One, Give One” initiative. It could be as simple as encouraging your employees to donate old clothes or shoes they do not need to nearby NGOs to ensure they can be reused by someone in need. Companies don’t always have to donate money or things to be able to make a difference. Sometimes, organizing events that give people opportunities to donate their time and energy by volunteering for a cause they are passionate about can make a bigger difference.