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Period Story Podcast, Episode 23: Valentina Milanova, Imposter Syndrome Keep You Humble

Period Story Podcast, Episode 23, Valentina Milanova

On today’s episode of Period Story, I was so pleased to speak with Valentina Milanova, the founder of Daye, the women’s healthcare brand. We had a wide ranging discussion talking about period pain, the role of CBD and the endocannabinoid system, female entrepreneurship and of course, Valentina shared her own period story.

Valentina shared the story of getting her period at just 9 years old. Listen to hear why she hid her period for a year and what happened when she told her father.

The gender pain gap is a very real issue and Valentina talked about the debilitating cramps she used to experience, which caused her to miss school and have difficulty concentrating. 

Valentina talks about what inspired her to start her company, Daye. She says that the idea that menstruation could be made easier was always in the back of her mind. She came up with resistance but persevered, making the first tampons herself on a 3D printer and injecting the CBD extract with a syringe.

Valentina talks about the benefits of CBD and the effects it’s had on her period pain. She says it’s made a massive impact on her productivity and her happiness levels and says that she no longer dreads her period.

Finally, we had an interesting discussion about female entrepreneurship. Valentina says that you need to be comfortable making a fool of yourself and making mistakes. She says that imposter syndrome keeps you humble. I agree! 

Get in touch with Valentina:

Website
Instagram
Twitter
Facebook

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VALENTINA’S BIO

Valentina’s educational background is in law and economics. She started her career in early-stage startup investing, before founding Daye. A year and a half after raising a seed round for Daye as a single person business, Valentina’s team set up production for their clinically validated naked & CBD tampons in South London. Daye is on a mission to raise the standards in women’s health, starting by bridging the gender pain gap with their first product. 

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SHOW TRANSCRIPT

Le’Nise: On today’s episode we have Valentina Milanova. Valentina’s educational background is in Law and Economics. She started her career in early stage start-up investing before founding Daye. A year and a half after raising a seed round for Daye as a single person business, Valentina’s team set up production for their clinically validated naked and CBD tampons in South London. Daye is on a mission to raise the standard in women’s health, starting by bridging the gender pain gap with their first product. Welcome to the show.

Valentina: Thanks for having me. Super excited to be here.

Le’Nise: So, let’s start off by getting into the story of your first period. It’s the first question I ask all my guests. Can you share with us what happened?

Valentina: I had my first period when I was really young, so I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was menstruation. I assumed that I had contracted some kind of disease and I didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone around me. So, my first few periods felt very traumatic. They came out of nowhere and because I wasn’t anticipating them to be there every month, I would just lock myself in the bathroom and kind of agonise over what I perceived was my imminent death from this horrible disease that I had. And then I gradually learned what was happening to my body and what I was experiencing. And then I started navigating how to deal with my menstruation. So, I always had really painful periods, debilitating cramps where I would have to just lie in a hot tub or take a really hot shower to reduce the cramps. And I also had really heavy periods, which meant that most pads really didn’t do it for me in terms of absorbency. So, I would always kind of have my trousers stained when I was in school. I remember we had these white chairs in school, white plastic chairs that were just my nightmare because every day at school when I was menstruating, I was just so worried that I was going to stand up and find a little pond of my menstrual blood.

Le’Nise: How old were you when you got your first period?

Valentina: I was nine, I had my first period really early.

Le’Nise: Nine years old. Okay. So, you were in year five?

Valentina: I’m Bulgarian, so we have a different system.

Le’Nise: Oh, OK. So, you’re quite young. Who did you talk to when you thought you had a disease and it was really traumatic? Who did you turn to?

Valentina: I didn’t turn to anyone. I just was really worried that’s what I had was very, very shameful. It was about a year after I had my first period that I finally mustered the courage to go up to my father and just admit that there was something wrong with what I thought then, was something wrong with me. And he actually didn’t realise what was going on either. So, we ended up making a trip to the emergency clinic to see a doctor for this mysterious bleeding that I was experiencing.

Le’Nise: And when you went to the emergency clinic, what did they say?

Valentina: They laughed it off. They found it really funny. And they say, well, it’s just your period. It’s just your menstruation, I was like, what is menstruation? What does this mean? This is not helpful. I just felt very uncomfortable to ask any questions, but my father understood what that meant. And we went to the supermarket and we got a bunch of pads and he gave me the pads and kind of half-heartedly showed me how to use the pads and then I read the instructions on the box of the pads, and then it wasn’t until a few years later that my friends at school started having their periods. And I remember when I first found out that there was another girl in my class that also had a period that I was so happy and so relieved and I couldn’t wait to show her the ropes and talk to her about the different kinds of period care that I use and how to change your pad and things like that.

Le’Nise: So, for the first three, three or four years, you were on your own with a little bit of support from your father. And you mentioned the word shame, you were a bit ashamed about what was happening. Why did you feel like that?

Valentina: I guess it was a function of not knowing what was going on and naturally we associate our private organs and our physiology with shame when there’s something wrong. I guess that’s why I felt the shame, I didn’t have an educational experience at that point in time that made me feel extremely comfortable with my vulva, with my vagina. I didn’t know how to name these things. I didn’t understand how to look after myself properly. So, I guess that’s why I was experiencing shame.

Le’Nise: Were your periods painful from the very beginning?

Valentina: Yeah, I always had really debilitating cramps.

Le’Nise: And did that mean that you had to miss school or miss lessons?

Valentina: Yeah, frequently either miss school or just leave school when my periods would come, when I was at school. It was just very difficult to concentrate on anything that was not the pain. I think your first, if you have a painful period, your first few years of menstruation are the worst in terms of the intensity of the cramps. And I remember just laying in the bath or taking a really hot shower was the only thing that would help.

Le’Nise: And did you use any painkillers or were you too young?

Valentina: I think I was too young. I couldn’t access them myself, obviously, so I didn’t know where to find them.

Le’Nise: So, you were on your own in terms of your peer group. And then you found another girl who had got her period. Did things change as soon as your other friends started to get their periods?

Valentina: Yeah, by the time that my older school friends started getting their periods, I think I had like three or four years of being the only girl with her period. So, I had become more confident and become more aware of menstruation and what it meant and how to deal with it. So, I actually kind of turned it into the cool thing at school. After the second girl got her period, you know, we created this little group and then all of the other girls couldn’t wait to get their period so they could participate in the circle of conversations about menstruation. And we would kind of proudly walk down the school halls and we’d go and change our pads all at the same time in the bathrooms while there was another girl that was guarding the door. So, yeah, we made it into the cool thing at school.

Le’Nise: The periods became cool. OK. OK. That’s one way to kind of shift the idea of shame and to become more empowered by what was happening to your bodies. What was your education like at school? Having had the doctor at the emergency clinic tell you what was going on, did that education continue at school?

Valentina: I think the first time that I had a sexual and reproductive health education in any form was in biology class when I was 15. I may just not remember it, but I don’t have a recollection of in primary school, learning about menstruation, safe sex, etc. The school that I went to was actually very progressive, the primary school that I went to, we would call our teachers by their first names rather than by their last names or miss or mister. And we all kind of formed pretty close bonds and really close friendships with our professors and with our teachers but I don’t recall having a formal education. We did have Bible study, which at that time I found really interesting, but we didn’t have a formal sex ed class, that I can recall.

Le’Nise: So how were you learning about it?

Valentina: A lot of it was from books. So, the school that I went to was very encouraging of people reading. We would have these reading competitions where the coolest kid in school was the kid that could read over 90 words a minute and we had a large library and I read Lolita when I was in fourth grade, you know, I read a lot of books that I shouldn’t have read. And I learned about menstruation and I guess I learned my first sexual education from these books. And then obviously I discovered Internet and Internet forums and I remember these Internet forums in Bulgaria in the mid 2000s. People were just so confused, there was so much angst and so much worry and people were always worried they were pregnant. I remember this girl from my class came to me, crying in tears because she had had unprotected oral sex and she was convinced that she was pregnant. And that’s, you know, that was just a fact for her, and we didn’t know any better. So, we were like, oh, my God, commiserating with her on being pregnant. 

Le’Nise: It’s interesting because the Internet is supposed to be this democratising force in terms of access.

Valentina: It is a democratising force now, it just when I was growing up, we didn’t have a computer. It was difficult for me to access the Internet. And also, you have to remember that I was accessing the Bulgarian Internet, which is different from you know, Bulgarian forums are different from forums that are maybe a bit more progressive that you would maybe find in the UK and also the Internet now, like the quality information about sexual and menstrual health, you can find online now has no points of comparison to the information that I was finding when I was between 10 and 15. It’s very different internet to the UK.

Le’Nise: So, thinking about what you know now and thinking back to that girl who was looking on the Internet and, on these forums, and trying to find out information about what was going on with her body, information about sexual health. What would you tell that girl?

Valentina: Stick with it. It’s going to get easier. You’re going to learn the ropes and learn how to navigate menstruation and you’re going to come into your own and start feeling proud of who you are as a woman.

Le’Nise: What was the starting point where you realised you were having these heavy and painful periods? When did you realise that something had to change?

Valentina: Guess the thought was always in the back of my mind. This really strong belief that the way that people deal with their periods and the way we purchase period care products and how they perform is really subpar. When I became a teenager and when I started going to high school, my painful periods persisted. I started using Ibuprofen and Nurofen and all of the pink period anti-inflammatories that are actually the exact same formulation as the generic ones, but only five times more expensive. They never really removed my cramps; they just dulled the cramps. So, it was always this idea that menstruation could be made easier and looking after yourself when you’re on your period could be made nicer was always in the back of my mind.

Le’Nise: They could be made nicer. I think that’s an important message for that a lot of women would like to hear. So, you have this message in the back of your mind and now you have a company which helps women have nicer periods. Tell us about the journey from having the seed of a thought in your mind to starting up your company.

Valentina: I first had the idea for Daye when I was finishing an MBA type course in Bulgaria. It was an evening business education course. And in order to graduate, we had to come up with a business idea that would be socially impactful. So, I started researching northern Bulgaria, which is an area that has the highest rates of unemployment in Europe actually, has really high levels of sexual trafficking. So, I thought whatever business idea I could come up with that would somehow benefit this region in particular would be socially impactful for that reason, and I started researching the history of northern Bulgaria. Turns out northern Bulgaria used to be the number one producer and exporter of industrial hemp in the 40s and in the 30s before the communist government came in and took over. Northern Bulgaria had this industrial hemp research institute that was publishing a bunch of papers surrounding industrial hemp. And I just went, and I found these old papers and I realised through them that industrial hemp fibres are more absorbent than cotton and the extract from the flower can be analgesic. So, then I had this moment of just thinking, OK, so we know there is a plant that both makes more absorbent fibres and pain relieving extract then why aren’t we combining the two? That’s when I had the idea for Daye for our first product and I presented it to my MBA class. Everyone thought it was a very weird idea. No one wanted to talk about menstruation or talk about tampons. I think the most common argument that I heard was people just saying, well, if this was such a good idea, Procter and Gamble would have invented it already. But it really stuck with me, this concept of taking the pain away from periods, seeking the discomfort of, you know, constantly worrying about staining your underwear, staining your trousers with your menstrual blood.

I tried to produce the first tampons by myself initially at home. I 3D printed these moulds and I used a technique called needle punching in order to take the fibre and transform it into a tampon like shape and then I infused the edges of the tampons with CBD with the extract from the hemp flower using a syringe. I tried the tampons on myself first, they really worked on me and I have very painful periods and then I gave them to my friends to try. My friends tried them. They gave equally positive feedback. So that’s when I realised that there’s some merit to this idea beyond it just sounding good on paper and I started trying to produce my product and that made me realise that tampon manufacturing is very monopolised right now, it’s very complicated. It’s owned by a small number of people and there’s limited opportunities for innovation. So, no one was really interested in my pain-relieving tampon or in my more absorbent tampon. I got tons of negative feedback from the early manufacturing meetings that I had, but finally I was able to find a manufacturer whose daughters had really painful periods and they had tried my CBD tampon prototype and it had worked for them. So the manufacturer was incentivised to work with me and we were able to produce the first batch of tampons which we used for the first set of clinical trials too, because obviously they are such a sensitive product, more like a medical device so we need to be extremely careful with the validation that we’re doing. So, doing clinical validation was one of the early most important things.

So, the first tampons we made, they were shipped for the clinical trials. People had to self-install the CBD onto the tampon using a syringe because we didn’t have a machine then to apply the CBD to tampons automatically. And from the results of these initial clinical trials and from being able to secure IP, I was able to fundraise as a single person company. I raised the pre-seed round for Daye in September 2018 and then a few months later we closed a seed round with a San Francisco based investor called Koestler, they’re an amazing firm. They invest in a lot of scientifically backed IP based companies and I was able to slowly start growing a team and get more talent on board. So right now, where we are, is that we manufacture in South London in Bermondsey and we employ women who used to be in the prison and care systems as our production operators. We have just opened our subscription so it’s live for people to purchase as of a week ago. And we’re working on getting Daye with as many women as possible, we’re working on scaling our production.

Le’Nise: So, go back to what you were saying about the CBD as an analgesic. For women who aren’t familiar with CBD and what it can do, can you just walk them through why they would want to use a tampon with CBD in that?

Valentina: Yeah. So specifically, the kind of cannabinoids that we use. We use a pharmaceutical grade extract. The same one that is used in GW Pharmaceuticals drug for children’s epilepsy. And we use a significant dose and a significant concentration. So, we have a hundred milligrams of 30% CBD per tampon. And what that does is it allows us to deliver a potent dose of an anti-inflammatory agent to the area that’s cramping. So, we provide localised pain relief. We’ve developed the technology that allows us to atomise the CBD, so it stays on the surface of the tampon rather than permeating back inside. And by staying on the surface of the tampon the CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system in the vaginal canal and it triggers something called the first pass uterine effect, which is a mechanism by which agents that are ingested through the vaginal mucosa are recycled in the pelvic organs, meaning the result that’s felt is much quicker than if you take a painkiller orally, because obviously then it has to go through digestive system, etc. And that’s the mechanism of action of Daye. We use high quality CBD that’s of a significant dose, it’s applied onto the tampon in a way that ensures that the active ingredient stays on the surface of the tampon and there it interacts with the endocannabinoid system which is known to modulate your response to pain, effectively the CBD tampon turns the volume down on your cramps.

Le’Nise: So, formulating this product, developing it, manufacturing it. How has it changed your period?

Valentina: I don’t suffer from periods cramps anymore, which is really important when I’m building my company. We don’t have 2-3 days a month. I don’t have the luxury to be able to stay in bed and take a bath and not be focused. And 2-3 days a month don’t sound like a lot when you say that, but it’s made such a massive impact on my productivity and just my happiness levels and I no longer dread my period. I’m no longer shakily anticipating the first PMS symptoms and the first spotting, thinking, oh, my God, what am I going to do now. So that’s been the biggest impact for me, being able to have levelled amounts of energy and in cognitive capacity throughout the month and not limited by my cycle.

Le’Nise: Going back to what you said, people might not think 2-3 days is a lot but if you look at that over a year, that’s almost a month a year, being debilitated by pain. So that’s quite significant. And when you look at it like that, I think it puts into context the amount of pain that women experience or people with periods experience and how it can really impact their lives.

So, someone who wants to try to the CBD tampons and what they really feel connected by your story and what the change that you’ve experiences in your period. How would they get a hold of the tampons?

Valentina: So, they’re available on our website right now, yourdaye.com and they’re available on subscription so you can purchase them once and then sync them with your cycle. So, you have them delivered automatically two or three days before your period is due.

Le’Nise: Ok, great. Your story is quite inspiring, you had a problem, you identified a solution, and then you rolled out a product that is quite innovative. There isn’t another CBD tampon in the UK market, is there?

Valentina: There isn’t another pain-relieving tampon globally, not just in the UK market, yeah.

Le’Nise: Right. OK. What would you say to women out there who hear your story? They’re quite inspired by it and they’re thinking, oh, well, you know, maybe I can develop something or maybe I can do something like this, or I have my own idea. The start-up space is notoriously male, it’s notoriously quite sexist. What would you say to these women who want to do something? Do you have any advice?

Valentina: I’d say it’s super exciting that we live in the times in which we live in right now because if there’s one thing to be learned from my stories that a young Eastern European woman who didn’t grow up with a lot and didn’t have a lot of connections can still approach these, on the surface, intimidating brand name investors. And tell a good story and make a good case for why women’s health deserves more investment and actually win that investment, so if there’s any women that are listening to this interview and they’re thinking, wow,  I really want to start my own company as well, I’d say go for it. There’s really nothing stopping you. This mentality was a thing that really convinced me to take out the initial credit cards that I had staked out in order to finance the company before we had venture capital resources. I just thought to myself, OK, what’s the worst that can happen? I lose my forty thousand pounds and then I just have to repay them by working in a regular job. I’ll always be able to find a regular job like even if it’s just washing dishes. How long will it take me? Will it take me 10 years to repay it? What’s the big deal? At least I will have tried, at least I will have learned new things.

Le’Nise: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s such an amazing attitude, at least you tried, you know, what’s the worst that can happen? I mean, it’s only money. And I’m not being glib when I say that. But, you know, there are definitely worse things, you know.

Valentina: And even if you take the conversation apart from the money domain. You need to be really comfortable as an entrepreneur in making a fool of yourself all the time. You need to have a really low ego. You need to constantly be proven wrong. You’re constantly put in these really awkward situations of complex interpersonal dynamics that you have to navigate because as you manage a team, as you manage a board, as you deal with your suppliers. And you just need to be very humble and very low ego and just be at ease in this comfort. Just know that there’s going to be a lot of discomfort, there’s going to be a lot of feeling inadequate and my imposter complex is as strong as it’s ever been. And that’s just part of the human experience, I guess, when you’re an entrepreneur. A lot of people are really worried about their reputation, they never take a risk because they’re worried about how it would look to the world if they make a mistake but at the end of the day everything blows over in 24 hours and you end up gaining more even if you make a massive mistake, then if you don’t do anything.

Le’Nise: I think that’s really interesting. Everything you’re saying is like, I definitely believe it myself, you have to make mistakes, you have to make a fool of yourself because what’s worse? Did the doing it and then making the mistake or not doing it and regretting it? Well, I want to go back to what you were saying about imposter syndrome. Is that something that you’ve experienced?

Valentina: Yeah, I experience imposter syndrome on a daily basis, and I think it’s a very healthy thing to experience because it keeps you humble, and it prevents you from drinking your own Kool-Aid. Something that really bothers me in start-ups and in entrepreneurship is it’s very easy to create this meet of the founder persona, of the superhuman founder who is always switched on, always right, somehow divinely anointed with a greater intelligence and a greater amount of courage than everyone else. And I think that’s just BS, that’s just absolute crap, that just does not exist, and it leads to people being unhappy and leads to people falling off pedestals. So I welcome my imposter syndrome when it comes knocking, it’s a reminder of I actually have no idea what I’m doing most of the time, I’m learning everything from scratch, I’ve never managed a team, I’ve never run clinical trials, I’ve never conducted regulatory approvals for a medical device company. But as long as I keep humble and I keep a low ego, I keep learning and I keep evolving and I keep moving from one point to the next. So, I’m friendly with my imposter syndrome now.

Le’Nise: Ok. I think that’s something that we can all learn from, not shying away it, from being friendly with it. What’s next for your company?

Valentina: Scale is next for our company. Expanding our production capability. So, we intend to continue working with a charity in the UK called Working Chance, which gives women that used to be part of the criminal and care systems a chance to gain fair, meaningful employment. So, as we scale our production, as we build more machines and expand to new factories, we want to remain in the UK and remain working with these women, giving and making an impact in our direct community apart from just making an impact on period pain as a whole. Why we would do that is to deliver the clinically validated CBD tampon to as many women that need it as possible.

Le’Nise: And so how do you feel about your period now?

Valentina: I’m happy when I have my period, I’m excited for it, I look forward to it. It reminds me of my womanhood, it reminds me of the things that my body could potentially do in the future. I’ve embraced my periods, obviously not having cramps helps. Another reason why I look forward to my period is because I’m the resident guinea pig for all of our tampons, new tampon formulations in new sizes, new shapes. So, whenever our design engineering team has come up with a new applicator or a new design, I’m always the first person to try them out. So that’s another reason why I look forward to my period, because I get to test the new things that we have cooking. 

Le’Nise: So that’s quite a shift going from you thinking that you had a disease and it being really traumatic to now looking forward to your period and embracing it. And do you think that’s a journey that’s available to anyone with a period, especially in people who have periods that are painful, that are really heavy?

Valentina: Yeah, I mean, I don’t want to underestimate anyone’s personal experience or anyone’s personal trauma, but from my experience. It’s been great for me personally to have this shift of mindset and have this shift of perception and be able to embrace my menstruation.

Le’Nise: Amazing. If listeners could take one thing away from this podcast episode in your journey, what would you want that to be?

Valentina: Without meaning to repeat myself, I think it’s just the awe of the world in which we live in today, because it’s very easy to get bogged down with all of the wrong that exists in the world right now. But I think we also sometimes seem to just remember to take a step back and just be in awe of the fact that we now live in a world where, you know, a 25 year old woman that comes from nothing, from a tiny country in Eastern Europe can start her own business and run her own business and make a social impact while also creating a profitable product and make an environmental impact while solving a real consumer pain point. So I think that the technologies that exist and have allowed us to exist in this society which we do right now and the environmental changes, in how we perceive women and in how we talk about female health, I think are really something to be proud of and something to be reminded of. So, I guess even though the world is a very hard, difficult place, there’s moments of wonder and there’s moments of awe and I would love for us to celebrate these moments more.

Le’Nise: Wonderful. Celebrate the moments of wonder and awe, I think that’s a message that everyone can get behind. Thank you so much for coming on to the show Valentina, where can listeners find out more about Daye. 

Valentina: On our website yourdaye.com.

Le’Nise: Great. Thanks.

Valentina: Thanks for having me.

Le’Nise: Thank you.

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