This article is part of our Future of Business series, where we explore how founders can build purposeful businesses which consider the impact their startups will have on people, planet and profit, equally.
As we look into how startups can benefit communities and the lives of the people they serve, we speak to Celia Hodson, founder of period product social enterprise, Hey Girls, to see how starting up with purpose is possible when funds and resources are tight.
Celia Hodson is passionate about eradicating period poverty. After experiencing it first-hand herself, her lived experience drove her need to start Scotland-based Hey Girls, the first Buy One Give One period product social enterprise in the UK. Starting a social enterprise from scratch with little funding is difficult, but it’s something she believes anyone can do: all it takes is a cause to get passionate about.
“Although nothing to do with period poverty, shame or stigma, the investigation into tampon tax created a seismic shift in how we talk about periods. The shock around why you would pay tax on a tampon, but you wouldn’t pay tax on a men’s disposable razor, or caviar, or kangaroo burgers… We’ve gone from putting blue liquid on products to actually showing blood, and we’re finally having conversations,” says Celia.
“Eradicating period poverty is a huge task for a little social enterprise in Scotland, but you’ve got to start somewhere. It was a blank sheet of paper when it came to what our products would be in the first stage - I knew Hey Girls would be a buy one give one model and I knew we’d be a social enterprise, but it wasn’t until we got into focus groups and asked women what they wanted that we realised what was needed was something that wasn’t yet on the market.
“So, we started with our bamboo and corn starch pads. And we had to have them made from scratch. Once you make a bespoke piece, you have to buy lots of product, rather than a few boxes - so it became obvious to us very quickly that if we were going to do it, we needed to do it well and it would have to go big very, very quickly.”
A fine balancing act
In order to be a sustainable social enterprise, it’s not just about the good will of a passionate cause. It’s about generating revenue as well. A social enterprise actually has to do something antithetical to charity to become sustainable, and that’s to turn over profit. Crucially, it’s how you use the profit which matters.
How does Hey Girls balance doing good and making money?
“We don’t have shareholders, so we’re a community interest company. All of our profits go into the donations, so our costing model has worked out that the price that somebody pays for a product includes the donation, so it’s the customer that donates - Hey Girls just organises the process. If we were making a profit, then we wouldn’t have the donations model right, so we monitor that really carefully to make sure that we don’t have reserves. It’s all got to go back into the donations.
“We don’t live off grants, we live off trading income, so we’ve got to sell to donate. At the front end, we behave like any other big company, such as Tampax or Bodyform, and we sell everywhere from online to supermarkets, but rather than those profits going into shareholder value, ours goes straight into the donations - so we run a very lean organisation. We have to turn a profit otherwise we don’t survive.”
The Buy One Give One model Celia built Hey Girls up from ensures that free period products get to go to organisations and homes where they’re really needed. But how is it ensured that the products go to essential locations across the UK?
Celia explains that it’s a logistical operation, and it requires a thorough application process from any organisations getting in touch.
“We were overwhelmed with individuals and organisations asking for products in the early days, and lots were for party bags or fashion shows, so we had to be clear that we exist to help those in need, first and foremost.
“We now have over 200 donation partners across the UK and my daughter, Kate, manages that network. We let her know how many products we’ve sold each month, and she reaches out to her network to see what they need. Typically, our products go to food banks, women’s shelters, school projects, and individuals’ homes.”
So, how does a founder start up a social enterprise? Is there anything that needs to be kept in mind that’s additional to the usual business considerations? Celia doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think starting a social enterprise is any different than starting another business - you’ve just got to start somewhere and move up. You’ve got to move into action to know what works.”
Celia’s top three tips for founders looking to start a social enterprises?
1. Progress over perfection
“Just start. It doesn’t have to be perfect - often perfection stands in the way of progress. We started very small with one product - we tested the market, refined our product, reflected and then moved onwards.”
2. Know where you can flex
“When we started Hey Girls, I thought we would sell online and perhaps be fortunate enough to get in a supermarket. I hadn’t even considered the public sector, which is where our biggest business growth came from. 72% of our business comes from selling to colleges, universities, local authorities, blue light services, NHS services. That’s how we scaled - and how our business became sustainable.”
3. Go with your gut
“It’s a lifelong learning, but I rely heavily on my gut. I’ve walked away from a supermarket presentation because they were not on the same page as us about donations. You’ve got to sleep with yourself at the end of the day, so trust when you know things are right.”
Hey Girls have gone on to collaborate with a variety of big brands that share their values, from household names such as Michael Sheen, to sustainable fashion brands like Lucy & Yak, to promote their cause and continually take steps towards eradicating period poverty.
These are brands whose demographics share who Hey Girls need to reach. Michael Sheen helped abolish stigmas by sharing that Dads need to be involved in the period conversation, and Lucy & Yak’s young, female audience needed to know that Hey Girls is there for them.
Celia believes in the power of online to connect to your community, from asking your customers what products they’d like to see next, to ensuring people know they can purchase from Hey Girls to improve the lives of others.
The team spends a lot of time on social media interacting with their audience, and it’s the way forward for Celia - both for social enterprises and for any business starting up in the current climate.
“Social is a great, cost-effective way to get a message out there and to engage with your community. One conversation spurs on many others, so hanging out on social, commenting and collaborating is important.
“Social enterprises are good at communication, they’re good at reaching out to their community, because they’re usually led by someone who has lived experience. My personal experience with period poverty drives me and that will always stay with me as we move forwards.”
If you're a founder with purpose, our new Collective Impact investment-readiness programme in partnership with Crowdcube is open for applications now. Find out more and apply here.