I recommend everyone to just TRY it. No matter how crazy an idea sounds or if people tell you that it makes no sense, you should always try it yourself.
Diana Sierra is the Co-founder and CEO for Be Girl, a social enterprise dedicated to empowering women by design. She built her career in industrial design as a consultant, working for various multinational companies and consultancy firms such as Nike, Panasonic and Curve ID. Just prior to founding Be Girl, she worked in East Africa and South America on better designs for cookstoves, agro-processing machines, soil testing devices and women empowerment programs. Her studio has won multiple design awards worldwide. Diana holds a Master of Science degree in Sustainability Management from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Industrial Design from the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. She also teaches product innovation and design for sustainability for small businesses at the SENA in Medellín, Colombia, and collaborates with the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum on educational workshops for teens.
Where did the idea for the BeGirlPanty come from?
Ideas are connected to events — “a-ha” moments that spark out of a conversation or an observation that touches you deeply and makes you feel that something needs to be done to change the status quo. While working in Uganda in 2012, I regularly witnessed adolescent girls missing school. When I asked why, I discovered that they were afraid and embarrassed to go as they had nothing to prevent bloodstains on their uniforms when menstruating. In an instant, I saw the opportunities afforded by an education completely vanish for these girls because of their biology — because they were girls. Beyond access to education, I believe dignity is a fundamental human right and here I was confronted with these girls who were being denied it simply because they lacked appropriate supplies to manage their menstruation. That was the “a-ha” moment for me. As a woman and a designer, witnessing the truth of their experience made it personal for me. It was then that I decided to dedicate my time, skills and energy to creating a solution – because dignity shouldn’t be determined by economic circumstance and education is key for girls breaking out of the poverty trap. Using locally available materials – an umbrella, mosquito netting, thread, scissors and needle – I designed and fabricated the first prototype for a reusable and washable waterproof sanitary pad with a permeable pouch that could be filled with any safe reusable or disposable absorbent material. The product, which has since evolved from a sanitary pad shape into a performance underwear called a BeGirlPanty, has been tested in a dozen countries with more than 3000 girls. I know it works on every level of need. Now my biggest challenge is getting it in the hands of every girl that needs one which is why I just launched a Kickstarter ) featuring the very first get one, give one underwear line called EmpowerPanty. My new goal is to get the world to #ChangeYourUndiesForGood so that no girl has to suffer indignity or sit out on her education because of her period.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My days starts with a good shower and breakfast because once I get into the zone I’ll often forget to stop and eat. I love my work so getting lost on the clock is easy, but I always make sure I take a nap/siesta around 2PM to recharge. It improves my focus and gives my body a chance to catch up with my brain after a morning spent developing ideas.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I’ve learned to never stroke a pen on paper without first being fully immersed in the environment and exposed to all the variables of the problem I want to address. This discovery step is crucial as you often find that the problem you thought you had is actually not the problem at all — but a consequence of something entirely different and ultimately more important to address. Accurately framing the issue in context is the key to solving it. That means even if you have to dedicate 80% of your energy to thoroughly uncovering and understanding the situation, the time is well spent because your final output will be a true and conscious solution. This critical step allows you to stand strong by your work regardless of outside influences.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
I am thrilled to see and be a part of the “democratization of design.” This means making the methodologies and recipes to design good products accessible to all. We need to take down the myth that the “designer” is the one that dresses in all black and makes sleek stuff behind a closed curtain. We are ALL designers and creative by nature. I love to see when people take that belief to heart and start solving their own problems with creative tools. A perfect sketch does not make you a great designer: I have seen a kindergartener’s doodle literally reach the stars. We all have what it takes to create, solve problems and pursue an idea to fruition.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I take the time to recognize and be truly grateful for the position I am in right now. Even though every day might not necessarily be a bowl of cherries, this mindset allows me to completely dedicate my heart, soul and mind to whatever task is at hand to move the company forward.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
At my worst job, I discovered that money does not equal happiness. I found my best paying position with great project work, but the boss was a nightmare — calling at 3 am to ask for changes by 8 AM on a regular basis. Sketches would be thrown all over the room in a creative diva tantrum… which all sounds funny now but was hell at the time. The lack of personal respect and the grinding environment was not worth any amount of money. It was an experience I will never forget and one that I will fight tooth and nail to never replicate.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would do nothing differently as I am exactly where I want to be. It has taken a combination of good and bad decisions to get here, but what really matters is the outcome and I am so very happy where I am. It is not perfect but works great for me.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I recommend everyone to just TRY it. No matter how crazy an idea sounds or if people tell you that it makes no sense, you should always try it yourself. In my own experience, I have been told that reusable sanitary products in the U.S is an unattainable utopia. I say, “Why?” Working to address gender equality through access to appropriate menstrual product for girls in impoverished environments — I was told it is “a drop of water in an ocean of problems.” But I still say, why not try? What do I have to lose as compared to what millions of girls could gain if it works? I encourage everyone to TRY, always try because no matter how small the drop is, it will still make waves and that is what matters.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Be honest to the core about your values, vision and mission for your company with all audiences. For example, when meeting with prospective investors, I make it clear that I am in this business for the millions of girls and women who are forced to sit on the sidelines of life because of their biology. This means that a traditional investor whose interest is predominantly wealth generation might not be a good match for Be Girl and that is OK. No one benefits if I try to fit my company into the standard for-profit mold to obtain funding. By always presenting an honest and authentic self, whether individual or corporate, we can establish clear expectations, strong alliances and deep-seated trust between individuals – whether they are investors, business partners or employees. I believe, in the end, that cash will only take a company so far. It is the people that are at the core of a successful business and those relationships are powered by trust built on honesty.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I am someone who operates from the heart and the gut – I like to go with my instincts. This works well when I am designing because it allows me to be in tune with the true needs, limitations, and aspirations of the end users. However, to have a successful, social mission-based business, you need to balance the heart with the brain to be financially sustainable. I have found the best way to overcome this personal ‘failure’ is to partner with someone who leads with his head and is systematic in using data when making key business decisions. For this, I am appreciative of my business partner, Pablo Freund, who challenges the way I make decisions – just as I challenge his. Through this type of ‘devil’s advocate’ partnership, we are able to make business decisions that maximize outcomes on all levels.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
If I wasn’t so in love with my company Be Girl, I’d be working in the cricket business as they are delicious and super nutritious. I tasted them in Uganda and it was love, at first, bite – literally! I would be the next Crickewonderful — on the shelf beside the fancy pistachios and nuts.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I bought a Bakelite radio from the1940s in a flea market. The craft was perfect, it had exquisite details and the condition was impeccable. I love the fact that someone put so much care into preserving this little object over time and I wanted to make sure it found a home where beautiful objects are loved. 🙂
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
I am not a techie person, but I owe a great deal of my sanity to Evernote and WhatsApp, which I find really useful while working with team members overseas.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Small is Beautiful by E.F Shumacher — the title speaks for itself.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
Amy Smith founder of D-Lab in MIT ) is on my “Super Hero” wall. I find her work tremendously inspiring — so much so that her TED talk – “Simple designs to save a life” – was what planted the seed for me to set sail for Africa in 2012 and ultimately put me on the path I am on now.
Be Girl on Instagram: @begirlorg
Be Girl on Twitter: @BeGirlOrg
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.