Her Menstrual Cups are De-Stigmatizing Periods, Challenging Taboos & Helping the Environment
Heli Kurjanen discusses Lunette's international expansion and her commitment to making menstruation mainstream.
The Helm: Heli, explain your company to me in one sentence.
Heli Kurjanen: Lunette changes attitudes towards periods by breaking taboos and providing the most convenient and safe reusable menstrual cup.
The Helm: What was the vision behind your company? When did you start it, and why?
Heli Kurjanen: I started Lunette in 2004 when I was a 25-year-old stay-at-home mom, without any business education or any idea of how to start a company. The first menstrual cups were patented back in the 1930s, but I found through personal experience and with the help of a small test group that the old design could be updated to become more comfortable and hygienic. So starting off, the company was mainly product oriented, but after a few years in the business we realized that Lunette needed to serve a bigger purpose. There’s a huge lack of knowledge and a lot of taboos around periods that need to be broken down and reformed. I think we came to a turning point where we realized we can’t just sell our products and hope for success, but we need to systematically change the world.
Menstrual cups are considered medical devices in a lot of countries, so we’ve had to go through several different registrations in order to enter certain markets, which are both time-consuming and expensive.
The Helm: You’ve impressively scaled your business internationally, and it is now available in close to 50 countries across the globe. What did that process look like? Were there any unexpected hurdles you had to overcome when going international?
Heli Kurjanen: It has definitely been an amazing ride, but it has also been trying at times. Scaling internationally is about finding good partners that will grow with the company for years. We always try to find at least one partner in each country we’re looking to expand to with whom we can cultivate a supportive and honest relationship with. Most of the time our distributor is a local company working within the organic or green sector and knows the local market. Our partners are also usually active change-makers in their respective markets and have used our products before. I honestly think that cultivating these partnerships with passionate people is the only way to work when you have limited budgets and resources. I have also learned the importance of trusting my intuition and doing things that feel right.
The biggest hurdles internationally are probably those related to laws and regulations. Menstrual cups are considered medical devices in a lot of countries, so we’ve had to go through several different registrations in order to enter certain markets, which are both time-consuming and expensive.
Lastly, I also have to say that I think we’ve been very lucky—lucky in finding good international partners and lucky that we’ve had such a relentless and hardworking team that has made the journey possible.
The Helm: What has your funding process looked like?
Heli Kurjanen: I started the company with a small woman entrepreneur loan, granted by the Finnish government. We’ve been strategic about growing slowly throughout these 14 years, which has allowed us to reinvest our profits and not take in any additional funding since Lunette’s inception.
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The Helm: Why is now the time for Lunette to exist?
Heli Kurjanen: I think it’s important to remember that the world has changed a lot since 2004. Back when I started this company, people weren’t used to seeing women-owned companies creating and marketing products for women. People didn’t want to talk about periods at all and the urgency regarding protecting the environment didn’t really exist in the same way. When we started we actually had to emphasize and market other product qualities, like convenience or saving money, rather than the fact that using a menstrual cup is an environmentally friendly option. Luckily, those days are gone and we can talk openly and proudly about the huge impact the Lunette Cup has on the environment. Plastic-free periods and the zero-waste movements are now welcomed conversation, and we’re happy to see how openly people now can talk about periods in general. A recent study we did showed that 86% of Gen Z think that menstruation isn’t a taboo subject, so clearly the work we have done is working!
The Helm: As you’ve pointed out, sustainability and de-stigmatizing periods are central to the mission of Lunette. Tell me about what your work has shown you in terms of gender inequalities around the world, and how you drive impact on a global level.
Heli Kurjanen: For me, growing up in Finland where the school system is very progressive and we have cultural facets like saunas, where women of different ages are bathing together and sharing stories, I was unaware of the extent of the problems girls and women might encounter around the world. Expanding globally has definitely widened my perspective and shown the importance of de-stigmatizing periods and I think we need to talk, educate, and work with organizations that have their boots on the ground. We’ve always made an effort to work with different charity organizations and projects that do more than just give out free products. For example, in one of our projects in Kenya we provide schoolgirls hours of sex education, along with period education and a Lunette Cup. The feedback from that project has been amazing and we couldn’t be happier to see changes, like girls no longer missing school because of their periods and there being room to have open conversations about it, actualize in the society because of it.
I think that one of the biggest misconceptions is that all menstrual cups are safe to use.
The Helm: What would you say the biggest misconception is about you or your industry?
Heli Kurjanen: Unfortunately, I think that one of the biggest misconceptions is that all menstrual cups are safe to use. People often assume that menstrual cups are regulated all over the world, and therefore all products sold are safe. This is not true and there are products on the market that are made of unclean materials and contain harmful chemicals. The vagina is one of the most absorbent places in the human body so it’s of the utmost importance that we only use safe and tested products inside of it.
The Helm: The first Lunette Cups came into stores in 2005, so next year you’ll be celebrating your 15th year. If you were starting the business today, what would you do differently?
Heli Kurjanen: I have learned so much during these years that would definitely have allowed me to be much wiser starting off and would have saved me a lot of time. But looking back now, I think I would go big faster and get a group of highly talented professionals around me earlier in the process. I’ve found that it’s important to have a board that helps you see the bigger picture and consistently brings you back to the mission. Sometimes when you’re in the trenches and you’re working a lot with the everyday stuff it’s easy to lose that vision.
The Helm: What is a bad habit you’ve had to break on your entrepreneurial journey?
Heli Kurjanen: I’m still constantly trying to learn to take vacations and breaks; it’s not easy when you have your own company and you do something that you love. My work is my passion, but I’m working on not letting it define me. It’s an important part, but having loving people around you is more important.
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The Helm: How do you invest in women around you?
Heli Kurjanen: I try my best to be a good example and share my story, which seems to be an inspiration to many. I’m often asked to speak at different women’s events where I always try to encourage women to start their own companies. I think that my experiences show that even if you don’t have higher education, you can still run a successful company and grow internationally—you just need to be willing to work and try your best. Sometimes it’s not enough, but you’ll learn important things along the way regardless.
The Helm: How do you invest in yourself?
Heli Kurjanen: I try to balance my hectic work-life with an easy-going personal life. I just bought an old house in the Finnish countryside that I’m renovating and I have two cats, a dog, and a horse which all keep me grounded and make me spend time outside.
The Helm: What productivity tool would you be lost without?
Heli Kurjanen: I’m a bit old-fashioned and although I carry my phone with me all the time, I love making lists in a physical notebook. For some reason it feels like I remember things better when I write them down.
The Helm: What’s next for you and the company?
Heli Kurjanen: We are so excited to share that we’ve just received the South Korean FDA registration and got Lunette products into stores in United Arab Emirates. Both are new and exciting markets for us and I believe they will be significant for our future growth. Our team has also been growing and we have interesting projects (that I can’t share yet!) in our pipeline. I have done this for almost 15 years and every day I’m still so excited about the possibilities ahead and the new things I can learn. I truly hope that never changes and that I can do exciting work like this forever.
The Helm: Name three women that you think are doing incredible things right now.
Heli Kurjanen: I know I’m not the only one, but I’m currently immensely inspired by Greta Thunberg. I’m not sure if that even requires any further explanation, but I wish that I had her courage and passion to speak up about things that matter.
I also admire Lauren Singer from Trash is for Tossers a lot. She’s changing the world’s perspective on waste and I would say that she’s the reason why there are so many new zero-waste stores and she’s making the idea of creating as little waste as possible more mainstream.
Lastly, I have to say that my whole team at Lunette is doing incredible things right now. We have a group of passionate women (and men!) who are working hard everyday to achieve a better world. Lunette is much more than just a product or a workplace for us and I’m so proud of being a part of this team.
The Helm: Best advice you’ve ever received?
Heli Kurjanen: Dare to dream big, but remember that no one can do it alone. You need to have people around you who love you, support you, and are wiser than you.
Invest in a woman. Check out Lunette here.
Meet the Founder
To change attitudes about periods. Nobody should be ashamed of them; nobody should miss a chance because of them.
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