Breaking with taboo

9 October 2023
Revolutionising intimate hygiene products for people around the world

Kristy Chong has reshaped the long taboo conversation around menstruation and bodily leaks, driving positive change through the brand she founded, Modibodi. Now she's turning her focus to supporting other businesses founded by women.

Kristy Chong OAM (BA ’00) always knew she was meant to do something big. It just took her a while to figure out what that was.

Chong, founder of Modibodi, a brand of reusable underwear primarily designed for women to wear during menstruation or light incontinence, says she was “always searching” for her big idea from a young age.

"And when the idea for Modibodi came to me, I knew it was the one I’d been waiting for.”

She was in a supermarket in Seattle, where she and her husband had relocated for his job, when it happened. Then a young mother, she had two toddlers in tow when she felt an urgent need to use the bathroom. At the time, she was training for a marathon, and so had been battling light incontinence.

That bathroom visit was the final straw; Chong believed that she could make a product that was better than the underwear she was wearing. So she did.

That was 2010. Since then, Modibodi has become a global success story. It has expanded to new markets: teenagers, children, and men. It has invested deeply in philanthropy, donating more than 125,000 pairs of its underwear to those in need. And in 2022, it was sold to Swiss conglomerate, Essity for $140 million, about 2.4 times Modibodi’s revenue.

Chong didn’t start with dreams of global domination, though. Her product was meant to service a need (“Solve problems and the money will come,” she says), something instilled in her from a young age.

She grew up in Albury-Wodonga, on the border of New South Wales and Victoria, and her mother (who had become a mum at 16) was adamant that her four children complete higher education, get a great job and be self-reliant. Education was highly prized, and for Chong, there was only one choice when it came to university.

“Living in the country, we held [Sydney University] in such high regard,” she says. “I wanted to go to a university that offered more opportunities in terms of courses. I loved the reputation, the prestige.” Studying a Bachelor of Arts, she says, allowed her “to explore who I was and gave me a great sense of learning and curiosity. I’ve taken that to the rest of my career.”

Chong started out in corporate communications, including for global brands such as McDonald’s. “It taught me how to pitch an idea to the media,” she says. “A product is only part of the conversation; you have to know how to sell it too.” Working in creative agencies taught her to be efficient with time and money. “And you must think outside the box. I was tasked with promoting a lot of products that were not exactly new, and coming up with a new spin on them was always a challenge.”

After Chong had her lightbulb moment in Seattle, then it was a race to get the product into the market. “It was one foot in front of the other,” she says of the journey from ideation to creation. “My husband urged me to follow the science, and I just knew in my heart that we needed the product.” Countless hours of market research followed. “Usually the responses were either ‘I need that now’ or ‘I don’t get it’” – both of which compelled Chong to work harder to get the product to market, and to prove its worth. By 2011, Modibodi underwear was available for sale online, direct to the consumer. Chong did not pursue wholesale orders, knowing that she was likely to receive pushback from buyers who didn’t understand the need for leak-proof underwear, or simply didn’t want to sell it.

"I felt passionate about diversity, so we represented diversity in our marketing from the very beginning, before the Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) movement when other brands finally caught on that diversity matters."
Kristy Chong

Though the conversation around periods has progressed since Modibodi was founded – and undoubtedly the business has been at least partially responsible for that shift – the topic is still sometimes seen as taboo. In 2020, Facebook banned an online Modibodi ad because it showed blood as red. It was her customer base that bolstered Chong and the company from the start.

“There was so much positivity right away,” she says, “and from all sorts of people who I’d never imagined. There was a mother whose daughter was autistic, and wearing period underwear was so much easier for her because it didn’t cause sensory issues. There were women with endometriosis who said it was so helpful to manage the ongoing spotting.”

Men reached out too, asking for leak-proof products made for them, as well as the trans community.

“Initially I thought it would be just women,” Chong says. “But it was amazing to see the extent of the customer base.”

Sustainability, though important, was a secondary focus, says Chong. “I wanted people to choose the product because it was effective and convenient, but it was also sustainable.” The company estimates that a woman using reusable leak-proof underwear will create just 12.8 kilograms of waste over a lifetime, compared with 259 kilograms using disposable hygiene products.

It was partly because of the stigma attached to periods and incontinence that Chong skipped venture capital and went to private equity for investment. She began with her own funds (from her mortgage, along with “many credit cards maxed out”), then later found an angel investor.

And for the first two years, she reinvested the money that came in instead of taking a salary. Chong says the company might have grown faster if she had pursued traditional venture capital financing, but “it wasn’t a conversation I was ready to have. It’s mainly men in the room, and I just didn’t bother. They didn’t understand it and I didn’t want to waste my time explaining why it was important.”

Chong believes Modibodi was key in reshaping the narrative around menstruation – but the time was also right. “The fourth wave of feminism was happening, with Me Too and the change in the GST on sanitary products.” Chong wanted the conversation about periods to become truly mainstream and normalised."

“I felt passionate about diversity – size, ethnicity, age, ability, sexuality – so we represented diversity in our marketing from the very beginning, before the Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) movement when other brands finally caught on that diversity matters,” says Chong. Still, she says, “There’s a long way to go. And you must keep having the conversation. It is a constant battle.” It’s predicted that the leak-proof underwear market – currently accounting for about 7 percent of the global intimate hygiene market, and worth US$40 billion a year – will grow 20 percent year on year over the next five years. In other words, Chong created a product that people need.

By 2019 she felt that both she and the business were ready for its own next stage. “I always wanted the business to exist beyond me,” she says of her decision to exit Modibodi.

Now, Chong is turning part of her time to investment and is unabashed about her aim to offer capital solely for female-founded businesses. “Yes, I have a conscious bias,” she says plainly, “because I really want to see more female entrepreneurs. As Melinda Gates says, ‘If you lift up women, you lift up humanity’.” So far, Chong has invested in Everty, which develops digital tech for electric vehicle charging; and Laronix, which develops tech for voice loss using artificial intelligence.

“I find that there are not enough women in finance or making decisions about giving out money,” Chong says, “be that in private equity, venture capital or even angel investing.” And she says there are not enough women coming up with innovative ideas. “I want women to look around and ask themselves, ‘What can I develop to make the world better?’ And then go and do it.”

There was initially “a grief” to leaving Modibodi, and although Pilates and coffee with friends – things Chong can now indulge in – were helpful, they couldn’t totally fill the loss. For now, Chong is using her extra time to be the main carer of her four kids, to roll out their family’s philanthropic giving, and to invest in and advise a handful of female founders. “It has allowed me to take time to self-reflect and find a sense of balance, but also to start to notice new things that make me annoyed, and I find myself asking the question, ‘Do I want to fix that?’” Chong says. “If there are female founders out there, reach out to me on LinkedIn. I am still looking for businesses to invest in.”

Written by Lauren Sams for Sydney Alumni Magazine. Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim

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