Purpose At Work: How The Organic Project (TOP) Launched a Product That Disrupts a Household Category
Thyme Sullivan and Denielle Finkelstein felt uninspired by their corporate careers. Mothers of daughters and entrepreneurs at heart, they wanted to use their expertise to make a contribution to the world and focus their time on something they felt passionate about. The cousins decided to launch the The Organic Project (TOP). TOP is a feminine products subscription service that’s changing taboos about periods. I had the opportunity to speak with the founders about how they lead with purpose. Here’s what they shared:
Simon Mainwaring: Let’s start at the beginning.
Thyme Sullivan: The best place to start is with our company name, TOP. Early feedback was, ‘why isn’t it a cute girl’s name like all the other companies out there?’ And I said, ‘Because it’s not just about this brand. TOP has always been about a movement.’
I came from a consumer products background. I worked for Coke and Pepsi and Nestle. Everything from driving the Frito-Lay truck to running wholesale grocery for Nestle U.S.A. And so I had a very traditional sales and operations background.
Denielle Finkelstein: I worked in fashion and fashion retail. I was at Ann Taylor, Coach and Kate Spade at Talbots. I found my passion in being able to build businesses in a large scale as well as in a small scale.
We were both at a crossroads in our careers. Thyme’s job was eliminated and I actually walked out at the height of my career. We were both breadwinners in our family as well. It came down to purpose.
TS: I wasn’t passionate about the products I was selling. I wasn’t consuming the products I was selling. I was watching all of consumer behavior around the foods we’re eating changing, as well as where they came from. They were natural and organic and non-GMO and gluten free and responsibly-sourced. Then it happened to cleaning products. My daughter started asking for organic lip gloss, but nobody was talking about feminine care. It was so ironic because it is a critical item for women. It still is, in modern times, such a taboo topic.
There were three big reasons that feminine care was important to us. It was something that had very little innovation in terms of organic options and transparency. The second piece was that environmental impact was ignored. There’s actually 20 billion period products in the U.S. that are ending up in landfills. Lastly, it was about period poverty. We found that one in five girls in America was missing school because she didn’t have access to period products. We decided to do something about it. Especially around the period poverty piece.
We also started to define who we were targeting. We put ourselves at the center. We saw ourselves as moms making a change for our daughters and for the future generation. The young girls are passionate and eager to be involved with companies and organizations that have a purpose. And these are young girls. When they can’t afford this product, they’re not going to get ahead. We focus our energies there on middle school and high school students so that they can have an opportunity that they may not otherwise have.
SM: What lessons did that learn in the early launch stages?
TS: We came out of the gates all guns blazing with our big old briefcases, full of experience and a large Rolodex. We had been at the top of our games in our respective careers and we were trying to build a very traditional brand. It wasn’t until we paid attention to our purpose and became really authentic that things turned around.
We went to the extreme to be authentic. I went and bought a terrible tampon costume. I said, ‘We’re going to get people to talk about this because it’s really important.’ I went to yoga, to get my hair done, to the supermarket, just to show people that tampons can do anything. We just wanted to open the conversation.
Before, it was a whispered conversation with my girlfriends at the gym. Now I’d go to cocktail parties and my husband will talk about tampons. We want to make it a real conversation. We want you to know that there are better products for you and for the environment. You can make a social impact. We can all help each other out and build a business differently. Once we’ve figured out who we were and what we were trying to do and stop trying to follow the brand playbook, it changed everything.
SM: How did you maintain that momentum over time?
TS: You don’t see as much of our brand voice on our website as through social media. We’re actively working to bring levity into this conversation because that’s going to be one of our differentiators.
Our goal is we want to reach the woman who doesn’t know about this option. We want to be the real moms talking to the real moms. In everyday advertising, that’s not happening. But that’s where we want to really move the needle.
Our new branding is called ‘Mom Made’. Every part of how we’re communicating to customers, shareholders and stakeholders has to be authentic to that story. It does go back to the tampon costume.
SM: How are you approaching the education angle?
DF: Girlology is an organization that offers resources as well as different sessions young women can go to. It was started by two pediatricians. We’ve partnered with them to share the voice of the medical side. We also want to connect people with real resources.
The conversation you’re talking about around female empowerment is also critical. It gives girls confidence they didn’t have before. What you see in all the data is that the minute these young girls start their period, their confidence levels plummet. We want to start these conversations early.
TS: There’s two different parties we’re having. One, the period party. This is such a monumental moment in a woman’s life. Let’s celebrate our girls when they actually get their periods. Let’s get them prepared. Let’s make this part of our everyday vernacular.
We also support giving parties. We get girls together and teach them about issues around period poverty. We pull together feminine care so they can create care packages. We’re teaching them early on the importance of giving back and the impact they can have on other women’s lives.
SM: Are you partnering with any large NGO to help get you to scale more quickly?
DF: We’re partnering with three organizations. One is called Dignity Matters. They’re based in Massachusetts. They’re about giving women that are homeless, using food banks and young students access to products so they can go to work and school.
Katie’s Closet is very similar. They’ve gone into 56 schools in the low income Massachusetts areas and create a small ‘shop’ near a bathroom.
It’s set up with clothing, feminine care, backpacks, shoes, all of the necessities these kids do not have the money for. They can go into these closets and shop like they’re shopping at Target. They get their stuff and leave. And it’s all done in a very discreet way.
The other one is Empower Her, which is starting to open more chapters across the United States. They focus on young women who’ve lost their moms. They hold a ton of different events throughout the year. We’re becoming part of their curriculum to talk about feminine care and this change in their lives.
SM: How does a young company with a big market opportunity know where to start?
TS: All of our giving efforts are going to be middle school and high school girls. It’s all about empowering girls at this critical time. This can be contagious. Gen Z, want to make a difference. They want to do things for the environment. They want to help others. They would do this in lieu of a birthday party.
SM: How does a small company that wants to have a positive impact inspire people to be your advocates?
TS: We kind of use the ALS challenge method. Tag your friends. That’s how we’re starting to do this. I’m going to host one and then I’m going to ask my friend Suzanne, who lives in Chicago, to host one. We can start to move this around. This will be more of a grassroots groundswell. That’s what this actually needs because each community is different. It’s easy to do the parties. Now it’s about getting the people to have the conversation everywhere.
SM: What are some of the obstacles that you had to work through?
TS: A lot of investors, quite frankly, are tech based. We don’t have technology. We’re a very traditional box on a shelf. It’s hard sometimes for people to get excited. It’s not really sexy. We found other entrepreneurs that sold their businesses turning around to invest. They bring complementary skill sets that helped us avoid some pitfalls. We need to pay it forward and invest in other startups.
DF: I think we’re going to continue to see this change. Large corporations are now adding these give backs. It’s all about social corporate responsibility. For purposeful start-ups, it becomes part of the company core values. You can’t move the Titanic. It’s easier to build it early on to drive this change. We also expect anybody who’s going to come work with us to share our values.
SM: What other innovations did you make?
Thyme Sullivan: We launched with a cardboard applicator tampon. We were both raised by hippies. We thought that because there were a hundred percent biodegradable, that everybody would jump on board. We were wrong. These young girls wanted plastic applicators. They didn’t care that they were single use plastics. And we spent a year trying to convince people to buy cardboard applicator tampons.
Thankfully within that time we source a plant based plastic. It’s 90% sugarcane. It’s 90% better than what’s out there today. It’s a game changer. Ninety percent of the tampons sold in the U.S. are made with plastic applicators. They were not willing to change overnight. When you work for a big company, you can’t take a courageous stance like that because you will lose your job. Our commitment to the environment was unwavering and we did find what we were looking for.
Stay true to who you are regardless of what everybody else is telling you you should do. We have our responsibility to these girls to show them that like you can do anything. They believe it! You just have to believe.
Simon Mainwaring: What can we expect from TOP moving forward?
Denielle Finkelstein: We’re going to reach that woman in middle America and educate her. Talk to her and have those genuine, authentic conversations. We’re focusing more on the Northeast. We want to make sure that we’re smart about how we continue to grow. There’s about seven or eight key retailers that we have plans right now to roll out in the next two months. Then continue to build that out.
For more information about TOP and their much needed products, visit their site.