Sharmin Kabir, Founder, and CEO of Dhaka-based girl’s health startup Wreetu, shares her journey to what she is doing today, explains why she started and how he built Wreetu to help girls in Bangladesh, grew it, trails and tribulations of entrepreneurship and her plans for the startup in the coming years.
Please tell us about your background and what you are working on now.
I did my Honors in English Linguistic and Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from BRAC University. After my post graduation, I worked at BRAC University for two years in an education program where my responsibility was working with students and young people. That’s where for the first time I realized that I wanted to do something in this field. I was not sure about it yet but I wanted to explore the field.
After that, I worked at a private organization for a brief period of time where I had the opportunity to collaborate with different international organizations. I had also got an extended exposure to the startup community in Dhaka during that period which eventually inspired me to try something of my own.
The journey of Wreetu started there. We finally launched our operations at the end of 2015. Over the past years, we have managed to fine-tune the idea further and now we are in the phase of scaling our operations.
Briefly tell us about Wreetu such as what you do, products and services and scope of your operations.
Wreetu is a social enterprise that aims to create a community of health-conscious adolescent girls in Bangladesh. Our works concerns creating awareness around puberty and period.
In our society puberty and period are still taboos. Even many highly educated families don’t feel any necessity to talk about it with their girls. This has consequences. The beginning of puberty is a difficult time for every girl when she goes through mental and physical changes. When left alone without proper support, many suffer from fear and superstitions and acts in an unhealthy way.
And when she experiences her period first time, things get tougher. Since we don’t feel comfortable talking about these things in our society, often girls suffer. Different kind of suggestions come from different people. Her mother suggests one thing and her grandmother or friend suggests another. Many people give them an impression that it is not a good thing and it is something that you should hide and be ashamed of.
Moreover, there is no specific source that will make her realize that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather you should feel proud of this. Because it enables you to bring a new life into the world. Most importantly, it is a natural thing. Like we grow up, our hands and legs grow up, our brain develops - these are all natural things and puberty is a natural thing as well. Unfortunately, our society has turned this into a taboo and we don’t feel comfortable talking about it. But this too important an issue for women health to ignore.
At Wreetu, we are working to change this situation. We organize workshops on issues related to puberty and period at different places both in Dhaka and outside of Dhaka. Surprisingly, we have found that the situation is no different in many highly educated part of the society. It exists everywhere, more or less.
We have a team who organizes workshops in different parts of the country. I personally go with the team. Our primary goal, for now, is to build up the awareness through our workshops and create a community who will be able to help each other. We maintain a details record of the participants so that we can maintain regular communication with them.
In Bangladesh, there are 15 million adolescent girls. Our goal is to bring all these girls under one community.
We are forming a group of 4-5 girls at every campus we go. We name this group ‘Wreetu Shathi’. This group works as a representative of Wreetu. The girls of Wreetu Shathi contact us directly if any girl has any serious problem or need our help.
We have an arrangement with three gynecologists at Wreetu who take care when there is a situation that demands medical attention. Besides, our workshops, we have an illustrated storybook that details about these issues in a fun way which we distribute among girls for raising awareness. We are first in Bangladesh to do this.
The idea of the book is to make this education interesting and appealing to girls so that they learn about their own body and health. We have found it to be more engaging and effective. The book beautifully explains every pertinent topic about puberty and period through a story including what a girl should do during her period, how she should manage, what she should eat and what she shouldn’t, and when she should consult a doctor everything etc.
It took us one year to complete the book. We plan to bring a sample copy to the market next month.
The other part of our work is offering products and tools to girls so that they can apply the knowledge that we provide. On that front, we are in the process of manufacturing a reusable sanitary napkin. The reason for manufacturing our own reusable sanitary napkin is that many of us cannot afford the sanitary napkin which is available in the market. Our goal is to make it accessible to girls who can’t afford existing products.
Wreetu consists of three layers: firstly, awareness building through workshops, the second layer is our book that offers useful knowledge from it. The third is our reusable sanitary napkin that will help her to change her regular habit to a healthy habit during her period. We are working to establish the fact that girls should embrace their physical changes and it is not a taboo as it is an important thing for their physical and psychological growth.
We currently have operations in Dhaka, Kishoreganj and the north side of Bangladesh including Rajshahi, Bogra, Natore, and Dinajpur.
Our ambition is to go to every corner of Bangladesh and become a one-stop service point for young girls in Bangladesh. There will be booths where girls can have consultancy and buy their all necessary products even sanitary napkin from the booth.
What motivated you to get started with Wreetu?
I have always wanted to do something for the society. Apart from that, Wreetu goes deeper into my personal story. When I was in class 8, I had my first period. Like many other girls, it was an embarrassing experience for me. My sister gave me a sanitary napkin to use but she didn’t tell me anything about it. I was very shy and couldn’t muster the courage to share it either with my friends, not even with my other family members. I had to manage everything by myself. It was a difficult experience for me.
Whenever I go to my village, I come to see that the situation of the girls there haven’t changed much. They still feel shy about these things. Even in cities, among my friends, on social media, I have seen many people consider it as a taboo.
Consequently, girls often suffer and do unhealthy things during this period of time. In fact, this is the reason for 95% cervical cancers. If we fail to raise awareness about it then the rate of death from cervical cancers of women will not decrease.
This is what motivates me. That this is such an important issue, it deserves more attention.
We now constantly receive queries from people both male and female. There is a huge need for this support and we believe that we are making a difference.
What went into building the initial product? How did you put together initial investment and other logistics to get started? Please walk us through what the first few months of your journey were like and challenges you faced.
If I talk about investment, in 2016 I applied at SPARK Bangladesh, an accelerator program, and got accepted where I went through a residential training for 7 days. I got two small grants from there that helped as an initial investment and I also invested from my personal savings. With that, we started working on the validation of our book. That’s how we basically started.
I never thought of starting Wreetu after raising fund. We started first and then gradually figured things out.
Since I had experience of working with students and young people, those experiences helped me a lot in arranging workshops and building the community. Initially, it was challenging to bring girls together and make them open-up about their experience due to the negative connotation with the idea. Again, my experience of working with young people before helped me to get around it.
If I talk about my personal challenges, my family initially was not happy when I started working on this. They expected me to sit for BCS or take on a government job and settle down. Working on something of my own and that too in an issue like this, they didn’t take it positively. But they have always trusted me that I would do good things no matter what. Gradually, things have changed and now they understand that we are doing something important.
How have you attracted users and grown Wreetu?
We are trying to build an ecosystem which we deem is critical to our success. In our society, girls and women usually don’t have a lot of power. Many of the girls we work with don’t have purchasing power or decision-making power which is a challenge for us in many ways.
We are trying to involve parents and teachers in the process. Another thing is when a girl gets our illustrated book and take it home and if her father and brothers and other family members read the book, they will be aware as well about the issues.
We believe in involvement. The more people we involve, it will be easier to make the sustainable changes happen.
We are arranging workshops in schools. Besides, we have counseling programs for parents and teachers. We have collaborations with gynecologists in order to provide support when a medical attention is required.
We celebrate different days and occasions related to our girls and women health. These are helping us to grow.
What is your business model? How have you grown your revenue or your key metric?
We have just started and revenue is not a focus for us now. Our workshops are mostly free for attendees. We only take a transportation cost when we work with schools. It is already hard to work with schools and convince them to allow us to organize a workshop, so we don’t think we will be able to charge for attending our workshops in the near future.
Our revenue, for now, comes from selling the book. The next phase of our revenue model is, of course, selling sanitary napkins. When we start selling sanitary napkins, I think we will be able to generate a healthy revenue.
Our initial plan is to import the product for first few months and then gradually move to manufacturing. We have a long-term plan. For now, we are trying to build our capacity so that we can execute on our plan.
The problem around girls health that we are trying to solve is an important issue as well as a difficult challenge. We understand that it will take time to make a meaningful difference in this area. Once we manage to stable our operations in this phase, we plan to scale in other areas such pregnancy, menopause and other women health issues. Women health and well-being is an important challenge. Our goal is to explore the field in its length and breadth.
What are the challenges now?
We make the storybook which we plan to distribute more widely. Developing critical partnerships that would enable us to scale is the major challenge now for us. We are working on it and hopefully will be able to get somewhere soon insha Allah.
What are the goals for the future?
The problem around girls health that we are trying to solve is an important issue as well as a difficult challenge. We understand that it will take time to make a meaningful difference in this area. Once we manage to stable our operations in this phase, we plan to scale in other areas such pregnancy, menopause, and other women health issues.
Women health and well-being is an important challenge. Our goal is to explore the field in its length and breadth. We want to bring everything related to girls and women health on Wreetu platform so that a woman can have all the information, services and products from Wreetu.
The other goal is to build awareness in the market and inspire people to be supportive towards women.
I would do things with a sense of urgency. We took one year to publish our book. I would do it as quickly as possible. I would have started earlier and do things with more force and speed.
If you could start all over again what are the few thing that you would do differently.
I have learned a lot over the last few years. I would have worked harder on our capacity building.
The other thing is that I would take less time to get things done. I would do things with a sense of urgency. We took one year to publish our book. I would do it as quickly as possible. I would have started earlier and done things with more force and speed.
What are your advise for future startups who are just starting out?
I don’t think I have the experience and expertise to offer advice. If you ask my two-cents, I would say look before you jump. Do your research before starting your business. Learn more about your field of work. Develop expertise. It would allow you to bring more efficiency and effectiveness to your work.
(Ruhul Kader contributed to this story)