When she was an adolescent growing up in Garhwa, Jharkand, just like any other girl, Aditi Gupta got her period. But what she wasn’t prepared for was the taboo and regressive attitude towards menstruation in her conservative society. This experience impacted Aditi to such an extent that she decided to do something about it when she was studying at NID with her now husband Tuhin Paul. That’s how the novel idea of Menstrupedia Comic was born. Menstrupedia is an initiative that uses comic-books and relatable media to de-stigmatise menstruation. Having been a menstrual educator for 8 years, Aditi has been featured as a Forbes India 30 Under 30 achiever and is also a TED Speaker. She also has several other accolades in her kitty including being named as one of BBC’s 100 influential women of 2015 and has been a World Economic Forum Global Shaper. The entrepreneur, who is changing the lives of girls and young women across the country, opens up about her journey in this exclusive interview.

Tell us a little about your background and growing up years.
I had an amazing childhood where my brother and I would fish in the river nearby, chase fireflies etc. Growing up, it was challenging to deal with menstruation because it was a huge taboo back then. I got my period in class 7, but the biology chapter about menstruation was available only in the 9th standard. My biology teacher was male, so the chapter about menstruation was skipped altogether. Nobody knew what periods were. When we got our period, we had to follow rules as if we were untouchable where we couldn’t touch holy things or touch pickle as we were told it will go bad. We were considered pure only after the 7th day of our period only once we washed our hair. I didn’t have access to sanitary napkins as there was a taboo around buying them. The medical store would have male staff, so going and buying it was out of question. So we’d use rags – cotton cloth during our period. The problem was how we treated this cloth. If menstruation is treated as impure, then it’s obvious that the cloth is considered impure too. We had to dry the cloth but couldn’t keep it in the open in the sun, so we had to store it in a dark, damp place so people don’t see it. The cloth would become coarse and I’d get rashes using them. This was the story of every woman there. This happened 30 years back, but still a lot has not changed when it comes to menstruation. It is still considered impure and women have to hide it from brothers and fathers.

As a youngster, how did you navigate these regressive practices?
Young girls don’t look at these things as regressive. Parents also don’t do it thinking it’s regressive. Most parents have these practices in place to safeguard the wellbeing of their girls. But these can affect the self-esteem and the health of girls. When you can’t talk about your body’s natural biological process, how is a girl or a woman going to talk about any violence that she may go through? When there’s a stain on a girl’s skirt, they say it’s her fault and there is a stain on her character or personality. These things affected my self-esteem too. I used to cycle to school and during my period, cycling was very inconvenient. There was no conversation about it. But my parents had the best intentions for me and I’m lucky to have such parents. Parents want to give the best to their girls, but they themselves have inhibitions because my mother was not taught about periods by her mother or grandmother. Her views were formed by what she was taught, so the vicious cycle needed to be changed. If girls are educated at the right time about periods, then this cycle will break.

Tell us about your life at National Institute of Design and how the idea of Menstrupedia was born.
The National Institute of Design is an institution that creates thought leaders. We are trained to question the social norms and our thought process. We go through storytelling, film appreciation courses etc. Through this, we used to get insight into how society worked. This helped me question the norms and also come up with strategies which can shift the narrative. Tuhin and I were taught user research. We’d talk to parents and teachers and go to houses and schools and find out why they’re not teaching their girls about periods. It helped us understand that parents want to teach girls but it has never happened due to it being a taboo topic. So for decades, all the girls knew of periods was through TV ads, but even those weren’t aired on prime time. We realised that girls were getting periods in the 6th std. Now the age has reduced even more and 8 year olds are getting their period. In the text books, there is no indication of where the reproductive system is. As a girl, I didn’t know where my uterus was located. Terms like vagina were completely censored. NID gave me the tools to question these things. It drove me to think about whether I can develop a tool where girls can learn about periods and be empowered. Girls who learn about this can break the vicious cycle. We came up with a comic book and tested it. Had it not been for NID, the idea of Menstrupedia would not have been incepted.

You ended up meeting your husband Tuhin at NID. How did meeting him change things for you?
Meeting Tuhin changed my perception about periods. Tuhin has one brother and he had never learnt about periods. At NID, we did a lot of projects together and fell in love. He’s a very supportive and caring partner. This was the first time I discussed periods openly with him. When I opened up about my menstrual cramps and the strict restrictions that I follow, he was perplexed. He’s a very empathetic person and his heart sank when he realised that his mom would have also gone through these issues. I have lived a major part of my life away from home, but because of the shame associated with periods, I never looked up the internet about it. But Tuhin being curious, read up about it. He told me that menstrual blood is not impure and periods are related to ovulation. That’s when it struck me that as educated people, we are so ill informed about menstruation. That’s when we decided to create a tool to educate people and that’s how Menstrupedia was born. Tuhin used to say we want to create a comic for a nine-year-old Aditi growing up in Garhwa with parents who had the right intentions, but didn’t know how to teach their daughter about periods. Tuhin understands graphic narrative storytelling, so he realised how a comic can be an effective tool of communication. All of these happened in the 2nd semester, and during my final year graduation project, I took this project up. I got funded by Ford Foundation and I was able to secure a scholarship.

How many schools and organisations have you partnered with and how many girls have you reached out to?
Menstrupedia is available in 17 Indian languages. Apart from India, the books are locally printed in 11 different countries. We even publish in Hungary. Menstrupedia finds its niche in those parents who want to teach their daughter about periods in a sensitive way. Why it’s worked is because we’re sensitive towards the belief system of people. There’s absolutely nothing in the book that will make parents and teachers uncomfortable while talking about periods. Our books are part of the curriculum of 25,000 schools. We’ve impacted the lives of 13 million girls till date . We’re also focusing on boys’ puberty where we focus on hygiene, masturbation etc through our Gulu comic. Over six lakh parents trust us with our comic books. We also have certification courses for people.

What were the major obstacles you faced through your entrepreneurial journey?
Looking back, we had a hard time scaling our business. We had a tough time pitching our idea to investors. We were denied monetary support and were mocked upon. On the other hand, people were loving our website. We did crowd funding to print the first 1000 copies. We raised Rs 5.5 lakhs. Tuhin and I quit our high paying jobs and shifted to an affordable place. We put our money into developing the book. Our other challenges had to do with our mindset and our skill.

You appeared on the TV show Shark Tank and got a well-deserved deal. How was that experience?
The Shark Tank experience was very positive. Namita Thapar, who invested in us has been a great partner and is constantly pushing us out of our comfort zone. After Shark Tank, we released TruBuddy comics which are leadership books for boys. We’re teaching kids about habit building, need vs want, understanding the value of money, public speaking etc. Shark Tank gave us a huge platform and created more visibility for us.

What is TruBuddy about?
Puberty is a very tricky age and parents think kids are not listening to them while kids think that parents don’t understand them. We wanted to talk to this age group about sensitive topics like bullying etc and teach them essential life skills in a comic format. When parents and kids read this book together, they have common things to connect about. We have 8000 parents who are using these books.

How is your relationship with your husband?
Tuhin and I share a great friendship. We are each other’s best mentors. We constantly improve each other to become the best version of ourselves. We have two kids now. I bring both my kids to my workplace. We have a support system and invest a lot in the caregiving team. The two of us have extremely different personalities – Tuhin is analytical whereas I am emotional. Tuhin looks after the production and marketing and I look after the research and scaling up the company. When we get together, true magic happens.

How do you juggle being an entrepreneur and being a mother?
There’s a lot of bias in workplaces. Fifty percent of women drop out from work when they become a mother. I’m someone who looks for work-life harmony, which is possible for me to have because I’m an entrepreneur. So I get to design my space – I have one office specially designed for my kids. It has all the facilities required for the kids to grow. I have two caregivers for my kids. They’re raised in front of my eyes. Work like cooking, housekeeping etc can be delegated. I have the courage to say no and to be disliked. I say no to social gatherings or lunches during office hours. I’m very particular about my ‘me’ time and my health. I know that I’m privileged and not everyone is. But there are women who are privileged but end up quitting their jobs when they have kids. You can run your business and take care of your family by employing more people.

What are your future plans?
We want to have stores of TruBuddy to cater to kids going through puberty. We want to have apps where they can book counselling sessions. We want to have a store where they can purchase stuff related to their health. The larger vision is to create a massive company that can last 100 years.

What’s your message for aspiring women entrepreneurs?
Persistence is the key. Your generational wealth may fade, but showing up for your work persistently and relentlessly working towards your passion will really help. Choose your partner wisely and choose someone who pushes you upwards. Keep learning by reading books and reach out to your other ecosystem members for help.