Have you ever heard of Mary Kenner?
Otherwise, don’t feel bad – a lot of people wouldn’t recognize the name if they heard it. But it has revolutionized the way women react to one of the most important aspects of their lives: menstruation. Kenner invented the sanitary napkin belt, a tool widely used by women from the 1950s to the 70s to help hold their pads in place.
Unfortunately, because Kenner was a black woman, she faced strong discrimination when purchasing the invention and had difficulty obtaining a patent. She was ultimately disqualified from receiving proper credit for the genius idea.
Nearly 60 years later, another black woman who revolutionized feminine care hasn’t gotten the recognition she deserves either.
But before we dig into that, let’s start at the beginning.
“Entrepreneurs are born, not created.”
No wonder Crystal Etienne holds firmly to this adage. Since childhood, Etienne has been a self-proclaimed go-getter. The New York native knew she was destined for entrepreneurship from a young age, and that confidence has served her well.
After feeling frustrated with the lack of menstruation-friendly swimwear options, Etienne didn’t just complain, she started a business.
“I started Ruby Love in 2015 because I was sick of the lack of vintage clothing,” she shared with ESSENCE. “One day, I don’t know, it really bothered me. Nothing even happened. I just couldn’t understand why every month I or any other woman just got aggravated. It’s as if a man would never understand. There’s just this silent stress and anxiety around it and I just vowed to fix it.
The specific problem she aimed to solve was the discomfort of wearing tight-fitting panties that accommodated a sanitary napkin – a solution no one seemed to create before Etienne.
She tried to get backers for the idea, but her emails went unanswered, so she paid for the prototype and then the full line herself. How did she do it? Etienne quit his day job in operations and invested his own personal savings in product development, then focused on passing on to moms of teens.
The line was a hit and brought in $1 million in sales within months.
A few years later, she turned the brand into a $50 million+ business and became a leader in vintage clothing. The only problem is that hardly anyone gave it credit.
“If anyone even thinks of vintage underwear or swimsuits, the last name you’re going to hear is Crystal Stephenshe told ESSENCE. “But I was the one who created it, created vintage sleepwear and bathing suits, things like that.”
Ruby Love’s main competitors, Thinx and Knix, top SEO results when Google searches for “period underwear” and are often highlighted in femcare conversations although, according to Etienne, she was among the first to launch menstrual swimwear. But she’s not surprised at the lack of recognition. As a black woman in business, she said it was normal and for a very long time.
“I think we’re so used to it,” she shared. “You can’t make an entire society or culture give you that. And I think we’re so insensitive to that that we just made self-validation a science. It’s like you’re not giving it to me, I’m not going to beg you, I’m not going to pay you, I’m not going to tell. It’s like that. And if they don’t recognize it, then that’s fine. We see this happening to black women every day. When it comes to fashion and all other types of products, it’s really sad. And I just don’t think people would really understand our conflict about what we have with this. And it’s been going on for so long. It’s like that. There is nothing that can be done. We can protest, we can do all kinds of things, but there’s really nothing we can do about it. So that’s how it is. »
Well, that’s not quite true in Etienne’s case. A true actress by nature, she started her own venture capital firm CaJe, aiming to help other black founders fund their start-ups. “As a woman founder and a woman of color, I have personally experienced the vast inequalities that black women face when seeking venture capital,” Etienne said in a press release announcing the launch of the company. business in 2021. “It is my dream to build on my learnings and give back to other women who are looking to turn their business goals into reality. My husband and I want to provide today’s leading black entrepreneurs and visionaries capital, resources and guidance to help them win.