Have you ever heard of Mary Kenner?
If not, don’t feel bad—many people wouldn’t recognize the name if they heard it. What’s particularly interesting about her obscurity is she revolutionized the way women respond to one of the most important aspect of their lives: menstruation. Kenner invented the sanitary napkin belt, a tool women heavily utilized from the 1950s to the 1970s to help keep their pads in place.
Unfortunately, because Kenner was a Black woman, she faced heavy discrimination when shopping the invention around and had a difficult time receiving a patent. She was eventually shut out from receiving proper credit for the genius idea.
Nearly 60 years later, another Black woman that revolutionized feminine care hasn’t gotten the recognition she deserves either.
But before digging into that, let’s start at the beginning.
“Entrepreneurs are born, not made.”
It’s not surprising that this adage is one Crystal Etienne firmly stands on. Since a child, Etienne has been a self-professed go-getter. The native New Yorker knew she was destined for entrepreneurship at an early age, and that self-assuredness has served her well.
After feeling frustrated with a lack of swimwear options that accommodate menstruation, Etienne didn’t merely complain—she founded a company.
“I launched Ruby Love in 2015 because I was fed up with the lack of period apparel out there,” she shared with ESSENCE. “One day, I don’t know, it really bothered me. Nothing even happened. I just didn’t understand why every month myself or any other woman is aggravated. A man would never understand. There’s this silent stress and anxiety around it and I vowed to fix it.”
The specific problem she was aiming to fix was the discomfort of wearing a close-fitting panty that securely accommodated a sanitary pad—a solution no one seemed to create before Etienne.
She attempted to secure funders for the idea, but her emails went unanswered, so she paid for the prototype, then full line herself. How did she do it? Etienne quit her day job in operations and flushed her own personal savings into the product development, then focused on pushing it to moms of tweens.
The line was a hit and netted $1M in sales within months.
A few years later she built the brand into a $50M+ business, and became a leader in the period apparel space. The only issue is hardly anyone gave her the credit for it.
“If someone even thinks of period underwear or period swimwear, the last name you’re going to hear is Crystal Etienne,” she told ESSENCE. “But I’m the one who created it, created period sleepwear and period swim apparel, things like that.”
Ruby Love’s top competitors, Thinx and Knix come up at the top of SEO results when Google searching “period underwear” and often are spotlit in larger femcare conversations although, to Etienne’s point, she was among the first to launch period sleepwear swim apparel. But she said she’s not surprised by the lack of recognition. As a Black woman in business, she acknowledged that it’s par for the course and has been for a very long time.
“I think we’re just so used to it,” she shared. “You can’t make a whole society or culture give you that. And I think we’re so numb to it that we’ve gotten self-validation down to a science. It’s like, if you don’t give it to me, I’m not going to beg you, I’m not going to pay you, I’m not going to say it. It is what it is. And if they don’t recognize that, then that’s fine. We see it happen to Black women every single day. When it comes to fashion and all other types of products, it’s really sad. And I don’t think that people would ever really understand our strife of what we have with that. And it’s been going off for so long. It is what it is. It’s nothing that can be done. We can protest, we can do all types of things, but there’s really, like, nothing that can be done about it. So it is what it is.”
Well, that’s not entirely true in Etienne’s case. A true do-er by nature, she launched her own venture capital firm CaJe, aimed at helping other Black founders fund their early stage businesses. “As a female founder and woman of color, I’ve personally experienced the vast inequalities Black women face when looking to secure venture capital,” Etienne said in a news release announcing the firm’s 2021 launch. “It is my dream to leverage my learnings and give back to fellow women looking to turn their business goals into a reality. My husband and I want to provide today’s leading Black entrepreneurs and visionaries with the capital, resources and guidance needed to help them win.”