Last month, Unicode approved more than 150 new emoji, giving representation to bald people, redheads, and badgers. Notably absent from the burgeoning emojicabulary is menstruation, that monthly medical occurrence impacting roughly half the world’s population. Sure, there are approximations—a red circle or heart, a few demonic red faces—but still no unequivocal symbol for menstruation or menstrual products.

The emoji shutout isn’t the only way periods remain taboo, despite the well-reported rise in recent years of companies operating in the period space, such as Thinx underwear and tampon brand Lola. Meet three organizations in the WeWork community operating on the front lines—lobbying to lawmakers on removing sales tax on pads and tampons; delivering reproductive education to Indian girls at risk of leaving school; and handing out menstrual products to homeless transgender men who get shut out of women’s centers. They’re not an emoji; they’re a movement.

The youth advocate

When Harvard College sophomore Nadya Okamoto isn’t in class, she can be found at WeWork Mass Avenue, leading a 150-chapter empire of period education and advocacy initiatives called Period, the Menstrual Movement. She founded the youth-focused organization with her friend Vincent Forand as a junior in high school. Period concentrates its efforts into three areas: providing menstrual products to homeless people, educating students on different menstrual products, and advocating at the local, state, and federal levels for increased access to menstrual products.

The straightforward name and red dot-themed branding all speak to a frankness Okamoto embraces.

“We very much acknowledge that we’re part of a larger movement,” she says. “That really came to light in 2015, the year NPR called the ‘year of the period.’ We grew fast because we started right around then.”

Period Con 2017 in New York City
At Period Con 2017, volunteers pack and distribute donations from Tampax, one of the event’s sponsors.

The idea to start the organization came from a personal struggle for Okamoto as a teen in Portland, Oregon.

“I started this when I experienced homelessness and had just come out of an abusive relationship,” she says. Seeing homeless women struggle to get the menstrual products they needed spurred her to action.

“Finding my voice in advocacy was very healing for me and is still very healing,” she says. “It helped me get out of that situation, to throw my voice and energy into something else. It’s so rewarding to help so many homeless women now.”

“Finding my voice in advocacy was very healing for me and is still very healing.”

Okamoto’s own journey from homeless to Harvard has given her a platform to inspire, and she’s making the most of it. Last November, Period hosted its inaugural Period Con in New York City, bringing together outspoken voices on periods and other women’s health issues, including US Congresswoman Grace Meng and YouTube star Ingrid Nilsen.

“We’re part of this global community,” she says. “More than half of the population menstruates more than 40 years of their lives. Periods aren’t an obstacle. This is about fundamental human rights.”

Period founder Nadya Okamoto, second from left, hosts Period Con with volunteers.

Period, the Menstrual Movement
Nadya Okamoto, founder and CEO
Established: 2014
Based in: WeWork Mass Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts
What they do: Provide menstrual products to homeless people; educate students about different menstrual products through 150 chapters on high school and college campuses; advocate at the local, state, and federal levels for increased access to menstrual products.

Teens step up to teach

For India’s 120 million girls, getting their period can mean the end of their education.

“So many girls stop going to school when they start menstruating,” says Ricky Sharma, co-founder with Priya Shankar of Girls Health Champions. “Almost half will become mothers in their teens.”

Sharma and Shankar saw the educational blind spot that happens in reproductive health for girls in India due to cultural taboos and sensitivity. They wanted to try out a new idea—peer to peer education—to counteract the lack of information, or even more commonly, misinformation that would spread.

Their program trains girls in 8th, 9th, and 10th grades to teach their peers about important health topics, including menstruation and reproductive health.

We’re equipping them with support and strategies so they can start navigating these challenges in their lives.

Both with family ties to India, Sharma and Shankar first met in college and are now based in Boston and the Bay Area, respectively, at different universities. Sharma pivoted away from a career in investment banking and is pursuing his masters in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Shakar is a physician doing a pediatric residency for underserved populations at the University of California, San Francisco. Both use their academic breaks to make trips to India, including in 2016 when they did their first pilot of the peer-to-peer model.

“We were so nervous,” Sharma says. “We needed the girls to buy in, to put their hands up and be willing [to lead the programs]. We thought, ‘Would this be too challenging?’”

They wound up getting a good response, but what happened next is what convinced Sharma that the model had potential.

“When we were assigning girls to the curriculum they would teach, we had two girls come up to us and say they wanted to take menstruation and pregnancy—the two hardest topics,” he says. “Seeing that bravery and fearlessness in our girls continues to inspire us.”

“Seeing that bravery and fearlessness in our girls continues to inspire us.”

Now in operation for two years, Girls Health Champions is in 10 schools with 330 trained peer educators. Their data suggests that each champion sparks two dozen conversations outside of school—with neighbors, siblings, girls out of school, parents—about difficult topics that could improve the health of the girls and the women they’ll become. But Sharma and Shankar haven’t forgotten about the boys, either.

“As we continue our work, educating girls is only half the equation,” he says. “There’s only so much you can do in a vacuum. We’re working toward developing a curriculum for the boys. Mid-2018 is the goal.”

New York City Creator Awards winner Girls Health Champions
Ricky Sharma and Priya Shankar, second and third from right, empower girls to be community health leaders.

Girls Health Champions
Ricky Sharma and Priya Shankar, co-founders
Established: 2016
Based in: Boston and the Bay Area
What they do: Train adolescent and teen girls in India to teach their peers about important health topics, including menstruation and reproductive health.

‘Hello, I’m menstruating’

On the streets of Los Angeles, #HappyPeriod founder Chelsea Vonchaz Warner also had a realization that she needed to look beyond women and girls as she distributes to homeless people the period products they need to live healthy lives.

“The whole narrative of being homeless is told like it’s one experience,” Warner says. “But that’s not the case.”

“The whole narrative of being homeless is told like it’s one experience. But that’s not the case.”

While giving out pads and tampons one day, Warner approached a homeless person, then apologized when she saw she was speaking to a man. But the person, a trans man who was still menstruating, corrected her, saying, “I’m a female, yeah, I’ll take some.” He hadn’t been welcomed in women’s centers because of how he presented himself. “They won’t give me what I need,” he told her. They instead told him to go to the LGBT center, “where they deal with folks like him.”

“That made me mad,” Warner says. “After that, I decided to be inclusive. I dropped the whole ‘women and girls’ thing and just made it about periods.”

In the last year, #HappyPeriod has started delivering menstrual products to disaster areas, starting with those affected by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. Over two trips, she distributed 75,000 tampons donated by Cora to two high schools, a FEMA event, two organizations, and one church. While there, though, she had an eye-opening experience about how to better serve in moments of need. She had seen plenty of donations but not enough hands and bodies to connect the needy with the goods. “We would definitely do it again, but we’re about getting more people involved to execute on the distribution part,” she says.

HappyPeriod reaches out to homeless people in need of period products
#HappyPeriod volunteers reach out to homeless people on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.

Warner started #HappyPeriod in 2015, first with outreach events where most of the volunteers were her friends. Now, she has chapters in 30 other cities. From day one, she made #HappyPeriod her full-time job. “It’s my life—it’s my kid, boyfriend, and husband,” she says. Before starting the nonprofit, Warner worked in costuming, pulling wardrobe for TV shows and movies for seven years. Making the leap to her own operation, “I just applied all that I did for other people, making them look good, to myself.”

Warner still honors her fashion background, rocking her own “Hello, I’m Menstruating” T-shirts and selling them to support #HappyPeriod.

When thinking about the increasing number of organizations also working in the period space, Warner says she’s energized.

“There are so many startups and new companies that are part of the narrative,” she says. “I call us the period posse.”

Chelsea Vonchaz Warner
Chelsea Vonchaz Warner raises money for #HappyPeriod with T-shirts like this one.

#HappyPeriod
Chelsea Vonchaz Warner, founder and CEO
Established: 2015
Based in: Los Angeles
What they do: Organize outreach programs to ensure homeless people and disaster victims have the menstruation products they need.

Nashville has always thought big. People have moved here with dreams of conquering the city, or even the world. Adam Neumann, cofounder and CEO of WeWork — which has two locations in Music City — has described the company as a place that fosters that kind of growth.

So it makes sense that the two meshed so well at WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards, held on September 13. Host Ashton Kutcher ticked off the long list of larger cities where the Creator Awards, a global competition that rewards entrepreneurs, have already taken place. “London! São Paulo! Nashville, you are on that list!”

Adam Neumann and Ashton Kutcher at WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards.

Neumann twice interrupted the event to increase the amounts of the prizes, underscoring that “think big” theme for the night. He boosted dollar amounts for runners-up in the nonprofit category and gave performance arts winner Melanie Faye a recording studio, in addition to her $18,000 cash prize. All told, WeWork awarded $888,000 in prize money in Music City.

If you were expecting a prim-and-proper pitch competition, well, this wasn’t your father’s shark tank. The crowd of more than 2,500 people at Marathon Music Works was standing room only, and there were lines outside of more folks who wanted to get in. (Food trucks kept serving outside all night.) Faye rocked out on her signature blue Fender guitar as attendees made their way to their seats. “A lot of times on stage I am inhibited, but the audience was giving me a lot of energy that I could feed off,” she said. “So it made me play at my potential. It made me a lot more confident.”

Sarah Martin McConnell wowed the judges — and the crowd — with her elevator pitch for Music for Seniors, a nonprofit that takes live music to the elderly.

Kutcher described Nashville has having seemingly contradictory, yet laudatory, qualities: humility and confidence. Also one of the judges, Kutcher said the one quality he looked for most in a creator is “grit.”

Music City’s quirkiness came through loud and clear in all the best moments of the evening:

Best way to fight the stereotype: Nashville likes to emphasize that it’s not just about country music. Sure, the mega duo of Florida Georgia Line were celebrity judges, but what better way to show Music City’s range than to have G-Eazy (wearing a “Cashville” T-shirt) in the house? The rapper played to a happy after-party crowd that danced through beer and confetti.

Janett Liriano of Loomia pitches her company to the judges.

Best eats: Food trucks lined up outside —  including That Awesome Taco Truck, King Tut’s, and Bradley’s Creamery — fed attendees in a makeshift park with picnic tables and a view of the city skyline in the distance.

Best thirst quencher: On a day that topped 92 degrees and humidity levels as noticeable in the air as the confetti streamers that later rained down, “refreshing” was the beverage watchword of the night. Palomas, served both as limed-accented drinks from the open bars in the vendor market and job fair and as shots once the winners were announced, helped the parched and got folks in a party mood, while keeping it light. For non-drinkers, WithCo’s drink call the Jackass, made with fresh lime and ginger, was a particularly popular pre-show energy kick.

Melanie Faye rocked out on her signature blue Fender guitar at the Nashville Creator Awards.

Easiest way to influence your future: Inside, Neumann, Kutcher, and the finalists demonstrated what happens when one has ambition and curiosity. Business card-maker Moo helped people put that initiative in their own hands –– literally. Market-goers wrote a postcard to their future selves that Moo will mail 12 months from now.

Best wearable art: WeWorker and East Nashville florist FLWR Shop used liquid latex to paint fresh-flower corsages on the wrists of willing attendees.

Local vendors showed off their wares at the Nashville Creator Awards.

Best salute to veterans: The world-changing went on not just on the stage but in the pop-up market and job fair, which hosted many businesses and nonprofits specifically focused on helping refugees and veterans, including Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit for veteran entrepreneurs.

Most quintessential Nashville item for sale: Music City’s Original Fuzz was selling its line of guitar straps made from vintage and one-of-a-kind fabrics. Camera and bags straps were available for those who can’t pick a note.

Dozens of jobs were on offer at the Nashville Creator Awards job fair.

Biggest scene-stealer: Before the pitches began Kutcher and Neumann asked for two volunteers from the packed audience to pitch their idea. Sarah Martin McConnell’s hand shot up, and in 30 seconds she wowed the duo — and the crowd — with her elevator pitch for Music for Seniors, a nonprofit that takes live music to the elderly. She was awarded $50,000 to triple the organization’s size by the end of next year. “This is a turning place for us,” she said.

Product that best knows its niche audience: Nashville is home to the largest Kurdish population in the U.S. The majority of Kurds are Muslim, and Muslim women who participate in wudu, a washing ritual where water must reach every part of the body, cannot wear waterproof makeup or nail polish. Enter Júwon Enamel, a vegan nail polish with a water-permeable polish, to solve that problem. (Júwon means “beautiful” in Kurdish.)

Biggest winner: Stephanie Benedetto, founder and CEO of Queen of Raw, the night’s biggest winner with a $360,000 prize for her online marketplace for excess raw textiles, demonstrated a lot of grit. “The kinds of questions they asked were so valuable, informative, and supportive,” she said, but they also forced her to think about the direction she’ll take the company going forward.

Best sign you were on the right track: Anthony Brahimsha, who walked away with a second-place $180,000 prize for Prommus, his high-protein, clean-label hummus, says that “as soon as you win this award, all the blood, sweat and tears that you put into the company comes together. I’m talking, literally, blood, sweat, and tears… Finally, it feels like an affirmation that you were doing the right thing.”

When luxury clothing retailer Burberry burned millions of dollars worth of items that it couldn’t sell, it caused an uproar. Destroying excess fabric is rampant in the industry, but Stephanie Benedetto may have come up with a solution.

Her business, Queen of Raw, offers an online marketplace for buying and selling fabrics that might otherwise go to waste.

Queen of Raw cofounder Stephanie Benedetto wants to use the prize money from the Nashville Creator Awards to take her company international.

The New Yorker says there’s $120 billion worth of excess fabric sitting in warehouses around the world. That costs the factories that made it, the companies that ordered it, and the warehouses that store it. And Benedetto says it also costs the planet.

The textile industry is the second-biggest polluter of clean water in the world, right after oil. That cotton T-shirt you’re wearing as you read this? Benedetto says it took a mind-boggling 700 gallons of water to produce (unless you happen to be wearing an organic shirt, in which case it’s more like 10 gallons). Multiply that by the 2 billion shirts sold annually across the globe, and you can see the impact this has on the environment.

With Queen of Raw, Bennedetto says that businesses can sell their excess raw fabric (hence the name) instead of destroying it. And if the company that buys it ends up not needing it? Well, it can sell it to another firm.

Buyers become sellers and sellers become buyers,” she says.

Bennedetto says she’s continuing a family tradition. A century ago, her immigrant grandfather worked in the garment industry on New York’s Lower East Side. Today, she runs her technology-driven company from New York’s WeWork Empire State.

A former lawyer who specialized in fashion, technology, and other fields, Benedetto started mapping out Queen of Raw on a napkin four years ago. She officially launched this year with cofounder Phil Derasmo, whose Wall Street and startup contacts were a good balance for her fashion industry chops.

Benedetto estimates that by 2025 Queen of Raw could help save more than 4 billion gallons of water and prevent 2 million tons of textiles from going to the landfill. While Queen of Raw strives to have serious social impact, it was important to Benedetto for it to be a for-profit business to show the industry that preventing waste will help their bottom line.

Benedetto knows how hard it is to run a successful startup. But things suddenly got a lot easier on Sept. 13 when she took home the top prize — $360,000 — at the Nashville Creator Awards.

“We were a bootstrapped company and it took us all the way to launch,” says Benedetto. “We want to be able to grow and scale beyond the U.S. and around the world.”

Her ultimate goal is to get people — business owners and consumers alike — to stop and think.

“Wherever you are, whatever you are going, the materials in the space you are in —the office, a car, a plane — did not come from nowhere,” says Benedetto. “If everyone thought a little differently about one T-shirt, about sourcing sustainably one thing, that would have a massive impact.”

Architect Luiz Alberto Altmann Fazio was volunteering with a well-known nonprofit when he visited a favela in Rio de Janeiro. There he saw for the first time the problems with sewage encountered by many poor communities in Brazil.

“Companies won’t build sewage networks in poor communities because they don’t see it as economically viable,” he says.

About 50 percent of Brazilian households are not connected to a sewage network, a statistic that disproportionally affects the poor. So Fazio created Biosaneamento, a project to build low-cost biogas toilets in communities that lack basic sanitation.

A biogas toilet is similar to an eco-friendly composting toilet in that it converts waste to fertilizer. But a biogas system takes things a step farther by also collecting methane gas that can be used by the local community. This gas can be a lifeline for poor families, who have seen the price of canisters of gas rise in recent months in Brazil.

Despite Brazil passing a law guaranteeing all citizens access to a sewage system 10 years ago, Fazio says that in a best-case scenario, the country is still at least 25 years away from fulfilling its promise. The total cost would be more than $100 billion.

But Biosaneamento offers a cheap and quicker solution to the problem. The construction of bio-toilets uses readily available materials and can create jobs in the community.

Biosaneamento, with offices at Rio de Janeiro’s WeWork Carica, is a winner in the nonprofit category at the WeWork Creator Awards. With the $18,000 prize the company will be able to build up to 50 systems — enough to serve 150 homes and 600 people.

Fazio says that says that their system would cost around a tenth of a sewer traditional system. One of the big benefits would be improving the health of local communities.

“In poor communities with open sewer networks you have high rates of diarrhea and other diseases,” says Fazio. “For young children this can be deadly.”

When São Paulo business leader Alcione Albanesi decided to start a nonprofit organization back in 1993, little did she know that 25 years later it would be one of the best-known programs in Brazil.

“At the time, we couldn’t have imagined where it would take us,” says Albanesi, who started off her career as head of a successful lamp company.

Today, Amigos do Bem — which translates as “Good Friends” — has 8,600 volunteers working to help 60,000 Brazilians in Sertão, one of the country’s poorest areas. The semi-arid region sits in the northeastern part of the country.

Through volunteering, fundraising, and other efforts, Amigos de Bem serves 118 villages in the remote parts of the states of Alagoas, Pernambuco, and Ceará. Last year, Amigos do Bem received an award from Brazil’s Epoca magazine, which honours the 100 best non-governmental organizations in the country.

Sertão is a visually beautiful and enchanting place that has inspired some of Brazil’s best literature and cinema, but it’s also a region that throughout Brazil’s history has suffered from natural disasters, poverty, and neglect.

While there have been some serious improvements in recent years, including much-needed grants provided by the government, problems remain. Jobs are hard to come by, and many residents rely to varying degrees on subsistence agriculture to help them get by.

To make matters worse, two years ago the area suffered its worst drought in history. In 2014, Brazil was removed from the United Nations World Hunger map, but in Sertão, there are many areas where hunger persists.  

“It’s a difficult fight,” says Albanesi, a resident of São Paulo. “It’s really complex. Without a humane intervention, it’s a pattern that repeats itself.”

In partnership with leading supermarket chains in Brazil, Amigos do Bem donates 11,000 food baskets each month to poor families in the Sertão region. But while the nonprofit started off with donations of food and clothing, it has expanded to offer housing and medical and dental care.

Today, the organization is focused on self-sustaining projects such as university scholarships that will benefit nearly 200 students. Most of them will be the first in their families to go on to higher education.

“Today, kids and teenagers in the region can dream,” says Albanesi.