Julie Sygiel's start-up company, Sexy Period, makes lingerie: a lacy black "Friday nights" line, a sporty purple everyday style, and a modern floral selection based on a RISD student's fabric design. But these undies don't just look good; they're engineered to solve a problem that affects most women monthly—menstrual leaks. And, perhaps most impressive of all, Sygiel has made talking about this not only acceptable but entertaining. As an interviewer exclaimed during a National Public Radio segment last summer: "We're talking about menstruation on the radio!"A Brown chemical engineering student, Sygiel was inspired to create Sexy Period while taking an entrepreneurship course her junior year. Assigned to develop a business plan for a new product, she and classmate Eunice Png '09 heeded instructor Danny Warshay's advice that the best businesses arise from solutions to problems. But, when they told Warshay '87 their idea, he wasn't convinced the problem of menstrual leaks even existed: do some market research and come back and convince me, he told them.
So Sygiel and Png created an online survey and taped questionnaires in the stalls of campus restrooms. "Does your period suck?" they asked. Students responded—often vehemently. Sygiel and Png found that 60 percent of Brown women were ruining their underwear at least once a month.
Sygiel and Png wrote a business plan, and they won the elevator-pitch contest at the 2009 Rhode Island Business Plan Competition. (The creators of Runa tea, at right, won the Student Track prize that year.)
Sexy Period set up shop in Sygiel's dining room, where patent application forms and a sewing machine competed for space. The biggest challenge, not surprisingly, was finding the right mix of fabrics. "The two inner layers are a wicking fabric," Sygiel explains, "and the outer layer is leak-resistant." Both had to be soft and stretchy for comfort. Finding a manufacturer was also tricky, as elastic lace is difficult to sew. After an unhappy experience with a local company, Sygiel says, she and Png found a "mom-and-pop lingerie shop" in Pennsylvania.
Along the way Png decided to switch careers, but Sygiel was hooked on the entrepreneurial lifestyle. Now based in the Rhode Island Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, she shares a tiny office with interns from local colleges, including Brown. Sexy Period made its debut at trade shows this summer and is available at boutiques in Canada, as well as in the United States. "We just passed the 1,000 mark," Sygiel says. She's already working on new styles, including a thong.
And after that? "The goal that we're working toward is a whole suite of functional apparel products," Sygiel says. "We want to be a brand, like Spanx, that produces lots of products but all under the same brand."