Tackling period poverty and fast fashion waste

Jennifer Jia is heading a business which aims to empower women and deliver sustainable and affordable sanitary protection.

I think affordable sanitary pads are a basic human need, especially in countries like India or Bangladesh, where these are out of reach for a lot of women. Small yet critical products like these can result in women being excluded from social and work functions.

Jennifer Jia

Jennifer Jia became an entrepreneur by chance, and her rise up the entrepreneurial ladder shows the value of a great team and a great idea.

Jennifer [2017] is the founder of Emporsand, an enterprise that aims to empower women through sanitation. Its first product, a sanitary pad made with the remnants of fast fashion, taps not only into concerns about waste and the environment, but also into period poverty - two of the biggest issues the world is facing today.   

Jennifer’s background is in medicine, specifically Clinical Neurosciences. In 2018 she was based at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, which used to be located next to the Judge Business School - fortuitously, as it turned out. 

The Stem Cell Institute’s canteen was closed in preparation for its move to Addenbrookes, and the cheapest place nearby to eat was at the Judge Business School. Initially drawn in by convenience, Jennifer soon discovered a plethora of events, including the Wo+Men’s Leadership Conference, the Enterprise Tuesdays lecture series and Venture Creation Weekends. “I got really interested. I was like a blind cat stumbling on a dead mouse,” says Jennifer. “I was hooked.”

Jennifer took advantage of the programmes to become more knowledgeable about different aspects of enterprise. In 2018, she was part of the first cohort of the Judge Business School’s EnterpriseTECH PhD+ programme.

A good idea

The following year she attended the Global Grand Challenges Summit, organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering in London. Jennifer mentored a team of undergraduates taking part in the Engineering Collaboration Challenge, which brings together students from China, US and the UK bi-annually. The theme was to tackle global engineering in sustainability and Jennifer’s team discussed the challenges of clothing waste. “We bounced ideas around and talked about other issues when someone mentioned period poverty. It was then that we knew  we hit a good idea,” says Jennifer. 

The concept emerged to repurpose fast fashion leftovers into sanitary pads. “I think affordable sanitary pads are a basic human need, especially in countries like India or Bangladesh, where these are out of reach for a lot of women. Small yet critical products like these can result in women being excluded from social and work functions,” says Jennifer.

The team discussed everything from how financially viable EmPads [short for empowering pads] was to how public support can lead to sponsorship from big fashion firms. 

The idea won the Engineering Collaboration Challenge. From there, Jennifer set up Emporsand to drive it forward, pitching it to the Judge’s EnterpriseTECH STAR, a pilot programme launched in 2019 to help EnterpriseTECH PhD+ graduates accelerate their start-up ideas.

In October 2019, Jennifer pitched EmPads at the House of Commons for the UK Business Start-Up Competition sponsored by the SJL Foundation, which supports charities and new businesses. She won a £2,000 grant, and the business idea was subsequently featured on the BBC.

Since then, Jennifer has formed a Cambridge team for Emporsand. The undergraduates are still involved - two are in China, two in Scotland and two in the US. 

Emporsand has entered several more competitions and, in addition to being runner-up for the Cambridge University Entrepreneur Social Enterprise £2,000 competition, they have received £6,000 in funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering and £2,000 from the Downing Enterprise Competition. They are currently in the final round of the 2020 McKinsey Venture Academy for £10,000.

Childhood

Jennifer adds that, while Cambridge honed her entrepreneurial mindset, her early childhood experiences gave her the wide global perspective which helped inform her business perspective. Born in Shijianzhuang in Hebei Province, China, she lived there for seven years before moving to Montréal, where she attended a Francophone school for six years. Her family then moved to Pennsylvania for six years and she completed her undergraduate degree in Neuroscience and Chemistry at Pomona College in California. Jennifer says she has wanted to study medicine since high school, particularly neuroscience at Pomona. She conducted research in neuroscience during the summers after her third and fourth years at Harvard Medical School where she investigated the role of projection neurons in the pain pathway in the spinal cord. 

During her third year of her undergraduate degree, she travelled to Oxford to follow courses in computational neuroscience and biochemistry, focusing on crystallising proteins involved in synapse formation. It was an experience which was to ignite a lasting love of Oxbridge. She signed up for a PhD within two months of starting her MPhil in Medical Sciences at Downing College, although she had originally wanted to return to the US straight after to go to medical school. 

She won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship in 2017 for her PhD on stem cell biology, which focuses on glial stem cells and brain plasticity in adulthood. Her studies are the results of interests and passions which have been developing since high school. However, she credits her passion for entrepreneurship to the University of Cambridge.

Emporsand plans to start marketing EmPads in India in large manufacturing cities to reduce production and transportation costs. The company hopes to test the product and launch a crowdfunding campaign to cover costs.  In the last few months, they have been looking at distribution channels, textile engineering linked to absorbency and comfort and education programmes to destigmatise menstruation. Their vision is to empower women and they plan to develop several products to achieve their mission. 

Jennifer is still aiming to go to medical school as her ultimate aim is to become a neurosurgeon-neuroscientist. But for the moment, she has been firmly bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.