FOCUS. Think about that one differentiator, or that one product you want out there. Don’t think of a zillion different things. Women tend to want to do it all. But you are going to be shipping a zillion mediocre things that way. You really have to focus on that one thing you are going to do GREAT.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amrita Saigal.
Amrita is the founder of Kudos, a cutting-edge and high-performing sustainable baby diaper brand set to launch in the spring of 2021. Prior to Kudos, Amrita co-founded Saathi, now one of India’s leading manufacturers of eco-friendly sanitary pads made from waste banana tree fiber. Her work experience spans manufacturing for Procter & Gamble’s Always pads and Gillette razors, operations & manufacturing for Google Glass, and all-around-all-hats-wearer as one of the earliest employees at Thunkable.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Partway through studying mechanical engineering at MIT, I landed an internship working as a manufacturing engineer for Always Pads. That internship really got me excited about absorbent products that were both functional and cleverly branded. Being one of the few females engineering a product women use daily led me to have some interesting conversations. Most memorably, I asked my grandmother what she did during her periods growing up in India during the 1940s. Turns out she used old rags, had to sleep in a separate part of the house while on her period, and was not allowed to go to school. Woah. I remember feeling shocked, believing that this was something purely historical — but no, many women in India, especially in rural areas, are still experiencing this today.
The method of using rags was certainly sustainable, but it clearly was not elegantly sustainable. It didn’t enable women to go about their lives as they would on any day they weren’t having their period. For my senior project as an undergrad at MIT, I developed a sanitary pad made of sustainable banana tree fiber, one which had all the function of a sanitary pad you could pick up at CVS, but that was made from a renewable resource. This was successfully commercialized after I graduated, improving the lives of numerous women in India.
As I entered my thirties, many of my friends started having kids, and they wanted a diaper that followed the principles of elegant sustainability: a diaper that was as convenient and reliable to use as the industry standard disposable diaper, but that was as sustainable as a cloth diaper. I knew that through innovative engineering we could do better. Out of this realization, Kudos was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When we started in 2019, we worked out of an office in Downtown Boston. Since March 2020, like most other companies, we have been working from home. For us, no office meant no storage space, so the living room and dining area of our two bedroom condo have turned into a diaper warehouse. My husband and I have not been able to use a third of our condo since March 2020. At one point we had close to 10,000 diapers in our living room! To this date, we still haven’t been able to eat at our dining table, since it is just always covered with diapers and packaging samples.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was riding my bike to a VC meeting in SF. After giving an energetic pitch that I had prepared for all week, the VC rejected me. I was biking back from that meeting, feeling sad about the rejection, and I biked through a red light. I got a 296 dollars biking ticket (on a bike I paid 100 dollars for) — so not only did I get rejected, I had a bike ticket on top of it. Did you know it was even possible to get a 296 dollars biking ticket!? Anyways, fast forward to launching our product — the VC now has his first child, and his wife loves our diapers and uses them on their son!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Prior to starting Kudos, I spent nearly 3 years working for my brother Arun’s company Thunkable. Fun fact: We also lived together while working together, and we were both part of the San Francisco Community Orchestra viola section in our free time. When I started Kudos I moved back to the Boston area (where we were born and raised!), but Arun and I still talk everyday between our personal and professional interests. Being on this startup journey with him is a blast. He’s my go-to resource for all my startup related questions, whether that be fundraising, hiring, structuring deals, and everything in between. He’s a few years younger than me, but a few years ahead of me in running a company, and I wouldn’t be where I am without him.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Starting a company is hard. No one will deny that. Every founder needs a support network of other founders that she can go to for all her startup related questions and lean on when things are tough. Looking at my journey of starting a company as compared to my brother’s journey of starting his company, he just had a larger network of guy friends from high school and college who had also started companies that he could lean on for support. In the early days, I did not have the same, since there are fewer women founders. Looking at my closest group of friends from high school, college, and business school, I simply did not have many close friends who were going through the same journey as me. It has been an uphill battle, but I have built a great network of other founder friends over the years, which I definitely did not have from day 1.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
I hope that as the number of women founders increases, it only makes it easier for young girls today to become successful entrepreneurs in the future. To this end, one thing that could be helpful is having more accelerators focused on female founders. This way, women can have a larger built-in support network from day 1 of their startup journey.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
So many of the problems that are being solved for women today are being solved by male-led companies. Isn’t that crazy when you think about it? For example, when I worked for Always Pads, the majority of the engineers were men. The CEOs of many companies that make products directly for women are men. Shouldn’t women be designing products and solving problems FOR women? Who knows women’s needs better than women?
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
People think founders need to have in-depth knowledge about every part of the business. This just isn’t possible. No one can be great at product development, design, marketing, sales, finance, etc. What you do need to have as a founder is a strong vision and knowledge of where your strengths lie. You need to know your weaknesses and be able to hire talent smarter than yourself to fill in the gaps. This is exactly what I have tried to do at Kudos. Yes technically the people I have hired “report” to me, but in all honesty, we are a 3 person team, and we all learn from one another daily.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
Anyone with a strong vision and conviction can be a founder. Being a founder requires a certain amount of vulnerability, humility, thick skin (for all those no’s you’ll hear!), and dedication. I don’t believe you have to be thinking about and working for your company 24/7 as a founder — there has to be a healthy work-life balance — but I do think founders need to commit to more hours dedicated to thinking about and manifesting their vision than a typical person with a “regular job” would. The ability to deal with rejection, work through challenges, and figure out creative solutions to problems are things that a founder can learn along the way, as long as they believe in their vision. Nothing is ever too big for someone to achieve. You have to want to manifest the infinite power within you.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- FOCUS. Think about that one differentiator. Or that one product you want out there. Not a zillion different things. Women tend to want to do it all. But you are going to be shipping a zillion mediocre things that way. You really gotta focus on that one thing you are going to do GREAT.
- Talk to everyone about your idea. Do not be afraid that someone will steal your idea. Ideas are a dime a dozen — it’s the execution that really sets startups apart. A few years ago, I was in a line to grab lunch at a conference, and I started talking to the person in front of me, whom I had never met before. He turned out to be an expert on materials for diapers — he ended up joining our team, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without him.
- Ruthlessly prioritize. As a startup, there a million things to do at any point in time. You have to constantly ask yourself what is THE most important thing that needs to get done and focus on that one thing. Everything else can wait.
- Everything does not need to be perfect. Iterating and constantly improving features and products is more important than waiting for everything to be perfect. That is not possible. You will run out of time and money and someone will beat you to market.
- As for what you want. There is no harm in asking. You might get a “no,” but unless you ask, you will never know. I once told a supplier something was too expensive. I honestly didn’t think there was any negotiation room, but there was no way we could afford the component at that price. I told him I needed the item to be significantly cheaper and told him how much I could pay. He asked me how much I would pay. I told him, and he said ok without batting an eye.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
One of the biggest problems we face today — climate change — is also the biggest opportunity we have to make this world a better place. At Kudos we are trying to build renewable and sustainable into the DNA of the product, so that from the raw materials through the shipping of the final product, we made a diaper that is better for the environment. It is so important that companies pursue greener materials, packaging, and logistics, if we want to improve our climate. As an individual consumer, I also try to choose options that are more sustainable, and I would encourage others to do the same. How we spend our dollars really will influence how companies behave, and we can influence the world for the better.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It is my greatest hope that more people will attempt to do what we are doing at Kudos. Find that win-win that is better for the planet and better for our families. These opportunities are out there in every part of our lives — we just need to turn our attention and efforts to solving these types of problems.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
OMG, if Sara Blakely reads this column… please reach out! I have listened to Sara speak so many times and on various podcasts. She’s such a stellar example of determination, conviction, and innovation. She solved a problem that every woman had in a totally elegant way. I would love to sit down with a bowl of cereal at her kitchen island one morning and just hear whatever wisdom she has to share that day!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.