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Careers and Enterprise

Sarah Bailey

Hear how Sarah Bailey went from studying Design, Innovation and Creative Engineering to starting her own business in the humanitarian sector.

Please briefly introduce yourself and describe your current business. 

I am Sarah Bailey, and this year I finished my bachelor’s degree in Design, Innovation and Creative Engineering (DICE) at QMUL. I am South African but grew up in Nigeria and the UAE before I moved to London for university.  

In high school, I started a community service project with two friends, distributing reusable sanitary pads for low-income and unemployed women in our home countries of South Africa and India. Instead of relying on external aid, we would provide the machinery, resources, and business acumen to give women the option to continue to produce the reusable pads as a source of income. 

Several years later, Even, our current venture, is launching a low-cost period underwear product for the humanitarian sector. Currently, refugees only receive about 1-2 months’ worth of disposable period products. In crises that last upwards of 6 years, this is simply not enough. Even’s period underwear lasts for over 4 years and is over 6x more cost effective. In addition, our underwear eliminates over 7kgs of single use plastic waste per refugee, as well as having a 6x lower CO2 footprint than disposable pads when used over the same period. 

From 2024, we will be selling these directly to humanitarian organisations, as well as running impact and research projects with NGOS and governments. 

Our underwear is only produced in WRAP (worldwide accredited responsible production) certified factories. We also have a contract starting next year to begin manufacturing in Egypt with a facility employing survivors of domestic abuse where they can access a meaningful income, psychological support, and a social safety net. 

Even has a deep ambition to improve access to opportunity for women across the world, we do this through ensuring menstruation is not a barrier to work, social interaction and schooling, it is also why we are called Even (after an ‘even’ playing field) but are incredibly excited that this value is overwhelmingly apparent in our supply chain as well. 


How did you come up with the idea, and what problem does it address? 

500 million people will unfortunately struggle to take care of their periods safely and with dignity next year. Menstrual hygiene interventions in humanitarian crises are largely failing with over 63% of menstruators in refugee camps experiencing Period Poverty, despite the $89 million dollar investment on disposable pads from humanitarian organisations.  

In this context, disposable pads are expensive and must be redistributed monthly and unfortunately, the very necessary underwear is often left out, due to cost. Although, when included, the medium-sized cotton underwear is reported to not fit over 80% of menstruators. In refugee settings there is no waste management infrastructure, so used pads become buried, burned or litter. 

Our period underwear came from a discussion of why dignity kits, the humanitarian name for menstrual hygiene supplies, are some of the most expensive kits…but least effective, with success rates sometimes below 30%. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if refugee camps had waste disposal infrastructure to deal with disposable pads? Wouldn’t it be nice if humanitarian organisations always supplied underwear as well as disposable pads? Well, period underwear would solve this. Wouldn’t it be nice if period underwear was cheaper? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make Period Underwear One-size?’ etc. When you get to a certain stage you can start asking the ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we could reduce the CO2 footprint and waste…’ 

All this occurred mostly over two weeks. I used a CAD software to do stress testing on whether something like a one-size fit all period underwear could hypothetically exist and be durable and affordable enough to survive in the context of humanitarian crises. In the end, we have a one-size fits all period underwear that uses a custom extreme stretch textile to fit XS-XXXXL. This removes the issue of sizing  that complicates humanitarian logistics and threatens to further erode the dignity of refugees who have never received clothing that they can actually wear.  


What inspired you to pursue entrepreneurship while or after your education at QMUL? 

I think my experience with starting a business was mostly accidental. We started working in the space at 16 and I think just never felt like we had finished. I can’t point to a moment where we sat down and decided to incorporate a business it all seemed like ‘the logical next step’.  

At Queen Mary, my degree in Design Engineering is an excellent compliment to what I do at Even. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to ever make our own product without it. It has been great learning new skills, like carbon auditing a product as part of my degree and immediately being able to audit Evens product and supply chain.  

I enjoy being a bit fresh and naïve to a design discipline, often I find areas that I definitely have to work hard to learn quickly and other times the naivety becomes an asset. We don’t often think of clothing as engineered garments; just as you would do stress cycle modelling on a bridge, I was doing that on a pair of underwear! That is something I would never have done if I had any clue about fashion design before I started but it was a real advantage because I was able to make really simple adjustments to the shape of the underwear to take the life expectancy from 2-3 years to 4-6! 


What were your goals at the beginning of your journey and how did they change/evolve throughout time?  

Our goals haven’t changed much since starting in 2019. We have always been keenly focused on how to eradicate Period Poverty. It is a deeply complex problem that sits at the intersection of public health, gender and racial inequality, sustainability, infrastructure, and class. However, our approach and methods have changed as we naturally focus on different aspects of Period Poverty.

Originally, we were very interested in creating meaningful employment opportunities for women in our home countries. We focused on incarcerated menstruators for a few months, menstruators in the UK, and now menstruators in displaced settings like refugee camps. These changes are not reflective of any group being ‘more deserving’ but rather who we are best equipped to help. For example, creating meaningful, safe, and well-paid employment one of the best solutions to any form of poverty.

However, to create it effectively and responsively you must assemble a team from the community who understand cultural sensitivities, language, and attitudes towards periods (as well as a very stable cashflow to pay this team with healthy benefits). Being honest with ourselves trying to balance time-commitments, geographic constraints of university, and the very irregular cashflow that comes with a startup whose founders are all working part-time is not conducive to an effective, resilient, culturally relevant program. So, while working at university, we are very well placed to develop new products and work with existing distribution channels like the humanitarian marketplaces of the UN and Red Cross who don’t see a lot of humanitarian-specific product development and cost-innovation in their catalogues. Consequently, these organisations become trapped purchasing wholesale consumer items that are not affordable nor context-sensitive.  


How do you deal with fear, doubts?  

Usually, the fear and doubts precede a challenge presenting itself. So, what can typically be experienced and certainly perceived negatively has been an incredibly helpful ‘warning shot’ of indicating an area of relative weakness. The teams’ greatest insights, strategy calls, and product developments resulted from our fears and doubts in about Evens product, program, or market strategy.  

Personally, I notice self-doubt when I anticipate having to communicate my ideas, sometimes I tend to experience ideas in my head with more clarity than I feel equipped to explain or present. Anushka and Aurusha, my two co-founders, are incredibly helpful here. They understand they best way to pull me out is with very honest feedback; the kind that can only happen when you have built up a very secure team dynamic over years of working together. Now that we are pitching in public more often, you learn that there are millions of ways of framing the same concept in a pitch. Every pitch becomes an experiment, especially in mixed audiences, it becomes more challenging when half of an audience immediately gets the issue and product, you don’t need to spell out why period underwear is cheaper, more sustainable, and more comfortable, and half need a lot more information on the issue to make sense. Naturally, we brush up on a lot of taboo’ed subjects, once we had a meeting with a very institutional humanitarian leader who had no clue disposable pads lasted at most a few hours, rather he thought than 1 pad = 1 period or month.  

Even within the team, our fears tend to pool in different areas, In the team we usually have a team-member pushing for ‘ambitious & novel’, another for ‘realistic & financially rational’ while another team member is always worried we are missing opportunities to contributing the lessons we have learned to the landscape of academic work. What supports and critiques from what we are planning? How can we contribute to the body of research? That balance in Evens team is an incredible asset.  


How have you used entrepreneurship for positive social change, and what impact have you seen in your community or industry, if any?  

Menstrual hygiene supplies are recognized as part of ‘life saving aid’ so are included in the big pot of money known as CERF (Central Emergency Relief Fund). They are known collectively as ‘Dignity Kits’ to capture how important they are at restoring dignity to menstruators in refugee camps and in the aftermath of a humanitarian crises. Unfortunately, due to their cost but reported ineffectiveness, they have become a ‘symbolic’ piece of aid: to ensure that women are, and feel included, in humanitarian aid.  

I would love to see this attitude change. We hope by eliminating most of the cost associated with production, menstrual hygiene kits can be an incredibly effective, affordable, and innovative product. In our pilot trial starting in Greece next month, we are set to save the refugee camp over $200,000 over 4 years. That is money from a budget that can be liberated for other uses like vaccines, emergency medical equipment or go into the direly needed improvements to sanitation infrastructure in the camp. 


What advice would you give to current students or recent graduates who are interested in pursuing entrepreneurship? 

Treat everything like a science experiment. With this framing, the immediate assumption is that we have an imperfect/ incomplete solution. This helps you with three key areas: 

  1. Focusing on the problem rather than your solution: With this attitude it becomes harder to forget about your user/customer/beneficiary and your market fit. This helps you pivot faster when something is no longer working. 
  2. Marking ‘failures’ as feedback: A “No” can no longer sting when you are on a hunt for insight. “When I was talking where did they nod/ smile/ laugh? What kind of questions did they ask? What can this tell me about where the moments of clarity or confusion are in our pitch are?” 
  3. Measuring bias, impact, risk against reality: Are you thinking about your biases, limitations, or experimental design? In my experience, about 50% of academics will be more than chuffed someone cares and is actively applying their work. They would likely lend you some of their time after a passionate but polite email. 

Lastly, You cannot outwork someone who is enjoying themselves. Have fun! 


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