About the Startup Women Advocacy Network (SWAN)
There is a lack of awareness and storytelling of early-stage, woman-identifying entrepreneurs in Canada. Staying true to our core values and role as a national convener, Startup Canada wants to connect entrepreneurs with the support they need to help tackle this gap.
Thus, we have created the Startup Women Advocacy Network (SWAN) – a network of 13 early-stage, woman-identifying entrepreneurs from each province and territory to champion the needs of women entrepreneurship throughout the whole year. SWAN members can amplify their business through our platforms and are given exclusive opportunities to have a seat at vital government roundtables and other events that are crucial to creating real change.
This is just the beginning. The hope behind SWAN is to create an ever-growing network of champions across Canada to ultimately increase the visibility and voice of women-identifying founders, and the instrumental role they play in improving the country’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Meet Nadia Ladak, SWAN representative from Ontario
In the spirit of amplifying women entrepreneurs, we will be sitting down with each of our SWAN members to learn more about their founding journeys. Introducing our fourth member Nadia Ladak, Co-Founder of Marlow out of Toronto, Ontario.
Nadia Ladak, Co-Founder of Marlow, is changing the way menstruators across the world understand, experience, and approach their periods and sexual health. Marlow began from a conversation between four friends – Nadia, Simone, Kiara, and Harit – around the sub-par products and culture surrounding menstrual health that had become so commonplace in today’s society. Marlow’s first product, a lubricant and tampon designed to be used together, was the four co-founder’s’ solution. The product aims to combat the all-to-common issues that millions of menstruators across the globe face, including: vaginal dryness, light flow, medical conditions such as vaginismus, anxiety, and those who are just plain fed up with the status quo of traditional tampons that can contain harmful materials and chemicals. The team also supplies their customers and site visitors with daily, up to date, inclusive educational material surrounding menstrual and sexual health – empowering them to make informed decisions, take charge of their own lives, and fight the stigma surrounding periods.
We’d love to learn a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey towards founding Marlow.
Marlow started as a casual conversation among a group of friends, who would later become my co-founders. One of my co-founders shared that she has a lot of pain and discomfort when inserting tampons. She’s an active individual who plays sports and loves the outdoors and she found that not being able to use a tampon really limited her in doing the activities that she loves. She went to the gynaecologist to try to find a solution to her problem and was advised that the best option would be to “spit” on the tampon. This advice blew away our team. We thought.. we’re sending people to the moon and creating complex AI algorithms, so why is it that innovation in the menstrual product space has been overlooked for so many years? This inspired us to do a deep dive into the space and later led to us creating the first-ever lubricated tampon experience.
Since then, we’ve partnered with manufacturers to bring our tampons and lubricant to market, both of which have been approved by Health Canada and the FDA. We’ve also partnered with a research lab to ensure the safety of our product which is now available for purchase at www.wearemarlow.com in both Canada and the US. We raised a pre-seed angel round of $500,000 and have been awarded the Bay Street Bull 30 under 30 award and the Girlboss top 29 women leading the modern menstrual health movement. We’ve had media coverage in Global News, Vancouver Sun, Canadian Living, The Kit, Betakit, FemTech Insider, and more. But above all, we’ve been prioritizing building a community and safe space to learn about menstrual and sexual health. We provide daily educational content across our social media platforms and blog and have hosted workshops at a number of university campuses across Canada and the US.
What has been the most challenging obstacle for you in starting your business? And how did you overcome it?
One of our biggest challenges was finding ways to maintain a strong workplace culture in this virtual environment. Our founding team is spread across Canada and we meet every single day on Zoom to discuss our priorities and progress. However, there is a certain energy and excitement that comes with connecting with team members in person. Ideating and conducting creative brainstorms can be quite difficult on Zoom. Entrepreneurship can also get very lonely at times. For the past two years, I’ve been working out of my bedroom with limited in-person interaction with other founders. Now, with the gradual return to normalcy, I see colleagues getting invited to office patio happy hours and team socials and it’s sad that founders don’t have those same experiences or sense of belonging. So, to overcome this I’ve begun to organise in-person meet-ups to bring founders together. Internally, we get creative with our team building exercises to ensure we still foster a sense of belonging. We’ve introduced new rituals to our team meetings that promote a positive work culture. For example, every Friday we begin our team check-in by celebrating our wins and recognizing members of our team for their accomplishments. We schedule “jams” to problem solve and get creative on ways to grow the business. We’ve also created a Slack channel called “Marlow Love” where we send positive responses from our community to motivate our team members. One of our biggest strengths is our diverse team and close-knit culture – we will continue to prioritise fostering an inclusive environment that allows everyone to thrive.
What brings you the most joy or excitement in working in your business?
Every day I wake up energised and excited to solve a problem that impacts 50% of the global population. The FemTech space – which focuses on technology to improve healthcare for women across a number of areas, including maternal health, menstrual health, pelvic and sexual health, fertility, menopause, and contraception – is growing rapidly with 4x the amount of funding in the space and 5x the number of startups founded in the last year. This is the perfect time for Marlow to come to market as society is beginning to shift its perspective on menstrual and sexual health and is now viewing these areas as a key part of an individual’s wellness routine. In fact, Pinterest released their latest trends report and reported that “mindful menstruation” is one of the top trends to watch in 2022.
Gen Z consumers are looking to optimize all aspects of their wellness from physical wellness to mental wellness, and now menstrual and sexual wellness. The rest of the market is beginning to recognize these trends as well with companies such as Indigo, Sephora, and Bloomingdale’s launching their own sexual wellness categories for the first time. The overall rise in FemTech brings me excitement for the future as we continue to bring innovation to reproductive health and empower more individuals to take charge of their needs and fully participate in their lives.
In addition to your product, Marlow also aims to spark important conversations and educate consumers around menstrual health. What does progress look like for you in terms of moving the needle in the right direction? What impact would you like to see Marlow having on menstrual health?
Our goal is to change “The Talk” for the next generation from uncomfortable to refreshing. As menstruators ourselves, we know how ridiculous it is that menstruation is a subject steeped in whispers and misinformation, and we’re determined to change that. This is a natural bodily occurence for almost 50% of the population for 39 years and no one should feel ashamed of that. We shouldn’t have to disguise our periods in euphemisms such as “Aunt Flow” and “Shark Week” and we shouldn’t have to hide a tampon in our sleeves as we rush to the bathroom, hoping no one catches us.
When misinformation and taboos regarding menstrual health persist, the associated lack of education not only prevents important conversations about menstrual health, but also limits peoples’ ability to understand their bodies and whether their experiences are normal. This can lead to people living their lives in shame, disregarding their symptoms, and going undiagnosed for extended periods of time because they disregard their pain as “normal”. By removing this stigma and shame through refreshing, inclusive, and accurate education and conversation, we can move forward as a society to advocate for stronger reproductive healthcare.
At Marlow, we believe we can be at the forefront of the menstrual and sexual health movement. We foster a welcoming, supportive, and curious community which has allowed conversations about menstrual and sexual health to flourish. We’re building a safe space to ask the questions you’ve always wanted to know the answers to but have always felt too nervous to ask. We provide access to reliable, inclusive, and shame-free education. Due to the taboo nature of this space, we prioritise meeting people where they’re at. We know everyone has their own personal comfort levels and we want to go on this learning journey with our community.
What does being a part of the Startup Women Advocacy Network mean to you?
Growing up, I didn’t realise that entrepreneurship could be a viable career path. My parents immigrated to this country and strived to get stable jobs to provide for our family. So as a result, pursuing something as risky as entrepreneurship never even crossed my mind. Now being in this space, I am blown away by the unparalleled career development and learning opportunities that I’ve had. I hope that by being a part of the Startup Women Advocacy Network I can inspire more women and people of colour to pursue entrepreneurship. This network provides me with the platform to advocate for the resources, mentorship, and funding that will allow these entrepreneurs to succeed. It provides me with opportunities to share the current challenges that entrepreneurs are facing with key decision makers in government and the private sector. It also allows me to connect with incredible women entrepreneurs across the country who are all striving to make our world a better place.
In the spirit of advocacy, is there a woman-identifying, early-stage entrepreneur in Ontario that you admire or are following along their entrepreneurial journey?
There are several incredible early-stage women-identifying entrepreneurs in Ontario that I am following closely. One that I’d like to shout out is Kayli Dale, founder of a Friendlier Company. The company aims to reduce single-use plastic waste generated by disposable food packaging. I also want to shout out Dallas Barnes, founder of Reya Health, a contraceptive counselling platform that provides personalised advice and support around finding the right birth control options. There are so many incredible women-identifying founders out there and I want to celebrate all your wins. Entrepreneurship is not an easy path and I applaud each and every person taking the risk to put themselves out there and work on their businesses.
A lot of the time when founders talk about their journey and their business, they talk about their “why” – why they do what they do. So, we’re interested to know – what is your “why”?
For far too long, there have been larger players that have dominated the menstrual product space. Since they have had large market shares, they have never been incentivized to innovate on their products. This has led menstruators to believe that if they can’t use a tampon, something must be wrong with them. However, with Marlow, we are proving to menstruators everywhere that they don’t have to put up with the pain or feel held back by their period. Our lubricated tampons have forced people to get off of “auto-pilot” and to question the products they’re using. Many individuals enjoy using tampons, as they make menstruation barely noticeable throughout the day. They enable participation in sports, swimming, and wearing of tight clothing. However, when tampons are uncomfortable and painful to insert, this can stop a menstruator from living an active lifestyle and fully participating in their lives. Furthermore, in a research study conducted by PUMA sports brand and Modibodi, approximately one in two girls quit sports because of their period due to pain, fear of leakage, or embarrassment. Our first-to-market lubricated tampon provides a smoother and more comfortable insertion process. My “why” is to empower every single menstruator to live life on their own terms, not the time of the month.
Is there anything else we haven’t touched on that you would like to share with our community?
Please feel free to reach out at any time. I love connecting with other women-identifying entrepreneurs to share lessons learned and reflect on our experiences as founders. If there is anything I can ever do to support you, I’m all ears!
If someone wants to get in touch with you or connect with you, where is the best place for them to go?
You can learn more about our 2022 Startup Women Advocacy Network at https://www.startupcan.ca/startup-women-advocacy-network-2022/