Madeleine Shaw, Co-Founder, Aisle

Providing safe, effective & sustainable menstrual options designed for comfort.

Words of wisdom: Do what you can, with what you got, where ever you are.

Country: Canada

Website: https://periodaisle.ca/

Industry: Consumer goods

Organization size: 13

 

Interview with Madeleine Shaw, Co-Founder & Designer, Aisle; Canada

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • How to take an essential product and create an inclusive, environmentally friendly ethos that represents feminism.
  • How to upcycled waste.
  • Creating a social impact doesn’t need to cost a customer more money, how to do it, and market it.
  • How to engage your employees in contributing to what they care about
  • Guidance on what you need to make your vision a reality.

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Interview with Madeleine Shaw, Co-Founder & Designer, Aisle; Canada

Born and raised in Vancouver BC, Madeleine Shaw is a serial social entrepreneur best known as the Co-Founder of Aisle (previously Lunapads), the best place in the world for sustainable, inclusive periods. A former fashion designer, she started developing period underwear and cloth washable menstrual pads in the early 90s in response to personal health concerns. She met her Co-Founder (and company CEO) Suzanne Siemens in 1999 at a community leadership program and the two have been business partners since 2000. Madeleine served as Lunapads’ Creative Director until the end of 2017, when she retired from that position to grow G Day, as well as to develop a business plan for another idea that was inspired by her and Suzanne’s experience of bringing their children with them to work in the early-mid 2000s, Nestworks. Nestworks is a shared, family-friendly workspace and community hub concept that re-imagines work/life balance.

United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal(s) addressed:
#3. Good Health and Well-being, #4. Quality Education, #5. Gender Equality, #10. Reduced Inequalities, #12. Responsible Consumption and Production

Social impact:
Founded in 1993, Aisle is a multi-year "Best for the World" B Corp. Their social impact programs focused on menstrual health and education in the Global South. They have touched the lives of over 300,000 school-aged girls in 17 nations, and closer to home, they also support marginalized communities in Northern Canada and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Aisle is a member of their local United Way’s Period Promise community action committee, a leading-edge campaign to end period poverty and promote menstrual equity in British Columbia. Because of their innovative design, over 2 million disposable pads and tampons are diverted from landfills every month. Aisle’s Vancouver-based pad production is entirely zero waste. 3,600 lbs of fabric waste have been diverted from landfills and upcycled to new creation. Aisle is currently becoming a certified zero-waste business in partnership with Zero Waste Canada. The supply chain has been revised to minimize carbon use, achieving a 71% reduction in greenhouse gases through more efficient shipping methods and lower carbon transportation choices.

Website: https://periodaisle.ca/

Interview with Madeleine Shaw, Co-Founder & Designer, Aisle; Canada

Note: This interview is transcribed using AI software, which means, the transcription is not perfect. Watch the video or listen to the podcast to hear our guest’s wisdom in her own words. If you want to see more interviews like this, please comment below!

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Let’s welcome multi Entrepreneur Award winner Madeline Shaw. It is so good to have you Madeleine with us today.

Madeleine Shaw 

Thanks so much, Suzanne. It’s a pleasure to be joining you.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

You started a social enterprise in 1993. And that is that’s early for Canadians. As we know, social enterprises are building momentum and over the last five years particularly, which is great news. What was the catalyst for you to start Aisle in the first place?

Madeleine Shaw 
Thank you so much for that question. It was previously known as Lunapads. And we only just rebranded in March of 2020, this or to Aisle. And I’d be happy to get into that later. As a university student, I kind of came of age in as a feminist basically, and I studied to bring in women’s studies and it was sort of my academic background got activated in a leadership capacity in that way.

I proceed to bring feminism in entrepreneurship was a very natural thing for me, but it wasn’t until I would say a few things happened all at the same time I started having allergic reactions to using tampons was a huge one. And also, the role model of Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop. So to me, she was the first person I saw, who was what I wanted to be someone who would explicitly lead with values as a for-profit entrepreneur, and I just thought, that’s what I want to do. That’s the kind of person I want to be.

With respect to the tampon situation, I started to make cloth washable pads and underwear for myself originally, just to solve for my own needs. And then I enjoyed the experience of using them so much and found it so profoundly transformational, that’s what motivated me to commercialize the products because I wanted to, to kind of share that with other people.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

When you started the business did you start it on your own?

Madeleine Shaw 

I started on my own and in 1993 and I had a retail boutique. I wanted to be a fashion designer that was kind of my first love. And that’s what made it well after feminism and I know those are sort of an interesting combination, but I’m a very creative person and so I started a retail beauty and local production, like a very small garment manufacturing company here in Vancouver, where we were making Lunapads and selling those at my store as well as selling them to health food stores across Canada and I also launched a website in 1997 / 98 that was our first e-commerce website. Then I met my business partner Suzanne Siemens, who leads the company today at a leadership course in 1999. Until that point, I had a sole proprietorship as a business. When I met her I had already decided to close my store and focus just on the pads and the underwear. When I met her, we decided to incorporate a new company with some venture capital support as well and herself is one of the partners and so we created a new company in 2000.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

This is personal for you. And yet it’s not personal for you because you were inspired to do something bigger than yourself. And in doing that your beneficiaries are girls and women. Why was that important to have a beneficiary of girls and women?

Madeleine Shaw 

Feminism is something that kind of came into my life when I was around 17 years old and just due to some very personal experiences. I’ve experienced some sexual violence firsthand. I’ve seen some really terrible things happen in kind of this Frosh week hazing sort of thing that happened to me at university where some really outrageously sexist behavior was happening to myself and some other students. It brought out this sort of pushback of like, hey, something’s really wrong here and I felt called to leadership in response to it. It wasn’t just like, Okay, I’m going to vote for somebody with feminist values. It was like I’m going to actually take action. I’m going to lead. Take Back the Night marches and screening, feminist films and leading No means no anti daybreak type campaigns at university.

Those issues are just near and dear to my heart because they matter so deeply and also because it had touched my life personally in some really, really challenging ways. I saw menstrual health as a way to empower people to menstruated to feel more at home in their bodies, around a topic that has traditionally been shamed, where we’ve been taught to feel lousy about our bodies. I was like, this is a really great way to kind of get at a gender equality issue in a very material way.

Through using these products, it really changes your perspective about your body. And so I was sort of moved by that. Like it wasn’t just sort of a political thing. It was an emotional thing and almost a spiritual thing because there’s this profound connection with the cycles of nature. The lunar cycle, the tides, all of these things I think we’re all bound up in that and when we have our cycles, we’re engaging in a relationship with that and most people don’t think about it that way they think about menstruation as a problem to be solved, or something that needs to be cleaned up, not spoken of. And my perspective came to be very opposite to that, that in fact, the more we engaged with it, the more we learned about it, the more we talked about it, the more we would get rid of shame, promote empowerment and just kind of self-care and self-love.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

How does Aisle help with that? We have pads, tampons, and other products to help with our menstrual cycle. How does your company actually differ from what’s already available out there?

Madeleine Shaw 

Yeah, thank you. Well for starters, our products are exclusively reusable. So we don’t sell any products that are disposable. There are lots of those out there and you know what’s great about those products to give them credit is they solve a very short term need. You know, in a crisis situation if you get your period in the middle of a meeting or a class or something like that and you’ve got to just get on with your day, then a disposable product is probably the way to go, just grab it out of a dispenser and get on with your day.

For longer-term needs and also from an environmental perspective, a reasonable product is far superior to disposables. They’re also more comfortable, they’re also arguably better for folks’ health. They cause pure irritations like I was having rashes and infections, that kind of thing is not treated. At least the oil patch and underwear are not treated with any kinds of chemicals and perfumes, waxes surfactants are common ingredients in disposable menstrual products. And so, they’re better for your health. They’re better for the planet because they’re reusable. So instead of using something for just a few hours and then throwing it away, you’re washing it every using it over many years, which also helps to save money. Finally, and it’s not the most important thing, but it’s kind of about the attitude. It’s like we embrace and promote a very inclusive attitude towards people who menstruate including people who don’t identify as girls or women. And that’s something that’s really important to us to include non-binary transgender individuals who are menstruating nonetheless and make sure that they’re visible and part of our message and part of who we’re thinking about when we think about our customers. So It’s kind of about the attitude and about the products as well, that we’re not just there to kind of sell something and then get you to buy it again after you’ve thrown it away. We’re there for a really a lifetime relationship to be with someone through their entire lives as cycling beings and then having really meaningful conversations about that helping to get educated about menstrual health and related gynecological issues, reproductive health. 

Suzanne F. Stevens 

You distribute to 17 countries and people can buy it across Canada as well? 

Madeleine Shaw 

Yeah. To clarify, the 17 countries that’s in the global south. For the most part, we are a Northern Western consumer-facing business. So if you go to periodaisle.com you can buy period underwear cups, washable menstrual pads, and supplies to use and carry to transport and clean them and bedding.

Meanwhile, there’s a whole other arm to the company that supports through a more charitable kind of angle. We support education primarily for girls in the global south by supporting their menstrual health. As a lot of your viewers may be aware of period poverty, as it’s commonly known, is a huge issue. I mean, not just in the global south, it’s a problem here to work with access to quit medical supplies prevents people from working from living their lives and dignity prevents students from fully engaging with those studies and so on. So that’s been an issue since 2000 been actively engaging in and through what is your donation programs or other types of innovation where we share our IP with other groups so they can make their own pads and make their own underwear. We donate money we’ve invested in other companies like we just try and find really creative ways of supporting other entities, other enterprises to deal with this issue in ways that we cannot do as effectively from Vancouver. As a consumer products business, our products are actually available in 40 countries and but most of our business is transacted online.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

I want to dive into the charitable arm of this further in regards to you were saying that you give IP sometimes it’s its money. How did you find people to collaborate with and had a need so that you could help them in a meaningful way in more underdeveloped countries?

Madeleine Shaw 

Yeah, for sure. This is partly the magic of the internet, but also the fact that we’ve been doing this for so long. We’ve got this incredible legacy and the Lunarpad slash oil brand is extremely well known in the natural menstrual health field. When it comes to the global south, in fact, it’s a much better solution because there isn’t often landfill capacity. So even if you give someone some disposable products, well, they’re going to use them up in a month or two and throw them in a non-existent land. And then there’s going to need more. So, it’s not the best solution; reusables are a better solution. And then in terms of finding partners, I mean, the word just kind of gets out because we’ve been doing this for so long. The first person who approached us about it actually was in 2000. A woman from Zimbabwe, wrote a letter to us to let us know about this crisis in the global south but we had not previously been aware of. The focus was anyways as I said Western facing consumer-facing kind of thing. We pledged to do whatever we could so we sent over thousands of pads that had slight imperfections for free and that were perfectly usable but the stitching was off here and there on the fabric or something. We started that way. And then we started blogging about it in 2006 when we launched our first blog, and so just putting content out there, like letting people know that this was an issue, and then talking about it on social media, that this was an issue that we were interested in and available to offer support to the extent we were able to, and then otherwise through various business networks that were part of it. I’m just trying to think of some of the bigger ones we’re part of so many now I would say the SheEO network, which is how we met, is a big one, to social venture Institute is another organization, social venture circle. They’re kind of umbrella Organizations that where people already know that the people who are connected to those houses socially empowered kind of bend. And then meanwhile, the whole issue of what’s now known as menstrual equity, thanks to Jennifer Weiss Wolf and American activists, which sort of encompasses the whole menstrual health period poverty has very much come of age.

And so certainly we were part of creating the visibility for that by talking about it publicly, but it’s a whole slew of American action. with us and brands and nonprofit organizations dedicated to menstrual health. For us, we’re a for-profit company that obviously social mission-based in terms of its ethos, and then has activities that we do that are expressions of love. But folks just find us now. It’s incredible. And then we have a very strong relationship in particular with a company based in Uganda called Afrapads and we mentored their startup in 2008. And visited Uganda in 2012 to say hello and at that point 30 staff and then we invested in them as shareholders in 2013. And today they’ve got about 200 staff and have supplied I think about 5 million girls with our products.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

As you know, I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa, and giving jobs is also an important element. You gave them your IP helped them set-up, you’ve invested in their business as well. Have you done that anywhere else where you replicated that model?

Madeleine Shaw 

Not to that extent, that relationship is really a singular one. That has been built for a very, very, very long time. And yeah, so that’s standalone in a way like other examples where we set out patterns and groups who made their own. It’s, it’s not been pursued as a for-profit venture for example the way Afrapads has done so right from the get-go. I think they knew that they were going to be growth-oriented and circumstances happen to meet people who were interested in investing in the company in the early stages and in our case like we really just mentored them and supported them through answering their questions. The financial aspect came much later in 2013.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

In other scenarios, you’re just sending the pads?

Madeleine Shaw 

Yeah, we do that, we will also send money. Because sometimes it’s more effective like basically we’re always looking Suzanne to optimize the impact and also to support the greatest empowerment for the folks involved. So, when we are donating something, what’s the most sustainable way. For these people possibly have resources to make their own pads? Can there be, as you pointed out, and employment part of this? We’re always kind of looking for that because just the straight power dynamic of, you know I give you receive is problematic. We’re just seeking to empower people to create solutions that are community-based and optimize things like employment and that kind of thing.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

It’s sometimes a challenge, right? Particularly when you start something and to start empowering people to do something right away. At the beginning when you’re just starting and people are asking you for what you have and sometimes the easiest thing do is give, have what I have, but it’s not the sustainable choice. And that’s what I’ve found a lot of organizations want to help but then you realize that may not be the best avenue to long term for sustainability to keep sending something over a long period of time.

Madeleine Shaw 

Yeah, and especially from an environmental perspective, to send something from Canada to somewhere in Africa is like, what does that look like from an admissions perspective and it just doesn’t make sense. So, but sometimes it is the best solution and, but even like for example right now Part of a UNICEF Duke University innovation accelerator where they thought half a dozen entrepreneurs from throughout southeastern Africa and I’m kind of working as an advisor with them because I mentor advisor to entrepreneurs, things like that where it’s sometimes it’s just about having a conversation and supporting people in terms of giving them some feedback or some encouragement kind of thing. So sometimes it’s not transactional at all.

From a product perspective, it’s much more relational. And I think that in many ways that’s just as valuable that someone is kind of rooting for you and someone can maybe give you some feedback on their ideas, that kind of thing. And I’m just very mindful of the fact also that we’re not located there. Like, I am a white Western woman with extraordinary social privilege sitting here in Vancouver, BC, and it is not my place at all to try and sort of adopting kind of a paternalistic, like, I’m going to tell somebody in Tanzania how to run their business, it just doesn’t make sense. So it’s more about encouragement. And if you can see it, you can be it. If someone somewhere has done this thing in a way that I want to do it and so we can have a relationship with that person. That they’re thinking about you and, and maybe offer some connections or encouragement or whatever. And I think that’s really valuable

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Absolutely. And that, there are so many programs out there were connecting East, West, North, South together, were particularly for women, and exchanging ideas from peer to peer, rather than necessarily even mentor, where you’re collecting all that information and you’re just sharing helping each other or mentor where need be where someone has a gap, and somebody else has a knowledge. That’s fabulous that you’re doing that.

You brought up something that’s also very important to Aisle ­– zero waste ambition that you’re working toward. Tell us a little bit about that process and also about the shipping methods that you use to try to reduce waste.

Madeleine Shaw 

Aisle takes our kind of metrics measuring every single aspect around social impact and sustainability extremely seriously. It’s actually a really, really detailed process so we became founding Canadians in B-corp in 2012. B Corp for people who are not aware of it, it’s a third-party certification body that subjects companies to a 360 degree, super rigorous assessment of the most granular stuff you can imagine like everything from how we pay our employees, where all our supply chain sources materials, so many things. And we also participate in a carbon footprint measurement process called climate-smart. So, it’s so hard to talk about it in very general terms. I’m not intimately involved in deciding where shipping is happening. We take it very seriously. We have our supplier Code of Conduct. In order for us to even be doing business with someone, they need to prove to us, let’s say it’s a fabric supplier, where was their fabric grown? What certifications do they have to prove that it’s organic? What certifications do they have to prove that they practice progressive practices with respect to employment and human rights? It’s a completely all-encompassing process for us.

To get to zero waste, to go back to your original question, we’ve found some really creative ways to upcycle fabric waste. Fabric waste can be recycled or upcycled; those two processes are different. So when they’re upcycled, it goes to a locally-based organization that takes fabric waste and makes it into furniture stuffing, so where that fabric ends up rather than going through a chemical process of being broken down to the recycling which is quite an energy intensive, although has merit, we’re looking to maximize the reuse of the fabric as it more or less exists, so it’s kind of shredded into a pulp and then it’s sold to furniture makers. So that’s one way we do it.

And the other way is for it to actually be fully deconstructed, melted down and made into new fabric, which is a much more energy-intensive process and one that we do less of. That is in place for all of our textile waste in our Vancouver based production, which is all of our are made here in Vancouver. And so that feels good. So that’s a fairly closed-loop process.

Unfortunately, the textiles are not milled in Vancouver or in Canada. They come from the United States, India, and Asia. It is a very rigorous process to ensure that suppliers are who they say they are in practicing business the way they say they’re practicing business. To that end, I was just on a business trip to Asia in November. And I went to Shanghai and to Taiwan and Cambodia to see our underwear being made. We’ve never done that before. I wanted to see firsthand and we wanted as a company just to verify everything and it was the most fascinating, interesting process to see upfront how employees were treated, what are the conditions of the factory which was immaculate by the way. I just learned a lot in the process. The company is woman-owned and she used to be a kindergarten teacher. We’re great believers in relationships and doing everything we can to build trust and responsiveness. We like to treat our suppliers like human beings. If there is a problem or there’s any confusion around something, you’re going to be able to resolve it if you have a quality relationship with those people.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Absolutely. I love the fact that you went to Cambodia because often when you look at a label, it’s like, oh, it’s made in China. Oh, how’s this made? Right? And, and the reality of being a B Corp, those who do know what that is there knows the rigor or has an idea. And just to that point, there’s so much work to be qualified as a B Corp. What do you see as the benefit for your business to be a B Corp?

Madeleine Shaw    

Given that part of the mandate of our business is to practice business in a different way. Like that’s part of the point for us. It’s what motivates us. It’s kind of an internal thing.  Most consumers don’t know yet what B-Corp is, they are finding out and that’s great. Someone looking at our products versus somebody else’s product still may say: Oh, I want the blue ones, or whatever. It’s just the way we believe that business should be practiced.

It’s a very, very powerful network of other businesses. So if you’re looking for us to find an investor, like investors like the B Corp saying a lot, so social impact investors, like it’s definitely a no BS badge of, seriousness, because you can’t just say, we’re thinking about B Corp certification. You either are or you aren’t, and there are no two ways about it. For people who are aware and are serious about social environmental impact, it’s hugely important. Also, choosing suppliers. It’s very valuable. Suzanne’s gone on amazing corporate retreats and met Eileen Fisher and done a million things like that and just really like it’s a great education, they offer wonderful leadership education and so I can’t say enough good things about it.

I’d say if somebody has a B to B type enterprise, the value proposition for it in terms of from a business perspective is stronger because you’re doing business with other businesses and so you can just sort of dive into the B-Corp pool and they’ll know that you’re coming from a place of integrity and transparency and so on. And so materially, I’d say it’s going to be a little more beneficial if you’re in the enterprise, or B to C.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

I think there are only 150 B-Corps right now in Canada (There are actually 230 B-Corps in Canada as of this interview).  That will change. The discussions coming up a lot more. There’s more consciousness with consumers, right? They do want to make better choices. They just don’t know what it looks like that better choice. So that’s becoming more apparent too.

In developing your business, what would you say was one of your biggest if not a misstep you made in forming Aisle and how did you address it?

Madeleine Shaw 

I like the approach that failure isn’t really a failure if you learn something, and I think that’s what you’re sort of driving at. We started talking about menstrual health way before anybody else did. There were two other companies. We were talking about it when we started. For the most part, people are thinking, gross washing your period underwear or washing pads, forget it. So, it’s really hard from a marketing perspective. That started to change in around 2012, 13, 14, 15. And there was a huge shift in terms of, there were some new companies that came on board, some new social activists came on board. But Suzanne and I were a bit fatigued at that point, we were tried. We’ve been trying for so many years to get people’s attention. And, you know, obviously managed to build a successful enough business, but we decided intentionally just to take a couple of years and really focus on raising our families, and just kind of have the business as a bit of a lifestyle business. It kept us going and kept it going but not to aggressively pursue growth because we were just sort of exhausted. When that happened, though other people did. And so now you’ve got this kind of tsunami of new startups that includes menstrual health and sexual pleasure and various other aspects of sexual reproductive health raised raising millions of dollars in venture capital, mostly based in the United States. And so now we’re faced with kind of a host of other compatriots. We don’t like to even use the term competitor, who is super well-financed and with the uptake of e-commerce, and the prevalence of digital marketing, we have a new slew of competitors in our space, who were basically able to outspend us on Instagram and Facebook, which is kind of made the entire game of the menstrual health natural National Health segment being about who can spend more money on Facebook and Instagram. Which is really sad.

We wanted to run a business that was about feminism and gender equity and sustainability. It’s also driving down product quality. And there’s sort of cheap knockoff stuff coming out. It’s like, Oh, we’d really imagined something different for the industry. I like to think that our legacy is to take a stand for authenticity and taking a stand for integrity, and really not just paying lip service to feminism and not just saying, Oh, yeah, we’re a green company. We’re a green business without actually needing it. And I just hope that that will be a value to the consumer when now there’s a lot of noise in the space.

That’s a bit of a long way of answering your questions. I feel like that’s the one thing I feel a bit of regret about is not just kind of doubling down when a whole bunch of new people started coming into the market and just to uphold, like a higher standard of business practice.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Thanks for sharing that with us. It is not easy to have a social enterprise with high standards where the purpose comes before the profit, and yet in the motivation, and ideals and integrity, all of that comes as part of the package. It’s difficult to maintain that, that sort of business. What’s interesting to me too, is that what you’re saying is in the last, five to six years, there’s been kind of the uptake and that’s what I’ve noticed in my business. When the same thing in the last five to six years people have been talking about having a social impact. And things are starting to almost get too muddy. Because not everyone’s measured, to your point, that you can say you’re green. But are you really, measured? Are you actually living up to the ideals that you say you are, and it comes to pay to play goes back to the transaction because I’m paying more for Instagram. I do find that really interesting that something that is executed with the best intentions and ‘the winner,” if you will, is the one that’s actually promoting the financial element. My research tells us that that’s shouldn’t be the case. It should be shifting. And I just hope it does.

Madeleine Shaw 

I don’t really know how we could have done that differently. I think it would be different if we’d been located in the United States and just had more access to funding. But I think it really ultimately came from us because neither of us took maternity leave when we had our kids, we just brought them to work with us. And we couldn’t afford to do that. Well, I mean, maternity leave wasn’t funded by the Canadian government for business owners at that time either. So yeah, and yet we have a flourishing business, but it’s just you see this like, “Oh, hey, so and so raised 5 million, so and so is this and so it’s all about…”

Suzanne F. Stevens 

With that being said, your businesses sustainable? What would you say are the three things that you have done, that make the social impact sustainable?

Madeleine Shaw 

When you say sustainable, do you mean from an environmental perspective or from a longevity perspective?

Suzanne F. Stevens 

longevity.

Madeleine Shaw 

I’ve point back to the B-Corp pressure. That’s huge. And because it influences culture, and it also makes it measurable. So that’s huge. But also, it’s just part of our DNA and we wouldn’t be Aisle without that. I think what our key differentiator is in the menstrual health space. That in addition to the fact that we’re one of the so-called, originals of doing this, but also that we take sustainability and social impact seriously, just to the nth degree. Fanatical is not the right way of putting it, but we kind of are.

So, it’s culture, right? It’s like when you do something for that long and your leaders are committed, then it’s kind of it’s in the DNA of the entire organization in a way that’s sort of indelible. And, you know, we’re seeing in the past few years, there have been some leaders in both the for-profit and the nonprofit space who have talked a big game with respect to ethics and sustainability and inclusion and stuff like that, who have been exposed as terrible leaders who, you know, have been stepping on other people and taking their ideas and treating staff poorly and that kind of thing. It’s where the what you see on the outside isn’t what is actually going on in the background. Our commitment is that what you see in on the surface is the same thing. Integrity is just rock solid.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

How do you involve your employees? How do they feel connected to the mission, and how do you interview them, to ensure that they’re well-aligned?

Madeleine Shaw 

I mean, we really look for values alignment. I mean, obviously, skill is an important thing when you’re looking for stuff. We wouldn’t be able to hire someone without values alignment. Like, there just has to be people who believe in our mission and who have the experience to sort of support that. Like, this isn’t a new thing for them. Nobody ever comes to us who is trying to figure out should I work for the bank? Or should I work for …. We don’t even get the people who are thinking about maybe working at the bank. We only get to our mission-driven folks. It’s a classic millennial thing, right? They want to work for companies that are making a difference.

We’re sort of on the same page like everybody is an intersectional feminist nobody needs to have that explained to them. We’re all for example right now deeply involved in racial justice work. We really going yeah okay you know, sustainability, great tick that box. Whatever your social responsibility, great tick that box. But what are we doing as individuals to unpack our social privilege and dismantle white supremacy, is giving every single person on the team a personal budget for them to do whatever form of learning feels appropriate: reading books, attend webinars, you want to do whatever you want. Go do it. We provide volunteer hours for people to do pursue what they care about. Some people are really into environmental issues, indigenous rights issues, other people were really into transgender and non- binary inclusion and justice issues, animal rights, that type of thing. Our team members have left-leaning, green, feminists, interests, so we want to support them. Nobody needs to apologize for who they are to explain, their kind of political orientation. You just see people where they are. We have flexible work hours and that kind of thing. Yeah, we just take people where they are.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Which is fabulous. And you have 13 employees, I believe, is the number.

I was actually doing an interview the other day; I was being interviewed. They were surprised that I let my employees invest in where they want to invest far as our pool of money where we wanted to give to charities or time etc. He said, “Oh, you’re such a small business doing that.” It got me thinking. Yeah. But it’s not just about me. If you want to engage your employees and again, you’re a small business that is allowing and creating an environment for people to explore themselves. So kudos, because it can be done in a small business. A lot of times people think when you have a small business, Yes, I understand your business is you’re very specific about what you want to achieve. But a lot of times you hear well, and when I’m really profitable, I’ll worry about that contributing.

Madeleine Shaw 

Yeah, there is a rationale for that because you do really need funding to get going. Nobody wakes up and goes, Oh, hey, I, awash with startup capital. And I understand that, that’s sort of the put your own oxygen mask on first airplane analogy. I do understand that but I think that there are some ways you can fill in like even how you approach supply chain or supplier relationships and that you know, you can have a code of conduct for your suppliers that, it’s very specific about human rights and environmental stuff for sure. And that’s a way it doesn’t cost you anything. You’re not necessarily donating huge amounts of money to anybody. But you’re being really careful and sending a really important message about how you do business and what you expect from the people you are doing business with. The other thing that I see a lot of what I think is the greatest certify one, get one model. And we do that, in fact, to go back to Africa to this day, we have for every Aisle pad that sold there’s a percentage of the proceeds of that that goes towards funding. Production of a pad for a girl who can’t afford one in East Africa. That way you’re just kind of building it in, it’s not like you need to build up this huge reserve of capital that you can deploy to do something, you know things like I think it can be in smaller ways that are just part of your practice.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Great advice. In regards to the pandemic, have you seen any implications on your business, your employees, or customer sales?

Madeleine Shaw 

Yes and no? We launched our new brand, transitioning from being Lunapads to being Aisle on March 11. Not great timing, but whatever, there you go. And so we had planned a big media splash and all kinds of noise and none of that kind of came to pass, you know, due to COVID. But, and this is the good part. I mean, you’ve always got to go how you know glass half full glass half empty. Our business because we were already well adapted to e-commerce, we were already doing most of our business online. Like, which is to say to the tune of Northcoast 85%. Like that’s really how it works for us at Aisle. We have digital marketing to support that. So we didn’t need to make that pivot the way a lot of people did. And so our sales are just steady like we haven’t had to lay anybody off. We haven’t had to do anything really drastic. People are working from home, which is relatively easy when you’re mostly in a home-based company anyways. And I would say if anything, it’s just been kind of in the same way that this has been hard and uncertain for everybody.

We did a big planning session the other day we’re not doing strategic planning anymore, but we’re doing contingency planning. So just saying, well, if this, then this, if this and this, if this, then this, instead of assuming that, Oh, well, you know, everything’s going to be kind of more or less the same in 2021 2345. We don’t know that there are all kinds of, as we know, and I’ve seen the last six months and but we basically talked through, okay, what happens if Donald Trump wins the US election, or there isn’t a vaccine for COVID or you know, all those things happen, what is going to happen for us?

One of the things that we have noticed is that with people staying home more, who wants to go to a drugstore, you don’t have to everybody shopping online, so that has benefited us. And also, with people being home more, they’re more likely to try reusable menstrual products because they’re not like, what am I going to do? You know, when I go to work? How am I going to change my pad? Or how am I going to change my menstrual cup when you know I’m at school or that kind of stuff, they’re not going to those places anymore. So being at home and close to a bathroom and private space and laundry and all of that have made customers more likely to want to switch because this just suits our lifestyle better.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Are you producing masks?

Madeleine Shaw 

That’s a buy one, get one that we’re doing as well, and so just to briefly get into that, we started getting requests from local social service agencies serving marginalized communities in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which is a very rough place. And there are a lot of folks there who need help. And so because we work with some products all the time in Vancouver, we kind of adopted part of our manufacturing capacity to make masks and instead of pads. I think we’ve donated about 3000 so far to frontline workers within marginalized populations. So those people dealing with addictions, people experiencing homelessness, mental health challenges kind of thing that are very concentrated in that area. And so in the meantime, providing kind of very high quality locally made masks to anybody,

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Which is fabulous. Now, you’ve done a lot and you’ve been motivated, be it from when you were 17 years old, and have really stuck to your mission, kudos because it can be challenging. Have you ever done anything that makes you really uncomfortable, but if you didn’t do it, you achieve the impact that you have today?

Madeleine Shaw 

Oh, goodness, oh, it’s interesting, actually, that you mentioned that. I’m in the process of writing a book. And it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. And it’s just is like it’s so challenging. It’s brought up all of my insecurities, it’s brought up all of my demons and all of those horrible voices that tell you all the bad things. But it feels really important to me, it’s almost like a micro-entrepreneurial challenge. It’s like another adventure in and of itself, like you go through the whole who’s the customer and, whatever, what’s the competitive landscape and all the things that you need to sort of analyze right? And as well as kind of digging really deep into what is my message? What is my brand? What is my core story? What is the value proposition? Why would someone want to read this?

And so I feel like by pursuing this particular challenge by just staying with it, no matter how hard I’m doing something really important for myself, as well as just for the readers who are going to read this. And hopefully, get some unique value out of it and inspiration.

What are some other things though? Well, stepping away from the company. This is a really interesting point. Maybe for some people who are listening because most of the conversation about entrepreneurship, it’s about starting and about succeeding and about overcoming challenges. It’s like, Okay, what about stepping away? What about how to know when it’s time to let go and then doing that in a graceful way that doesn’t harm others. I get through situations that are kind of where there are friction and stuff, but that wasn’t what was true for me, I just kind of realized starting in around 2013 2014 there would be a finite point for me at the company. I just kept having other ideas what other things I wanted to do and also watching just the way the company was going in terms of honestly e-commerce and which is where it needed to go and personally it’s not something that really intrigues me. I don’t love it, and I don’t love social media, I don’t love e-commerce doesn’t interest me, Google Analytics just makes me want to go somewhere else. And so realizing that the core of what the company was doing was not in line with things that I loved or my skill set. I thought other people need to do this. This business model is working, and which is great, but I don’t need to be there in order for it to work. And so, then I kind of went into sort of a crisis of like, well, what would I do? Our identities get so wrapped up in who we are as founders. Right? Bit by bit by bit, I understood that it was time to let go and Suzanne became CEO of the company, and I think it was 2013. And it was funny right after that happened, I was feeling a bit low. And then suddenly, I had this huge creative download for an event series at that point was just one event that I wanted to do kind of a rite of passage event for adolescent girls, ages 10 to 12 to kind of acknowledge that really key life transition between childhood and adolescence at the time my daughter was nine. And so, I decided I just had this like a massive vision for it and decided to launch it in 2014. It wouldn’t show me until I let something go, something new actually wanted to come through me. And so I carried on and, working with the company part-time but not in leadership not at all operational capacity. Suzanne has obviously as we can see growing into just an extraordinary leader of the company. But working through that on kind of a practical and an ego-based level was a really, really challenging experience where I had to be really honest with myself and just be willing to let some stuff go where I didn’t know what was going to happen. And then I didn’t know even who I was, in a way and but it’s ultimately turned out to be very positive. So, I’m very happy. I’m writing about that in the book.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Thank you for sharing that story. Because, as you said, is knowing when to step away, such an important piece.

We’re going to wrap up I’m going to ask you some what I call rapid-fire questions.

What is the one thing you wish you knew prior to engaging down the path of creating I’ll Aislepads?

Madeleine Shaw 

That I didn’t have to do it alone.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Worst piece of advice you ever received.

Madeleine Shaw 

Everything happens for a reason.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Which of your strengths do you rely on the most to have the success you have achieved?

Madeleine Shaw 

empathy

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Besides yours, which beneficiary Do you think needs the most investment time research money?

Madeleine Shaw 

People in general. Folks who have been marginalized in any way, shape or form. Folks living with disabilities, experiencing homelessness, anybody who is basically not part of the white male cisgender kind of heteronormative culture. It’s time for their voices and their leadership.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Best business advice you ever received.

Madeleine Shaw 

Always get your hands on as much money as possible because you’ll need it.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Now, you said you had a daughter. Okay. I don’t know how old she’s now but if she was 10 today, what advice would you give to her

Madeleine Shaw 

lift as you rise

Suzanne F. Stevens 

What advice do you wish you received?

Madeleine Shaw 

That I didn’t need to just get so caught up in what I thought other expectations other people had of me and I didn’t need to apologize for who I really was. Because I got very caught up like even in what I felt my family’s expectations were of me and even expectations around what is true and what an entrepreneur is. I think that’s changing and I’m happy to be part of that. Like just the idea that your goal is to is growth. Like everybody’s got to scale, got to scale, you got to disrupt something. You got to move fast and break things. Can we stop doing that? Please? I think we need to be coming from a place of fixing things, not breaking them. And so I try and practice what I call regenerative entrepreneurship and that has to do with the circular economy. It’s like everything you do should be making the world a better place somehow. And if it’s not, you got to ask yourself what is the point?

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Well said. What three values do you live by?

Madeleine Shaw 

Oh, definitely do what you say you’re going to do. As much as possible. I’m a very consistent person like you, if I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. Also, compassion, like when I said empathy, earlier, compassion, like, just we’ve all got to remember that we’re in this as human beings. And no matter what kind of transaction I am with someone, I always try and find out someone’s name and then ask them how their day is going, doing that as a practice. I think it’s really important in life. Gratitude. And being mindful of social privilege is essential. I try and really understand that social privilege is part of every single thing that surrounds me and needing to be mindful of that. And just kind of checking it and understanding that, when I say something, or when I do something, that it’s coming through a lens of a very particular life experience that is not shared by everybody.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Thank you everyone for joining us.

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Do you have any words of wisdom for our audience regarding contributing to society?

Madeleine Shaw 

Oh, thanks so much, Suzanne. And yeah, I think there’s a lot of people in the world who are kind of hesitating. They’ve got an idea. There’s something that they wish somebody else would do something about but there’s a kind of self-doubt that sets in. Or they just kind of look at the business pages of newspapers and don’t see people who look like them. And to them, I say, it doesn’t matter how big what your planning is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to write an app, don’t need to have an MBA, don’t need to have gone to business school, you don’t need to be raising tons of venture capital, you don’t need to be doing any of those things. You just need to be someone who is using your vision and your skill to try and change the world in whatever way you can, wherever you are. So it’s kind of the philosophy to Do what you can, with what you got, where ever you are. Don’t feel like it needs to be bigger. Just trust it. If there’s something in your heart that’s calling you. Go and do it, take the first step. You know, tell someone your vision, tell your story. Ask for help, and, and just don’t be afraid. You don’t need to have it all planned out in advance. Just take that first step. Declare your intention. Share it with others, and I can pretty much guarantee you that stuff will kind of take on a life of its own from there.

Suzanne F. Stevens 

Until next time, Make your contribution count for you, me, we.

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