Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 November 2019

Author and entrepreneur Miki Agrawal on building her empire

'I wrote Disrupt-Her because I am in the business of disrupting categories and societal preconceptions using products,' she says

Miki Agrawal is the author of ‘Disrupt-Her’. Antonie Robertson / The National
Miki Agrawal is the author of ‘Disrupt-Her’. Antonie Robertson / The National

Typically, when you’re asked to think of three words to describe yourself or even someone else, you hem and haw for ages, or are not quite sure what to say. But after just a few minutes in Miki Agrawal’s company, describing her is a no-brainer: Agrawal is at once approachable, passionate and a disrupter.

In fact, that last quality is so ingrained in her that she’s written a new book – her second – detailing exactly how to think like a disrupter. Disrupt-Her: A Manifesto for the Modern Woman will be released on January 29, and marks a significant departure from Agrawal’s business manifesto, 2013’s guide to quitting your day job, starting your own business and living happily ever after, and her well-earned reputation as a serial ­entrepreneur.

“I wrote Disrupt-Her because I am in the business of disrupting categories and societal preconceptions using products,” says the 39-year-old, during a visit to Dubai last week, where she was invited by the UAE chapter of the Entrepreneurs Organization to present a seminar on disruptive innovation and fearlessness in entrepreneurship.

“In my experience, I faced so much pushback from society, [with many] calling me uncouth, saying I’m trying to get attention. But, no. What I do is, I see a problem that doesn’t make sense and I see an opportunity to make it better. So I took a step back, looked at society as a whole and pinpointed areas in a woman’s – or really, a human’s – life, where we are told what to believe, such that it becomes a common belief shared among everyone and is considered the truth, but isn’t necessarily so. And then I disrupt them one by one.”

'You can’t prevent ­progress, it will always happen'

It’s an approach Agrawal – a Cornell University graduate of Indian and Japanese parentage, and Canadian upbringing who calls New York home – is well versed in. She has founded four successful social enterprises based on unique inventions that she dreamt up herself. Wild is her New York-based foray into creating a gluten- and hormone-free, sustainable pizza chain, back when the words “healthy” and “pizza” didn’t exist in the same sentence.

Following that, she created Thinx, microfibre underwear that wicks away moisture, making it leakproof and stain-proof, for women to wear during their menstrual cycle. From there, she created Icon underwear, for women who had light bladder leakage and needed leakproof garments instead of the only existing option of adult diapers. Her latest venture is Tushy, an affordable cleansing device that can be installed on any toilet or latrine to instantly turn it into a bidet that can help you wash effectively – and hygienically – after using the bathroom.

She is also the inventor of Tushy, a cleansing device. Courtesy Miki Agrawal
She is also the inventor of Tushy, a cleansing device. Courtesy Miki Agrawal

“A disruptive innovation is one that creates a new market, which eventually overtakes an existing market,” explains Agrawal, citing a number of examples: the creation of the Model T replaced the horse and buggy market; Uber and Airbnb disrupted the ways taxis and hotels operate; the invention of anaesthesia ­resulted in a completely ­different experience when it came to surgeries; and the Toms shoes model, of giving one free pair of shoes for every pair bought, was a ­controversial approach that changed the way start-ups and businesses think. “You can’t prevent ­progress, it will always happen,” she adds. “Today, 88 per cent of Fortune 500 companies that existed in 1955 are gone, because they did not innovate fast enough and they became obsolete.”

'We can do better'

When Agrawal decided to become disruptive in business, she saw opportunities in objects and approaches that were hitherto considered taboo by many. “My products deal with areas in people’s lives that make them cringe – the unmentionables. I feel that rather than disrupting something through advocacy, a product or business can do it.”

Agrawal’s method is not only about ­creating the product and making a successful business out of it, but also about bringing about social change or even global salvation. With Thinx, for example, she ­adopted a buy-one, fund-one model. For every pair of undergarment sold, Thinx donates money to an organisation in Uganda that creates washable ­menstrual pads to help provide ­feminine-hygiene products for women who cannot afford it.

Icon donates money to the Fistula Foundation, a non-­profit that treats obstetric fistula, a preventable childbirth injury that devastates the lives of many mothers in Africa and Asia, who would otherwise be sent to fistula camps, described as “modern-day leprosy camps”. The donations from Icon go towards funding repair surgeries for a condition that can be fixed, giving these women their lives back.

Tushy was Agrawal’s answer to what she calls social conditioning, brainwashing and blind indoctrination. “We have been led to believe that toilet paper cleans us. It’s crazy. You wouldn’t shower without using fresh water and consider yourself clean just by wiping your body with dry toilet paper.” Never mind, she adds, how much toilet paper – a US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) industry in the United States alone – harms the environment. Global toilet-paper production consumes 27,000 trees daily. “Indoctrination is so powerful and what we have been led to believe is the truth is not actually so. We can do better,” insists Agrawal.

What's next?

Writing Disrupt-Her was the next logical step. In it, Agrawal describes and then disrupts 13 areas of life where we are told how to act, think or behave. She considers the historical context to try and understand where these mandates originate from, and then goes on to show how they are inaccurate or misconstrued.

One such example is the belief that growing up means getting serious and letting go of our childlike state of curiosity, playfulness and any type of awe. “You can be all those things and still be a responsible adult. As we age, society values productivity more than play, but they are equally important,” maintains Agrawal. Another common belief that she dissects is the idea that more stuff equates a better life. “The bigger house, the bigger car, more shoes, more clothes, a bigger ring; we’re often told that’s what we should aim for. But the disruption is creating a better life by practising addition through subtraction, so you are left with what’s important.”

After the birth of her son, Hiro, last year, the entrepreneur wanted her next invention to take into account children’s safety. “My next business is to create a clothing brand called Samurai. It’s protective clothing that has built-in technology to allow harmful radiation waves to bounce off it, so that you and your children are safe,” she explains. The idea came to her when she noticed new towers being built every two blocks in New York, in response to the 5G network growth.

“The trick for me is taking risks and not taking myself too seriously,” concludes Agrawal. “I just want to continue to bring value to the world.”

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Updated: December 10, 2018 06:33 PM

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