How to challenge the status quo
A Q/A with serial social entrepreneur Miki Agrawal
Editor’s note: In honor of International Women’s month, we’re highlighting Miki Agrawal – a social entrepreneur who uses creativity and innovation to challenge the status quo, and change culture. She is relentlessly dedicated to creating sustainable impact, and disrupting the shame surrounding topics – and industries – that have been deemed taboo by many people. She is the founder of several acclaimed social enterprises: Wild, Thinx, Icon and Tushy (collectively valued at over $200 million) – and also the author of the #1 best-selling books, Do Cool Shit and Disrupt-Her.
You went from working in the finance industry, to playing professional soccer, to plunging headfirst into entrepreneurship by opening your first business – a pizzeria – just a couple years out of college. What was your mindset like at the time?
For me, 9/11 happened right after I graduated from college and was working right across the street from the World Trade Center Towers. Seven hundred people in my girlfriend’s office died on that day, and two people in my office died –but it was the first (and only!) day in my life that I slept through my alarm clock, and luckily, I missed the whole thing. My girlfriend went down to get coffee, which is how she missed it too. It was a surreal experience that changed my whole outlook on life. I was reminded that the mystery of life is that you never know when it’s going to end –and that the time was absolutely NOW to make every single moment count!
It woke me up to my truth of wanting to do something creative, entrepreneurial and one that solved real-world problems. This propelled me to start my first alternative restaurant concept (called Slice and was rebranded to Wild), the first gluten-free, farm-to-table pizza concept that supported local and organic foods. And then a few years later, I co-founded and built THINX, the period-proof underwear concept, and most recently, I created the modern bidet brand TUSHY. I never would have imagined to have created brands that are now valued at over $200 million. It’s been a wild ride to say the least.
Once you decided to do something entrepreneurial, and you had your first idea for, what were the first steps you took to get it started?
Since I was still young and had a lot of student loan debt, I had to figure out how I was going to take the leap from a cushy, safe finance job to an unstable entrepreneurial not-sure-when-I’ll-get-a-paycheck-next job. So I decided to widen the circle, and involved people who I considered to be brilliant. I reached out to the smartest people I knew and invited them to a “Meeting of the Minds Dinner Party” and made sure each person knew that they were hand picked for being one of the smartest people I knew. I borrowed my friend’s fancy loft, bought food for everyone, and made sure that everyone who was invited knew that they were going to meet other really cool, smart people that they didn’t previously know. Part of the invitation said that we were also going to brainstorm my idea for my new business. So it was a WIN-WIN. Almost all 20 people who I invited showed up. It was a WIN for them because they got to come to a fun, free dinner, meet other cool smart people, in a cool space. It was a WIN for me because I got to brainstorm my business idea with them. The first “Meeting of the Minds I had was supposed to be two hours but lasted over seven, because people were so excited to brainstorm.The energy was palpable! I hashed out my business idea, concept, name, SO MUCH of it in just one meeting. The key thing was to invite people from every walk of life (architect, designer, creative, marketer, finance person, real estate person, musician, consultant, etc.) because ALL of their perspectives were different.
From there, I was able to put the business presentation together, raise the money in an unorthodox way and make it happen.
You’re an extremely creative person – and have started businesses in several different industries, each solving very different problems. What would you say is a common thread for your inspiration?
I get my inspiration from simply being in the world, doing my best to observe things with a fresh (childlike) eye, questioning the things that don’t seem to make sense and notating the things that “suck” in my day-to-day life. And rather than complaining about the things that don’t make sense or suck, I get excited (!!) because it’s an opportunity to solve those things and make our collective human experiences better.
What are the core skills – or traits – that you think someone needs to possess in order to start a business and be successful? What sort of mindset have you adopted through the years that has contributed to your own success?
- Having purpose: When times are tough, I remind myself WHY I am doing it, and it helps keep me going. If we don’t have a WHY, it’s not going to be easy to keep going.
- Being able to really communicate my message: It’s important to be able to really get your idea across in a simple way. For example, when you explain your idea to someone, can they REPEAT IT BACK? If they can’t, try to explain it differently.
- Make it artful: People (like me!) care about design and aesthetic, so I focus so much on making sure our designs are gorgeous and artful. It all matters – the postcards, the ads, the packaging, the website, the product design. Think about your product through the lens of art.
- Drive to keep iterating: Just because you finally launch something doesn’t mean you don’t need to keep updating, improving, fixing and adjusting. I am maniacal about iterating constantly.
Strategic mindset: It’s important to get the right people and ideas together, and have a thought-out plan.
You’ve been quoted saying, “It’s the moments of struggle that inspire true transformation.” Can you tell us about a moment of struggle that you learned from? What did you learn, and how did you transform?
Throughout my entrepreneurial career, beyond just trying to build things that matter in the world (which can often be a struggle just on its own), I have been called a lot of names for wanting to disrupt the way things are done in society. I was initially taken aback by the willingness of some people to attack and troll people for things that could easily have been taken out of context. I realized that anyone who is doing something disruptive and different can be threatening to some people. Rather than getting hurt, I embraced compassion, love and gratitude instead, –and found a way to deepen and stretch my own emotional capacity. I feel so much more these days, especially as a mother of a two year old. It feels so good to feel deeply, especially compassion and love, for those who experience challenging things like I did. I now can tap into a deeper emotional well which has been incredible for connecting deeply with others.
What role have coaches, and mentors, had in your life – and how have they contributed to your success in business?
My coach CHANGED MY LIFE. I cannot see a life without my “good witch” as I like calling her. She has held me to my highest state for the last 6 years, through the ups and downs of my entrepreneurial career and she truly has been one of the greatest mirrors in my life to self-reflect and self- correct, especially my blind spots. She showed me how I can literally live my dreams, if I choose to.
When you’re in the ideation phase, how do you evaluate whether an idea has potential?
I always ask myself three questions before taking the leap and starting any business.
- What sucks in my world?
- Does it suck for a lot of people?
- Can I be passionate about this issue, cause or community for a really long time?
Let me give you a real world example.
What sucked in MY world? Well, wiping with dry toilet paper after I pooped sucked in my world! I was dealing with a hyperthyroid condition and pooped a LOT every day, and let me tell you, they were not clean poops! I would practically use up a whole roll of toilet paper to try and clean myself, and would eventually take a shower because I couldn’t stand being dirty. I also hated wasting so much toilet paper! (Too soon for this convo? We all poop, so I say it’s ok!) Did you know that the average American uses 57 sheets of toilet paper per day!? That’s 15 million trees killed per year! Not to mention the billions of gallons of water and bleach required to make toilet paper.
Does it suck for a lot of people? I realized that this is an issue for a lot of people, both in the first world, and the developing world. Bidets aren’t common in the first world, and because of that, many people turn to wet wipes – but unfortunately wet wipes can also cause issues, including anal itching and fissures, because over time they strip away the natural oils from our behinds.
I also realized that pooping SUCKS for billions of people in the developing world who don’t have a clean place to go to the bathroom. Women and girls often have it the worst because they are at risk of getting assaulted if they defecate in the open during the day, forcing them to “hold it” until late at night, which is really bad for their health. My Dad, who grew up in India, for a few years had to search for a clean toilet every day, because it wasn’t a secure thing for him either.
Can I be passionate about this issue for a really long time? YES! I am SO passionate about this, and that’s why I created TUSHY, the modern, affordable bidet that cleans your behind after you poop.To date, we have helped save 2 million trees from getting flushed down the toilet, and have helped over 57,000 families gain access to clean toilets in India. My goal is to save billions of trees, and help fight the global sanitation crisis that is affecting billions of people still today by building clean toilets around the world.
What is one piece of advice would you give to women wanting to make an impact on the world?
No more talking and dreaming, only doing! Put one foot in front of the other, and focus on doing just one thing every single day toward the thing you are interested in impacting in the world. It can be just one thing! It’s amazing how fast it adds up when you are doing one thing every day. Part of my philosophy on creating an impact, along with how you can start a movement that solves real problems and does good – even if you don’t have a lot of money, a college degree or years of experience, is covered in my newest book, DISRUPT-HER. Here’s a sneak peak!