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It has been a turbulent week for Miki Agrawal, the co-founder and former CEO (now “SHE-E-O”) of Thinx. As Racked reported last Tuesday, the period-underwear company has been plagued with allegations of workplace misconduct, a culture of fear and intimidation, and employment policies that don’t measure up to the feminist messaging the brand has parlayed into tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
Most of the complaints center on Agrawal personally — her “erratic” and “abusive” behavior, her habit of belittling employees due to their age, her public grandstanding on the backs of underpaid staff — and she has responded in kind, first in Instagram comments and then in a blog post published on Medium. The most recent news, however — that Thinx’s former head of public relations, Chelsea Leibow, last week filed a sexual harassment complaint against Agrawal with the City of New York Commission on Human Rights alleging that the former CEO touched her breasts without consent, spoke openly and in lurid detail at the office about her sex life, and changed clothes in front of employees, among many other claims detailed in an extensive story on The Cut — spotlights just how personal the problems at Thinx have become for some, and will be a test of how the vocally feminist brand handles such serious allegations of harmful and un-feminist behavior.
So refreshing to spend time with founders who know what it's like to be in the arena :-) @neilparikh @carterac @arc @alexbisi @andrewsugrue @casper @artsy @squarespace @phosphorusgenomics Quote of the day: "It is not the critic who counts; not the (wo)man who points out how the strong (wo)man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the (wo)man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and (period) blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends herself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if (s)he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." - Teddy Roosevelt
In the week since Racked brought the initial complaints to light, both Agrawal and the company have responded publicly — albeit in mostly opaque terms, and only to some of the claims. In the days following the story’s publication, Agrawal only alluded to the troubles at the company on Instagram, in the captions of chummy photos with fellow entrepreneurs, including Neil Parikh (Casper), Carter Cleveland (Artsy), Anthony Casalena (Squarespace), and John Mackey (Whole Foods). “So refreshing to spend time with founders who know what it's like to be in the arena :-),” read the first. “When trading battle stories with the likes of [Mackey], my stories are like the Bambi version of his,” read the second. “Funny when perspective hits.”
She eventually responded to the article directly in the comments section of one post, calling it “deeply troubling to read” because “it doesn’t reflect the reality of what happens at THINX.” “Like any startup in growth mode, growth often brings change, and with it, evolution of the team,” she offered, presumably in reference to the raft of employees that have recently departed the company (10, according to several sources, though a Thinx spokesperson told The Cut the number is lower but declined to specify.)
On Friday, she expanded on these ideas in a Medium post titled “MY THINX RIDE,” which she clarified was a message from “Miki, as a human being, not as a representative of THINX.” In the startup’s early days, she writes, “I was maniacally focused on top and bottom line growth and on our mission to break the taboo. And under my leadership, we did it… Then, things grew and they grew fast. Hockey stick growth fast. Beyond my wildest dreams fast. Like any Co-Founder/CEO, all I did was the best I could under these crazy circumstances. Yes, I have made a TON of mistakes along the way but I can proudly say that our company has grown from an idea in my head to an innovation that is worn by millions of satisfied women globally in a few short years.”
She admits in the post that certain problems stemmed from a lack of dedicated human resources, reasoning that her singular focus on growth made it a low-priority investment: “I didn’t take time to think through it. We grew so quickly and I didn’t hire an HR person (it was hard to rationalize hiring an HR person at the time with only 15 employees and then all of a sudden we were 30 people). I didn’t call references because I needed butts in seats fast. I didn’t put HR practices in place because I was on the road speaking, doing press, brand partnerships, editing all of the creative and shouting from the rooftops about THINX so we can keep going.”
(Characterizing new hires as “butts in seats” who weren’t properly vetted echoes a sentiment expressed by several sources that employees were treated as disposable. When anyone — even longtime staffers — quit or were fired, “it was like, ‘Oh, we’ll find another one,’” one source says.)
Toward the end of the post, Agrawal details the company’s plans to hire an HR manager and a “professional” CEO, and explains that her decision to step down from the post arose from the realization that she was “not the best suited for the operational CEO duties nor was it my passion to do so… My favorite saying is ‘iteration is perfection’ and this is simply part of the iterative process of growing a business. My head is high.” Before signing off with a smiley face, she writes “I have been blessed with so many lessons and learnings that I will take with me for the rest of my life, and I really cannot be more grateful.” On Twitter, she has since been retweeting praise about the “honesty” and “vulnerability” of her response.
Agrawal has also since updated the post to clarify the company’s maternity leave policy, writing that “We haven’t had any pregnant women until now which is why we didn’t really have a real policy in place for that.” (According to several sources, the company’s official policy was two weeks leave at full pay plus one week at half pay for the birthing parent, and one week leave at full pay plus one week at half pay for the non-birthing parent.) Now that one employee has given birth, Thinx is offering her five weeks paid leave, plus, Agrawal writes, she is eligible for two weeks of paid disability leave. (In New York State, employers are legally obligated to provide short-term disability insurance, which pays 50 percent of an employee's wages, up to a cap of $170 per week, if they are unable to work for any reason, including pregnancy or following the birth of a child.) Beyond that, she writes, “we’ll figure out a system where she can either work from home for part of the time and we were also planning on getting an in-house nanny for the office.” Agrawal and a third Thinx employee are also currently pregnant.
The same day the Medium post went live, the company sent out an email blast to its mailing list “From our Bleeding, Beating Hearts to Yours,” alluding vaguely to the allegations and doubling down on its intersectional feminist messaging. “This company was founded on inclusive, all-embracing principles, and we strive every.single.day. to uphold those commitments to ourselves and all of you,” reads the statement. “We are nothing without the people who show up, full of heart and humor, to break the period taboo and spark meaningful conversations about women’s health and the LGBTQIA community … We hear you. We see you. We’re in this together.”
The statement was also posted to Thinx’s social media accounts and blog, where, in the comments sections, many took issue with its ambiguous language and lack of apology or transparency around how the company planned to address the alleged workplace issues. One commenter called it “an extremely poor PR attempt to brush the issues to the side” and “a clear slap in the face to your customers and more importantly, to your colleagues/employees (current and previous).”
While the company did not address the incident directly, the statement was likely also prompted by a widely-shared Twitter thread from agender writer, speaker, and advocate Tyler Ford, who recounted a disturbing experience with the brand as a model.
"I've never spoken about my experiences with Thinx because they were too humiliating/upsetting to talk about publicly," Ford wrote. "But this article has brought back that terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, so I might share."
Ford, whose preferred pronouns are they/them, was introduced to the brand through an editor, and soon after was recruited to take part in Thinx’s intersectionality-themed New York Fashion Week event. They recalled feeling tokenized from the start, being asked invasive questions about whether they got their period and presented with a script to perform with another trans model in which they would lob transphobic questions at one another on stage. The thread includes screenshots from Ford’s email and text communications with the brand, including the one informing the company that they would be dropping out of the show “due to a host of uncomfortable interactions and circumstances surrounding my participation and performance” and the subsequent apology from Thinx’s director of brand. They also shared an apology note from Thinx’s current head of PR and a statement the brand gave to Mic.
At first i ignored it. It was clearly a one sided story that was not rooted in fact. Then it mushroomed into a classic "media take down". I still ignored it. But then my sweet Asian immigrant parents reached out to me from their trip to Morocco, concerned and upset. Apparently these stories reached them too. (And btw, they are the prototypical parent types who don't follow pop culture or read smut). So I wrote this, not to acknowledge the baseless stories, but to clear my good family name and simply share the truth of what actually happened. Link in bio. Hope you read with an open mind and if compelled, pls share. **this piece is by Miki, the human being, not Miki representing THINX.
The head of PR also sent out an email to Racked and other publications shortly following the vaguely-worded blast with the subject line “A Formal Email.” “At the moment, we're working together with Miki Agrawal to redefine her role at the company as she moves on from CEO of THINX, Inc,” it read. “We're also making moves to put new leadership and policies in place so THINX can continue to grow and thrive.”
Also on Friday, the company notified SXSW attendees that it was cancelling the opening day of programming at Thinx’s weekend-long “feministival” event, which included an orgasm workshop in partnership with premium sex-toy company We Vibe and welcome remarks from Agrawal.
This was, however, several days before The Cut published details of Leibow’s harassment complaint, which also names the company’s COO and CFO and spans allegations that Agrawal inappropriately groped Leibow and at least one other employee, FaceTimed into meetings from the toilet, and shared nude photos of herself and others with her staff. To reporter Noreen Malone, who also profiled her for the magazine early last year, Agrawal called the claims “baseless” and with “absolutely no merit,” and argued that any sexually-explicit language she may have used was a normal part of the company culture. “The team talks about vibrators and vaginas and vaginal steam baths, all these kinds of things all the time,” she said. “And if things are taken out of context, of course it’s going to seem like I’m saying something that’s not appropriate… At the time it did absolutely not make them uncomfortable. They were responsive and engaged and excited.” In earlier negotiations with Thinx’s legal counsel, Leibow told The Cut, the lawyers pointed to “pictures where you could see my cleavage” on social media as evidence that her sexual-harassment claims were without merit.
A spokesperson for Thinx sent the following statement to the site:
“We take matters related to our company culture very seriously. THINX has not been served with a legal complaint or charge from any agency related to Ms. Leibow’s allegations. When the issues were brought to our attention following her departure from THINX, the company commissioned an investigation that concluded the allegations had no legal merit. The company cannot comment further on these legal matters.”
The CEO’s explicit comments were also brought up in at least one negative Glassdoor review about the company posted prior to the media attention, and though Agrawal didn’t address the specific allegations made in the reviews, she did make bold claims relating to what some employees call the “Glassdoor Wars:”
Similarly, after a series of negative comments about her appeared on Glassdoor (one described her as “Trump-like”), she directed employees to counteract those with positive posts and allegedly wrote one herself, per Racked. When I asked Agrawal about those incidents, she says that she simply asked her employees to weigh in and “please be honest,” in much the way a restaurateur who’d received poor Yelp reviews would ask other customers to counteract it. (Agrawal has also been a restaurateur.) She denied leaving her own Glassdoor review. “I know the founder of Glassdoor, and I’m working on getting the IP addresses of everyone who left reviews,” she told me.
In a statement provided to Racked, a spokesperson from Glassdoor strongly denied this claim, pointing to a recent case in which the company successfully fought a subpoena which would have compelled them to release information about an anonymous review:
“Statements provided by Thinx CEO are completely false. It has always been Glassdoor’s standard practice to fight on our users’ behalf to protect their anonymity and rights to free speech. If necessary, the company vigorously fights in court to prevent any user identities or information from being disclosed — as we did in the Machine Zone case over the past year.”
So far, only Leibow has put her name to any formal complaint, and without the cover of anonymity, it’s unlikely so many others would have come forward. Several sources admit they still feel afraid of Agrawal, even after, in some cases, moving on to other jobs. But still, it got to the point that silence was no longer an option.
“We’re like, we can't get to a point where all of this feels normal,” says one. “We have to keep talking about it and we have to try to figure out ways to make a change, because if we get to the point where all this feels normal, that's just not healthy.”
Update: As Racked reported last week, Agrawal was scheduled to speak at several upcoming conferences when the allegations were first made public. Now, however, a spokesperson from New Orleans Entrepreneur Week Women’s Summit says that she and Thinx will no longer be participating in Thursday’s event. “The three-hour session is designed to provide an opportunity for female professionals to reflect on and discuss how to overcome the challenges women uniquely face in the workplace,” said the spokesperson in a statement. Agrawal’s bio on the website for Shoptalk, a conference this week in Las Vegas at which she was scheduled to speak, likewise now pulls up a 404 error page.