“There was something about this where we just felt unstoppable. There probably wasn’t the level of fear that there should have been, recognizing what we were getting into, but I think that that happens to entrepreneurs.”
Can you tell us about the conceptualization of gDiapers and the story of making the decision to start the company? Was there any fear involved? If so, how did you overcome it?
Kim Graham-Nye: So, 13 years ago I was pregnant and Jason [Kim’s husband and gDiapers’ Co-founder] and I came across this article that said that one disposable diaper takes 500 years to biodegrade. It just stopped us both in our tracks. At that time, 15 million diapers a day were going into landfills in the US. Both of us had the same thought that this was just not sustainable, and that was not coming from an environmentalist perspective; it was just common sense.
We could both imagine this baby growing up and looking at our entire generation and saying, “What were you guys thinking? How did you not know? How could you not see that you were going to run out of holes in the ground for all of this garbage?” What would our answer be? Something like, “Oh, it just really wasn’t convenient”? “I didn’t really have time”? I used to ask that of my grandmother, and say, “How could people stand by and let what happened in Germany happen?” Or, “How could you have segregation in schools?” There are all of these different things that seem so ludicrous when you look back on them. There’s this sense of entitlement with our generation, where a little convenience is more important than really anything else. It just seems so shortsighted and self-absorbed. At that time, too – and I’m sure this is universal – being pregnant, I suddenly felt this really personal connection to the planet. From my grandmother, to my mom, to me, and then this baby, and then this baby’s going to have a baby, and that baby’s going to have a baby – you know? Suddenly it became so personal.
It sparked a really interesting conversation for Jason and me one morning. We started looking around online and couldn’t find anything that was a better disposable, essentially. There was a lot of muddied information around cloth versus disposable, so we weren’t sure which way to go. Ultimately, Fynn was born and we went with cloth. At some point, I ended up having to wear adult diapers for like a day, or even maybe just a few hours, but it was long enough for me to say, “Oh my gosh, this is insane. This is plastic underwear that is completely sealed. The point of this product is to be sealed.” No wonder babies have diaper rash; I mean sealed plastic on that part of your body. I said, “Oh my gosh, Jason, if every parent had to wear a disposable diaper, that would be the end of a $4 billion industry overnight. You would never put your baby in this if you had to wear it.” So I then became obsessed with breathable cloth covers. In my search for breathable covers, I found some fantastic brands that had developed their own breathable material. I was thrilled, and then found out that there was also this disposable pad that was flushable and home-compostable. It was so simple: “Wow, that’s it. The dirty diaper is gone.” Just the whole idea of keeping poopy diapers in the garbage in your house when you’re in a small house just kind of turned us off. But with this, you’re putting poop in the toilet where it’s supposed to go, not the garbage.
It didn’t take us long before we contacted the owner of the disposable pad company and said, “We love your product. How can we get involved? How can we help?” She was from Tasmania, which is the small island south of Australia. For her, Sydney, on the mainland of Australia, was a big deal. She really had no intentions of trying to get distribution up here. But we were thinking more like global diaper domination [laughter]. So we ended up striking a deal with her where we licensed her technology for the rest of the world outside of Australia and New Zealand, and we have that in perpetuity. So we still work with her. She’s a brilliant inventor and biochemist, and she’s a mom.
From there we said, “Okay, where should we go?” We decided on America first, and off we went. It was a definitely a lot – we were new parents and were adding a second baby into the mix, and that was right when we said, “Yeah, we’re going to start a company halfway around the world from our friends and family, where we know nobody! That’s such a smart idea!” [laughter]
What’s funny is, I don’t know if there was any fear. We were young and maybe a little bit naive, but we just had absolute belief in this. We’ve both always been entrepreneurial, and we’ve done tons of different things, but definitely hadn’t felt like we nailed it yet. Everything we did for work touched on a part of our personalities, but didn’t feed our whole beings. Suddenly, as crazy as it sounds, this diaper opportunity brought everything we had ever done in our lives – all these random skills – together, into one project that we were both interested in doing together. It just felt like there was something, I want to say “magical” or “spiritual” – there was something about this where we just felt unstoppable. There probably wasn’t the level of fear that there should have been, recognizing what we were getting into, but I think that that happens to entrepreneurs. Otherwise you wouldn’t do it. We just had an absolute belief in our mission, our values, and what we could do with this. It was what the world needed. That doesn’t mean once we got to America that it wasn’t brutally hard [laughter]. There were plenty of moments of, “Oh my God, what have we done!? Why are we doing this?” There is an expression, “Leap and the net will appear.” It was something like that [laughter].
What have been some of the biggest challenges so far, and how have you guys worked to overcome them?
KGN: One of our biggest challenges more recently was the whole concept of how capital plays into startups, or companies in general. Right now, the way we see it, pretty much everybody out there is just iterating off of a very broken model. As long as we’re iterating off of something that’s broken in the first place, it’s not going to shift. We ended up having to recapitalize the company and Jason spoke with so many people who would say that they were into conscious capital, and then we would look at the term sheets. Jason started to call them on it. He was like, “You say you care about these things, but at the end of the day, you still want your money back with x return in seven years.” All outside money is short term. It has to have a return. They’d say, “Well, if we don’t get a return, then it’s not investing money; it’s a donation.” That’s not true, but it is for the current time period of our society.
When we began to recapitalize, we had investors who had redemption rights, which is normal. Venture capitalists all have something called a redemption right where they’re allowed to get their money back after a certain amount of time, usually five to seven years. And that can be a huge detriment to the company. We had some investors who left whom we had to replace. But with our new investors, we really stood our ground and said, “We’re refusing to take anybody in who doesn’t believe in the mission over the long term, because you can’t make serious change in five years. We want this company to last, to be around 20 years from now and to really disrupt this space.”
We’re just a diaper company, but we’re also promoting the concept of changing how we consume and make products. The more products that can be made with cradle to cradle design principles with the end in mind, that’s how we believe the world should be. Of course we all need to try to consume less, but we also have all the science and technology to make products that don’t have to end up in the garbage. So having investors who are aligned with the company’s long-term thinking is critical. You see businesses that flip and flip and flip, and it’s all about quarterly reports, and it’s all about growth, but in nature, nothing grows forever except cancer.
“You can’t make serious change in five years. We want this company to last, to be around 20 years from now and to really disrupt this space.”
One of the things that gDiapers is known for is its flexible work environment. Could you tell us more about the inspiration and rationale behind these practices?
KGN: It’s timely that you asked about this. It definitely started out with kids, but just this morning I was wiping tears away from my face because there was an email from a woman in our office who’s from Texas, and she’s had to fly home because her grandmother’s ill, and, sadly, this may be the end. Her whole family is just so grateful for her being able to be there. She’s got a laptop with her, and whether she’s there for four days, for a week, or for a month, it all works. She can do what she needs to do to be with her family in these moments without putting her job at risk, or being financially hurt because she wants to be with her dying grandmother. We think it’s pretty basic and I’m sorry that not every employee has the ability to do that.
However, the concept certainly started because we moved to America and I was pregnant, and Fynn had never been looked after by anybody else other than family. So, when we got to the US, the idea of putting him into a daycare … and I know everybody does it – but I couldn’t do it. For me, I spent a lot of time in Africa in different, more traditional cultures. Mothers have always worked. It’s just the idea of mothers being separated from their babies that is new. Work is having responsibility and tasks, and whether it was making food or making baskets, women have worked since the beginning of time in a home environment – it’s all work, whether it’s paid or not. But the West somehow has separated our babies from us. For me, I can have an environment that’s conducive to my productivity and that doesn’t have to take my kids so far away. The idea going into it was very much that of a traditional village kind of culture. Up until a few years ago, we always worked in houses, and that’s how we had on-site childcare. We hired a teacher, Kristin, who was with us for nine years. So, the kids were occupied by another adult who was responsible for their safety and their care, but they weren’t far away from parents – we were all in the same house. So, they’d be taking lunch in the kitchen, and we’d be working on the second floor, and we’d pop down for lunch, or they’d pop up and say hi and have a snack. If you’re nursing, fine; nurse whenever you like. It’s not that anyone else was demanding it; we just needed it.
“Mothers have always worked. It’s just the idea of mothers being separated from their babies that is new.”
We were new parents; we were of that age, so all of our peers were kind of similar, and what we noticed in America was that everyone seemed unhappy. There were working mothers who were working too much and missing their children. Then there were stay-at-home moms who wanted to be at home, but they also would have loved to have some outside activity as well. It just seemed like it was so black and white: you were a stay-at-home mom or you were a working mom, and that was it – especially the higher up you got in your career. For us, we just saw this huge opportunity to both bring women back into the workforce who were at home, but for limited hours, and give them an environment that was conducive to being the kind of parent that they wanted to be; and then similarly to say to women who were already working, “Hey, you don’t have to work a hundred hours to be a VP; we can have a 4-days-a-week VP.” We did that from day one.
The biggest thing is that you don’t have to be sitting at your desk to do your work at G. Jason and I are proving that obviously by living in Australia. When you’re in university, you’re trusted to get your work done. You’re an adult; get it done on your own time, and make it great work. I don’t know why that changes when you go to work! [laughter] You should have more freedom at work.
Do you think that having a flexible work environment has helped your employee retention rates or helped you attract more talented employees? Have you seen any other benefits from this practice?
KGN: People want autonomy in their work, and they want to be given the tools to do the best work they can. A lot of companies underestimate the power of empowering people to get their work done. If you’re hiring well, and hiring the right skills, there’s not the question of, “Do I have to oversee you?” If you’re training someone it’s different, but if you’re hiring experts in an area, let them go and trust that they’ll figure out how to do it.
It’s not for everybody, I have to admit. There’s an effort, and there’s a tradeoff. It would be much easier to have people in the office 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, all in the same place. Without a doubt, I think everybody on our team would agree on that. It’s more effort, but absolutely worth the result to have people working remotely. We have people working from home, people working different hours, but we get the best out of people. We want all resources to be used in the best possible way, including our human resources.
What other business practices are you proud of or excited by?
KGN: Our B Corp certification – the principles that B Corps stand for, if you know them, you know there’s so much behind that.
Beyond B Corp certification, we do simple things like four weeks of leave, and that’s from the day you join. It goes back to people being at their best. I think even sustainable companies can often forget that the most valuable resource we have is humans. At the company, we’ve put a lot of effort into the human factor.
I actually had a very personal experience with this. I absolutely burnt out two years ago with all the stress of the recapitalization. I was no good to anybody, but of course I couldn’t see that. Jason actually kicked me out of the company for six months, which was huge! I was humiliated; as far as I was concerned, it was the worst thing ever in the world. Luckily, I knew he loved me [laughter], and he was absolutely right. I ended up going away and said to him, “If you kick me out, I’m not sitting in Portland with the two kids in pouring rain while you get to go to work everyday.” Of course, I love work. We were lucky enough to have a lot of frequent flyer miles, and we went to Thailand, Africa, and some other places. I was gone for six months with the kids, which was kind of nuts. It just gave me the chance to breathe, though, and to remember who I was as a person. Without realizing it, we had become “Jason and Kim, founders of gDiapers” – years of the names really just melding together. It was really comforting to say, “Well, who am I? Just Kim?” I just kind of got to explore myself again. In that process, though, there were a whole bunch of awakenings, as you can imagine. One of the biggest takeaways was just that, here we had this sustainable company, sustainable business, sustainable products, but I certainly didn’t have a sustainable life. I was burning the candle at both ends, as all business owners do, and most mothers do, too. You’re taking care of everybody else, and you always put yourself last. Even though you know, “I should go to that yoga class; I should meditate; I should go for a run; I should probably eat better,” you just focus on getting everything all taken care of first, and inevitably there’s no time left.
I had a huge revelation around work-life balance. I’d always struggled with that term. Every time I’d hear somebody talk about it, I’d imagine this old balance scale that my mother-in-law actually has in her kitchen. She uses it every day, still, to weigh things. You have to take from one to give to the other. When I framed work-life balance in that way, I thought, “Wait, I have to take from work to give to my kids, or take from my kids to give to work; where do I even fit in this? I’m not even in this equation. No wonder I’m last, because I’m looking at these two pieces, neither of which include me, and both of which require everything from me. No wonder I’m setting myself up for failure.”
It’s a messed up analogy. It’s not at all about balance. I was thinking of it in the wrong way. I started to draw on motherhood stuff. When I had [our second son] Harper, I did not take love from Fynn to give it to Harper. I can love them both; my heart just expanded to include these two beings. I didn’t take love from Jason to give to the boys. That still doesn’t mean I can do two things at one time. I can’t go to both soccer games simultaneously. But the framework was so different. As simple as I know it sounds, it was this massive “aha” moment. Including myself in that picture – getting rid of the scale that only had two components, and thinking about the family unit with me being in it, not just me taking care of my family, but me as part of it – suddenly just shifted all kinds of things.
“We try to keep people reminded that their well-being is the single most important thing that they can do to be great at their job.”
When I came back to the office, it became a big theme for the whole team. I was the extreme, but everybody on our team was having similar issues around work-life balance, whether they had kids or not. Then I met a great man from Google, and spent some time with him and his philosophies around meditation and mindfulness. That was this whole other awakening. I said, “My gosh, I’ve meditated on and off for years, but I’ve never really looked at it as the single most important thing I need to do every day.” And that is because the more I train my mind, the more I grow those muscles, the more I’m able to focus, the more I’m able to be clearheaded, the more I can see what’s coming and assess opportunities. Working on that muscle is by far the single most important thing I can do.
Working on me being at my best, like getting the sleep I need, for example, is critical. If I don’t sleep, the company suffers, my children suffer, my marriage suffers. Putting it in that framework was life-changing. We brought that back to the company. Now there’s a lot of mindfulness tools that we offer the team. It’s not mandatory of course, but we have weekly meditations. From the beginning of gDiapers, we’ve started every meeting with three deep breaths, just to focus on what’s on hand, to leave everything else that you were just working on aside. And we’ve always loved it and everybody does it. We try to keep people reminded that their well-being is the single most important thing that they can do to be great at their job. Whether that’s taking vacation, taking a breath, or eating well, we really support people in their pursuit of well-being.
GDIAPERS AND EVERY MOTHER COUNTS: THE POWER OF PARTNERSHIPS
Every Mother Counts, founded by Christy Turlington Burns, is a nonprofit organization that provides maternal health services to help make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother.
Kim Graham-Nye: I met Christy Turlington Burns at a Fortune Magazine event in 2011. I got to go as one of the ten young entrepreneurs that they were acknowledging. Christy was speaking at one of the breakfasts about her work around maternal health. It was all really quite new. She’d just finished a film called “No Woman, No Cry,” and was talking about how a woman dies every two minutes from giving birth around the world, and 90 percent of those deaths were preventable. Now, that number’s actually gone up to 98 percent preventable. One woman dies every two minutes, and 98 percent of those deaths are preventable. It just hit me like, “Oh my gosh, 98 percent of these women don’t have to die. That is insane.” To me, there are so many causes I care about, but they’re all so huge, and there’s not a simple answer, whereas this was really simple. Sometimes it’s just fifty cents or $5 that can save a woman’s life. It’s just a matter of getting her transportation to get her to a clinic when she needs help. It’s not rocket science.
So, when I got back from my trip to Tanzania with my kids, I felt an urgency about partnering with Every Mother Counts. I really wanted to work with Tanzania because it’s somewhere I have an affinity for that I really want to impact; 1 in 39 women die from giving birth in Tanzania. Pregnancy is a serious death risk. So, when I came back, I saw Christy pretty much right away. I really wanted to figure out how gDiapers could be involved – not just in Tanzania, but how we could best serve Every Mother Counts and the work it’s doing on the ground. We don’t have big dollars like some of the huge brands that it partners with, and we’re never going to be able to compete on that level of funding, but what else could we do with the resources we have?
So, we planned a trip that coincided with the Mount Kilimanjaro Half Marathon. I’m not a runner, so I said, “Well, I don’t want to run, but for the women who are in labor, distance is one of the biggest barriers to maternal healthcare.” Women typically labor in their villages, and for those who have complications, you only start looking for care after you’ve had trouble. So now you’re in labor, having complications, and you have to go and find emergency care. What happens in that moment is you have to start walking. On average, it’s 24 miles. The idea of walking 24 miles, in labor, with complications, to emergency care is just mind-boggling. Part of what Every Mother Counts does is work with distance. In Uganda, it is part of a program that gives transport vouchers to pregnant women, so if you end up in trouble, you can have someone call, and they can bring a motorbike and come and get you and drive you to a clinic. Something as simple as that – being able to afford that few dollars for transportation – can save your life.
Now we’re bringing our customers in and saying that this is something we as a company care about; this is something Jason and I care about. We’re not going after our customers for money, but if it engages them and they become aware of it because of us and our interest in it, that’s great. Every Mother Counts is looking for awareness. It wants people to know these statistics. To that end, Christy and G have teamed up to design our new G pants. They’re called Gentle Giants. They’re elephants; it’s a mom and baby elephant in the Every Mother Counts orange and grey colors, and proceeds from the sale of the pants will go to Every Mother Counts. That’s a way for our consumers to donate funds, even though it’s not costing them anything: they’re just buying the pants, and we’re donating to support this great cause.