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.

Reporting on the ongoing civil war that had spilled over from Syria into Lebanon, René Cao says she witnessed suffering on a scale unlike anything she’d ever seen before. But despite the hardships she encountered in war zones and refugee camps, she found herself inspired by the selflessness of the people she encountered.

The former reporter for Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV network now works for a bitcoin exchange based out of Shanghai’s WeWork Financial Center. But the Chinese citizen has never forgotten the people she met when she was on assignment in Lebanon in 2011.

“The people I met really shaped my values,” says Cao. “They have driven me to do something for someone else, not just care about myself. As a journalist, I thought I could use my skills to tell their stories and share them with the world. I knew their voices needed to be heard.”

Her determination to help the displaced people in the Middle East led her to found the Ponybaby Project, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for the education of refugee children.

In 2014, she decided to return to Lebanon to document the lives of young people there. Finding a videographer was tough — her first one dropped out after a terrorist attack in Paris — but her editor connected her to Olmo Reverter. Together Cao and Reverter made a documentary called The Hard Stop: The Plight of Syrian Refugee Children, which reached more than 10 million viewers in China alone.

“Flying over with Olmo and shooting that first documentary was really a turning point in my life,” says Cao, who is 30. “I had no idea at the time that I was going to carry on with this project. What I really wanted to do was tell their stories.”

Within a year the team had officially set up the Ponybaby Project. Cao and her partners tell moving stories through articles, documentaries, and photo exhibitions. In honor of World Refugee Day, she and her team hosted a panel discussion on the crisis in Syria at WeWork Shanghai Finance Center.

Cao says the name was inspired by a verse in a famous Chinese poem, which loosely translates to: “Take your dream as a horse, act your glorious youth.”

The Ponybaby Project partnered with Pear Video, one of China’s leading video platforms, to broadcast its Orphans of the World series. It recently embarked on a new series called Their Responses that follows more than a dozen Syrian refugees living across the Middle East. The Ponybaby Project also teamed up with Tencent Charity, one of the leading fundraising platforms in China, to help raise money to help refugees directly.

Niu Song, a professor of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, likes the “community spirit” displayed by the Ponybaby Project team.

“I believe that the stories and documentaries displayed by Ponybaby Project, as first-hand information, can honestly uncover the real status of the refugees, including their basic life, children’s education, job employment, and willingness to return to their home country,” says Song, who was among the speakers at the panel discussion.

All of the funds raised by the Ponybaby Project go towards scholarships for families living in refugee camps who can’t afford their children’s school fees, materials, and books.

“Almost 90 percent of Syrian refugees are in debt,” says Lisa Abou Khaled, who works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Parents are having to resort to difficult choices like pulling their children out of school and sending them to work because they can’t afford to feed the family anymore.”

Since Cao’s first visit to the Middle East, the humanitarian crisis in Syria has claimed the lives of 70,000 civilians and displaced 5 million others. Despite the scale of trauma, Cao says the refugee crisis is rarely discussed in her native China. But that’s part of the goal—to start the conversation by bringing the personal stories of refugees to households across the country.

“Many people don’t have a chance to talk with refugees, so they have a very unclear concept of who they are,” says Cao. “They’re often treated like wild animals, vulnerable and unpredictable. But they want to live with respect and dignity, just like everyone else.”

Photo by Nicholas Tortajada

Even before the lights went up on the stage, the WeWork Creator Awards was literally one of the biggest events of the year in Jerusalem. Nearly 4,000 people packed a stadium that usually hosts basketball games, and they came from as far away as Tel Aviv, Herzliya, and Be’er Sheva. It was also the largest regional competition so far for the awards, hosted in cities around the world.

At the job fair and pop-up market held before the awards, there were so many people that it was sometimes difficult to navigate the aisles. People eagerly pushed forward for free samples of food — even crispy grasshoppers.

When WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann finally stepped onto the stage, the event had the feeling of a homecoming. Neumann and his sister Adi Neumann, a model who hosted the event, both grew up on a kibbutz not far away.

WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann and his sister Adi share a moment at the Jerusalem Creator Awards.

“It’s a really special city and really special to be here,” said Adi from what is usually the home court for the HaPoel Jerusalem Basketball Club.

This is the second time the Creator Awards has been held in Israel. In October more than $1 million was awarded to winners at an event in Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem — where a WeWork location is slated to open later this year — a total of $774,000 went to eight winners.

Host Adi Neumann announces the winners in the business ventures category at the Jerusalem Creator Awards.

Here are some of the most unique and exciting highlights of the evening.

Most progressive fashion statement: More than 30 local artists, companies, and nonprofit organizations took part in a pop-up market on the arena’s concourse. There were bright paintings on canvas, glittering jewelry, natural beauty products, and plenty of T-shirts, including some emblazoned with the words “I’m Not for Sale,” part of a campaign against prostitution and human trafficking by the local nonprofit Turning the Tables, which was also a finalist at the Creator Awards.

Best product you can bury: Perhaps the most intriguing items for sale were paper greeting cards that weren’t just recyclable — they could actually be planted in the ground. Made by the Israeli company Paper Bloom, there are nine types of seeds embedded in the paper of the cards, resulting in several types of flowers that bloom throughout the year.

Winners in the nonprofit category of the Jerusalem Creator Awards pose for a photo together.

Best way to attract a crowd: More than 30 companies and nonprofits staffed tables at the event’s job fair, including half a dozen Creator Awards winners from last year’s event in Tel Aviv., The participants, like Yahoo’s Israeli R&D team and Taboola, were looking to hire a total of more than 70 people. Among the most attention-grabbing booths was that of the Israel Innovation Fund, a nonprofit promoting culture and creativity in Israel, whose table was covered with bottles of local wine.

Most popular souvenir: The most intriguing table at the job fair belonged to Hargol, an Israeli company that produces food products made from grasshoppers. The company — the top winner at the Tel Aviv Creator Awards — caught many people’s eyes with jars of roasted grasshoppers. About 40 percent of people who stopped by the table sampled them, leaving their transparent wings and crispy legs in little piles on the table. Many people then pocketed full jars to take home. “People keep taking them when we’re not looking,” said Hargol CEO Dror Tamir. “I don’t blame them. It really is the best souvenir.”

Most practical swag: The most in-demand item of the evening appeared to be bright red bags emblazoned with the words “Work Happy.” These were from Jobbio, the Dublin-based online hiring platform. “Personally I think they are quite eye-catching,” said Jobbio’s account manager Martha Hayes, who traveled from Dublin to attend the event in Jerusalem. “And they are a useful place to keep the rest of your swag.”

Netta Barzilai, who recently propelled Israel to Eurovision champion, is surrounded by fans.

Favorite food: At a moment when Israeli cuisine has been making global headlines, tables filled with local specialties were scattered throughout the event’s pop-up market and job fair. Popular items included fresh pitas stuffed with chicken, lamb, fish, or roasted vegetables and topped with cilantro-infused tahini. There were also tiny jars of creamy malabi pudding topped with pomegranate syrup and pistachio nuts. But the biggest hit may have been the chocolate chip cookies, baked on the premises in a giant oven by Pilpel Catering. “Holy Moses, these are good,” said one person who sampled them.

Most creative cocktail: Open bars served beer, wine, and craft cocktails all night long. People seemed to love the Golden City, a drink inspired by Jerusalem and made from vodka and honey and garnished with fresh cucumbers.

Most mind-blowing performance: For those who could tear themselves away from the party-like scene at the pop-up market, the highlight of the masterclasses was a show by Israeli mentalist Lior Suchard. As usual, the internationally known performer wowed the audience by reading people’s minds. At one point he seemed to know some participants better than they knew themselves. When asking one woman how many letters were in the name of her first crush, she kept saying five. Suchard replied, “Are you sure it isn’t six?” Sure enough, Suchard guessed the name, and there were indeed six letters.

Most tear-inducing moment: After the audience heard inspiring stories from all of the night’s finalists, it was Kaima Farm, which helps teeneagers who have dropped out of school, that took home the top prize for nonprofit ventures. Yoni Yefet-Reich, Kaima’s CEO, immediately handed the prize over to one of the teenagers who said his life had been transformed by his time on the farm.

Biggest winner: The $360,000 grand prize went to Yehudit Abrams, a recent American immigrant to Israel, for her startup MonitHer, which is developing a hand-held ultrasound device women can use for monthly breasts exams. The device will alert them to any changes in tissue, a key to early diagnosis of breast cancer. “I’m empowering women,” Abrams said, holding up her award.

Best show of hometown pride: Moments after Abrams was showered in sparkly confetti, another top figure in women’s empowerment, Netta Barzilai, who recently propelled Israel to Eurovision champion with her song “Toy,” took the stage to kick off the real party part of the evening. The crowd gathered around her, wildly snapping photos.

When Raffi Rembrand’s son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4, it was not the worst news the family received that day. The biggest blow came when their doctor said it was too late for the earliest treatments.

So for Rembrand, a chemical engineer by training, finding a way to detect autism earlier became his life’s mission.

Now, more than three decades after his son was diagnosed with autism, Rembrand has founded an Israeli company, SensPD, which he hopes will accomplish just that. 

SensPD, a winner in the WeWork Creator Awards held on June 20 in Jerusalem, is developing a way to detect autism based on physiological signs. The company uses an existing device commonly used to check the hearing of newborns, but has modified it to check for sensory perception. One of the major components of autism, which affects one of every 59 children born in the U.S., is its effect on the sensory system.

“We didn’t reinvent the wheel,” says Maayan Shahar, SensPD’s CEO.  “But we have altered a very known device used in all hospitals that will hopefully provide a standard screening process for all babies.”

The goal is for such a test to eventually become standard for every baby born around the world, allowing the various treatments for autism to start as soon as possible. When started very early in life, some therapies have a success rate of up to 90 percent.

“It’s been known for a long time that it’s early intervention that makes all the difference,” Shahar says.

But the standard diagnosis of autism based on a series of evaluations often comes after a children has reached the age of 3 or 4, which is too late for some treatments.

SensPD is currently preparing to start clinical trials in Israel. It hopes that if all goes well it will get regulatory approval for its device within three years.

Rembrand’s son, now 35 and living in a group home in Israel, remains an inspiration for the company.

“We want to bring this to market as soon as possible, but in the most professional way,” Shahar says.  ”So that instead of being isolated, children with autism can be a productive part of society.”

While Yehudit Abrams was working as a postdoctoral fellow at NASA, her job was to research the potential use of ultrasound to monitor astronauts on long missions to the international space station. But when her cousin, a gynecologist and breast cancer survivor, was killed in a car accident in 2011, Abrams started thinking of other uses for the medical device.

“She was so passionate about the early detection of cancer, and I wanted to honor her for that,” says Abrams, a physician and mechanical engineer who immigrated to Israel last year from California. “That is what got me thinking about using some sort of portable ultrasound for early detection of cancer.”

Abrams founded MonitHer, a Jerusalem-based startup that is developing a handheld ultrasound device that women can use at home to monitor their breast tissue. The device and its potential to change the way breast cancer is detected is why MonitHer was the big winner the WeWork Creator Awards, held in Jerusalem on June 20. Her company took home $360,000.

“I’m empowering women,” Abrams told the crowd, holding up her award.

An early prototype of the MonitHer scanner.

Women using the device will scan their breasts once a month for about 10 minutes. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved software program then scans the images for any changes over time. If the software detects any potential problems, users will be advised to consult a physician.

By monitoring breast tissue over time, Abrams says women will be able to detect cancer earlier than the traditional method of self-exams where women feel each breast in order to find lumps or swelling.

“We are changing the paradigm from breast cancer screening to breast health monitoring,” Abrams says.

Once more than 100,000 women begin to use the device and upload their scans to the app each month, artificial intelligence and machine learning methods will be used to evaluate tissue changes.

While mammography has long been the best way to diagnose breast cancer, it is less effective on certain women, especially those with dense breast tissue. And the current protocols for breast cancer detection have recently been questioned for resulting in the unnecessary treatment of tumors that may never grow in size or harm a women’s health.

“We are wasting billions of dollars of year treating cancer that women don’t have, and this is because we have stopped innovating,” Abrams said. “Medicine is a dinosaur.”