Priya Sunil catches up with Sahil Dharia, CEO, Soothe Healthcare, a self-proclaimed 'feminist in a man's world', whose brand is revolutionising the women's hygiene industry - starting with empowering its own workforce.
When you bring up talk about women's hygiene, particularly menstrual health at the workplace, chances are you'll see a few aversions of eye contact and squirming among your male employees. Some women employees may feel uncomfortable bringing it up too, conscious that it may be considered 'taboo'.
Over in India, Soothe Healthcare is on a mission to change that perception and in fact increase awareness on the importance of women's hygiene, starting with its own workforce.
Founded in 2012, the manufacturer of innovative and accessible feminine products aims to disrupt the Blue Ocean market, and revolutionise the women's hygiene industry.
With that in mind, the brand launched its flagship product, Paree, in the year 2015. This home-grown challenger brand has been pivotal in demystifying women hygiene category and ensuring that the women today have a hygiene product to support their every hygiene need.
In keeping with the "nonlinear thinking DNA" of the company, the most significant campaign for Paree was brought alive at the most critical phase of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. This was the campaign that stood "for women and with women." The campaign ensured that even during the lockdown, India's women workforce had easy and unhindered access to essential hygiene products. While it began as a brand campaign basis the need of the hour, it soon cannonballed into varied administrative agencies and NGOs joining forces to ensure outreach and delivery.
At the end of the campaign, Paree was able to distribute over 200,000 sanitary pads to women (in need), across states, thereby advocating that the nation prioritise women hygiene.
Championing Paree and Soothe's mission is a team of about 1,000 employees spread across its offices in India, overseen by a six-member HR team. Today, the overall workforce at Soothe comprises 40% women, out of which 80% are corporate office staff. At the same time, 70% of the CEO's direct management team includes women.
People, Planet, Profits: How Soothe Healthcare is disrupting the personal hygiene sector, with employees at the forefront
In this interview, Priya Sunil catches up with the brains behind the brand - Sahil Dharia, CEO, Soothe Healthcare, on what makes it stand out in attracting talent, how the firm encourages employee growth by rewarding on a profit-sharing system, and more.
Q How does Paree stand up to the bigger brands in the industry, in attracting talent?
Our core values are - People make a difference. I think if you give people the right kind of work environment and treat your team as your priority asset-base, it is just a matter of time that the positive word-of-mouth and market goodwill draws the right talent pool to your brand.
I am very proud to say that our talent acquisition has happened organically. Our high performance workforce has been our poster child for attracting new talent, irrespective of competition. Also, 40% of our workforce is women, and with a brand such as ours, the teams feel very invested and have a great sense of pride knowing that they are making a difference in everyday lives of women across geographies. That attitude of partnership in ownership is always key to create brand believability. I think that has been key to attract the best of the best into our corporate fold.
Also, the way I see it, this market is not as much about competition as it is about growth. So, the goal is to chase growth share and not market share and we are in a category that is experiencing an 18% year-on-year growth.
Over the years, we have managed to build an incredible, high performance team of like-minded, talented and skilled people to drive our brand ethos. The HR goal of Soothe is to hire entrepreneurs and empower them to take calculated risks. We look for people who thrive in ambiguity as two years here is five years’ worth of experience in any other industry.
Q Given that Paree is all about spreading awareness around women’s health and hygiene (through education, etc.), what initiatives have you and your team implemented for your own woman employees?
We think of ourselves as more than just commerce. Our philosophy is People, Planet, Profits. We are a business, that is in business to positively impact the health and hygiene lifestyle of every woman. In our endeavour to dial our mission forward, we usually end up thinking out of the circle, wherein, the woman is the protagonist and not the product.
Just a case in point, in the summer of May 2020, on the occasion of World Menstrual Hygiene Day, we were one of the first indigenous, women hygiene companies that announced our Period Leave policy. The policy provides a one-day period leave every month with an option to either take the day off (paid leave) for factory and sales staff or work from home for corporate employees.
This policy was also our call-to-action for all other corporates and industries to dial up conversations about giving their women workforce a comfortable work environment. Through initiatives like these we wanted to deepen the thinking on issues pertaining to women hygiene and encourage 'period talk'.
We want to empower an open corporate culture where both men and women feel empowered and comfortable discussing the period issue, and why not? We have seen the rise of mental health issues and at the base of these issues is the feeling that certain subjects are not to be spoken about openly - this is the subject we want to attack, address and demystify.
This progressive campaign was very successful in triggering a debate and getting people talking about their perspective on period issues and period leaves. This campaign platformed the larger, unspoken issue of menstrual health and hygiene of a woman at workplace and how as a society, we need to start taking cognizance of it and adopt measures to help our women workforce navigate their period issues, with ease and without any embarrassment.
Q You started out your entrepreneurial journey at a young age and bring with you over 20 years of experience in various ventures. I understand you’re actively involved in spreading awareness about women’s health and hygiene too (e.g. through the IDHF). What spurred this passion?
I moved to India from Wall Street to help set up a leading MNC company (Reuters) here. After spending 10 years in setting up and scaling the company, I quit my job to become an entrepreneur. Having run a large global MNC and a stint teaching at a leading MBA college (Symbiosis), I realised that I want to spend my life building and investing in something that will make a real difference and have a deeper societal impact. I was very sure that the sector that I wanted to impact was women hygiene.
When I quit my job in 2012, I researched my subject and came across astonishing facts. Here I am going to share a few of those factoids that deeply influenced me and propelled me to action:
- Only 12% women used hygienic means of menstrual protection (Plan India NGO study).
- Now it is close to 18%.
- 23% girls drop out of school at puberty as parents don’t know how to manage her period cycle (UNICEF data).
- 75,000 women die of cervical cancer in India with an additional 150,000 diagnosed each year (Min. of H&FW data).
Moreover, I truly believe that the way we tackle women's hygiene in the country is with a very myopic vision. In fact there is a huge change in perception which needs to be catalysed in this sector. Women's hygiene should be looked at from the lens of routine and basic healthcare for women, in order to create a dominant workforce, which will greatly build national competencies. If women’s workforce participation rate, today, matched the men’s, our GDP would jump by an easy 26% (a Booz study).
My fact finding mission turned into a whole new macro vision of imagining the power of this latent asset-base and how deploying and efficiently employing this naturally effective asset pool would be the first step to build our country’s competitive advantage. From thereon started the mission 2.0 of how do you engage the women taskforce and how do you keep them efficient and effective.
I realised that productivity and women's hygiene had a very direct correlation and that is what triggered my foray into the women's hygiene product category. I walk the talk and my company today is a working case study of a women intensive workforce paving the way for corporate successes and how women hygiene plays the biggest role in their wellbeing.
Q How have you seen the industry evolve over the years?
The feminine hygiene market is mainly driven by the awareness about feminine hygiene products. Every year, several Indian women are diagnosed with vaginal diseases and infections due to low awareness and poor menstrual hygiene practices. Almost a decade ago, when Soothe was founded in 2012, only 12% of women used hygienic means of menstrual hygiene protection (Plan India NGO study), and now it has grown close to almost 18%. At Soothe Healthcare, we are committed to make this number grow.
Women these days are more aware and familiar about menstrual hygiene and the numerous products available to suit their requirements. We as a brand are very aggressive in keeping these conversations going, normalising these conversations and helping build agility of talk and action with our corporate peers.
Also because of the global pandemic, the personal hygiene market has been witnessing a huge surge in the demand for personal hygiene products from sanitisers. Consumers today are unwilling to compromise on their health and hygiene in any which way and their willingness to spend a larger wallet share personal hygiene products is evident.
Further notable is the fact that parents, women and girls are today more empowered and knowledgeable about menstural hygiene given their exposure to social media and this is a very positive change. There are progressive conversations about periods, women hygiene products and women health.
I feel the more these conversations accelerate and permeate, the more innovation and agility you will see in the personal hygiene industry. So, the future of the industry looks robust.
Q Paree recently launched #PartnersInProgress, an initiative built on the belief in equal opportunities, and aimed at increasing employees’ ownership. Tell us more about this. What was the thought process behind this, and as CEO, did you take the lead in executing?
The growth of an organisation stems from the growth of its employees, as every employee brings value to a company in their own unique way. We always believed in a vision of building an environment that honours and appreciates its employee’s efforts and with this thought, we introduced the #PartnersInProgress programme.
We had decided to take a different approach towards individual growth by rewarding and recognising based on their skills and contribution and not by hierarchy. The career ladder at Paree revolves around dimensions such as skill building, personal growth and the responsibility taken in the organisation which maps well to the culture and value of the company.
Through this initiative, we also want to encourage employee ownership by rolling out Employee Stock Options, a reward for their loyalty and commitment. The goal here is to motivate the employees and treat them equal while providing them with a great opportunity to participate in generating and sharing the wealth.
At Paree, our employees are a valuable asset and are the backbone of the organisation and rewarding their relentless work through #PartnersInProgress is a small appreciation for their achievements.
Q The programme focuses on recognising and rewarding based on skills and contributions, rather than on tenure, and that is progressive! As such, what are the KPIs you look out for, and how do you track them to make that direct link?
Paree is a progressive brand that values its workforce and believes in the favourable acknowledgement and advancement of every member. With a focus on customer centricity, helmed by a determination to provide the best possible customer experience, Paree understands the importance of every employee.
The contribution made by each and every employee is directly proportionate to their growth. There is a proper tracking process in place that calculates the growth of the team, their vertical, and how they have contributed to the growth vision of the company. Not only is the task achieved important, but how much that employee has gone beyond their target to help the company, is also recognised and valued.
A happy environment as well as safe work conditions is always a pre-requisite to a successful company. Over time, we have built a culture where women partnership and gender equality play an important role and employees are considered partners with greater ownership and participation.
Q Have you had to deal with stereotypes, being a male champion in a women-centric industry? If so, what’s your message to others who want to take up the mission, like you?
In the current world, stereotypes for gender is passé. Well, I do get a surprised smile from people sometimes when they get to know all about it and I always take it as compliment. I want to encourage everyone that wants to mobilise this category, it is of significance at so many levels, therefore the more the merrier.
I am proud to be a feminist in a man's world and I feel that there is a need for more men to join in to champion women-centric products and industries. You would never question a women handling the so-called men’s product categories for example; bikes, cars, jets, yachts, so it is the same sense of pride that instils me to handle women's hygiene.
In my head, there is no divide - it is about making a difference and creating a positive impact; that is my priority. My circle often refers to me as Pad Man 2.0, which is quite a compliment to be honest. Also, it is always nice to discover that in a room full of ladies, I sometimes am the one who knows the most about sanitary pads!
Photo / Provided [Featuring Sahil Dharia, CEO, Soothe Healthcare]