Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

THINX, Miki Agrawal, and the immature leadership of a visionary entrepreneur

THINX was founded by Miki Agrawal with the ambition of disrupting the feminine hygiene industry. The company makes underwear specially designed to be worn by women on their menstrual periods. In line with this female-centered product and its revolutionary approach to a timeless need, THINX has a mission to re-center the public discussion about periods and women’s bodies. The company has become known for its provocative, bold advertising campaigns on the internet and in the New York City subway.

However, the company has also become known for something less progressive: allegations that its founder-CEO Agrawal created a hostile work environment with inappropriate behaviour and insufficient management controls.

THINX started with the objective to normalize the way people talk about periods, making it no longer a taboo topic. This societal change is an admirable goal, but at THINX it was undermined by an immature compliance culture that perverted this openness into permissiveness for mistreatment and poor conduct. It may be a positive societal change to open and encourage dialogs about feminine hygiene practices and women’s bodies, but the standards for treatment of others and respect for people’s personal boundaries, everywhere in life but especially in the work place, should not be subverted in interests of promoting this message. Empowering women does not stop at the office door, especially in a company with this ambition as its supposed core value.

Agrawal, who has successfully started several businesses, has not been so successful in taking a professional approach to ongoing operations at those organizations. Her ideas and approaches to entrepreneurship may be disruptive in a good way – novel, unique, bold – but her management style appears disruptive in a bad way – immature, overly casual, confrontational. Personal conduct and character ethic should distinguish the profile of a CEO, not tarnish it. A true leader should focus his or her philosophy into appropriate behaviour and interactions with employees and a tone at the top of professional integrity.

Despite Agrawal’s own behaviour that crossed the line, she could have made up for her managerial shortcomings by placing people around her whose leadership could contribute to a more acceptable corporate tone for the employees while still servicing the cultural change Agrawal wanted to encourage in the world at large. Adequate management controls such as a formal, experienced HR department and written employee policies and procedures would have helped to set a standard towards which the company could mature.

THINX replaced Agrawal as CEO with Maria Molland Selby, a more traditional leader who was worked in a variety of established companies included Thomas Reuters and Dow Jones. Selby also is a passionate about the THINX product from a personal perspective, hopefully she can value the people working at THINX as individuals by treating them positively and focus on a corporate culture that will support the company’s goals of destigmatizing feminine and changing the product market to make it better. As for Agrawal, she has rebranded herself as a SHE-eo and a disrupt-“her,” indicating that her interest is really on focusing on her perceived positive accomplishments and the future, rather than learning from the criticisms of the past, which she perceives as obstacles or tests rather than self-created challenges or failures to mature.

For more detail on THINX and Miki Agrawal, read Noreen Malone’s story on The Cut.

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