The SheEO Spotlight Series showcases the talent and radical generosity of the SheEO Community, one entrepreneur at a time.
Meet Madeleine Shaw!
Madeleine Shaw is a social entrepreneur known for her creative approach to using business tools to achieve social change goals. As Co-Founder (alongside longtime business partner Suzanne Siemens) and Creative Director at Lunapads International and the United Girls of the World Society, she pursues feminist and sustainability agendas through both for-profit and “social” profit leadership. Here, we chat with the member of SheEO’s 2015 Radical Generosity Top Five cohort about her unusual journey.
You started your first business at the age of twenty-five--how did it all begin?
I was very into sewing at the time, had a lot of product ideas, and had been doing various projects part-time for friends. Coincidentally, I was fired from a job that I loved due to an abuse of power, and I decided to take that moment as a point of inspiration to find out what I was really made of rather than be a victim.
What an inspiring move! How did you build the confidence to do so?
For me, starting a business wasn’t so much about having courage as that I’ve never been a person that “fits in” in a conventional sort of way. At the time, it didn’t scare me to be different or to do my own thing; I just felt called to trust my intuition, take the leap, and see how everything would go!
Did you have a specific mission with your first business?
The very first business plan that I wrote aligned with my dream to create a socially-impactful business that made reusable products. I wanted to set up a facility where low-income, at-risk girls could learn job skills and make sewn products such as reusable shopping bags. And as this was at a time before the internet existed, I envisioned that there would be a catalogue and mail-order system.
The idea for Lunapads came to me following years of struggle with bladder infections. Once it hit me that they started almost immediately following the onset of my period, as an experiment I stopped using tampons and quickly realized that they had been the culprits all along. This in turn led me to become curious about the materials and ingredients of these so-call “sanitary”, “hygienic” products.
Most consumers don’t realize that manufacturers of mainstream disposable menstrual products don’t disclose their ingredients: it’s a complete sham. Ask yourself: what other consumer product is this true of? In the case of menstruation, it’s ultimately predicated on the persistent culture of shame that surrounds it, which in turn is directly related to fear of women’s power.
I had never wanted to use disposable pads - they had always seemed uncomfortable and wasteful - so I put my sewing skills to use and started making washable pads. Using and washing cloth pads was a radically different approach that opened up a very different perspective for me. Rather than seeing my period as a mildly uncomfortable inconvenience that was to be “managed” and disposed of as quickly and discreetly as possible, I soon came to see it as something interesting and wonderful that made me feel more connected to myself, as well as to the larger cyclical forces of nature. It was this revolution in consciousness that inspired me to try to introduce the products to other women.
Can you please share more about your motivation for positive social impact and how it first manifested?
My mom was a social worker and my dad was a judge; as their child, my interest in social justice was readily sparked at a young age.
My parents raised me to value truth and compassion and encouraged me to create and voice my own opinions.
I first became active as a feminist while in university. When I read the syllabus for my English 101 class in my first semester, I was shocked and deeply dismayed by the complete absence of women writers. As an aspiring English major with a mom who had earned her master’s degree in English literature, I had grown up reading a large and diverse collection of books. The realization that my school did not value or even acknowledge women writers as part of the core English canon blew me away and radicalized me. Vicki Saunders is always saying that “the system is broken” and that was my moment for realizing that to be true.
I began to involve myself in women’s issues in and out the classroom. I took courses in women’s studies and became active as a feminist leader in the student government. By the time that the idea of pursuing entrepreneurship became attractive to me, I had already been introduced to leadership roles. Starting a business thus seemed to me like a really great opportunity to create something on my own terms that wasn’t part of a system that I didn’t like. I also wanted to explore the practice of businesses with social impact.
When I started my own business, I realized that I didn’t know anything at all about its practice; this motivated me to enroll in the Entrepreneur in Training Program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. While in the program, I decided to focus on creating and selling what I had been making for a while: Lunapads. As they are reusable menstrual pads, I really liked how producing and selling Lunapads carried a mission that positively impacted my conscience.
How did you first meet your friend and business partner Suzanne Siemens?
Suzanne and I met in 1999 at a community leadership course that we were both taking. We were placed together on a team to work on a project, and we got along like crazy! She was unhappy with her work in the corporate sphere, and I had a fledgling business but lacked the experience to make it work in a big way. So we decided to collaborate: she prepared financial statements for Lunapads that we later pitched to a group of green social capital investors. By the end of the process, we were all IN.
Seventeen years later, we have developed an amazing relationship that I feel is a model for how people with different perspectives and skill sets can work together to create amazing results beyond what either party could have accomplished on their own.
What are you excited about that you are pursuing right now?
As Creative Director of Lunapads, my work has evolved to become a lot more project-based. Suzanne and I have been developing an educational booklet on reproductive health for girls in the global south to receive with AFRIpads, the latest expression of our longtime partnership with the Uganda-based padmaking social enterprise. It’s been a great process to work cross-culturally and to think deeply about social impact. We have also been working on creating new packaging for Lunapads Performa, a new line of high-absorbency, all-in-one pads.
I am also now the Creative Director for G Day, a global social movement operated by United Girls of the World (UGW) that celebrates girls’ transition from adolescence into adulthood. Girls ages 10 to 12 and their parents and supporters, all known as ‘Champions’, gather during G Day events to engage in activities that inspire positive self-esteem and supportive family and community relationships.
To me it sounds like creativity, innovation, and independence all play significant roles in what you pursue. How are you inspired by these pillars in your life?
Creativity, innovation, and independence are part of everything that I do. I specifically find a lot of inspiration in the natural world and in seeing how plants in ecosystems want to grow. I like being curious about the process of plant growth and following the energy. Plants are either going to grow or not, and all that you can really do is prepare the soil and water them. Following the energy like this has been a good lesson for me outside of the garden as well.
I am also constantly inspired by working with Suzanne because we have a very beautiful and creative process together. It’s not about me doing my own thing, but instead about us having a conversation with each other that continues to evolve. There’s a constant reshaping of our ideas together that occurs, and from there we make decisions and move forward.
And how did you first get involved with SheEO?
I first heard about Vicki Saunders from one of the green venture capitalists who’d supported Lunapads, Joel Solomon. Vicki and I eventually met in-person at a gathering for women entrepreneurs in Vancouver, and I was struck by her vision and leadership style. I was interested in the SheEO movement both as an Activator and an entrepreneur, and I wanted to be a part of it!
Suzanne and I supported Vicki’s first crowdfunding campaign in 2014 for seeding the SheEO tribe, and a couple of years later are now members of the 2015 Radical Generosity Top Five cohort. My SheEO Top Five sisters and I are not only supported by a new model of funding, but we also have 500 new customers, experts, and champions of our business. How awesome is that?!
Anna Wolle is an intern with SheEO, and a rising junior studying philosophy and French at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota and l’Université Paris-Sorbonne in Paris, France. You can email her at [email protected].
Hello SheEO Activators!
My Ask? If you or someone you know uses menstrual products, please consider using our reusable products. Lunapads are ecofriendly, support the female body, and are overall radically different from plastic, disposable pads. You can try our method by getting a free pantyliner from us! Please visit us at lunapads.com and our blog at lunagals.com.