Productive Spontaneity: a conversation with Kiran Gandhi

If you haven’t been keeping up with the career of Kiran Gandhi, please allow us to get you up to speed: she is a feminist activist, Harvard Business grad, and kick-ass drummer (as Madame Gandhi, and formerly with M.I.A.) breaking barriers in the male-dominated music industry. You may also recognize her from her amazing work towards menstrual equity, including her involvement with past Lunapads Blog interviewee, Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, to end the tampon tax in New York state.

There was also the legendary moment when she ran the London Marathon while free-bleeding. This woman, musician, entrepreneur, and change-maker is someone we’ve been admiring for years and look forward to watching as she continues to bring justice to the mainstream.

Image credit: Kimberly Thompson

Lunapads: As a child, you were raised by socially conscious philanthropist parents with some powerful political connections. Is there a personal anecdote from your past that you can share — perhaps as an adolescent or teenager — that in hindsight can be seen as a harbinger of your adult self as an artist and activist?

Kiran Gandhi: I remember being a seventh grader and I would be upstairs in my family’s home in New York City maybe doing homework or listening to music or maybe watching something, practicing the drums, and my parents would be hosting a fundraiser or an event downstairs. My mom owned a PA system and so she would set it up the PA system on the ground floor of our home and I would hear these talks or speeches from my bedroom. My mom really normalized the integration of giving back and meeting people who care about giving back from a very young age. One day I was upstairs listening to music — I was obsessed with the Spice Girls — and we had Hillary Clinton giving a speech about women’s equality downstairs. This is when Hillary was in the New York senate. So having this empowering woman in my home state and listening to music that empowered me, it was a very literal brain infusion of two messages that I still care about. The intersection of the two, for me has been something that’s been very naturally formed from a young age.

You have outlined 4 key “levers” for change: activism, education, policy change and innovation. As someone who has been working in the menstrual equity field for over two decades, I feel like there is still a missing piece that has to do with personal agency: the “personal” part of the politics that we have yet to find the key to. Watching the menstrual equity conversation unfold in recent years has felt like we are understanding things on a theoretical or left brain level — for example, that it’s absurd that menstrual products should be taxed — and yet are not all necessarily willing to go out and get themselves a menstrual cup, cloth pads, period underwear and so on. In other words, while we may be “getting it” intellectually about menstrual equity, it seems like we still have a lot of work to do on a personal level about how we feel about and deal with our periods. What was your “Atomic moment” when it came to going from the political to the personal?

For me that moment was at the London Marathon. I had spent many years reading about menstrual activists, and I knew about artists who had used their period blood in very theoretical pieces, and I thought it was mind-blowing. But at the marathon, making such a radical gesture and doing something that I felt was best for my body, because I had a job to do which was to run 26 miles, that was my [atomic] moment. The whole point of me offering the four levers is actually to address the very thing you’re talking about, which is moving from the hypothetical to action. The four levers of social change are actually ways that you can act when it comes to social justice. The reason I’ve divided them into four levers is that each of us have our own spheres of influence and many times we feel apathetic or like we’re unable to make a difference. The first lever is radical activism, the second one is access to education which can look like doctors educating their patients about how to take care of their bodies, or learning about how menstruation works and how to take care of themselves. Number three is policy change, which can be burdensome for people who are from low-income backgrounds or homeless women or incarcerated women. And the fourth is innovation: Whether it’s building period-proof underwear, or reusable cotton pads, there are all sorts of different ways we can combat this issue [of menstrual equity through innovation]. I would argue that most people can act within the education lever because maybe they can’t go and protest or they’re not a lawyer, but they can speak to their friends or their daughters or their husbands or whomever, about this issue and outline what it means for them. If we each do our part, I do believe that we’re moving from the intellectual to action, and I do believe it’s important to empower people instead of punishing them for not doing something bigger that maybe they don’t feel they feel comfortable doing.

Image credit: Peyton Dix

You have said that “having an open dialogue about periods makes it easier for us to talk about our bodies and thus for innovators to come in and build better solutions.” What ideas are you seeing or do you have in mind?

I love this idea of what Luna Undies, Thinx and Dear Kates and a few of other businesses are doing. I love this idea of having period underwear that prevents any leakage onto your clothing. Beyond period stigma, I would say for any human, staining your clothes is frustrating and requires a lot of work, so having period-proof underwear is an excellent innovation. There are also a lot of apps for women out there right now enabling them to track their periods  and to make adjustments in their lives if they need to. Obviously things like Lunapads, which are using reusable materials that conserve us not only here, but abroad, and save the environment. I think cotton tampons that avoid using toxic products like rayon (which are proven to be carcinogenic in the most vulnerable part of the female body) are also very clever inventions as well. I think it’s baffling that we’ve sent people to the moon and we have a new iPhone every six months and yet still for the past 500 years, the only innovations we’ve seen when it comes to women’s periods are tampons, pads, underwear and cups! I do believe there are better solutions out there and we have the innovators who can build them.

As a business school student, you loved learning about “blue ocean strategy” — the idea that you can make competition irrelevant by innovating in new market spaces that are ripe for growth. Can you say more about this, in the context of the growth of businesses focused on natural and alternative menstrual products?

Absolutely, and I’m so happy that you’re giving me a space to actually tie my business school education to my activism. Blue ocean strategy talks about the alternative of going into the “red ocean” where everyone is competing under the same lines. So for example, if I knew that I wanted to make a tampon product, I would be competing on the best material, the best sizing, the best packaging, and the best price. So while I’m trying to become the best at all four of these very complicated things, the product will end up either very similar to everybody else’s or losing at most of those four things and then filling in the market. That’s why 9/10 businesses fail, so blue ocean strategy says. Instead of competing across traditional lines, blue ocean strategy opts to either pursue something completely innovative that solves for one of those lines, maybe at the expense of something else, then you go into the blue ocean where nobody is — you’re defining an entirely new market. So when I think of Lunapads I think blue ocean strategy would agree with that method of creating a product that is washable and reusable.

I also want to point to the fact that, especially in developing nations, we have to be very sensitive to these alternative menstrual innovations. We have to ask people in their day-to-day life what their journey map looks like. For example, while reusable materials are wonderful, in places where water is hard to access, that’s actually a poor solution because many people don’t have access to water to safely wash their pads. In many places where, let’s say they do have access to water but they dry the reusable pads on a clothing line, having any kind of stains or any kind of product related to the female body hanging in public is often still too taboo for those communities and so it wouldn’t work either. In other communities it’s still very taboo for women to use tampons because anything that’s penetrative comes at the price of, their perceived virginity which is unfortunately still very prized and valued in these communities. So I would say that blue ocean strategy requires a lot of human design and human interaction in order to innovate products for people that honours what their day-to-day lived experience is.

I am deeply drawn to your theory of “Atomic Living”, which as I understand it is basically the idea that we should allow our passions and spontaneous lived moments to basically “collide” in a series of “mini revolutions” that guide us according to what feels best. Another treasured colleague of ours calls this “following the energy”. This runs contrary to the standard business wisdom of focus, GSD (Getting Sh*t Done), strategic planning and so on. What advice do you have for people who feel called to follow their passion, yet are trying to run a sustainable business?

Interestingly, I would argue that the two are related. What I do is look inward and then act outwardly, as opposed to looking outwardly and then acting internally. The way I explain Atomic Living is using spontaneity productively. I ask myself, what have been my consistent passions and my consistent goals? For me those are to be one of the best musicians in the world, to be responsible for moving the needle on gender equality, and to be a good person to my friends and family. It actually makes decision-making very easy. As opportunities come in, or difficult choices, I ask myself, “Does this have the potential to nourish any of these three goals?” And if it does, then I move in that direction. If it doesn’t, I say no. If I believe that saying either yes or no can have the same potential to nourish my activism or my drumming or my relationship with my friends and family, I “follow the energy” as your colleague said. Make the decision and know that either way can do you good — I would argue that this is extremely strategic.

Editor’s note: Major thanks to Kiran’s brother Kabir for helping us with the interview process!

Featured Image Credit: Ilene Block

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