THERE ARE ACCOUNTS to organize, the marketing plan to get in order, and... then? There's the "ick" factor.
"Most of the time I just say, 'They're sustainable feminine hygiene products,' but then I get some weird looks I have to explain," says Tracy Puhl over coffee at Albina Press. "Some people are just like, 'Why? Why? Why on earth would you ever choose to do that? It's disgusting.'"
On March 4, 24-year-old Puhl officially bought GladRags, a Northeast Portland-based business that she says makes a half million dollars in annual sales peddling reusable cloth sanitary pads.
While many people her age are looking into internships or meandering post-college, Puhl is suddenly figuring out what it means to be president of periods.
"You kinda just have to develop a thicker skin for people being grossed out about your job," says Puhl with a smile.
GladRags got its start in 1992 when Portlander Brenda Mallory, then a thirtysomething stay-at-home mom, had a "light bulb moment" while changing her daughter's cloth diapers.
These days, the company's manufacturing process is so feel-good it may as well come from a Portlandia episode. The organic cotton pantyliners are sewn by a woman-run company in Tigard, then packed into pastel, locally made cardboard boxes by a group of developmentally disabled adults.
This small crew, plus half a dozen sales reps around the country, sells 3,300 of the hand-sewn pads and pantyliners a month, plus 685 plastic menstrual cups called Keepers or Moon Cups.
GladRags isn't the only reusable menstrual pad company (there's also Lunapads, Moon Pads, and the unfortunately-not-Twilight-themed New Moon Pads). But it's the only one whose products are all sold nationally in big stores like Whole Foods.
It's a niche product, sure, but then again the potential market includes 50 percent of all Americans. The cloth pads are a hit among feminists and progressive women, as expected, but some of their biggest customers are actually stay-at-home moms and survivalists.
"I think a lot of people think you have to be like a crunchy hippie Earth mother with dreadlocks and flowy skirts to use reusable products, but all kinds of people use them," says Puhl, who's bright eyed with short, choppy blonde hair.
Puhl grew up in the hills of Northwest Portland, right along Skyline Drive, and stuck around her hometown to study social work and gender studies at Portland State. After working at a nonprofit that helps disabled people get jobs, Puhl landed at GladRags two years ago. When Mallory wanted out of the business this January, the pair quickly worked out a "creative financing" deal to pass along the business, despite the fact that neither of the duo had bought or sold a business before.
"It's weird, it seems like a really grown-up thing to be doing," says Puhl. "I always saw business as—not an evil empire—but like, business is bad and they're always trying to scam people out of their money. But at GladRags, that's not what we're doing."
Puhl sees the company as being on a frontline of feminism, offering an eco-friendly product that helps women get more in touch (literally) with their natural rhythms. She laughs about mainstream tampon commercials, with their bizarre blue liquid and women running across beaches while clad in virgin white.
"People think that white equals clean, when really white just equals a bunch of chemicals put into something to bleach it," says Puhl. "I feel like dealing with your own bodily functions by having to wash your pads brings you closer to your body in this really empowering way."