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‘Women’s health is a hugely under-served market’

Lounge talks to Sheta Mittal, founder of a women’s health and wellness company, about the explosion of products in the feminine wellness category—and whether we really need them

Herbal teas containing floral extracts can help in mitigating menstrual cramps and bloating (Photo: Anshu A on Unsplash)
Herbal teas containing floral extracts can help in mitigating menstrual cramps and bloating (Photo: Anshu A on Unsplash)

As the co-founder of a company that creates products that address specific issues related to women’s health—from acne and urinary tract infections to PCOS and menopause—Sheta Mittal understands the need for solutions that are convenient and easy to incorporate into one’s diet and lifestyle. Her company &Me, which has been around for two years, develops edible products like cookies, chocolate bars and teas that deliver key ingredients needed by women in specific life stages. In this Q&A with Lounge, Mittal talks about why women need products devised to address their wellness needs—and justifies the sudden explosion of brands that have entered this market even though many of these issues can, technically, be addressed by consumers themselves through diet and lifestyle changes.

Do you think women's health, especially reproductive health, gets brushed under the carpet and needs special attention?

Every month, women, 50% of the population, go through hormonal changes that affect their period health, skin, hair, fitness and mental health, but till recently there were no good products for her. There was a lack of conversations and solutions available because it was a tabooed 'women's health' topic. When we started two years ago in Sep 2017, there was no women's health company in India. It pained us to see this hugely underserved market in the 21st century. So, in Sep 2017, we built &Me to solve for women's unique health and nutrition needs and disrupt the women’s healthcare space in India, with products that are natural, effective, and easily available online. We speak to 200 women daily, and we have learnt that while women’s health is often a taboo in families, she is looking for products that will understand her and is willing to pay for it. Around 70% of our sales come from outside the top 5 cities, including small towns in eastern India.

Over the past two years or so, we have seen a rapid rise in the number of brands and products serving these needs, including feminine hygiene products like natural sanitary napkins. What would account for this sudden rise in awareness?

The rise in startups offering feminine hygiene products underscores the fact that this market has continued to be traditionally underserved and startups saw an opportunity. The rise coincided with a few things: the emergence of direct to consumer brands with a digital-first play; the rise of e-commerce; and the shattering of taboos with Bollywood movies like Padman, which made it easier (for topics like menstrual health) to be talked about and for companies that address this to be funded. We have seen this with &Me products—we struggled offline but demand has skyrocketed online. The rise of social media and e-commerce has given women the opportunity to explore these products in the comfort of her home, in a judgment-free environment. She is able to own the shopping journey and try new products that she wouldn't have done traditionally.

From a market perspective, how did you and other entrepreneurs realise that this market exists?

We took a year after setting up the company to launch our first product. We spoke to 500+ women in India and our friends globally. The narrative was the same—lack of good products for menstrual health. We were also seeing the emergence of FemTech globally. Till 1993, clinical trials were done only on men, which set a precedent for ignoring women’s health. The year 2019 was an inflection point for women’s health, which saw $800M in funding (globally). It is on the path to become a $50 billion industry by 2025.

Sheta Mittal, co-founder of &Me
Sheta Mittal, co-founder of &Me

How are your products developed? Which are some of the specific areas of women's health you are solving for?

At &Me, we are obsessed with women’s unique health needs across fertility, pregnany and menopause. We have a base list of 40+ needs and we prioritize them based on consumer asks. We speak to 200+ consumers daily. Product research and development take 4-6 months. We have an inhouse R&D team with experienced researchers who formerly worked with companies like Nestle and Paperboat. Together with our nutritionist, and expert gynaecologists, we build the formulation, finalize the taste, test the product and then launch.

How much of the effectiveness of these products is attributable to the placebo effect? Does one really need to buy expensive products from brands like &Me or are these issues manageable through changes in lifestyle and diet?

We are a research-first company. Each of our products have 25-50 ingredients and we have detailed research papers against them. Our product development life cycle is 4-6 months. We regularly test the product with consumers and speak to all the consumers who have bought &Me products. I can very confidently say that the product works.

As for your second question: yes, food and lifestyle can help manage all the problems that we have products for. The challenge is getting the right nutrition in the right quantities. Managing menopause, for example, needs varied ingredients like healthy fats and 20+ essential micronutrients in specific daily intake ratios, phytoestrogens, and other ingredients to balance weight and anxiety. One can do all this herself but in our busy lifestyles that can be difficult and actually more expensive, while our daily menopause cookie costs only 17. The solutions should be such that it brings together natural ingredients in a convenient format that a woman can easily incorporate in her daily life.

What are some of the issues around menopause that women should pay special attention to and how does your product help them do so?

After menarche (start of periods) and pregnancy, menopause is the third key life stage of a woman's life. It is actually the longest as it starts around 40 years of age, as the body starts preparing for menopause, and we end up noticing symptoms of menopause till almost 60 years of age as the body takes time to adjust to the new normal. Menopause often gets shrugged off as ‘old age’, there is absolutely no conversation on the topic and no easy solutions available to women to deal with it. As a women’s health company that pained us. We wanted to help the 50 crore women globally who are going through menopause with a product that is easy to consume, shows holistic results and is natural with no chemicals. After 6 months of research, we launched the &Me Menopause Cookies. Each cookie has 27 ingredients, including magnesium, black cohosh, ginseng, and phytoestrogens (plant-based compounds that mimic estrogen in the body) that trigger the control centers and balance out changes due to declining levels of estrogen in the body. It helps with hot flashes, night sweats, panic and anxiety, memory loss, weakness in bones, hair loss and weight gain.

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