Last February, long before she stepped down as CEO of Thinx, the period underwear company she co-founded, Miki Agrawal published an open letter on Medium asking women in media “to Respectfully Quit Telling Me How to ‘Do Feminism’ (and just support one another, please!)” Without naming names, the post alluded to the online backlash that ensued after Agrawal told an interviewer from The Cut that she didn’t relate to being a feminist until she started her company because “[e]very time I thought about the word feminist, I thought about an angry, ranty… girl” and distanced Thinx’s “accessible” feminism from that of “those spoken-word poets.”
In the Medium post, Agrawal pushed back against accusations that she was co-opting the term as a marketing ploy:
“The notion of feminism as a part of THINX was an organic realization — a perfect fit — because it’s what we exist to do,” she wrote. “Each and every word and image used in our communications and our campaigns is thought up and created by our team of young badass feminists (all of whom also have their own interpretations of the term). Integrating feminism into our marketing is not a ploy, and it is not exploitative; it’s reclamation of how brands treat and speak to women, and it’s an ideological pushback against generations of condescension and insulting marketing towards women. Plus, there’s nothing more refreshing than a nice, pink grapefruit.”
The latter sentence, as any New York City subway rider (or menstruating human with well-targeted Facebook ads) can tell you, is in reference to the company’s first provocative — and incredibly effective — ad campaign, which made headlines in late 2015 when it was nearly banned by the transit authority’s advertising partner for “inappropriate” content — an ad campaign conceived of and created by a team of young, in-house creatives with no advertising experience rather than an agency commanding six figures for the project. Since then, Thinx has become known as much for its feminist values and chatty, millennial-friendly voice as for its products, which have expanded from ultra-absorbent, moisture-wicking underwear to dancer-friendly, period-proof bodysuits and now organic tampons and reusable applicators.
Agrawal, too, has developed a loyal following, especially among young, socially conscious, entrepreneurial women, and has carefully crafted her own image as a taboo-busting evangelist for women’s rights and the reigning queen of feminine hygiene. She was, as the company’s origin story goes, first inspired to donate a portion of Thinx’s proceeds to support women’s organizations in the developing world when she learned that millions of girls there miss school because of lack of access to menstrual supplies and the shame associated with periods.
Suffice it to say, the company’s mission is an easy one to get behind, especially at a time when misogyny is openly wielded by those in the highest positions of power, and pink pussyhats and earnest Instagrams of Gloria Steinem quotes have become property of the mainstream.
But behind the scenes, many current and former employees paint a picture of dysfunction and hypocrisy, with clashes between Agrawal and key members of her team, employment policies that seem to fly in the face of the company’s women-first messaging, and an increasingly volatile work environment that’s led many of those who were instrumental in creating the brand to tender their resignations. According to several sources, ten people have left the 35-person company since January, and last Thursday, Agrawal announced to the staff that she is stepping down from her role as CEO of Thinx and Icon, the “pee-proof underwear” company she also co-founded — though, she clarified in the all-hands meeting, she will still be the “SHE-E-O” (the irreverent title she employs in most external communication) and face of the brands. Meanwhile, the board of directors is actively looking for a “professional CEO” to fill the role.
For some, though, it’s too little, too late. In interviews over the past month with a half-dozen current and former employees, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, all described a company culture in which substandard pay, flimsy benefits, and scarce perks are endured in exchange for working toward a mission they truly believe in. Almost all referred to the team as a “family,” yet say their work was routinely impeded by Agrawal’s erratic behavior and refusal to shoulder blame for problems with the business while taking credit — often in very public forums — for its successes.
“It honestly felt like a middle school environment: pitting people against each other, calling us petty children and [saying that we were] immature and that we're all these millennials that don't know anything — meanwhile we're being paid easily $30,000 under industry standard salaries,” says one former employee. “It was truly like being in an abusive relationship. And I don’t use that analogy lightly… I don't know if you've ever had the feeling when you walk into a place — whether it's with your family or a job or a friendship circle — and you simply just don't know how the other person is going to react. One day they could be in a super great mood and everything's fine and dandy and you're being praised left and right, or else you walk in and you're treated like you're dirt… That takes an emotional and physical toll on you. To wake up every day and not know how you're going to be treated that day is really quite awful.”
On the jobs website Glassdoor, six of the nine reviews currently posted — dating back to mid-2015 — are decidedly negative, calling Agrawal “a time bomb and a liability,” “a bully,” and “a loose cannon,” and characterizing Thinx as a “feminist company that disempowers and undervalues its (majority woman) staff.” Even the “pros” offer backhanded swipes at the leadership. “The team encourages self-advocacy, and as long as you work hard and consistently wave your ‘freak-flag,’ you can go from an entry level team member to someone who gets to work closely with the Trump-like CEO, in a matter of months,” reads one. The remaining reviews — all posted on either January 27th or 30th, 2017 — are glowingly positive, particularly regarding Agrawal’s relationship with employees. Reads one: “She will cheer the loudest for you over every small win, she will coach you to reflect on your failures, and she will challenge you to start anew with that new wisdom in mind.”
According to several sources, Agrawal approached three employees and instructed them to write positive reviews of the company, and when one failed to do so, one source said, she told them there was ‘no other option.’ The sources also say Agrawal wrote one review herself. (One of the employees deleted their post over the weekend after it was quoted by Jezebel.) Internally, members of the team jokingly refer to the events as the “Glassdoor Wars.”
(When reached for comment, a Thinx spokesperson replied shortly before press time. They wrote, “There’s a lot of information here, we know much of it is inaccurate. We can’t comment on speculation and rumor. We respect our employees, our corporate culture is of utmost importance to us and we endeavor to be competitive with benefits. We love what we do at THINX and the products we make to improve people’s lives.” Racked has reached out for further explanation regarding inaccuracies and will update when Thinx replies.)
Meanwhile, apart from the blip of is-she-or-isn’t-she-a-feminist controversy following The Cut’s profile, press on Agrawal has been almost universally flattering, with business publications praising her “radical authenticity” and “wit and provocation.” She gives frequent talks at conferences (including Millennial 20/20 in New York, Shoptalk in Las Vegas, Conscious Capitalism in Philadelphia, and New Orleans Entrepreneur Week Women’s Summit in 2017 alone), sits on panels hosted by women’s organizations like Ellevate and STEEAMnista, and gives interviews on topics like social entrepreneurship and feminism to publications from Bustle to CNN, dutifully retweeting accolades to her 20,000 Twitter followers.
Just last week she was nominated for a Shero Award at the first-annual Women’s Choice Awards for Thinx’s partnership with Afripads, a Ugandan company that manufactures and sells reusable sanitary pads to local girls and women who otherwise may not have access to menstrual supplies, adding to a list of accolades that includes being named 2017′s Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, Tribeca Film Festival’s Disruptive Innovation Award, Crain’s 40 Under 40 list, and Ad Age’s Creativity 50 for the aforementioned subway campaign.
Of course, publicity is an essential part of the job for almost every startup founder, and Agrawal is impressively good at it, just as, sources say, she had a knack for inspiring employees to tap into their most creative selves — the more outrageous the idea, the better. But they also say her pursuit of personal fame often took priority over the work they were doing at the company and the wellbeing of her team, while the disconnect between her public image and her internal reputation created a cognitive dissonance that many employees struggled with.
“You'll meet people who just idolize her,” says a former employee. “And it's really hard because you don't want to ruin their perception of her. They like her! And I want Thinx to succeed even though I'm not there anymore. But it is kind of hard to hear people be like, 'She's my feminist hero!' when I've seen her call a former employee a ‘bitch’ before in a meeting.”
In January, the company officially launched the Thinx Foundation, a nonprofit that’s first initiative is the introduction of Thinx Global Girls Clubs in India and Sri Lanka, centers that will provide six-month educational programs for girls ages 12 to 18.
In an introduction video posted to the site, Agrawal explains that “what we wanted to do was create safe spaces for girls to learn about their bodies, get menstrual products at subsidized costs, [and] learn about self-defense, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy.” But laudable as these altruistic goals are, sources say they ring false given the internal turmoil.
“Creating safe spaces for girls when none of us feel safe in our own company? That's absurd. That's an oxymoron,” says one.
In March of 2016, the team called a meeting with Agrawal to bring forward some of their grievances with the company, sources say, one of which was an abrupt email they received alerting them to a reduction in paid vacation days from 21 to 14 per year, as well as the prohibitively expensive healthcare packages the company offered (a $200 per month premium for the cheapest option at the time, according to one source).
“I remember one of my coworkers started crying,” said another source, whose recollection of the meeting was confirmed with two other employees present at the time. “She said, you know, ‘I love working here. I love working for women. But it hurts to know that I'm giving my whole life to Thinx basically, like I work all the time, but I can’t even afford birth control. And what does that mean if we're at a feminist company and I can't afford to keep myself safe and protected?’”
After the meeting, Agrawal was “despondent” and accused members of the team of staging “a coup,” says a source, but without a designated human resources manager — which many startups eschew on the premise that such old-school bureaucracy may hinder growth, though as Motherboard found last year, the lack of structure often hinders women’s advancement — there was little recourse for resolving disputes, so the incident ended up driving a permanent wedge.
Negativity, they said, was often seen as a personal attack. Speaking on Forbes’ “Mentoring Moments” podcast last year, Agrawal described how she’s encouraged employees to let go of the stiffness and formality they’d carried over from other workplaces, especially in all forms of communication. “I need smiley faces. I need exclamation points. I need love in your voice,” she said. “I need smiles when I see you and when you see me. I can’t operate in a way that feels like corporate America — that’s not who I am and I can’t have people around me that act that way.”
Agrawal speaks often of her business philosophies in interviews, many of which arise from her work with life coach Lauren Handel Zander. “We have a company policy that says no triangulation,” she said at a recent panel discussion. “If you have an issue, don’t go talk to someone else about it. Go talk directly to the person about it. Face them, because that builds courage for yourself. Hashtag adulting.” In practice, however, many sources say this meant they were discouraged from speaking up about problems lest they be construed as “ganging up” on Agrawal.
Salary negotiations were similarly fraught. Though several sources say they either took a pay cut or accepted a below-market-rate salary because they wanted to work for the company, attempts to negotiate for higher pay after being given more responsibilities or a change in title were dismissed as ungrateful or told salaries were non-negotiable.
“Whenever anybody would try to negotiate with her, [Agrawal] would go back to the fact that we're young, and just be like, ‘Oh, you're in your 20s. You don't need a lot of money,’” says one former employee.
She treated it “as if it were selfish to take a salary representative of your worth,” says another. While yearly raises were given based on performance and revenue, the dollar amount was considered non-negotiable, and, says a third source, the only employees who the source ever knew to have successfully argued for additional money were two of the few white men who worked at the company.
If this had been in the startup’s early days of struggling to make payroll that would be one thing, sources say, but as it grew, its sales figures were well known internally, making stagnant salaries especially frustrating. In 2016, Thinx reached tens of millions of dollars in revenue (as confirmed by a recent story in Fast Company naming it one of 2017’s most innovative companies), increasing its 2015 revenues by a factor of 23.
The company’s parental leave policies were also galling, say sources, in light of Thinx’s proudly feminist stance: two weeks leave at full pay plus one week at half pay for the birthing parent, and one week leave at full pay plus one week at half pay for the non-birthing parent. While the United States notoriously doesn’t mandate paid parental leave, many say the standard should be higher for a company touting its contributions to women’s health.
“That was so disappointing to all of us — not because we were all planning on getting pregnant, but we were like, 'How does that make any sense to work for a company that's for women and we're not even going to give women enough time to heal mentally and physically after they birth a child?’” asks one source.
There will, at least, be some changes by next year: In January 2018, New York State will begin phasing in a program that will mandate up to 12 weeks paid family leave for all workers, regardless of their company’s size. The grievance process also shows hope of improvement, as last week, at the same all-hands meeting in which Agrawal announced her intention to step down, the leadership team said it planned to hire someone to handle HR.
While it’s of little help to the employees who have already left the company, that addition may make it easier on anyone who resigns or is let go in the future. As it stands, former employees say the process was rarely smooth: People would hand in their two weeks and be told to leave the building, or else lose access to their accounts in the middle of training their replacement. Some would be instructed to recruit employees to fill their positions, but not everyone felt comfortable doing so given the company culture. “Hiring became an issue,” says one source. In the least confrontational cases, Agrawal would just “freeze you out” and “cease all communication,” says another. “I think she always felt that it was a personal attack on her when people would leave.”
On December 15th, 2016, during the company’s third-annual holiday market, two employees discovered that they could no longer log into their email accounts, and only upon confronting Agrawal did they find out they were fired. “I remember one was just standing outside of her office knocking on the office door asking her, ‘Why is my email turned off?’” says a source.
That same week on Instagram, Agrawal posted two photos with captions alluding to the dismissals. “2017 will be a story for me with zero tolerance for energy drains and know-it-alls and drama creators,” reads one, “and I will choose to work with people who know their place and appreciate the opportunity presented to them and look at the glass half full always.”
Talking to Bustle in October about how she keeps communication in the office open and honest, Agrawal said, “I think it starts with the leader being super vulnerable. I cry in the office when I'm super upset. I say I'm sorry when I am. We just all talk openly. We're basically mostly girls at the company. Everyone's just really open with our feelings and if we're feeling something, we just have a conversation about it."
But while talking about the kind of stuff that makes people uncomfortable (i.e. bodily functions) has become something of a raison d’être for Agrawal in her marketing efforts, in the office, the lack of filter isn’t always so conducive to a professional environment.
On at least one occasion, says a source, she’s said to employees, “We’re going to hire immigrants who are grateful” to work at the company, and made “uncomfortable” comments about employees’ bodies.
The boundaries of what is and isn’t office-appropriate vary wildly from company to company, and off-color language can be “okay if there’s trust and camaraderie,” reasons another former employee — but this has to go both ways.
In January of this year, the company’s CFO sent around a new non-disclosure agreement for employees to sign, framing the paperwork as “new year, new housekeeping.” The document, obtained by Racked, includes a clause requiring employees to waive the right to a jury trial, another prohibiting them from doing business with customers or potential customers for a period of 12 months after they leave the company, and a third requiring them to sever all social media contact with anyone they know to be a customer or potential customer, with the exception of those they knew before being hired.
Davida Perry, a top employment lawyer in New York City, says the latter clause is “absurd” and not something she’s seen in previous such agreements. And while non-solicitation clauses are standard, “customers or potential customers” could in this case be construed to include all women, which she says is more than likely too broad to be enforceable in court. As for the jury waiver, she continues, “The constitution gives everyone the right to be heard by a jury of their peers, so whenever someone is making it a condition of employment to waive that right, it's a big deal.”
While sources say few, if any, employees signed the agreement out of concerns about the company’s motives, Perry says Thinx was operating well within their rights to issue it. “There's nothing illegal about it,” she says. “If anything, it's why are they suddenly doing this? It seems to raise a red flag in terms of trust and are we on the same page and do we have the same values.”
Despite it all, everyone I spoke to, whether or not they still work at Thinx, insists they want to see the company they helped build succeed, calling the problems by turns “heartbreaking” and “frustrating.” “We were the people we were speaking to,” says one source, who says they worry that as the young, hungry employees that built the brand get pushed out in favor of corporate-minded staff who will show more deference to Agrawal, Thinx will lose the voice and spirit that’s made it a success. Even those who eventually quit say they stuck it out as long as they could endure simply because they felt they were a team, and together they hoped to make something that mattered.
“We just felt like we either leave this company that we love and watch it burn, or we stay and try to keep doing good work and let her cultivate this persona so we could keep driving and keep growing this business,” says one. “We just thought, 'Well, we're in this together. We've just got to hold on tight and hold on to each other and hope that we can get through it and make something really amazing.’”