Last week I Teams’ed Rebekah Brown, CEO and Founder of MPowder, a vegan, plant-based powder with carefully selected ingredients designed to combat the three bio-chemical stages of menopause (perimenopause, menopause and post menopause). Despite COVID-19 arriving smack in the middle of her round of investment, MPowder is steamrollering ahead, with an oversubscribed symptom-tracker trial kicking off in the next few weeks and a launch planned for September.
Rebekah first experienced menopausal symptoms at 45 and was turned away from the doctors for being ‘too young for the menopause’. Feeling deflated, she sought remedies from Holland and Barrett, and was directed towards the ‘end of life aisle’, with menopause products featuring smiling grandmothers. Having spent 20+ years as a respected brand planner and researcher, Rebekah resolved to get under the skin of the menopause and embarked on her ‘crusade’ to help women tackle its life-altering symptoms.
We spoke about menopause, unsurprisingly, but specifically around the wider educational issue and culture shift that needs to come with it, MPowder’s branding, and what Rebekah has learned while building a brand when she has spent her career building other people’s.
A need for education
FemTech is experiencing a surge of attention as investors, entrepreneurs and consumers wake up to the present lack – and subsequent potential – of products, software and medicine built for women (not to mention the well-quoted $50bn market potential Frost and Sullivan published). Fertility and contraception have previously been crowding the FemTech market, leaving menopause in the shadows. However, times are changing, and in a recent Sifted article, menopause tech was named as ‘the hot new niche’ in FemTech.
Rebekah explains that “the first challenge to overcome is the need for a big education process”. One of the biggest and most well-documented problems for FemTech is that women are so poorly represented at VC firms: 65% of funds in London have decision-making teams that are all-male, and there is only 13% female representation at Partner-level (or equivalent), according to Diversity VC’s report. This means that often, FemTech falls flat as the problems they’re solving don’t resonate with the male-heavy investment committee.
“Research shows that 84% of women have distinct menopause symptoms that impact on life. 75% of women seek medical help and 75% of these get turned away from the surgery with nothing”Rebekah Brown, CEO and Founder of MPowder
Nevertheless, educating men is only part of the problem, as women and even GPs specialising in women’s health are also misinformed. Rebekah tells me just “20% of post-grad gynaecology courses cover the menopause, resulting in 80% of doctors feeling barely comfortable discussing or treating it”. The only prescription that’s approved by the medical council is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) which many women are nervous of and a significant minority is not recommended to take due to family or personal medical histories. This has huge ramifications: suicide is at its highest rate for women aged between 45-49, according to the 2019 Samaritans Report. Rebekah tells me, “depression is a common by-product of women going through menopause, because we don’t know that severe anxiety, sleeplessness, a plummeting libido and aching bones are all classic symptoms”. In short, there needs to be much deeper research and education into the causes and cures of this seemingly left-behind life stage. The tide is slowly turning to rectify this; for example, legislation was passed in July last year to include the menopause in secondary schools’ curriculum from 2021.
Rebekah acknowledges that there is no ‘silver bullet’ for these symptoms, and has designed her products to be the foundational layer, enhanced by the community and the toolkit she’s building around them. They’re soon launching their symptom-tracker trial, during which women who have been tested and baselined can see the impact of MPowder, but also the impact of other interventions to see how it sits within a fuller service offering. “If you’re pregnant, it wouldn’t be unusual to go to a fertility clinic and find an acupuncturist or herbalist on hand; we want to create a similar environment for the menopause”. The products are part one, but Rebekah hopes to instigate a 360° approach and a supportive community for this chapter. This community, ‘The Powder Room’, is sharing insights, clinical research, and recommendations for alternative solutions. She aims to provide that missing information and education link to enable women to feel fully prepared for entering this life stage.
A culture shift
By providing this keystone of education, women can approach this tumultuous change with confidence, rather than self-doubt and confusion. Menopause used to hit women when they were leaving the workplace (if they worked), and life expectancy was shorter, as if to remind you it’s time to ‘gear down’. However, Rebekah tells me that we are “the first generation that are likely to live 50% of our lives post-menopausal, and that 80% of us will be working when menopause hits”. Menopause simply doesn’t fit into the modern woman’s lifestyle. We’re having children later, and often the menopause hits when women are moving up the career ladder and hitting high ranking positions. The last thing they want is unmanageable hot flushes as they walk into the board meeting. “The messaging has been that it’s something private and shameful that you might talk about in hushed whispers with a friend over a coffee. But now, the demands of life go on, and you just want to keep going.”
As a Classicist, I’m interested in how the Western etymology for the menopause reflects this. The word is derived from the Latinpausa (Anc. Greek: παῦσις) meaning a stop or end, whereas Rebekah tells me the Chinese refer to the menopause as a ‘Second Spring’: “not only do they manage their symptoms so much better through their diet, but they see it as an opportunity to realise their potential and set a course for the second stage of life”. There is a famous excerpt from a Chinese Classical book written in 2600BC called ‘The Yellow Emperor’s Classic” that clearly shows how this life stage is celebrated and revered rather than veiled in shame as it is in the West.
At seven times seven a woman’s heavenly dew wanes;
the pulse of her Conception channel decreases.
The Qi that dwelt in the baby’s palace moves upward into her heart,
and her wisdom is deepenedThe Yellow Emperor’s Classic, 2600 BC
Rebekah has made sure that her brand responds to the sort of woman who’s looking for “a foundation that helps them continue to be the person they want to be, and to see this stage as a springboard into something better”. Her brand is therefore “vibrant, honest, and optimistic; we’re looking to attract women who are curious, smart and want to educate themselves around this”.
Despite growing evidence of the value of functional medicine in managing the menopause well, the market is dominated by “either mass-market generic pharmaceutical brands that target the menopause as one moment in time or herbal, homeopathic brands that lack clinical proof of efficacy”. It is a market that has failed to keep up and none of them speak to the LoHaS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) profile that is dominating the lifestyle sector at the moment. This profile, a mindset not influenced by demographics or affluence, is “motivated to buy things they know do good and are ethically produced, they buy brands that feel authentic, and they embrace imperfection rather than high polished brands.” A brief skim of MPowder’s Instagram and you can see the content is clearly targeting that LoHaS market, curated to be earthy and human, yet insightful and curious.
The process and key learnings
Rebekah is the proof that you can start a business during perimenopause, experiencing the 37 symptoms associated with this stage while pitching them to investors. She says it has been “humbling to start a business when your body is all over the place”, but that it’s taught her to be more vulnerable, more honest and less polished. Here are some other key learnings she’s picked up along the way:
Lead with your story – Given the male bias in investor meetings, Rebekah has learnt to be bold with her personal story, not only to break the ice but also to “make it ok for men to ask questions and quiz me about what the realities of the menopause actually are”.
Accept every coffee – Being new to the world of investment, another tip is to accept every conversation with potential investors, regardless of how polished the business idea is. In general, “women are often quite cautious and feel that they’ve got to have their whole business plan for the next 5 years before starting conversations”. By beginning conversations early on, you build a network of people who are curious around you, even if the concept is very loose, and you’re testing the product before it’s even built and getting early feedback
Know your customer – Rebekah has incorporated this test-and-learn approach to MPowder’s social media profiles and has treated it as their MVP during pre-launch. They know that clinical trial data and links to research perform very well, and have deduced that their customer as being “curious about health, but proof-driven, confident and the friend going ahead of everyone else”.
Defend your position – Rebekah sees the community she’s building as her ‘barrier to entry’: “you grow because of your desire to genuinely help, and to stay with people for 5-10 years. The community is the defensible bit of our brand.”
Keep going! – Rebekah says it’s so much more inspiring now that she knows she’s not alone, and that her products will genuinely help people: “I’m so driven by the community of women that I’ve engaged with, it’s not about me – it’s about keeping a promise, meeting a very real need.”
I listened to a great podcast by The Health-Tech Podcast in isolation that interviews Tania Boler about the pioneering FemTech brand Elvie. The interviewer said that by releasing her products with incredible marketing campaigns (e.g. inflatable boobs on a roof and a model using an Elvie pump on a LFW catwalk), Tania has ‘de-tabooed’ breast-pumping and therefore made her products an easy and sensible solution. I think Rebekah is doing the same for the menopause by giving women a brand that actually speaks to them, and speaks about the problem too. There will no doubt be a seismic shift in options for menopausal women as a result of its current spotlight in media and politics, and MPowder is certainly at the forefront of a long-overdue movement for change in this sector.